Universities are Highly Responsive to Very Rich People

As a kind of side-note to Corey’s most recent post, most people, including, I suspect, most academics, don’t realize how important rich people are to the running of universities. Some months back, I was able to listen in on a conversation including a college president (not my own), and was startled to discover how much time the president spent managing relations with the Board of Trustees. Being a board member usually involves a two way relationship. As a trustee, you get some social kudos, and some broad-scale influence over how the university is run. In return, you are expected to give the university a lot of money. Relations with rich donors who aren’t on the board are somewhat similar, albeit less organized – again, there’s an implied quid pro quo, and the implicit or express threat if if you, as a rich donor, don’t like something that the university is doing, the money will dry up. While you do not have any veto, influential officials in the administration will listen – very carefully – to what you say, and be likely to represent on behalf of your viewpoint in internal discussions.

This has consequences for bureaucratic power. The paper trail described in Corey’s post emphatically suggests that Development (i.e. money raising) was heavily involved in the decision making process over Salaita’s appointment, while Academic Affairs (which is usually responsible for teaching and research quality of faculty and the like) was consulted pro forma, and after the fact. Of course, university presidents care – in the aggregate – about research and teaching quality. Apart from their intrinsic value, if research and teaching deteriorate too much, it will damage the university’s reputation. But they contribute to the bottom line only indirectly, and in ways that are difficult to measure. When they are weighed against the immediate and concrete threat of canceled donations and skittish board members (a vote of no confidence in the president is a rather different thing when it comes from the trustees instead of an academic department), it’s unsurprising that presidents will often be prepared to take dubious decisions on hiring and firing. From their perspective, the risks of angering rich people will usually outweigh the risks of angering faculty (who aren’t usually interested in governance issues, are difficult to organize collectively etc).

It also has consequences for ideas in the university. The Board of Trustees is one of the main channels through which the university is supposed to get external guidance and new perspectives on how it can do its job. If the Board is composed exclusively of the rich and powerful, then ideas which appeal to the rich and powerful will have an unusual degree of influence on campus governance and on the direction of the university. It will be difficult to rationally debate bad ideas which are fashionable among rich people, because these are just the ideas that are most likely to be popular with the board. Plausibly, something like this was at the root of the 2012 debacle in the University of Virginia.

One of the least appreciated problems of economic inequality is that it tends to filter out ideas that are uncongenial to rich people, and to heavily overweight ideas that they like. Universities like to think of themselves as removed from all of this. More and more, they are not.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.