Here’s a revolutionary idea: A top private university like Princeton or Yale (or perhaps a renowned college like Amherst or Swarthmore) should open a new campus.
The institution would not have to lower its standards, because the best and brightest would queue for admission. Professors with glittering résumés would jump at the opportunity to teach there — indeed, for the adventurous Yale-caliber academic, the opportunity to be present at the creation could be a powerful draw. Cities would perform handstands to land such a school.
Harvard-San Diego, Yale-Houston — this idea is not simply off the table in academe. It is not even within the realm of these universities’ imagination. But why should it boggle the mind? If Yale can open a campus in Singapore, why can’t it start one in Houston?
Institutions like these, which guard their reputation with mother-bear fierceness, predictably fear that if they took such a bold step, their coin-of-the-realm prestige would suffer and that their U.S. News & World Report ranking would slip a notch or two. Yet if Harvard-San Diego were truly a clone of the mother ship, as it could well be, it is hard to see how the university would be worse off. On the contrary — because it would acquire what economists call first-mover advantage, it would be lionized. It’s not hard to contemplate a Bill Gates or Laurene Powell Jobs writing an eight-figure check to help underwrite the venture.
Companies like Tiffany, which traffic in luxury items, are reluctant to expand, and De Beers limits the number of diamonds on the market. Exclusivity is an essential part of what they are selling, and if they get bigger, they risk diluting their brand.
Unlike Tiffany or De Beers, top-ranked universities don’t promote themselves as avatars of exclusivity. If you take them at their word, their calling is to educate the best and the brightest — to promote what Stanford University’s mission statement calls “the public welfare.” Educating more students who would benefit from that opportunity, not tinkering with the behavior of the admissions office, is one way to realize that mission.
David Kirp (@DavidKirp) is a professor of the graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author, most recently, of “The College Dropout Scandal.”
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