The Great American University
The American research university is arguably the world’s most powerful engine of innovation and discovery. Yet it is widely misunderstood and in danger of losing its capacity to drive economic progress and improve our lives.
Although America’s universities have become the envy of the world for their creative energy and their production of transformative knowledge, few understand how and why they have become preeminent. This book traces the origins and the evolution of our great universities. It shows how they grew out of sleepy colleges at the turn of the twentieth century into powerful institutions that continue to generate new industries and advance our standard of living. Far from inevitable, this transformation was enabled by a highly competitive system that invested public tax dollars in university research and students while granting universities substantial autonomy.
Today, America’s universities face considerable threats. Even greater than foreign competition are the threats from within the United States. Under the Bush administration, government increasingly imposed ideological constraints on the freedom of academic inquiry. Restrictive visa policies instituted after 9/11 continue to discourage talented foreign graduate students from training in the United States. The international financial crisis, which has depleted university endowments and state investments in higher education, threatens the vitality of some of our greatest institutions of higher learning. In order to sustain and enhance the American tradition of excellence, we must nurture this powerful – yet underappreciated – national resource.
Jonathan Cole has produced a masterpiece, a modern classic. This is at once a scintillating biography of the Great American University, a powerful diagnosis of its major challenges today, and an invaluable guide for a robust future of this unique, world-changing institution. Cole brings a unique combination of talents to this invaluable undertaking: inspiring university leader, great sociologist, and bold defender of America’s democratic values. I have been at research universities for nearly forty years, but I learned something new and important about them on every page. This is sociological inquiry, technological history, and social philosophy at its most powerful, a penetrating study of how America’s research universities have been shaped by and have shaped American society. Cole’s study will be avidly read in all parts of the world, as societies attempt to emulate and adapt the strengths of America’s research universities to the challenges of building knowledge-based economies and democratic societies of the 21st century.
Jeffrey D. Sachs Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development and Director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University
I can think of no one better than Jonathan Cole to lead the crucial discussion on the role of the American university as the preeminent seat of intellectual and technological innovation. In the face of alarming trends in legislation and government intervention, he offers a precise and extremely well-written prescription for how the American university can once again prevail. This book reminds me of Henry Rosovsky’s The University: An Owner’s Manual, now written for the “non-owner” in the twenty-first century.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
A passionate and intelligent defense of the university’s role in creating knowledge, not just disseminating it. Every university has its own story; this book steps back to tell the history of American universities as a whole. Cole describes the logic, people, and context that drove the universities to pair teaching with research and discovery. He provides an irresistible tour of advances in science and culture that grew in the universities, from artificial hips to Google to eyewitness unreliability, and a clear-eyed view of their failings, from red scares to groupthink. Cole is a compelling advocate, and his book is a resource for academics, students, and all friends of the university.
Cori Bargmann, Torsten N. Wiesel Professor, Rockefeller University; Member, National Academy of Sciences
The story of American universities has been one of great success. Now, at a time when American higher education in general – and American public higher education in particular – is in crisis, Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University is a timely analysis of higher education’s current problems and prospects. The author’s knowledge of the history of both educational thought and the development of higher education institutions provides us with a major scholarly work full of insights. Cole’s study of the indispensible role played by universities in the progress of modern America, as well as the 21st century challenges our nation faces in a competitive global environment, are an important contribution to the debate about the future of U.S. higher education. I hope that policy makers will heed the author’s cogent arguments about the centrality of American universities in the panoply of our national life, as well as the potential of our universities to continue making an increasingly vital contribution to the economic, political and social advancement of the United States.
Vartan Gregorian, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York, President emeritus, Brown University
Jonathan Cole, a pioneer in the sociology of science and a visionary leader and spokesman for the academic community in the United States, has brought his creative ideas together in this marvelous book about the future of universities in the United States. Cole appreciates that great universities have assumed three responsibilities for society. Universities are our major custodians of knowledge; they disseminate knowledge by instructing and inspiring all those who seek it. In addition, universities create new knowledge; great universities are recognized for their research. But the greatest universities go beyond the creation of new knowledge: they invent new ways of thought. We remember the Renaissance-era University of Bologna for teaching us to think about the human body as a biological machine, the Sorbonne for convincing us that societies can be studied empirically, Göttingen for giving us new dimensions of mathematical thought, and the University of Cambridge for Newtonian mechanics and atomic physics – which together compelled us to believe that our universe can be understood in physical terms. Cole traces the emergence of American universities as the world’s leaders in education and research in the twentieth century, a leadership that derived both from their democratic quality and their insatiable search for new knowledge, new modes of thought, and new economic advances. In particular, American universities have introduced interdisciplinary research based on the realization that the boundaries imposed by various scholarly disciplines are arbitrary and historic, not natural. This new view of research has led to major scientific advances in information technology. Cole appreciates that the American university system is the jewel in the crown of America’s world leadership. Students from all over the world come to American universities to study. To maintain such a role, we must fully realize how fundamental this research mission of American universities is. Many think that the principal mission of universities is to transmit knowledge; they miss the key point that teaching and research are inseparable. Cole emphasizes that to produce the best students, American universities must continue to discover new kinds of knowledge and new ways of thinking. If we are to move successfully to maintain American economic and research leadership in the twenty-first century, this academic mission needs to be better recognized, supported, and enhanced. This brilliant book is a must-read. I strongly recommend it for everyone interested in academic life, in the future of our economy, and in public policy.
