The Purpose of Harvard is Not to Educate People

300px-john_harvard_statue_at_harvard_university.JPG Harvard University’s endowment is $35 billion, and some people aren’t happy about it. Massachusetts legislators see money that could be theirs, and are contemplating new taxes. Social activists see money that could be going to charity, and want to divert it. Distinguished alumni who have landed at public universities wonder why, with all that cash, Harvard graduates such a tiny number of students.

These are all legitimate concerns, and I won’t be suggesting the ideal policy compromise. 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. Sure, some would complain that they enjoy teaching, that it keeps them fresh, or that students can be useful as research assistants. But those are reasons why the students are useful to the faculty; they are not assertions that the purpose of the institution is to educate students for their own sakes.

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.

This is not a value judgment, nor is it a particular complaint about Harvard. It’s true of any top-ranked private research university, including Caltech. (Note that Caltech has over 1200 faculty members and fewer than 900 undergraduate students.) And it is not a statement about universities in general; many large public universities, and smaller liberal-arts schools, take education very seriously as a primary mission. This is by no means incompatible with being a top-notch research institution — the physics departments at places like Berkeley or UC Santa Barbara would be the envy of almost any private research university. But those places also take their educational mission very seriously, which Harvard, honestly, does not.

Of course, certain individual faculty members at Harvard might be great teachers and care deeply about their students; but that’s a bonus, not a feature of the institution. (Harvey Mansfield, to a visiting colleague: “You should close your door. If you don’t, undergraduates may wander in.”)

None of this is necessarily good or bad; it’s just a recognition of the state of affairs. Harvard et al. judge themselves by the research and scholarship they produce. 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. But to try your best to get into Harvard and then complain once you are there that the professors seem interested in their own work rather than in teaching is to utterly miss the point. And to complain that Harvard has a giant endowment that it chooses to use for purposes other than educating more students is equally misguided.

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58 Responses to The Purpose of Harvard is Not to Educate People

  1. Ellipsis says:

    Clearly you wouldn’t be saying that governments should tax the endowments and use the money, as governments tend to do, to subsidize fertilizer purchases for farmers, or send soldiers to Iraq, or any of the other wonderful alternatives. Isn’t doing good research in itself part of public education? Not saying there couldn’t be improvements, but I think you should mention that the people fighting to simply tax endowments are generally way on the wrong side of the public good, and maybe suggest some gentle ways that governments could help foster the educational mission without heavy-handedly damaging both research and education.

  2. George Musser says:

    Leaving aside the fact that a complex institution can have multiple purposes, the sheer size of the endowment suggests Havard’s main purpose — that is, the one that dominates the senior management’s time — is neither to educate nor to do research. It is to manage money. Harvard has become, in effect, an investment fund with a few scholars on the side.

  3. ike says:

    Let’s point to the real issue here, which is not really being addressed – it is not the educational mission of the university, nor is it the research and knowledge mission of the university – let’s dispel that myth right up front. Harvard is wealthy enough to provide both full-time researchers and full-time instructors, with some level of mix in-between. Yes, there are brilliant researchers who should never be allowed near students, and great teachers that shouldn’t be allowed in the laboratory, but a good dean makes sure all the bases are covered. A good dean is rare in science, as the job calls for a brilliant scientific career, good interpersonal skills, great management skills, and a willingness to devote a lot of time to the task.

    However, that’s not the issue these days. The real issue in academics is who gets to control any lucrative patents generated under the provisions of the Bayh-Dole act of the early 1980s, which allowed universities to grant exclusive licenses for their patents to private parties. This has been trumpeted by 95% of administrators as a “great leap forward” for academics – but that is not really the case (unless we’re talking Mao, and cheering the consolidation of the state with industry).

    What it has led to is a situation in which deans are hired not to promote research and education, but rather to help generate and license lucrative patents which will then, in turn, increase the amount of the university’s endowment!

    Most of our leading universities, including everyone from Harvard to MIT to Colombia to Stanford to the University of Texas and the University of California are now trying to run this multi-agenda program – licensing patents and pursuing sales & marketing, doing research, and educating students – and devoting about equal resources to each. Not only that, they’ve been allowing large private donors to set the research agenda – this is the case for Stanford’s “Global Climate and Energy Program”, in which final funding decisions are made jointly by ExxonMobil, Schlumberger Oilfield Services, Toyota and Stanford U.

