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The Great American University

Review of Jonathan Cole's The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected. New York: Public Affairs.

By Matthew Abraham, DePaul University

Research universities are now complex formal organizations. They depend less on patterns of stability, loyalty, and friendship - the hallmarks of the ecclesiastical model of academia - than on formal rules designed to reinforce core values associated with excellence. In concrete terms, for example, the better the university, the less likely it is that scholars will be granted tenure because they happen to be wonderful colleagues, deeply "loyal" citizens of the place - members of the family - and the more likely it is that will be judged on more impersonal criteria, such as how academically productive they have been.

If you were charged with creating a great university, and were given unlimited funds to do it, how would you go about selecting the faculty, creating admissions standards for students, attracting Nobel Prize winners to your university, selecting and securing the physical grounds for the campus, and obtaining the support of captains of industry for the creation of a major endowment? For the presidents of America's first universities, these are precisely the kinds of questions that had to be faced and dealt with. Even today's modern university presidents contend with questions about how to balance the various demands of trustees, faculty, staff, and students; how to acquire additional property for increasing university building expansion; how to recruit superstars for sustaining programs in key academic areas; how to retain productive researchers; and how to resolve numerous conflicts of interest between parties external to the university and faculty researchers. Jonathan Cole, the John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University at Columbia University, has been struggling with these questions for quite some time. Cole's The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected should be required reading for all university presidents and provosts, as well as anyone else who cares about future of the university. Cole brings his 50 years as a student, faculty member, administrator, and former Provost at Columbia to his reflections on the current state of the university in this book. While The Great American University's length might intimidate the casual reader, Cole's lucid prose and deep breadth of learning and understanding guide one through the trials and tribulations of the university in the 19th and 20th centuries.

From his discussions about the rise of medical science and its influence upon the funding of the modern university, to his exploration the central role universities have played in developing some of the key inventions of the historical era, a thoughtful evaluation of the conditions around, and threats to, intellectual life at major research centers, and a thorough assessment what is in store for the future of the American university, Cole proves to be an able guide. A consistent theme that emerges in the book is the historical importance of strong university leaders at key universities such as Columbia, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford, CUNY, Yale, the University of Chicago, the University of California, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin. Nicolas Butler Murray, Charles Eliot, Daniel Gilman, Woodrow Wilson, Fredrick Terman, Benno Schmidt, Bartlett Giamatti, William Rainey Harper, Clark Kerr, James Duderstadt, and Irving Shain were the visionaries that led their respective universities through important changes. Cole notes how juggling the demands of multiple constituencies, such as trustees, faculty, students, and alumni, is one of the most daunting tasks any university president faces. In spite of the pressures that may influence university leaders to cut corners in the name of profit, it is incumbent upon those seeking to maintain a great university to maintain a set of core values (academic excellence and standards, for example) that cannot be compromised. These are the core values Cole identifies:

  1. Universalism
  2. Organized skepticism
  3. Creation of new knowledge
  4. Free and open communication of ideas
  5. Disinterestedness
  6. Free inquiry and academic freedom
  7. International communities
  8. Peer review system
  9. Working for the "Common" Good
  10. Governance authority
  11. Intellectual Progeny
  12. The Vitality of the Community
These core values inform how any great university does its business with the rest of the world, ensuring that faculty and administrators are driven to move beyond the provincialism associated with class, ethnicity, and national borders in the quest for knowledge production and in the training of the next generation of researchers and teachers.

Corporate-sponsored research, infringement upon the academic freedom of the faculty by parties external to the university, demands for greater accountability, and the push to make universities responsive to ever changing conditions within society constantly pose challenges to a university's core values. In a math and science world, where the capacity to obtain major grants and to produce research that has direct societal benefit places a premium on expediency and profitability, the humanities and social sciences have been marginalized within the university's political economy. While Cole laments some aspects of the rise of big science and the infusion of funds by interested parties seeking to steer research results, he clearly recognizes - for better or worse - that the expansion of the university has relied upon external funding from pharmaceutical companies, corporations, and the government. Cole repeatedly comes back to the leading research universities in the United States in his analysis. Although Cole's focus in The Great American University is on Columbia, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin, he is clearly interested in sustaining the 4,300 colleges and universities throughout the country as national institutions.

