Great American Research Universities and How They Got That Way

by Record Staff

Jonathan R. Cole came to Columbia 50 years ago this fall, he says, “as a little freshman wearing a beanie, and I’ve never been able to cut the umbilical cord.” Indeed, he went from student to Ph.D. to sociology professor to vice president of Arts and Sciences and ultimately University provost and dean of faculties, a post he held for 14 years, from 1989 to 2003.

Now as the John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University, he has taken his research specialty—the sociology of science—and his intimate knowledge of how higher education operates and has produced a new book on the future of the American research university.

In The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected (Public Affairs Books) Cole discusses how these institutions became the nation’s leading source of economic growth and social welfare, and why universities face a host of challenges that include budget cuts, political interference and even changing cultural mores that could lead to their loss of true distinction. Cole studied with the great Columbia sociologist Robert K. Merton and became accustomed to tackling complicated subjects that sometimes upend conventional wisdom, such as research that suggested getting a scientific grant depended greatly on chance, rather than just on the merits of the proposal. Or his research finding that women in science are subject to subtle forms of discrimination, making it more difficult for them to advance than their male counterparts. In his book, Cole wanted to describe how “the discoveries, inventions, medical miracles and better mousetraps have changed our lives without us adequately realizing where these discoveries came from and how they were made.” He also wanted to warn how universities could be under attack.

Q. Why write this book now?

I believe that the American public needs to know far more about what the great universities of the United States do for our society and the world. We have about 65 percent of the world’s 100 leading universities, and very few people in the United States understand how these universities are contributing to our economic welfare and growth, our improved health and the quality of our lives. We have built these creative machines that produce discoveries in a society that is increasingly dependent on knowledge as the source for its growth. Most people, understandably, look at our universities in terms of undergraduate or professional education; they think of them as transmitters of knowledge. I wanted to tell the story of how these universities came to be the source of new knowledge, how they rose to preeminence, what they have done to change our lives and why they’re under threat today.

Q. How are they under threat?

The threats come in different forms. The Bush administration promulgated a series of policies in response to the tragic events of 9/11, such as the USA Patriot Act, which had negative consequences for universities. They constrained research, increased FBI surveillance of certain types of immunological research, undermined the open communication of ideas, censored scientific results that did not fit their ideological interests, restricted access of brilliant foreign students through VISA policies, increased library and Internet surveillance and attacked the peer-review system, among other things. When government begins to interfere with research universities on ideological grounds, that’s the beginning of the end for great universities. The quintessential example of this was, of course, when Hitler came to power in January 1933. Within six months, what was then the world’s greatest system of higher learning was essentially dismantled—intellectuals fled, particularly Jewish scholars and scientists. Under tragic circumstances, American universities were the great beneficiaries of those purges. Universities are fragile institutions, and if we don’t protect them, their preeminence and their distinction can be undermined.

Q. What is the role of a university in society?

Universities must be unsettling places that challenge existing policies and ideas in the society, places that can challenge the Prince and be immune from punishment from the Prince, who actually financially supports the research that may lead to criticism. Universities should be places where received wisdom and orthodoxies can be questioned and the most radical ideas entertained and debated—in the sciences as well as other disciplines. Simultaneously, universities must employ stringent criteria to assess the fact value and truth content of those radical ideas. The coexistence of radical thoughts and conservative methods of assessment are important and represent an essential tension within the university.

Q. Were Americans quicker to grasp the notion of mass education as a sort of birthright, unlike other countries? How did that contribute to American universities becoming leading institutions?

The increasing commitment to universal education, including a growing belief in the idea of meritocracy, up to and including college, became an important part of the development of the United States as a knowledge society. We had this commitment long before European societies realized that opening up opportunities not only improved the stock of human capital but also produced skills increasingly needed for a knowledge-based society. We offered many more opportunities for schooling than Europeans did in the first three or four decades of the century, and, consequently, we trained people for high-skilled jobs that were necessary for the production of knowledge. Universities not only led the way in producing this skilled labor force, but they also benefitted greatly from it. Without the opening up of universities to people with talent, regardless of origin or means, great universities are extremely difficult to build.

Q. In your aptly named chapter “Political Science,” you discuss how the integrity of research science can be undermined by political factors. Has it gone on throughout our history?

