American higher education is in crisis. The rise of diversity, equity and inclusion bureaucracies and a growing intolerance for dissent has spurred political battles for control of campus decision-making in North Carolina, Texas, Florida, and elsewhere. The fights point to a fundamental question: Who “owns” a university? Perhaps the question is better phrased: To whom does a school belong?

In the competitive private marketplace, ownership is clear. When Elon Musk buys a company like Twitter, few question his authority to fire staff or change access rules. While practices vary enormously among the thousands of American colleges and universities, seven groups often claim at least partial ownership and control:

  • The board. Most schools, public or private, are overseen by a legally constituted governing board.
  • The politicians. At public institutions, state government usually is the legal “owner” of the school.
  • The administrators. A school’s president and senior bureaucrats are vested with executive responsibility, which resembles ownership.