The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected

April 8, 2010

This doorstopper is a magnificent study that is as timely as it is magisterial. Its author, Jonathan R. Cole, has worked with some of the best and brightest, including Robert K. Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld, in Columbia University's distinguished sociology department. Later in his career, he also served as the university's provost and dean of faculties.

Cole begins by pointing out the importance of corporate status, appropriate property structures, and with it, institutional autonomy and relative independence in the successful growth of the institutions that would become America's leading universities. Favourable demographic developments in the latter half of the 20th century, in particular the arrival of scholars from a Europe in crisis, would be employed to great effect.

The 1960s ushered in the modern idea of the multi-purpose university, and today, the US has more universities in the top 100 than any other country. Yet, as Cole cautions, the elite research universities do not run on autopilot and certainly have not succeeded merely because of the vision, courage or personal charisma of their leaders. US research universities, he argues, constitute a rare and delicate achievement and need long-term commitment and continuous financial and structural support.

He then recalls the sector's past achievements while also discussing current research trends, from groundbreaking discoveries in biology, medicine and ecology to what he calls "knowledge about knowledge" - that form of reflection that belongs to the social sciences and the humanities and without which no university can be steered through sometimes rough seas. He issues a warning to those determined to see immediate, short-term results from research, as many modern discoveries have been serendipitous and unpredictable.

In examining the state of academic freedom and free inquiry after the dire years of the Bush-Cheney administration, Cole is alarmed at the national security policies and entry requirements that have seriously hampered communication, international human capital and knowledge flows, and is concerned about the recent economic crisis and the short-sightedness of the funding reductions it threatened to bring.

Cuts to the funding of higher education are, in essence, like preventing the future, and Cole concludes with a passionate plea for the US to get its funding proportions right. Research foundations and universities continue to get just a tiny fraction of what it takes to keep the US military happy, and the numbers are revealing and shocking. In 2008, $625 billion (£399 billion) was spent on the Pentagon's various activities; in contrast, the National Science Foundation received only $6 billion, the health institutes some $30 billion, and the social sciences and humanities received virtually no federal government funding.

The book is at its best when Cole shares some of his personal experiences and insights. His list of core values, a kind of educational 12 commandments, should be touchstones for the sector: promote universalism so that merit prevails and only impersonal criteria are used in establishing scientific facts; favour organised scepticism and question anything that resembles dogma; create new knowledge through the provision of a decent infrastructure including laboratories and research libraries; guarantee free and open communication of ideas and allow for criticism through open and public exchange; advocate genuine disinterestedness so that individuals do not profit financially from their research; promote free inquiry and academic freedom so that orthodoxies are constantly questioned; base research on international communities that communicate openly with each other; use peer-review systems so that arguments are tested by the best in the field; work for the common good so that a more enlightened public can emerge; ensure that governance involves the "company of equals", making sure that academics have a significant voice in running the institution they are part of; promote intellectual progeny so that the next academic generation can emerge; and, finally, maintain the intellectual vitality of the community by attracting the best minds.

If an institution applies these core values - adding in factors such as combining high research productivity with quality and impact, securing grants and contracts, access to high-quality students, excellence in teaching, securing large endowments and resources, maintaining large academic departments, being in a favourable location and choosing the right leaders - then, argues Cole, it will succeed.

As European scholars and institutions, we must ask how many of Cole's core values and the conditions he cites apply to us. Certainly if we really wish to improve our universities and bring them up to the highest levels, following his basic maxims and creating the right environment for them are crucial. Anything less would mean blindly following the prince(s) of darkness.

The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected.

By Jonathan R. Cole. Public Affairs, 640pp, £20.99. ISBN 9781586484088. Published 10 January 2010

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