Cole believes that great research universities hold the following characteristics in common:
  1. Faculty research productivity
  2. Quality and impact of research
  3. Grant and contract support
  4. Honorific awards
  5. Access to highly qualified students
  6. Excellence in teaching
  7. Physical facilities and advanced information technologies
  8. Large endowments and plentiful resources
  9. Large academic departments
  10. Free inquiry and academic freedom
  11. Location
  12. Contribution to the public good
  13. Excellent leadership
According to Cole, these aspects of great American universities are being threatened, especially at state-funded institutions. He notes in the book's introduction that universities in China and India, for example, are poised to challenge the US dominance in higher education in the years ahead. Cole wishes to see US universities maintain their preeminence, fully realizing that the threats to this preeminence come from forces within and outside the university. In the age of the capital campaign where public image is everything, universities struggle to maintain their independence from societal and market forces that will infringe upon their mission. Furthermore, universities struggle to prevent their educational programs from becoming completely professionally oriented, indicating yet another capitulation to market forces. Majors and graduate degrees that do not yield high-paying salaries are likely to face questions about their feasibility and eventually eradicated.

While Cole recognizes the greatness of the American university system, he knows that is continuance depends upon the maintenance of a fragile balance, a fragile balance that can be easily exploited by political interests. A number of different forces are aware of this fragility, attempting to capitalize upon the university's political precariousness for gain. David Horowitz's campaign represents one just effort, as does the Columbia Unbecoming attack that targeted Joseph Massad and the Middle East Languages and Cultures (MELAC) Department at Cole's own university.

Cole laments the various threats scientific researchers faced during the Bush administration. Researchers pursuing work related to global warming, stem cell research, and bioterrorism faced ideological litmus tests that curtailed their ability to obtain grant funding and other support. Those seeking to advance arguments out of step with the Bush administration's national vision were censored and removed from key advisory boards. Cole relates in some detail the cases of Thomas Butler, Steven Hatfill, and James Hansen. Each was subject to either censorship, government surveillance, or criminal prosecution for pursuing controversial lines of research on bubonic plague, bio-defense, and global climate change respectively. Cole rightly blames the Bush administration for seeking to control, and even prevent, scientific research that did not align with the administration's political vision on key social issues.

As Cole notes in the introduction, the book is essentially divided into three parts. The first part "tells the story of how our universities were transformed from sleepy colleges to powerful, complex engines of change"; the second part examines "the discoveries made at American research universities that continue to enhance our standard of living and quality of life"; the third part considers "the threats faced by... universities today, some of which result from government intrusion into the freedom of academic inquiry" (8).

In Chapter 1, "The Idea of a University," Cole traces the rise of the American university from the mid-nineteenth century, noting the particular challenges Eliot, Gilman, White, Murray Butler, Rainey-Harper, and Dwight faced in establishing Harvard, Hopkins, Cornell, Columbia, the University of Chicago, and Yale. While Johns Hopkins is noted for bringing the German research model for graduate education to the United States, other schools such as Princeton focused their efforts on undergraduate education. In this chapter, Cole explores the origins of the research university in the United States, expressing particular interest in the structures and mechanisms that were put into place to support the academic mission.

In Chapter 2, "Coming of Age in Tumultuous Times," Cole explores how the early 20th century American university responded to the climate of intellectual repression in the years after World War I. As Cole observes, "Academic freedom was still a novel idea, but it would become one of the fundamental values of the emerging profession."(51) In this chapter, Cole provides readers with context for understanding the firing of Edward A. Ross at Stanford and the rise of the AAUP under the leadership of John Dewey, Arthur Lovejoy, and Edwin Seligman. Professions, Cole reminds us, have three essential properties: powerful knowledge, considerable autonomy, and a very high level of fiduciary responsibility to individual clients and the public welfare.