Eric R. Kandel, M.D.University Professor,Columbia University; Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, 2000
Everyone who is interested in how America’s public and private universities became the envy of the world, how they transform our lives in ways that we fail to appreciate, and how we are capable of destroying the goose that laid the golden egg, must read Jonathan Cole’s brilliant new book, The Great American University.
Richard C. Atkinson, former Director, National Science Foundation and President Emeritus, University of California
Jonathan Cole in his book The Great American University gives us in his insightful and personal voice the intriguing story of the origins and influences behind today’s “best in the world” universities in the United States. The thesis is that leading universities in the USA have to a major extent gained their prominence by having professors doing research and also teach undergraduate students rather than, except for Britain, adopting the European tradition to keep research professors away from the lecture halls. This “educational experiment” did not happen due to governmental decrees but through the insight of some brilliant minds, who, unencumbered by old practices, could start with a clean slate and build on the best ideas and practices of the time. Jonathan Cole has written a masterful book to be read and enjoyed by all of us who care for the guidance and teaching of young minds.
Torsten Wiesel, President Emeritus, The Rockefeller University; Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, 1981
Jonathan Cole has done a great service by demonstrating how important our leading research universities are to the nation and how profoundly they affect the quality of our lives. He gives the most detailed and convincing analysis I have read of the conditions essential to the work of these institutions and the dangers that threaten their continuing success.
Derek Bok, President Emeritus, Harvard University
Jonathan Cole has written the definitive work on the American research university. A monumental achievement, The Great American University explores the complex historical and cultural reasons for the international preeminence of American higher education, documents the profound contributions American research universities have made, and continue to make, to our nation and to the world, and identifies and analyzes the dangers that now threaten to undermine one of the strongest pillars of American excellence.
Geoffrey Stone, Former Provost, University of Chicago, author Perilous Times
Drawing on the best talent from around the world and driven by the kind of competition we see in professional sports, American research universities have come to dominate the landscape of international higher education. In this fascinating book, Jonathan Cole tells us who built these teams of scholars and scientists to a championship level and why keeping them strong and innovative is a key to America’s future. Everyone will learn something by reading it.
David J. Stern, Commissioner of the National Basketball Association and former Chairman of Columbia University’s Board of Trustees
Jonathan Cole has given us an erudite amalgam of sociology, history, and educational policy that is a stimulating and provocative account of how the American research university came to be, the ideas it has contributed, and the challenges it faces. Not everyone will agree with all of the argument, but everyone can learn from it.
William G. Bowen, President Emeritus, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; President Emeritus, Princeton University
Kirkus Review [10/25/2009] (STARRED) Cole, Jonathan R. THE GREAT AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected An elegant, comprehensive examination of how American universities became the best in the world, and why research matters. Former Columbia University provost and current sociology professor Cole begins with the transformation of the earliest provincial colleges aimed at educating the elite for the ministry-such as Harvard and Yale-into the first engines of original discovery and research. This transformation was exemplified by the founding in 1876 of Johns Hopkins, the “first university to emphasize research rather than undergraduate teaching.” American industrialization was driven by invention and innovation, and captains of business like Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller injected enormous amounts of money into institutions for this purpose. With the emergence of organized academic disciplines and the introduction of doctorates, the American university evolved into a “hybrid”-combining the English system of undergraduate residential colleges with the German emphasis on graduate specialization-and created research laboratories and a “new breed of empirically oriented scientists.” Cole lists 12 core values that were internalized by American universities as of 1930, involving free inquiry, openness to talent and ideas, academic freedom and peer review. He also enumerates a baker’s dozen of “factors that predict greatness” for a research university. The author provides plenty of examples of the “building of steeples of excellence,” such as Stanford’s Frederick Emmons Terman and Clark Kerr and his three-tiered California system, and draws heavily from Vannevar Bush’s seminal work on “big science.” Cole ably moves through the years, from the enrichment of American universities with the influx of European Jewish scholars during World War II, to the challenge and growth of the 1960s, especially in the health sciences, to the recent restrictions on academic freedom and underfunding during the Bush era. Especially compelling are examples of innovation emerging from research centers that have profoundly changed our lives, from genetics to Google. A sound, enthusiastic look at the crucial vitality of the American university system.