Late last week Crooked Timber had a lively discussion about university endowments, prompted by my recent post here and Larry Solum’s response to it. Those who are interested in the topic should take a look at the discussion, as it partially mirrors the debate that is taking place more generally. I’ve been following Crooked Timber with interest, and here’s several points that have struck me:
* I’ll start with the observation I found most interesting: that some elite institutions have a mission that is as much (or even more) about research than about education. I agree that I need to emphasize this distinction more than I have to date. My proposal that an endowment per full-time student of $300,000 or more trigger less favorable tax treatment could penalize institutions whose primary output is research rather than education. Recall, however, that the most frequently proposed trigger is an absolute endowment value of $1 billion or more. Elite research universities tend to have endowments of this magnitude, so my proposal is not tougher on these institutions than the oft-suggested alternative. In fact, my proposed trigger would exempt some research-oriented universities that would otherwise be subject to new tax rules, such as Cornell and Columbia. The institutions most “negatively” affected by the $300,000 trigger are liberal arts colleges with endowments less than $1 billion and small student populations.
More important, however, is that a research-oriented mission actually strengthens calls for increased endowment spending. The sort of research taking place at America’s premier universities is designed to eventually lead to much social good: the easing of the global food crunch, the elimination of certain diseases, and so on, as well as the creation of knowledge more generally. Few science departments, for instance, are likely to argue that a dollar is better spent in the stock market than in their labs. The ability of researchers and scholars to make productive use of endowment funds seems almost endless, as do the potential gains from their work. This strikes me as a strong argument for elite research universities spending more of their endowments than they currently do.