Why is Harvard #1? Governance and the Dominance of US universities |

Why is Harvard #1? Governance and the Dominance of US universities

20111118_Mehta_05w170On November 18th 2011, the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy hosted a talk by Dr. Shailendra Mehta, Visiting Professor of Business Policy at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, entitled “Why is Harvard No. 1? Governance and the Dominance of US universities”.

Mehta, who is also academic director of Duke Corporate Education, asked three questions. The first is why US universities are so good. Secondly, why is Harvard No. 1 and thirdly, why do US universities seem to become so good so fast.

The answer, he said, based on one year of extensive research, was that US universities were good because of alumni control of the School’s Board of trustees, which makes hiring and firing decisions as well as the appointing of the university’s president. Going down the global ranking table, he showed that the Board of Trustees of all top universities are controlled by alumni.

Coming back to the question of why Harvard is No. 1, Mehta said Harvard’s Board of Trustees has been controlled by its alumni since the early 1700s. In the early years, the school was a state school where the trustees were appointed by the state of Massachusetts. However, the State legislature which controlled the appointments was dominated by Harvard alumni, and therefore the Board was controlled by the alumni. The one time when this was not the case, he said, was when the legislature was no longer controlled by the alumni, due to large-scale immigration into Massachusetts. The result was so bad that Harvard eventually proposed a radical solution by asking the State to make the Board completely controlled by alumni in 1865. Another caveat was that faculty would not serve on the Board. This change which was implemented in Harvard started a similar trend in other universities. Because of this change, endowments trebled in Harvard from 1869-1978 and rose three times again in the following two decades, propelling the university to the No. 1 spot. And the reason why Harvard continues to be No. 1, Mehta says, is because its Board has been controlled by alumni for 200 years more than other universities.

Mehta also focused on reasons why alumni-controlled Boards seem to work much better. Alumni, he said, were the people who cared most about advancing the interests of their school, as they are keen to increase “the value of their sheepskin”. Transferring control of the Board to the alumni, he said, is transferring power to those who care the most about the quality and the reputation of the school. The alumni do not have to act as a unified body, as is rarely the case. The diverse views of the alumni provide for better governance in a system where governance and management of the university is separated. In order to facilitate the management, the trustees need to agree on a specific direction for the school and find a president who can deliver it on that strategy.

In conclusion, Mehta said that the Harvard model is easily transferable and reinforces the importance of meritocracy.


By Mariyam Midhfa Naeem, a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the LKY School.


This paper examines three related puzzles:
1) Why do US universities dominate the global rankings?
2) Within US universities why is Harvard University usually ranked at the top?
3) While most universities take centuries to acquire a global reputation how have many US universities leapfrogged to the front ranks of educational institutions in a relatively short period of time?
The perspective that we provide focuses on governance structures of US Universities. Looking at both historical data as well as contemporary data collected for this paper, we provide some new evidence and some new conclusions.

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Dr. Shailendra Mehta, Visiting Professor, Business Policy, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad Academic Director, Duke Corporate Education

Friday, 18 November 2011
12.15 p.m. - 1.30 p.m.

Seminar Room 3-4
Level 3, Manasseh Meyer
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
469C Bukit Timah Road
Singapore 259772

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