Sunday, May 31, 2009

Private Universities as Charities

Yglesias rehashes a familiar argument:
If you want to give money to an educational institution, [my emphasis] do some research and find a charter school in your metropolitan area that’s obtaining good results with a demographically unfavorable group of kids. Or find help our a regional public college of little repute that provides valuable educational services and could really use the money. Sure, if your checkbook is fat enough to finance a research endeavor that could make a major contribution to discovering an HIV vaccine or something it might make sense to invest in a world-famous university.

The correct response -- viz. that Harvard is not primarily an "educational institution" -- was given at some length by Sean Carroll last year, before the endowments went bust:
But there is one misimpression that people seem to have, that might as well be corrected before any hasty actions are taken: the purpose of Harvard is not to educate students. If anything, its primary purpose is to produce research and scholarly work. Nobody should be surprised that the gigantic endowment isn’t put to use in providing top-flight educational experiences for a much larger pool of students; it could be, for sure, but that’s not the goal. The endowment is there to help build new facilities, launch new research initiatives, and attract the best faculty. If it weren’t for the fact that it’s hard to get alumni donations when you don’t have any alumni, serious consideration would doubtless be given to cutting out students entirely. [...]

Don’t believe me? Here is the test: when was the last time Harvard made a senior tenure offer to someone because they were a world-class educator, rather than a world-class researcher? Not only is the answer “never,” the question itself is somewhat laughable.

The implications of this defense for charitable giving should be understood. A lot of institutions in the fine arts are supported as charities; Harvard etc., seen primarily as research farms, are equivalent institutions in the humanities and sciences. A great deal of research in astronomy and pure mathematics, as well as most of what goes on in humanities departments (one should note that lots of Pulitzer Prize winning writers teach at Harvard, Princeton, etc. as a day job), is "worthwhile" because a small minority of the populace values the results. Such activities used to be funded by the patronage of aristocrats, and later by that of industrialists hungry for culture. This is, if you think about it, the only sustainable form of funding: such activities aren't profitable; besides, the public isn't interested in astronomy or poetry, and it's unfair to use their tax dollars to fund such frivolities.

On the other hand, the public does care about education, feeding the poor, curing AIDS, etc.; therefore, these are sensible enterprises for the government to run, and charitable giving serves largely as a figleaf for the state's more egregious failures. In an ideal world, the government would make sure that people weren't starving and that kids were able to attend a good college; however, it would still make sense for research universities to be sustained by charitable giving. In the real world, of course, there are lots of government failures and charitable giving to feed the poor is arguably necessary, but it's still reasonable for rich people who are interested in the arts and sciences to endow universities and museums.

Besides, as Carroll says,
Students will always keep applying to those places and trying to get in, because the aura of intellectual attainment produced by precisely those scholarly accomplishments will always act as a powerful draw. Such students are by no means making a mistake; the intellectual atmosphere at such places truly is intoxicating, and if nothing else the interaction with your fellow talented students can be a life-changing experience.
This is related to why overzealous attempts to recruit underprepared students to Ivy League universities are misguided. Nobel Laureates are, by and large, good at teaching classes on Chaucerian irony or quantum field theory to well-prepared students; however, remedial classes are best taught by people who are good at teaching, and don't end up at Harvard.


Westcott said...

I have to wonder how many people would consider donating to an educational institution for underprivileged kids when they can barely afford to send their own kids to decent colleges.

Zed said...

I don't think the amounts required are the same order of magnitude.

andy said...

I take issue with this statement:

"On the other hand, the public does care about education, feeding the poor, curing AIDS, etc.; therefore, these are sensible enterprises for the government to run, and charitable giving serves largely as a figleaf for the state's more egregious failures."

I am running the risk of rehashing an argument you have already heard, but I think you should say that "these are sensible enterprises for the government to subsidize." I tend to argue that the failure of our public education system results largely from its being publicly run. My view is based on the idea that monopolies largely suck, and government-run enterprises are monopolies. It is far better to have organizations that compete for the limited funds that are available for charity. Obviously there are a number of possible good and bad systems within this general framework, but I think a comparison of the way we do public grade schools versus our university system makes my point quite well. I bet that you wouldn't be doing research in the US right now if the government ran the university system to the extent it does the grade schools.

Zed said...

For the purposes of my argument, what matters is who pays for the projects, not who manages them. The government is obligated to spend taxpayer money on public goods like curing AIDS and educating kids; whether it does this directly or through intermediaries is a separate issue.

My problem with vouchers, school choice, etc. is that a lot of private schools are church-run. Also, I don't think how US universities are run has much to do with their reputation for good research. Recall that the US was mediocre until WW2. The two things that transformed the US into a research powerhouse were the influx of refugee Jewish scientists, and a huge spike in research funding due to the Cold War.

andy said...

Yes, I agree in general that public goods are worthy of subsidy, but I think that it actually matters a great deal whether they are state-run or not simply because of the importance of competition. I think that the "Government failures" you speak of are largely due to lack of competition, but I must admit that publicly-run institutions can be subject to competition, just as private ones may not be.

The point about private schools being church-run is a real concern, but it is fool-hardy to think that this issue is settled by state control. It simply moves the dispute into the political system, creating a risk that the religious may someday inject their agenda into the education system. Even now there are many places where teachers are afraid to teach evolution or sex-ed because they don't want to rustle any feathers. Moreover, the situation is so bad in our public schools that I would rather send my kids to a Catholic school than many of the public schools in this country. I don't like the idea of government subsidizing religious schools, but I would rather have a bunch of indoctrinated literate people than illiterate people walking around. Moreover, because of the undergraduate admissions process, it is pretty hard to get into college if you are the sort of ignoramus that many religious zealots want their kids to be. Not many people would want to send there kids to a school that didn't ever send students to decent colleges because they don't teach them science.

Zed said...

All I meant was that the question my original post addresses is exclusively about funding, viz. charitable _giving_ vs. government _spending_. I agree, of course, that management matters for efficiency etc., though I'm more skeptical than you are that the private sector can be incentivized to do a good job in practice. The record of privatized public goods -- British rail, CA electricity, etc. -- is unspectacular.

OK, back to schools, and let me attempt a less flippant response than last time. The basic reason I'm skeptical about private schools is that I think most of the failures of the public school system have to do with the fact that a large number of inner-city parents are poor, ignorant, and apathetic. Public schools work fine in the suburbs, where parents are actually involved. (There's also the disparity in finances, but let's leave that aside for now.) If you'll grant that the failure of inner-city schools has to do with parents who are clueless or don't give a fuck, that undermines the rationale for school choice -- competition leads to good results when customers are well-informed about the alternatives; when they're not, it doesn't. Info like the rate at which students go on to good colleges is very unlikely to be noticed by the typical parents at issue.