FIFTY years ago, in the glorious age of three-martini lunches and all-smoking offices, America’s car companies were universally admired. Everybody wanted to know the secrets of their success. How did they churn out dazzling new models every year? How did they manage so many people so successfully (General Motors was then the biggest private-sector employer in the world)? And how did they keep their customers so happy?
Today the world is equally in awe of American universities. They dominate global rankings: on the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy’s list of the world’s best universities, 17 of the top 20 are American, and 35 of the top 50. They employ 70% of living Nobel prizewinners in science and economics and produce a disproportionate share of the world’s most-cited articles in academic journals. Everyone wants to know their secret recipe.
Which raises a mischievous question. Could America’s universities go the way of its car companies? On the face of it, this seems highly unlikely. Student enrolments are higher than ever this year, as Americans who cannot find jobs linger or return to education. Cambridge, Massachusetts, shows no outward sign of becoming Detroit. Yet there are serious questions about America’s ivory towers.