    The conflicts of interest are legion, and extend across the entire academic spectrum. If the University of Berkeley takes millions from British Petroleum for “alternative fuels research”, will they also be interested in hiring junior scientists who specialize in environmental toxicology of crude oil pollutants? If one of Harvard’s patented drugs is found to have negative side effects by a Harvard scientist, will publication of the results be encouraged? These are basic conflict-of-interest issues that are widely accepted in other areas – that’s why we have insider trading rules, for example (as scientists who thought they could use their inside knowledge of patents, IPOs, etc. to make big bucks are starting to discover).

    Such considerations might also play into whether or not to fund basic physics research, as well – not too many patents being generated by the cosmologists these days, are there? Should the unproductive departments be eliminated, as per good business practices?

    The solution to this mess is simple: eliminate Bayh-Dole, and make all patents generated with the use of public tax dollars available under non-exclusive licensing agreements, free for U.S. citizens, but with a fee for everyone else. There is no excuse for allowing taxpayer-generated intellectual property to fall into private hands. BP is wealthy enough to set up their own world-class in-house research center, after all – that’s what Google does, right?

  4. Spiv says:

    heh, I remember trying to describe this phenomenon to an interviewer while I seeking new employment- namely that I had received the better part of the education at a junior college, and then went on to a fancy dancy university to have other top tier students to compete with and try to glean some bit of information from the professionals that happen to teach classes there. I was fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to realize just what you’ve stated while I was still undergrad soup. Prior to graduation I was labeled by the faculty as “a mediocre student, but an excellent pupil,” IE I did what was required for the term and not much more, but managed to get a heck of a lot more out of it than most other students and transplant that into real world stuff.

    Undergrad is getting a piece of paper to get some jobs. Grad is a bit like an expensive apprenticeship. My only complaint is that from a learning perspective that apprenticeship should be more accessible, and earlier on. That is, however, impossible unless the .gov wants to fund it, in which case they will almost certainly find another way to make it useless (see public k-12 schooling).

    Alternative would be to legitimize other forms of apprenticeship to the level of college education. Also not going to happen.

  5. Anonymous says:


    I don’t think the point is that Harvard is or isn’t in educating students or not. Rather, why should large University endowments be qualified as a non-profit organization?

    Most non-profits that exist today (and I do qualify that with a most) run mostly on the basis of a few paid executives and administrators with a bevy of volunteers to dole out money to worthy causes, of which Universities are no doubt a benficiary.

    When you see that same non-taxable status being used to:

    a) Make the University’s buildings prettier
    b) Make the Professors’ salaries larger
    c) Serve to dilute the academic quality of Universities which DO wish to pursue both research and education (as you mentioned, UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara and others)

    The fact of that matter is, as the above commentator has noted, the passing of the Bayh-Doyle Act has effectively made Universities into research corporations. And like other corporations, it should be taxed, unless there is an overriding reason to not do so.

    The education v. research argument is a red herring. What ultimately needs to be discussed is what public good does Harvard and Yale put forth (impact per dollar) compared to other non-profits? And there I believe you will find the chasm to be so enormous as to make the entire question ridiculous in the first place.

  6. former harvard student says:

    When I was a student at Harvard, it always seemed to me that educating people was a very important part of the university’s mission. And many students would prefer to learn from world class scholars, even if they are not always the best teachers. In addition, I imagine that part of the attraction of joining the faculty there is the opportunity to interact with excellent undergraduates. I had a number of incredibly good teachers there. A couple of classes were disappointing, but usually the teaching assistants could fill in the gaps.

    On the other hand, when people from Harvard call me asking for money, I laugh at them. I really can’t see why they need any more.

  7. LAR says:

    I could not agree with you more. Not only is this the case in private institutions, but it is also the case in many public institutions. In the US, there are very few universities out there for the purpose of primarily teaching. To me, it’s all about the money. Believe it or not, research brings in more money and prestige than teaching.

  8. Lab Lemming says:

    “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.”

    What about Henry Dunster, in 1640?

