Question and answer originally posted at Quora.
Q: If a university were to be created today, how could it compete with MIT, Harvard, and other top-tier schools?
New universities can’t compete with established universities.
I’ve thought about this question a lot, because the university I now work at may be the newest university in the world. It was established September 2015, so is currently about 15 months old as I write this. It has aspirations to become an emerging research university.
One of a university’s major resources is prestige. Prestige attracts students and faculty. Prestige attracts donors. Prestige attracts attention. Prestige gets you the benefit of the doubt.
You cannot create prestige. Prestige is something others bestow upon you.
People perceive universities as prestigious because they are old and have a proven track record. Prestige has very little to do with the education of students or skills of faculty. I’ve met students and faculty from all kinds of universities, and their abilities and skills are not different enough to explain the huge differences in how their institutions are perceived.
Lists of new universities don’t have a 5 or 10 year window; a university 50 years old is still considered “new” (e.g., The 7 best US universities founded in the last 50 years or The World's Best New Universities).
There is no way a university created in the 21st century can amass the prestige of a university created in the 17th century. Age probably stops mattering when you get a century out from the establishment of the institution.
That said, you can certainly do a better or worse job of establishing a research university. You do that primarily giving faculty resources (particularly doctoral students to provide cheap labour) and keeping them as far away from undergraduate students as possible. Professors at research intensive universities might teach a class or two a year; colleagues in my university are typically teaching three courses a semester. This means research universities cannot admit lots of undergraduate students, meaning they are more selective, further feeding into the perception of prestige.