I'm very perplexed as to how the terms College and University are archaically used to denote associations of people, but are in modern times being used to denote buildings or realty.

What are standard organizational structures in a legal sense for different Colleges in a US-based Research University??

For example, if the corporation of the University Trustees makes the policies providing for faculty appointments in a College of Arts and also in a College of Education, will these different Colleges typically be like departments in the same corporation, or do they have separate Legal Personalities?

Are the Colleges associations or corporations, or merely administrative units defined by the internal policy of the Trustees to distinguish different collections of offices?

Do the Colleges have members, and if so who are the members? Are all the matriculated members, or just current students? Are the faculty members of the College?

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    I don't agree with the close votes on this. It's definitely a collection of question, but they are elaborations on the main question: "What are standard organizational...."
    – Suresh
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 20:09
  • This isn't complex for someone who knows the answer. It can be answered simply with a legal definition of some established College. Example: "Microsoft Corporation is a legal person created by the State of Delaware whose corpus consists of the directors and beneficial owners of its stock. It has several wholly owned subsidiary corporations. This is the most popular type of business organization for Fortune 500 firms." Maybe that example is inaccurate, but it answers all the questions corresponding to my question about the colleges in three sentences. I don't see how my question is too broad. Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 20:39

2 Answers 2


As I understand it, in a typical private U.S. research university the different colleges or schools that make up the university have no legal independence, and they are simply administrative units within the university. (On the other hand, part of the endowment generally consists of restricted gifts, which can only be used in certain ways or by certain departments. This can give the corresponding parts of the university more power or independence in practice than one might otherwise suppose.)

Do the Colleges have members, and if so who are the members? Are all the matriculated members, or just current students? Are the faculty members of the College?

This is entirely a matter of university policy. Current students, staff, and faculty would usually be considered members of their corresponding colleges, but this can vary (and some universities just aren't organized this way in the first place). In practice, this generally doesn't mean very much: it may determine some requirements for students in addition to departmental requirements, it could be listed as an affiliation on your publications (although departments are more common), it might give a few privileges such as building or library access, and it tells you how to fill out university forms, but it's otherwise not a big deal.

  • I suspect you are correct, but I will hold out a little longer to see if I can get a more definitive answer. Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 20:47
  • Generally this, where there's a single legal university entity. However occasionally this can be quite complicated with large private universities, and state university systems. For example the Claremont Colleges, or the complex Columbia University, Barnard and Teachers College relationship.
    – chmullig
    Commented Mar 13, 2014 at 23:05
  • Another example of a complex university structure is Cornell University which has both publically and privately funded components. Commented Dec 26, 2021 at 21:53

Oxford University (constitution) it seems was able to get the Crown to either recognize as or raise into corporations each of the Oxford Colleges. Additionally, the members of these Colleges (example charter), including students and faculty, also appear as individuals in the membership of the corporation of Oxford University. Oxford University as a corporate person seems to be a charter party exercising control over the Colleges, but is not itself a member of those Colleges.

When we get to USA State Universities, there seems to be some oddities where the Uniform Unincorporated Nonprofit Association Act (Ohio's UUNAA) might implicitly turn Administratively created Colleges into William Blackstone Corporations. This is because UUNAA seems to assert that almost any group of people with a voting membership and a succession continuity plan and that isn't forbidden to acquire property will be able in principle to hold that property in mortmain perpetually outside of Probate, just like any regular business corporation. In the USA, these entities would likely be deemed Quasi-Corporations, in part because they probably don't have the same constitutional Due Process rights that a generic corporation would have. Any governance rights which the University Trustees have vested in the faculty via a Union Contract are possibly relevant for determining the legal status of the Colleges.

Since any legal personality for colleges seems unintentional in the University Policies I have read, I am going to assume until further notice that Anonymous Mathematician deserves the Check Mark.

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