  9. Sean says:

    LAR, I think you are projecting a bit. It is certainly not “all about the money” — it’s about research, as I said. If you want to make money, there are certainly more lucrative things you can do than go into academia, even as an administrator. It’s true that the Harvard endowment, if you pretend that it’s a hedge fund, makes an amazing return on investment; however, you can’t invest in it, and you can’t cash out, so that’s not a good thing to pretend.

    This is not an issue of morality. Research is a good thing. So is teaching. They are just not the same thing, nor necessarily of equal relative priority in every institution of higher education.

  10. Matt says:

    You’re right, but so is George above in the comments. If the endowment were being used mostly to fund research with only modest leftovers used for reinvestment that would be one thing. But teaching and research come in a distant second to “growing the endowment” as the purpose of the endowment. I believe it’s an example of the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

    I’m not suggesting the government solve the problem. Even an endowment doing nothing but being invested is much better than one being blown on the latest government boondoggle.

  11. fh says:

    “Research is a good thing. So is teaching. They are just not the same thing…”

    But to suggest they are basically orthogonal is not sensible either. Again, this might be a German prejudice, but our University system used to be build on the principle of units of research and teaching (Humboldt e.g. All I am saying is that the seemingly so natural and sensible categorization of activities you propose is cultural and not a function of the unalterable state of the Universe.

  12. Kuas says:

    From the Harvard Charter of 1650

    “And that all the aforesaid transactions shall tend to, and for the use and behoof of the President, Fellows, scholars, and officers of the said College, and for all accommodations of buildings, books, and all other necessary provisions, and furnitures, as may be for the advancement and education of youth, in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences.”

  13. Joseph says:

    I thought that a Harvard undergraduate obtained an excellent education merely by being in the presence of the great men and women who do research there.

  14. “The purpose of Harvard is not to educate…” says research professor Carroll. No doubt the purpose of a cotton boll might not be centered on socks and T shirts if one’s vantage point is that of the cotton boll worm. Education may not be its purpose, but it is its raison d’entre.

    Moreover, most of the budget of the college of arts and sciences is allegedly devoted to students and instruction – about 80% vs. 15% for research. I suspect that the ratio is similarly slanted toward instruction in the professional schools.

    Any long lived and prosperous institution develops its own evolutionary purpose though – that of surviving and expanding its power, prestige, and affluence, and Harvard is singularly good at that. The denizens and leaders of the institution try to exploit it for their own benefit, and the faculties of the great private universities have done that too.

    The citizens of Massachusetts have a right to consider whether the privileges they have granted a vastly wealthy institution are worth the trouble, and Sean has given them a bit of ammunition – which is probably a good thing.

    Educating a few bright students and providing a very talented faculty with opportunity to pursue their interest are doubtless good things, but should the resources of a small country be devoted to them?

  15. As another former Harvard undergrad, I agree with the previous anonymous alum – Harvard does indeed have some excellent educators, for instance Eric Mazur and Howard Georgi. I agree that education is not “the” mission of the university, but is it truly even meaningful to speak of a single mission for a sprawling institution of a hundred thousand people? Education is a mission at Harvard, one of several (and yes, the others include producing research, inventing and licensing things, and even occasionally winning sporting events.)

    That being said, I agree with the point that Harvard does not tenure people for their teaching skills. I can think of two exceptionally good instructors I had while there who were not tenured (Bert Vaux in linguistics and Kamal Kuri-Makdisi in mathematics), and there are plenty of other examples. And that is, without a doubt, a flaw of the system and I won’t for an instant defend that.

    However, let’s not forget that there are certain kinds of education which require a top-notch research environment. As an undergrad, I worked on a balloon-borne X-ray telescope and played a very small role in design studies for a spacecraft (EXIST). As a freshman, I worked on laser atom trapping with Lena Hau, now famous for her work “freezing light” in Bose-Einstein condensates. I participated in a six-student seminar on planetary astronomy co-taught by Matt Holman and Bob Noyes, both leaders in the field. If you want to learn how to be a researcher, then being part of a community of researchers is itself an education.

