Alumni-led boards ‘key to US universities’ strength’

Researcher argues that universities worldwide should adopt model after finding correlation between alumni governance and ranking position and endowment size

March 3, 2021
Giant inflatable Power Rangerheld by people walking behin as a metaphor for Alumni-led boards ‘key to US universities’ strength’
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Why are US universities pre-eminent in global higher education? Previous explanations have included the country’s massive economy, its enormous budget for scientific research and its history of immigration. But a scholar suggests that the answer could be something far more attainable: the fact that they are governed largely by their alumni.

Shailendra Raj Mehta, president and director of Mica, a higher education institution specialising in strategic marketing and communication in India, researched the members of governing boards at leading private and public US universities and found that the majority were predominantly made up of alumni, while several consisted entirely of former students.

He argued that this was why older institutions had managed to sustain excellence over a long period of time and why newer universities had built prestige quickly. Higher-ranked universities and institutions with bigger endowments generally had a larger share of alumni on their boards, according to the research, which was set to be presented at a webinar organised by the Centre for Global Higher Education on 2 March.

Professor Mehta said the alumni governance model was pioneered by Harvard University in 1865 as a way for the institution to gain control after being managed by the legislature of the state of Massachusetts. Within 10 years, its endowment tripled, and it tripled again in the subsequent two decades, he added.

“This is important because the control of Harvard has rested securely in the hands of those who know most about it and care most about it – namely, its alumni,” he said.

“By contrast, the other models of governance for universities – namely, control by the state, control by trusts, control by faculty and control by the market – are all fraught with peril.”

Professor Mehta, distinguished professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Mica, added that alumni control has created a “sheepskin effect” in which “the cachet attached to the university and to the alumni are inextricably tied together”.

“The prestige of the university directly reflects on its alumni. Conversely, no body of individuals is affected more directly than the alumni if the university slides down in quality,” he said, adding that alumni were more likely to make philanthropic donations if the institution was in the hands of other alumni because “they know that the funds will be spent well”.

Professor Mehta said the model infused competition into the higher education system because “alumni of Yale compete with alumni of Harvard to build the best private university, and the alumni of Purdue and Michigan compete to create the best public university”. This has been reinforced by the importance of sport on US campuses, which helps to “bind” alumni to their alma mater.

Alumni-led boards were unique to the US higher education system, Dr Mehta said, largely because universities in other countries were not aware of this framework, although India was starting to emulate the approach. In 2018, the government announced that new Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) would be required to have a minimum number of alumni from the older IIMs on their boards.

Professor Mehta’s view was that this should become a global model for university governance and that it would particularly help public universities in countries where the share of state funding has been declining.

“Many countries, like France, Germany, Italy, Spain, hardly have any representation among top universities [in rankings], certainly not in proportion to their economic might…Until they fix their governance, they will not be able to create excellence the way they need to,” he said.

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Reader's comments (2)

It would be great to have a link to the original research for these short articles. Thank you for alerting us to this!
It is not just an issue of 'Alumni' on boards but the nature of the governance and transparency. Just whacking alumni on boards when the 'ownership' structure is decidedly transactional is not really workable. I wrote about this in the AU context back in 2013, when the government was pushing universities to generate more 'philanthropy'. My argument was that it required a whole knew model of governance.