In Chapter 3, "The Path to Greatness," Cole traces how Jewish German emigres seeking to flee from the persecution in Hitler's Germany in the early 1940s - which was engaging in a "purge" of the universities - contributed to the expansion of American research universities. For example, the following significant thinkers were part of a list of 196 thinkers who were removed from German universities: Max Planck, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Karl Mannheim, Paul Tillich, Alfred Weber, Paul Courant, Max Born, and Paul Klee. These scholars left Germany for other parts of Europe and the United States. In the second part of this chapter, Cole discusses the key contributions of Vannevar Bush and James Conant to the development of the American research university. Bush, a vice president and dean of engineering at MIT and the author of Science: A New Frontier, played an instrumental role in promoting math and science as a central part of university education.

In Chapter 4, "Building Steeples of Excellence," Cole looks at the incredible contributions that Fredrick Terman made as provost, from 1955 to 1965, to Stanford University. As Cole states, "The ascendance of Stanford is a postwar phenomenon of great significance because it shows how an intersection of local and national history with the ambitions of exceptional leaders could create a world-class university with the ambitions of exceptional leaders could create a world-class university within a generation."(117) Terman's role in Stanford's rise cannot be underestimated, as he "embraced the ingredients necessary for international distinction." These ingredients included the recruitment of highly esteemed individuals as faculty members, a commitment to "expanding the research base by attracting government financing," and a recognition that bringing the best faculty to Stanford would ensure that the best students would attend.(129) Other universities such as MIT, Columbia, UCLA, and the University of California at Berkeley were making similar strides during the 1950s.

In Chapter 5, "In Search of a Golden Age," Cole explores how the rise of big science - particularly basic and health science - led to a massive infusion of funds into the university from government and industry. Cole recognizes that the commercialization of research has resulted in overwhelming pressure on scientists to produce original, path breaking, and profitable research. These pressures often lead to researchers to take shortcuts, to fabricate data, and to overlook clear conflicts of interest. These problems are particularly acute in medical research, where pharmaceutical companies seek to rush drugs to market.

In Chapter 6, "Growing Pains," Cole examines the various complexities with which university administrations must contend as they seek to assess the productivity of their faculty over the course of a 30-year career, determining which faculty members are most likely to best promote the university's mission and to advance its research and teaching goals. Today's best universities have faculty and students from all over the world. As the demography of the academy has changed, so have the sources of funding for research. As Cole points out, "The infusion of public dollars for university-based research since World War II has come principally from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Defense Department, although a healthy share of financing has come from private industry and foundations as well."(184) In a section of this chapter entitled "The Competitive Spirit," Cole relates his experiences as Columbia's Provost in attempting to retain star faculty who regularly receive serious offers from other institutions, but who can be retained at Columbia with the right dollar amount and other incentives. Cole makes it clear that it is imperative for Columbia to retain these faculty members, regardless of how much money it takes to do so. As he writes, "Without the most talented faculty members, it is difficult for universities to legitimately claim that they are among the best in the world."(187)

In Chapter 7, "Finding a Smoother Pebble: A National System of Innovation," Cole takes a look at some of the many inventions and discoveries that the university has played a key role in developing. From GPS navigation systems that get drivers to the correct destination to the orange juice we drink in the morning, university research has played a key role in their discovery and improvement. Cole observes, "The universities play a huge role in bringing all of these inventions and discoveries into our daily lives, but they do not do it alone. The research conducted at our great universities is part of a larger national system of innovation."(195) The interrelation between universities and industry is obviously huge. As Cole notes, "It is clear that research universities represent the main pipeline to our nation's industrial laboratories."(195) There are clear economic, social, and cultural costs associated with discovery. When inventions and discoveries fall into the wrong hands or are misused in the right ones, how do we work through the ethical implications and questions of such wrongdoing. Cole insists that the humanities have much to teach us about such questions.

