The $10 billion Saudi university

A picture is here and yes they claim the finished version will have both male and female students and Western faculty.  A question we’ve been asking over lunch lately is the following: how much would it really cost to set up a first-rate university — and not just a technical school — in Asia?  Let’s say an Asian businessman were willing to put up $10 billion in endowment: how good would the school be?  I see three major problems:

1. Many Asian governments cannot precommit to respecting academic free speech; nor for that matter can the Saudis.

2. An excellent university must be part of an intellectual network near other excellent universities.  Arguably with the internet this effect is weakening over time.  Still, if they tripled my salary I wouldn’t move to Saudi Arabia or for that matter Japan and that is for reasons related to network effects.

3. Such universities could not precommit to the governance systems (please don’t laugh) that have been so effective in bringing American schools to dominate the world rankings.  In fact the more money that one person or government gave, the greater the commitment problem might be.  By these governance systems I mean faculty control of appointments, with academic-based monitoring by the Dean and Provost, independent boards, and Presidents willing and able to raise enough money to maintain financial independence for the future.  That’s a pretty tall order but you’ll find all those qualities in the successful American colleges and universities.  Long-run financial independence also requires a more general culture of philanthropy which is found only in the United States.

Technical schools aside, I do not expect American colleges and universities to lose their leadership role in the immediate future.  And if they do, the real competitors will prove to be Europe, the UK, and Canada, not Asia.


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