What are the implications for New Zealand universities?

By Paul Walker 25/09/2012 1

Over at the Organisations and Markets blog Peter Klein asks Does Strong Alumni Participation Make US Universities Stronger? He writes,

What explains the dominance of the US in elite higher education? Shailendra Mehta offers a novel explanation: the role of alumni. Graduates of US colleges and universities tend to identify strongly with their institutions and care deeply about their school’s reputation and ranking. Only in the US do alumni play such a strong role, not only in financial support (often connected with athletics), but governance.

[N]o group cares more about a university’s prestige than its alumni, who gain or lose esteem as their alma mater’s ranking rises or falls.

Indeed, alumni have the most incentive to donate generously, and to manage the university effectively. Given their intimate knowledge of the university, alumni are also the most effective leaders. Through alumni networks, board members can acquire information quickly and act upon it without delay.

All great universities are nonprofit organizations, created to administer higher education, which benefits society as a whole. But US universities found a way to integrate competition’s benefits into the European concept of nonprofit, or so-called eleemosynary, corporations. The lack of profit does not diminish an alumni-dominated board’s incentive to compete for prestige by, for example, hiring distinguished faculty, accepting meritorious students, and striving for athletic or artistic achievement.

If the Mehta idea is right then should we strength the role that the alumni plays in the governance of New Zealand’s universities? Alumni have advantages as major players in university governance. 1) they have an interest in the success of the university and in maintaining its reputation. If the uni’s reputation falls so does the value of being a graduate from that uni. 2) they have knowledge about the university and its workings. In areas where expertise is a major component of producing the final product, an inherent knowledge of the area is a positive in terms of getting better organisational outcomes. Alumni can have such knowledge of their institutions.

Of course another group with much the same two attributes are the current academic staff of the university. And what we see in terms of governance is involvement of both groups but should the alumni have greater say?

One Response to “What are the implications for New Zealand universities?”

  • Interesting thesis; however, Occam’s Razor also suggests that one should consider simpler explanations first. What about size? The US is 70 times larger in population, and probably has proportionately more universities than New Zealand.

    The comparison may be weak statistically. The “dominance” of US universities you refer to does not, I believe, refer to the average US university, but only to elite ones. If so, you are comparing the average NZ university to the elite US ones – hardly apples for apples.

    Elite US universities also attract the top students from a much larger national (and even international) population – again, hardly apples for apples. And what if the elite US universities have enough pull to attract the very best lecturers and researchers?

    You may wish to consider this topic in another way. Maybe the question is not “if” alumni participation in either country matters, but what “type” of alumni participation DOES matter. Are alumni treated as a source of funding, an audience for sports games, or as something else? Which of these helps a university, and how/why?

    In many educational organizations, the key question is the relevance of the educational experience to the real world. Shouldn’t every alumni be asked two years after graduating if their education proved relevant and helpful?

    I can say, for example, that the MBA program at University of Waikato proved excellent at supporting my career changes, and preparing me for top leadership positions. Unfortunately, since I am back in the USA, it is challenging for me to contribute actively as an alumnus.

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