What is the purpose of a university?

Will Baude expresses cautious disapproval of college athletics:

A question is whether recruiting chess players is like recruiting athletes (and thus, in my view, highly suspect). My initial inclination is to disapprove-- not because chess isn't an important skill, but because it seems to me that little good is done by paying money to get students to come to the school who wouldn't have done so anyway, merely so that the school can present a particularly good team at a game.

A winning chess team doesn't present exogenous benefits to the other students, so while all things being equal a school should encourage excellence-- in chess, in basketball (perhaps), in math-- there's no good reason to recruit people above and beyond an offer of admission just because they happen to be excellent in extracurricular activities.

I'm not entirely comfortable with Will's analysis. The difficult question, and one to which I have never received a satisfying answer: What is the purpose of a university? The obvious answer is education, but that is not so clear either. There are many decision makers associated with universities--alumni donors, non-alumni donors, administrators, professors, students, parents, athletic directors, athletes, etc.--none of whom necessarily shares the same interests or faces the same incentives as the others. Among the possible goals are maximizing profits (endowment), minimizing costs, increasing a school's academic prestige and name recognition, and so forth. Many schools (including the one I attend) invest heavily in their athletic programs (usually male football) as a way of increasing alumni giving rates. The top football programs make millions for their respective universities, especially in a tightly-controlled labor market where it is forbidden to financially compensate the athletes, and where the schools can therefore benefit exclusively from the television contracts. The TV deals, along with the additional alumni donations, are used to help fund some of the non-athletic branches of the university.

While I doubt chess will provide universities with anywhere near the same benefits as football in the foreseeable future, the article Will cites suggests one possible reason for this new recruitment policy:

A Loyola undergrad, Redman says chess has given UT-Dallas, which lacks a big-time sports program, a way to make a national name for itself and attract top students.

"If you're a new school and you want to get the best and brightest from across the country, you have to figure out a way to do this--and this is one of the ways," Redman said.

Better to be number one in chess than mediocre in everything else.

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My older brother graduated

My older brother graduated from UT Dallas and my younger sister is finishing her last semester there. They thought it was strange, having a chess team (two in fact) that was ranked number one in the country.

The school also sells t-shirts which say:

"Our football team is still undefeated."

To me, this is just one

To me, this is just one example of the massive agglomeration of misincentives that is a University. Universities are not structured so as to produce a good education. The fact that alumni giving is so important is a good example.

Can you imagine if an apartment complex, rather than making most of its money from current tenants, made it from donations from past tenants? Sure, the complex has a little incentive to serve its customers. After all, they will eventually be future customers, so its good to make them happy now. And some income comes from current customers, so some effort should be spent on them. But the experience of previous customers is in the past and immutable, so you don't chase them by improving quality.

Its all about market feedback. When you pay now for something you receive now, there is good market feedback. When you keep on paying for an experience you had in the past, market feedback is weak.

Patri, great example. It

Patri, great example. It has been added to my overflowing ammo bin.

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