May 17, 2007

What College Presidents Actually Do

What College Presidents Do: Most modern colleges are such diffuse, multiform institutions that it's very hard for anybody to get an accurate picture of the strengths and weaknesses of any institution overall. The German department could be great while the French department stinks or vice-versa. Heck, two German majors could disagree on the German deparment. So, assessing a college tends to be a four-blind-men-examining-an-elephant situation.

Perhaps the single most important and objective factor in determining the quality of the college is the size of the endowment, since that can pay for fancy professors, buildings, students, and athletes. And, yet, why should somebody donate to a college? It's not a question with a completely (or even partially) obvious answer.

Milton Friedman said universities had three purposes: teaching, research, and monument-building. As far as I can tell, the colleges and snootier high schools of America are currently indulging in an orgy of monument-building, with magnificent new buildings going up everywhere.

Thus, the most important job of a college president can be to act like they are the president of an incredibly wonderful college and that anybody in their right mind would pay for the honor of giving money to the school.

For example, here's one of the more informative articles I've read about the monetary side of running a college, "Academic Entrepreneurship at Dickinson College." Dickinson, in southeast Pennsylvania, was founded in 1783 by Benjamin Rush, the leading doctor and social reformer of the era. It's a good liberal arts college, but the northeast is full of good liberal arts colleges. By the 1990s awareness of its unexceptionalness seemed to be dragging it down. Its finances and applications were lagging.

Then, in 1999 the college appointed alumnus William Durden president, and he immediately set about telling everybody that Dickinson was great, and then asking them for money, which the more genteel previous administrations had been reluctant to do. Guess what? It worked:

Between the 2002 and 2005 fiscal years, donations to the college's endowment soared from $3.8-million to $30.8-million. The increase resulted from focused and aggressive fund raising.

Before 2000 the development office spent little time cultivating potential donors. Mr. Durden, who as an alumnus was never approached for a gift, says that fund raising used to focus disproportionately on graduates living inside the Washington Beltway. "That's not where the money is," he says. "You have to have a presence in New York, Los Angeles, and London." Dickinson has alumni — some of them quite affluent — in all these cities.

"For years we were somehow hesitant to ask for money," Ms. Parker says. In 2000 the development staff visited only about 30 potential donors. Last year that number soared to almost 1,000. The office has since increased staffing from 24 to 37 employees, and its budget has nearly doubled, to $2.4-million. Since 2000 the college has obtained 21 gift commitments of over $1-million. Between 1970 and 2000, it had only six such commitments.

Dickinson has managed to turn itself into a hot college mostly by insisting it is a hot college. And good for them.

This makes you wonder what in the world Harvard thought they were doing in appointing Larry Summers president, whom nobody ever called a super salesman. Maybe they figured that Harvard is so, so rich ($29 billion endowment) that they could pick a president just because he was really smart.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Shouting Thomas said...

My alma mater, the University of Illinois, recently built a new Alumni center on campus. They're pitching flagstones with the donor's name engraved thereon for $600 per.

This is my chance at immortality, right?

And, you can pay it off monthly.

ricpic said...

So Durden tells the alumni that Dickinson is a hot college. Surely that alone is not enough of a reason for them to ante-up? No, they must, for the most part, have remembered their alma mater with affection. They needed the reminder but without the reservoir of affection Durden's fund raising efforts would have come to much less.
Would such a technique work with the alumni of a diploma mill? In NYC I can think of 3 such places: NYU, Brooklyn College, Queens College. Hard to feel affection for those impersonal charmless campi. But many of their alumni are well off. Would they respond as the Dickinson alumni responded? Somehow I doubt it.

floccina said...

A must read:

Richard Vedder's "Going Broke by Degree"

James Kabala said...

NYU is a trendy place for college these days, although I don't know if that translates into genuine love for the place among alumni.

Cato said...

I recall after Al Gore lost in 2000, after one of the most expensive campaigns in history, someone asked him if he'd be interested in the Harvard presidency. He jokingly replied that he wasn't that good at fund raising.

Dave said...

"NYU, Brooklyn College, Queens College. Hard to feel affection for those impersonal charmless campi. But many of their alumni are well off. Would they respond as the Dickinson alumni responded? Somehow I doubt it."

I don't know if you've been to NYU in the last decade or so, but there are some obvious signs of large alumni donations, e.g., the Tisch School of the Arts, the Stern School of Business, etc. BTW, the plural of "campus" is "campuses", not "campi".

Riot Nrrd said...

We'd be better off if no one funded colleges except by tuition. Their numbers would shrink somewhat, which would be good, because college attendance would come down to the historical percentages it was at when we were a successful nation and only smart people (or the stupid offspring of the rich who were not much competition for good jobs anyway) went to college. Then they could make college what it was in those days, rigorous.

Anonymous said...

Why is college so goddarned EXPENSIVE? Many peoples lives are being blighted by student loans. People borrow massive amounts of $$,which allows colleges to raise their rates,so people borrow more,and on it goes. They will argue that college is "worth it" as grads earn more--but I dont see why the rates have skyrocketed(or Ishould say have been allowed to skyrocket)so high!