Higher education is under assault. Parents and students attack it as unaffordable. Political partisans blame it for fostering intolerance and hostile discourse. And in the wake of the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, many wonder whether the most elite institutions are more concerned with perpetuating privilege than contributing to the public good.

Are these universities doing enough, in fact, to serve their local communities, address inequality, and produce civic-minded graduates? That was the starting point of a two-day summit at Harvard University last week, in which leaders from the Ivy League and other highly competitive institutions reflected on their public purpose and whether they were living up to their mission.