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Spring 2003
Going After the Best
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To build its competitive niche, for example, Michigan determined that it, much like UCLA, would be “a place where it is easy to do interdisciplinary and collaborative work,” Courant says. “Maintaining that identity and seeking people who enjoy those types of collaborations is part of our strategy.”

Schools also need to figure out what they don’t want to be. “Are there students you won’t deal with?” asks Newman, past president of University of Rhode Island. “Will you be a global institution? Are you willing to put resources behind that kind of effort?

“YOU HAVE TO REASSESS WHAT YOU’RE OFFERING AND INVEST ENOUGH MONEY IN THINGS YOU WANT TO BE GOOD AT, AND STOP INVESTING IN THINGS YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT,” WHICH COULD MEAN CUTTING PROGRAMS, SOMETHING MANY INSTITUTIONS ARE LOATH TO DO.

Susan Gates, an economist at RAND who has written about the competition for prestige in higher education, agrees that a strong focus can help a university target its resources to build “centers of excellence.” Focusing on one area of strength, such as biology or the humanities, “makes the best use of resources.”

Gates says student quality, research funding and sports are three prestige-building areas that help schools stay in the top tier or go higher. A strong sports program, some believe, increases a school’s visibility and helps raise alumni money. Others think that selecting students with the highest GPAs and test scores raises prestige. And still others go for research funding, although that may actually have indirect costs to the university.

Competition for faculty is also more “market-driven” today and universities may need to dangle higher wages or better perks when recruiting in highly competitive areas.

Public universities are also looking more and more to private donors, experts agree.

“We’re placing more emphasis on major sources of funding, including private gifts, grants and non-resident recruiting,” says Kevin Lee, marketing director for university communications at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where a major fund-raising campaign is under way.

Michigan receives $360 million a year from the state and relies more and more on tuition and private giving for additional funds, says Courant. They also manage resources with small economies: turning off lights, dialing down thermostats, eliminating under-attended courses, buying prudently, etc., while maintaining “a high-quality institution.”

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