In response to What We Get for Our University R&D Spending
In my last Corner post, I pointed out an apparent inconsistency: Ivy League schools receive generous subsidies during economic expansions but turned down Congress’s coronavirus-relief funds. If they take money when the going is good, why not take additional money when the going is bad?
In response, Kevin Williamson argues that an institution’s ability to withstand an economic downturn says little about whether it should receive federal dollars as a general matter. That endowments cushion universities from recessions does not reduce the return on investment in them.
If universities are as great as Kevin thinks, we should minimize the amount of endowment money they use to cover the costs of the coronavirus. Every dollar removed from Harvard’s coffers today reduces future funding for “some of the most important scientific, technological, and scholarly work being done in the world” (Kevin’s characterization), and endowment outlays represent a permanent drag on university budgets. That drag is amplified by the massive hit to universities from the coronavirus: The 15 percent drop in stocks this year amounts to roughly $5 billion in losses for Harvard’s endowment.
The more productive universities are, the more urgent and necessary it is to fill the holes in their balance sheets. When Harvard’s endowment was $40 billion, we gave it $1 billion a year. Harvard could have used its assets to bankroll federally funded programs, but we decided that $1 billion in Harvard’s endowment was worth more than $1 billion in the hands of taxpayers. Now that its endowment has shrunk to $35 billion, every dollar Harvard receives will be more productive, especially since some of that money will go to research on coronavirus vaccines, as Kevin points out.
If university presidents feel compelled to decline free money from Congress, maybe their spending is not especially productive. At Harvard, the administrative staff outnumbers the academic faculty 8 to 1 —bureaucratic bloat made possible by taxpayer largesse. Where universities do choose to focus on actual research, the results are lackluster. As I’ve written for National Review Online, the rate of scientific progress has slowed considerably in recent decades due in large part to academic red tape. It is telling that one of the Johns Hopkins research projects Kevin highlights was completed in the 1990s.
On the other hand, elite universities may have shied away from the public-relations risks of taking emergency funds. If that’s the case, it’s an irresponsible decision to maintain the brand at the expense of valuable research in medicine and technology. Or perhaps university presidents don’t think as highly of their researchers as Kevin Williamson does.
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