    So sure, Harvard doesn’t always prioritize education as its one and only goal – nor in my opinion should it – yet there’s a heck of a lot of education going on there nonetheless. Like I said, I’m not defending the tenure system, and personally I’m extremely glad to have then gone to Berkeley, where I learned and grew tremendously both as a scientist and as an educator myself. But it just seems fruitless to me to speak of what “the purpose” of a huge institution like that is. There are many purposes, contradictory and complementary and unrelated all at once, rich and complex.

  16. ike says:

    Sean, I think you’re ducking the patent agenda issue here. There are really two kinds of research in many administrator’s minds these days: patentable and licensable research, and everything else.

    There is an analogy to traditional practices, in that even though Harvard has a huge endowment, it wants Harvard researchers to have outside funding from the leading national agencies, both for reasons of prestige and finance. A successful record of external grant-writings is a pretty key career issue for scientists, after all – so at some level, it is “all about the money”, in the sense that without funding, most research can’t be done. However, there are traditional ways of balancing these issues. Professors have always consulted on the side for industry, the issue being how much time they devoted to it.

    What is different today is that university administrators are behaving like corporate CEOs and trying to run their research departments as for-profit institutions. This is a real disaster in the making.

    The role of a research department is not just to do research, but also to educate scientists for roles outside of academics. This is precisely how the Silicon Valley computer tech explosion happened – Stanford and the UC system were generating a steady stream of highly-trained solid-state physics PhDs and engineers, who then went to work for a wide variety of small startups, from HP to Apple. Stanford and the UC never thought to try and run the business themselves, but they were happy to get donations from their old students, and their computer research departments were among the best anywhere.

    By repealing Bayh-Dole, we should be able to return to that model. The notion that this will “slow technology transfer” is simply bogus. By making basic patents more widely available, this will actually speed tech innovation and development, as no one company will be able to lock out the competition. If they want to own patents, they should fund their own R&D labs, right?

    Some progress is being made – after much controversy, the University of California has agreed to new review rules for tobacco-funded research:

    They were forced to do this after revelations such as this: At the end of fiscal year 2006-07, UC researchers held 23 active grants, totaling $16 million, from sponsors with known ties to the tobacco industry. All of this funding, which supports research and related activities on the Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Riverside, Santa Barbara and San Diego campuses, is from Philip Morris USA.

    However, they are not even considering extending that to other areas of funding, such as pharmaceuticals. This all revolves around the “sensitive issue” of securing intellectual property rights to research done by university staff. These patents can be worth hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, as the human growth hormone story showed.

    So, sad as it may be, many of the critical decisions made by the leading universities in the U.S. these days are indeed “all about the money.”

  17. Sean says:

    CIP, why do you consistently give into the temptation to be obnoxious? You have interesting things to say, but seemingly can’t help but turn them into personal remarks rather than just making your point. It honestly baffles me.

    For what it’s worth, I’m pretty well acquainted with the perspective of a Harvard student, and also that of a teacher, as well as that of a research professor. And what matters is whether what I say is right or wrong, not my personal perspective.

    I’ve seen it from both sides, and I can testify that — at this very small number of institutions, which get an oversized share of attention when it comes to “higher education” — it’s not about teaching, and it’s not about money; it’s about research.

  18. Anonymous says:


    I’m sorry, but I am going to ask that same question (this time, my post will be proofread!)

    What qualifies the endowment of Harvard University to act as a non-profit corporation (with all its tax advantages), when it is not even dictated by the standard rules of a non-profit (ie, the requirement to spend at least 5% of a foundation’s assets per year) while minimizing the public impact that it makes?

    You can argue that the (limited) number of students it educates and the research that it performs qualifies as a “public good”, but again it stands in stark contrast to the public good performed by a majority of non-profits on an impact-per-dollar basis.

  19. Ben says:

    Many of the elite large flagship state universities do somewhere from 0.1-1.x times as much research as Harvard, but have 0.001x the endowment. I’m pulling these numbers out of my you-know-what, but I bet they would be supported by actual metrics like numbers of papers and books published per year.

    So I don’t think we can say that the endowment is what it is out of the need to support research, any more than its purpose is to support undergrad or grad education. Research could be supported on a 10x smaller endowment, and the salaries would still be high and the perks would still be perky.

