A Truly Independent Ivy League?

The United States is fortunate in having so many of the world’s best universities, as well as many other fine institutions that don’t make the top rankings but nevertheless provide students with first-class education. What the country lacks, however, is even one research university that is independent—not beholden either to the state or to commercial interests for financing its research work.

The big difference between the universities of the English-speaking world and the rest of the world is their independence. Thanks to England’s Bill of Rights of 1689 and the U.S.’s Dartmouth College Case of 1819, traditions of university independence flourish in the Anglosphere. Independence translates, inter alia, into competition. Inasmuch as the American state universities do well, it is because (i) they must compete against private universities, and (ii) they compete against the other state systems. 

So, can Americans be smug and complacent about having the best universities in the world? No, because they are missing a trick.

The U.S. has five major classes of university: private research universities, liberal arts colleges, state universities, community colleges, and for-profits. But there is a worm in the bud, namely that research is funded largely by the state, and the state’s research funds are huge.

In Fiscal Year 2011, for example, Harvard received a total of $833 million in external research grants, of which $678 million came from the federal government. Non-government agencies provided only $155 million, of which charitable institutions provided $118 million (the largest donor was the Melissa and Bill Gates Foundation) and corporations provided the remaining $28 million.

Harvard, with its huge endowment ($31 billion) provides significant research funding from its own resources, but nonetheless Harvard as a research university is essentially an outpost of the federal government. And in this regard Harvard is characteristic of all other American research universities. Does that matter?

Yes, it does. The popular myth is that scholars are disinterested seekers after truth but, although researchers are generally honest folk, they are not disinterested: in fact, they behave not as judges but as advocates. And advocates are not impartial.

Sir Francis Bacon in his 1605 Advancement of Learning argued that scientists should address the available facts dispassionately, then induce hypotheses to explain them, and test those hypotheses neutrally. But, pace Bacon, scientists cannot collect all the available facts dispassionately. There are so many facts out there that scientists are forced to select, by instinct and hunch, the facts they believe are germane. Their pre-selected facts pre-ordain the hypotheses they test.

Science therefore, like scholarship generally, is performed by biased, self-interested advocates. And the bias and the self-interest can be measured. For example, there is a class of cardiac drugs called calcium channel antagonists. Some 70 studies on them have been published by apparently neutral university professors and hospital clinicians. Some of those studies were financed by the drug companies themselves, others by disinterested parties such as foundations, but a survey of those papers published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1998 revealed:

A strong relationship between scientists’ opinions about safety and their financial relationships with the manufacturers. Supportive scientists were much more likely than critical scientists to have financial associations with the manufacturers.

University professors and practicing clinicians, therefore, publish findings that support their sources of money. Equally, now that the state supports so much scholarship and research, academics are generally supportive of political parties that support the public funding of universities.   

If, therefore, we are to promote a healthy pluralism of thought in higher education, to balance the pro-government bias that permeates most universities (and also to balance the bias towards certain companies that permeates certain research labs) we in the West – led perhaps by America – must create a sixth class of universities. That class would consist of independent research universities whose research funds come neither from the state nor from companies.

That was once the Ivy League dream. As Charles Eliot, the transformative President of Harvard (1869 to 1909), noted in a letter, “Every one of the famous universities of Europe was founded by Princes or privileged classes – every Polytechnic School, which I have visited in France or Germany, has been supported in the main by Government. Now this is not our way of managing these matters of education, and we have not yet found any equivalent, but republican, method of producing the like results.”

As late as 1940 the private universities of the U.S. were indeed Charles Eliot-like in their research independence. Indeed, so was the whole nation. The country’s total annual research budget in 1940 was $346 million, yet of that, $265 million was private: $234 million from industry, $31 million from foundations and universities. Of the government’s funding, $29 million was for agriculture (which was essentially vote-seeking subsidies of little economic benefit) and $26 million was for defense (and thus of even less economic benefit).

In 1940 therefore, 50 years after it had become the leading economic and technological nation in the world, the United States was laissez-faire in research.

And when the federal funding of science was mooted in 1934 by Henry Wallace, FDR’s Secretary for Agriculture, he complained to Science magazine that he was opposed by the scientists themselves, who were doing well as an independent profession under the market.

All that changed after World War II. Vannevar Bush’s 1945 book The Endless Frontier, and especially the fears that the Soviet success with Sputnik indicated that Russia was overtaking America through its government’s funding of science, inspired the federal government to massively increase science funding.

That vast expansion in funding largely crowded privately-funded science out of the universities. It hugely increased the private universities’ dependence on government. Scientists who had once opposed federal funding became habituated to government money.

In 1780, Member of Parliament John Dunning complained to the House of Commons that “the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.” Equally, I would say, the influence of the federal government over the independent universities in the US has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.

The answer, however, is not institutions, wonderful though they are, such as Hillsdale or Grove City College, which eschew government funds. They are excellent teaching institutions, but research is not of major importance for them.

What America needs is the creation of at least one independent university that aspires to independence in research as well as in teaching. That could be achieved only if that university reached an understanding with a small number of key foundations that share the libertarian vision, but such foundations exist. If that university were small, a relatively modest investment could produce an intensity of high quality research that would prove that government funding is not essential for it.

Britain has one such university, the University of Buckingham, where I serve as vice-chancellor (a.k.a., president). We are Britain’s only truly independent university in that, unlike every other, we do not take money or instructions from the government’s Higher Education Funding Council. Margaret Thatcher laid our foundation stone and she was for some years our chancellor. We are small (next year’s budget will only be £25 million), yet we have long been benchmarked as the best teaching university in Britain. 

We’re practicing what we preach and are looking for increased independent support. If we get it, we’ll beat even America at that particular game. Nothing would please me more, however, than to see one or more top-flight American universities producing excellent research that is neither colored by politics nor business.