Chapter 8, "It Began with a Fly: Genetics, Genomics, and Medical Research," looks at the remarkable strides that have been made in genetics research within research universities. Cole takes readers through the history of recombinant DNA technology, the development of the insulin gene, the gene for Huntington's Disease, oncogenes, as well as anti-cancer drugs such as Gleevac and Alimta. In addition, Cole discusses advances in prenatal care, the Hepatitis B vaccine, and Vitamin A supplements.

In Chapter 9, "Buckyballs, Bar Codes, and the GPS: Our Origins, Our Planet, Our Security and Safety," examines the many miraculous advances that have been made in particle physics, particularly quantum mechanics. Cole also discusses discoveries in superconductivity, transistors, medical diagnostics, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. Cole concludes this lengthy chapter with a brief survey of strides that have been made in developing artificial intelligence.

Chapter 10, "Nosce te Ipsum: Culture, Society, and Values," Cole looks at discoveries related to our reasoning and decision making. He divides this chapter into five categories: "concepts related to our decisions and reasoning"; "values and opinions"; "culture, economy, and society"; "ourselves and our sensibilities"; our "thinking about thinking - that is, the discoveries made in philosophy, literary theory, and the like."(301) In the first category, Cole discusses the self-fulfilling prophecy, election polling, problems with eyewitness testimony, the theory of cognitive dissonance, the impossibility theorem, game theory, bounded rationality, conditions of uncertainty, congestion pricing, and tragedy of the commons. In this chapter, Cole makes much of the work by the Israeli social scientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who have produced some remarkable research on decision making. Once again, Cole affirms that it is impossible to create a preeminent research university without a first class humanities program.

In Chapter 11, "Academic Freedom and Free Inquiry," Cole demonstrates his genuine commitment to intellectual inquiry and exchange. He understands quite well that a university without an abiding sense of what academic freedom is, and the necessity of defending it as an inviolable right, does not deserve to be called a university. He documents several cases at Columbia and at other universities where academic freedom has been tested or violated. Cole laments the fact there are university administrations who are willing to compromise the tenets of academic freedom in their desire to kowtow to trustees and powerful parties outside the walls of the university. As Cole reminds us, fellow faculty members are as guilty as administrators in giving short shrift to academic freedom protections when evaluating faculty members advancing troubling ideas.

Chapter 12 ("The Enemy is Us"), Chapter 13 ("Political Science"), and Chapter 14 ("Trouble in Paradise?") provide a number of different cautionary tales about the censorship of scientific work under the Bush administration, political calculation and corruption in the university as a result of poor managerial oversight, and the naked careerism that often gets in the way of the core values of the great research university. While Cole placed much hope in 2009 in the Obama administration to protect the integrity of scientific research on such basic issues as global warming and stem cell research, as well as Obama's commitment to providing increased federal funding for cancer research, it remains to be seen what the long-term effects of this about-face from the blatant arm twisting tactics of George W. Bush will be.

I noted with interest this quotation toward the end of the book, where Cole offers us a caution about intellectual orthodoxy, which pervades the contemporary academy:

In truth, there is both intellectual and personal risk involved in challenging the presumptions of the group. The weight of the community on the individual scholar is found in the way those who challenge "group think" are treated. More often than not, it's the faculty not administrators, who define and enforce dominant orthodoxies. I doubt that any young social scientist who challenged the idea that the paucity of women in science and engineering was a consequence of a series of complex social and cultural processes that led women to select themselves out of these occupations, rather than adopting the belief - deeply held in academia - that the cause of the limited number of women was gender discrimination, would have as great a chance of obtaining a position at a major research university in the United States today as a scholar holding the orthodox view, regardless of the quality of the evidence.

The university must remain a space within which intellectual orthodoxy, any intellectual orthodoxy can be challenged. Refusing to tackle tough issues such as the one Cole addresses above, out of fear of offending internal or external constituencies, is a sure prescription for the enforcement of a type of political correctness that will be the end of the American university. Cole has provided us with the necessary diagnosis in his terrific book; it is our responsibility to heed that diagnosis and to chart a course of action to save the great American university.