    The purpose of the endowment is to make Harvard the biggest ape in the higher education cage. Somebody has to be the biggest, and all the others have to want to be the biggest (and be looked down on for not being the biggest).

    None of this means that I think taxing the endowment is a good idea. I suspect it’s a very bad idea. However, I think non-profit organizations that make a ton of money are a little suspect, and periodic review to insure that they serve a public or charitable purpose is not a bad idea.

    (BTW, ETS is another example, even more so: ETS is a non-profit that makes a lot of money, pays its leaders well, has a cushy campus, a near monopoly on the test part of its business, and basically zero oversight, since it doesn’t have either shareholders, major competition, or any serious accreditation review.)

    The real question is why any private donor chooses to give money to Harvard, since the marginal value of a donation to Harvard is much smaller than it is to schools with non-astronomical endowments.

  20. Sean,

    I apologize for my obnoxiously feeble efforts at wit. I certainly didn’t mean it as a personal attack, as I am well aware of your reputation as an excellent and dedicated teacher (and am a fan of your book). I don’t think that the focus on research at the big universities is either a permanent or necessarily completely desirable condition however, and I’m not crazy about their ability to endlessly attract and accumulate wealth.

    The big private universities have become the mocern equivalent of the medieval monastery – semi-autonomous components of society that gradually accumulate vastly disproportionate amounts of the societies wealth. Society shouldn’t subsidize that unless they are delivering a pretty substantial service in return.

  21. Mike says:

    I think the title should be “…Educating Students” not “…Educating People.” The mission of Harvard is not only performing scholarly work, but *sharing* it with other scholars. Thus education is an important component of all aspects of Harvard’s operations — just not so much education of tuition-paying students.

    Incidentally, I read an editorial for the NY Times that suggested an interesting policy with regard to ballooning private university endowments. The policy suggestion is, if a university does not spend a large enough fraction of their endowment every year, the various government research funding agencies “punish” them by forbidding them to charge full administration fees.

    This gets to the heart of what I see as the problem: the government should not be a vehicle driving inequality, but when it allows private institutions to charge excessive administration fees (as most of them do, relative public institutions) while at the same time building their endowment, this is indirectly what government is doing. Meanwhile, this particular policy is not really *punishing* of wealthy institutions — all it does is provide financial incentive for them to actually make research (or education) their *primary* mission (as in, having more priority than saving for the future).

  22. Ellipsis says:

    One thing it’s certainly _not_ about are patent revenues, which are a tiny fraction of revenue. Patent revenues at U.S. universities are typically about 1-2% of federal and state research revenues:

  23. Thad says:

    I recall as an undergrad at Berkeley, the local media cornered the vice provost regarding complaints from parents that too many courses were taught be TA’s and not professors. Isn’t the purpose of the University to educate the state’s students? The replay; No, it isn’t. A comprehensive university is a clearinghouse of human knowledge and wisdom. Teaching is just one way this knowledge is disseminated. I liked that definition and have used it here where I’m faculty to encourage vision growth as a school.

    I think the endowment in fact should be taxed. You don’t link to the other recent article on this topic:
    “Tax Exemptions of Charities Face New Challenges”

    The case involved revoking the tax-exempt status of a day care because they don’t actually give anything away, so how can they be called a charity? Tax exemption is because you can provide a service better than the government can. thus the tax normally collected to pay for that service is waived. What service does Harvard provide? Education obviously. But Harvard charges pretty much the same for every student. Some may get government grants, so in fact the government is already paying for the service. What about research? The government pay for the bulk of that as well.

  24. Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza says:

    The first paragraph of the Harvard charter?? You may agree or not with it, which is besides the point, but there it is the reason for the Harvard framers, euphemistically speaking, to fund Harvard at all, the rest is commentary:
    WHEREAS, through the good hand of God, many well devoted persons have been, and daily are moved, and stirred up, to give and bestow, sundry gifts, legacies, lands, and revenues for the advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences in Harvard College, in Cambridge in the County of Middlesex, and to the maintenance of the President and Fellows, and for all accommodations of buildings, and all other necessary provisions, that may conduce to the education of the English and Indian youth of this country, in knowledge and godliness

  25. Sam Gralla says: