Higher education’s insatiable appetite for doing more will be its undoing

Adam Daniel and Chad Wellmon:

In 2017, the University of Virginia reported an operating budget of almost $3.2 billion, assets of $11.2 billion, and liabilities of more than $7.8 billion. The university includes UVA Global LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary based in Shanghai; an athletics enterprise with 25 programs and $24 million in revenues and expenses; a police force with 67 officers; an investment company that manages resources from 25 tax-exempt foundations, each with its own board; ownership of numerous art, historical, and scholarly collections, including more than five million printed volumes; capital assets in the form of academic buildings, dorms, and a Unesco-recognized World Heritage Site; a top-ranked medical center with several affiliated health companies, more than 12,000 employees, and its own budget of almost $1.5 billion; a concert-and-events venue for everything from monster-truck rallies to the Rolling Stones; a recycling business; a mental-healthcare provider; and a transportation system with a fleet of buses and cars. Incidentally, UVa also educates around 16,000 undergraduates and 6,500 graduate and professional students each year.

In 1963 the University of California’s president, Clark Kerr, famously predicted this state of affairs when he described the postwar American university as a “multiversity” — an institution serving varied, even conflicting, interests and oriented to a range of purposes.

Today, Kerr’s multiversity seems quaint. Universities both public and private contend with an ever-expanding range of demands and expectations: that they satisfy the health-care needs of local populations, that they redress manifold social inequalities, that they serve as engines of economic activity and growth — even as the most elite among them have historically exacerbated some of these very same problems.