If the best institutions are those where open debate is encouraged, however controversial, those in the UK are world leaders
British academics increasingly take it for granted that the US has a better university system than ours. After decades of chronic underfunding, government interference and brain drain this is understandable. But there is nothing necessary or permanent about America's domination.
Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, was recently censured by his faculty after remarks that, when you read them, were pretty careful and nuanced. Summers identified biological differences as one factor that might explain variations in the likelihood of men and women achieving top academic science positions.
The incident shows, again, how strongly some elements in American society reject free inquiry and debate. Rejectionist views such as these amount to dry rot in the fabric of higher education. This is not to say that American universities are about to disintegrate. In fact, if all that interests you is higher education's short-term contribution to the economy, then there is no reason to be concerned at all. It is possible to be highly successful economically without having great universities, but you cannot have great universities without a commitment to free inquiry.
The US was, until the Second World War, richer and more productive than Europe despite a paucity of world-class universities. By international standards, it sent large numbers of young people to university in the Twenties and Thirties, but its share of Nobel prizes was dismal. Postwar Japan and Germany similarly combined impressive economic success with mediocre universities.
But if you care about the way universities influence and reflect society as a whole, then any rejection of free inquiry really matters. The religious Right is often attacked on these grounds - and rightly so, I believe, when they argue that religion explains creation and that evolution should therefore not be taught. Yet the basic arguments of the anti-evolutionists are precisely parallel to those of academics who reject any possibility of biological differences between male and female skills and attainment. Both groups believe that certain ideas are not to be countenanced and therefore cannot be introduced into hypotheses about how the world works.
In the Twenties, among the European convulsions that would kill millions and enrich American universities with refugee scholars, Julien Benda wrote about la trahison des clercs - the treason of the intellectuals. Academics and intellectuals are as prone as the next person to individual ambition, self-interest and hypocrisy. But Benda was talking about something else.
The "treason" he discusses involved not individual compromise and dishonesty but a rejection, in principle, of the values of the university - a denial of the idea that everything should be open to discussion, argument and empirical inquiry.
It is exactly that treason that is evident on the American Left and Right today; and is far less apparent in the UK. My fellow columnist Alan Ryan has suggested that Harvard's faculty was not really voting against freedom of inquiry but against Summers' managerial style. I have no idea what the faculty members were "really" doing. But they certainly knew what message the world would read from their votes. The fact that they did not mind is depressing enough. Still worse was the response of other university presidents, such as those of Princeton and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Rather than delivering a defence of intellectual inquiry, they lined up with those who believe that some things should be outside the scope of informed speculation and analysis.
A couple of years ago, Cambridge University's Simon Baron-Cohen published an impeccably researched book, The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain . He delivered, upfront, its basic postulate: that "the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and... the male brain for... building systems". One implication is that the very best mathematicians are likely to be mostly male.
Baron-Cohen received a large number of thoughtful and sometimes surprised reviews. But there was no surge of hostility. No female biologists from Cambridge, England, stormed out of a lecture claiming that his views made them physically sick, along the lines of their sisters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And the fellows of Trinity felt under no pressure to issue a statement reassuring their female students that no "signal of discouragement" was intended. I think this speaks well of Britain. It helps explain why, despite the past 40 years, we still have universities that are among the most respected in the world.
We remain underfunded and overregulated. But the difference between the two Cambridges suggests that, if allowed, our system could be the best of the 21st century.
Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public sector management, King's College London.