Sunday, July 28, 2013

what difference did the lack of private higher-ed make in the etiology of detroit's failure?

theatlantic |  Private non-profit institutions enroll fewer than 15 percent of U.S. undergraduates, but they account for 27 of the 60 U.S. members of the Association of American Universities, the leading group of elite research institutions, whose members employ on average 11,400 people each. In 1950, about the time Detroit's population began falling, private institutions were 18 of the 32 AAU members.

Today, the top 20 universities in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings are all private institutions, as are 15 of the 20 largest university endowments. That dominance is regretted by many, but it's no coincidence. Top private institutions are more varied in their missions, and more malleable and flexible to respond to new opportunities and change direction. The best of them are more entrepreneurial and less bureaucratic. Those and other reasons have simply made them, historically, more appealing places for very rich people to give enormous amounts of money (and unlike any public university I know of, at a certain price they'll even name the place after you).

Of course, Detroit isn't the only major American city without a prominent private research university (Portland, Minneapolis-St. Paul and San Diego are all vibrant -- though the last two have large public research institutions). But it is arguably the most surprising. Detroit was once America's fourth-largest city, and not lacking in rich philanthropists. More to the point, a century ago, it was the Silicon Valley of its day, bustling with engineering talent, entrepreneurs, and venture capital. Imagine visiting Detroit in 1920 then journeying to the farmland of Palo Alto, CA, and finally the tobacco warehouses of Durham, NC. Which place would you have bet on to become a global research and education powerhouse? Yet among those three, only Detroit failed to do so. Frederick Rudolph's still-landmark history of American higher education, The American College & University was published in 1962, when Detroit still had over 1.5 million people. The city's name does not appear in this book, nor in Thelin's 2004 successor volume A History of American Higher Education.

I can't articulate a single, overarching theory for why this is so, but I can offer two ideas. The first involves a series of contingencies dating to the early 19th century, whose effect was to lessen the chance of such an institution being in place to later grow and thrive in Detroit. The second dates to Detroit's golden days in the early 20th century, and the economic culture from which its wealth emerged. Fist tap Big Don.