Well, throughout the 20th century, which encompasses almost the entire history of the research university, external political repression has influenced our great universities. Opposition to American entry into World War I and opposition to conscription led to the firing of liberal and outspoken faculty members—including some of our great faculty at Columbia. Most of us are familiar with the repression during the McCarthy period. Those firings involved efforts to suppress the political speech and affiliations of left-oriented professors. Anti-intellectual forces in America have erupted periodically, as our own Richard Hofstadter taught us, and those tendencies have adversely affected university life. What makes the current period somewhat different is the focus of political intolerance and national paranoia on the production of new knowledge. Let me give you an example that I describe in my book. We have distinguished immunologists in this country who are searching for vaccines and biological understanding that will allow us to combat really deadly viruses and bacteria. But parts of the anti-terrorism legislation put enormous constraints on conducting this research: reporting requirements to the FBI, constraints on the ability of professors to choose the students who can work with them—for example, students who pose no security risk but were born in a country like Iran. Violation of these rules can lead to the indictment of professors on criminal charges, and it has happened. Students from “suspect nations” cannot even enter the laboratories in which professors are working with toxins and viruses that could produce these diseases. What is the consequence of that? Robert Richardson, a Nobel Prize winner at Cornell, said that before the FBI began monitoring laboratory activities there were roughly 40 scientists there doing fundamental research. After these restrictions were in place, that number dwindled to two.

Q. Your book concludes by saying that American research universities will remain superlative unless the United States blows it. How can we blow it?

We shouldn’t fear competition from other universities, which is good for us and good for the rapid growth of knowledge. But to paraphrase the cartoon character Pogo, “The enemy is us.” We are capable of destroying ourselves or certainly weakening our true distinction. Some of the threats result from federal government policies and from the way non-government agencies have interfered in the operations of the university.

There are other threats. As a response to the financial tsunami of 2008 and 2009, narrow-minded policy makers in state governments are dismantling some of the great educational institutions in the world. Look at what California is doing to Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego—three of the top 20 research universities in the world. Berkeley now faces a systematic dismantling by shortsighted legislators who are strangling it by withdrawing the resources needed for both student access and research excellence. And the academic vultures are already trying to pick off the best of these faculties. Unless California realizes that its higher education system is a far greater asset and investment for its economic and social future than a swollen prison system, then it is capable of ruining the quality of these institutions. What legislators fail to understand is that it is far more costly to rebuild quality and excellence than it is to maintain it. And they will kiss goodbye the new Silicon Valleys and sources of economic growth within their local and state economies.

Q. Where does Columbia fit in the firmament of great American universities?

I entered Columbia College as a freshman in the fall of 1960. I’ve never been able to cut the umbilical cord. I love the place and admit to my own biases about it. But you don’t have to bleed Columbia blue to realize that it is among the top 10 research universities in the world. It has, of course, been a leader in the transmission of knowledge to its undergraduates and graduate students, but it also has been one of the world’s great leaders in the production of new knowledge and new ideas.

Consider a few among thousands of possible examples: the discovery of radar, which was led by I. I. Rabi’s work during World War II here and at the Rad Lab at MIT; the invention of the FM radio; the APGAR test; the Pap smear; the building of shoulder prosthetics; the discovery of the gene for the sense of smell; basic discoveries in neuroscience; and the drug Bacitracin. The laser was first discovered [as the maser] at Columbia by physicist Charles Townes and his son-in-law, Arthur Schawlow [at Bell Labs and later at Stanford]. Columbia scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory were the first to chart the Earth’s floor which led to better predictions of earthquakes and were first to produce the El Niño equations that led to better weather forecasting. In the social and behavioral sciences, my teacher, Robert Merton, developed the idea of “the self-fulfilling prophecy” and the idea of focus groups, while another of my teachers, Paul Lazarsfeld, pioneered in political polling, voting studies and survey research. Economic concepts, such as “human capital,” were developed here by Gary Becker [before he moved to Chicago] and Jacob Mincer. Columbia humanists have changed the way we think about literature, art and music and have educated us about new ways to think about non-Western authors and cultures.

Columbia is a vibrant and extraordinarily rich environment for discovery and for linking research and teaching. The knowledge that we’re creating improves people’s lives.

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