The Biography of the Great American University

Jonathan R. Cole talks with Academe about the importance of innovation at elite research universities and academic freedom under pressure.
Interview by Cat Warren

Watch excerpts of this interview on video:

Jonathan R. Cole is widely known for his fourteen years (1989–2003) as Columbia University’s provost and dean of faculties. He currently is the John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society. In February, he sat down with Academe to talk about the role of the research university, a subject he explores in his new book, The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected.

This interview was edited for both space and content.

Cat Warren: Just to open the conversation, would you talk about why you decided to write about elite research universities and what you think those universities can teach us about the health of higher education nationwide?

Jonathan R. Cole: I decided to write about a very small portion of the total number of colleges and universities in the United States principally because those are the places that are responsible for most of the research discoveries that have an impact on our lives. Most educators, most former presidents of universities, have spent a good deal of time talking about undergraduate education, about the transmission of knowledge—which is critically important to the mission of our colleges and universities. It is also true that most of the educated public understands the university in terms of undergraduate education. I wanted to focus on another aspect of these universities: that is, the knowledge that they produce, the part of the mission that deals with the creation of new knowledge. I wanted to tell people how these universities have altered their lives in extraordinarily meaningful ways. For example, when we think about colleges, most educated people in this country don’t think that the laser, the FM radio, the global positioning system, the MRI, the cure for childhood leukemia, the Pap smear, the opinion poll, and a host of other medical miracles and discoveries, from climate forecasting models to scientific agriculture, had their origins at these research universities.

These universities represent only, perhaps, 150 out of the more than 4,300 institutions of higher learning in the United States, but they generate most of the PhDs; they also tend to generate most of the knowledge that is produced in our system. How can this be helpful to colleges and universities throughout the system? Well, for one, they are producing the overwhelming number of PhDs who become the faculty at these colleges and universities: they are very well trained, they are on top of their subjects, they’ve been trained at how to do research, how to produce critical inquiry, and also understand the important values of the universities. They are better at transmitting knowledge to college students because of this training.

Warren: You also note in your book the frustration in trying to communicate even to alumni of research universities that undergraduate education is not necessarily the central function of great research universities. As you know, that’s probably not a very popular thing at this moment to say.

Cole: The central message of my book is that these universities ought to be defended because they have become the engines of innovation and discovery in our society. It isn’t necessarily popular to talk about these research missions, because in fact many people think that to the extent we focus on research, we’re not focusing on undergraduate education. In fact, one of the great aspects of the American system is that we tend to mix great teaching with outstanding research. If you look at the few studies that have been done to estimate the correlation between undergraduate teaching and research, you find that students actually evaluate professors who are productive researchers as higher in teaching quality than less productive researchers. Let’s also not forget the extraordinary teaching that goes on in graduate research laboratories and tutorials as part of the informal university curriculum. I think that there are three critical missions that great colleges and universities have. One of them is the transmission of knowledge. Another is the research mission. It’s the discovery of new knowledge that will change the world, whether it’s through vaccines to prevent diseases or a better understanding of the causes of earthquakes. The third mission is to contribute to the common good. Great universities don’t only maximize opportunities for individuals. They also try to improve the quality of the society as a whole. I believe it’s important for the public to understand these three essential missions, and to be willing to actually defend the universities against attacks when attacks do take place, as they periodically do in American history.

Warren: Speaking of attacks, take us back to the Kalven Committee report, which was released at the University of Chicago in 1967. I’ll quote from that report: “The mission of the university is the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge. Its domain of inquiry and scrutiny includes all aspects and all values of society. A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and by effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with the existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.” You say in your book that this report constitutes the greatest expression of “the sacred values of a great university.” How does that report resonate today?

Cole: I think the Kalven Committee report, which came in the midst of student uprisings on campus, is a great two-page statement of the core mission and values of the university, and it still rings true to me today. It embodies in very simple language the essence of what universities do for society, for students, and for faculty members. I think that, yes, perhaps universities are unsettling and are intended to be unsettling. I think in some sense they are, because if we were simply to reinforce students’ and faculty’s ideas about what already exists, what is believed to be truth or fact, that we would not be doing our job properly as educators.

Warren: The University of Chicago, of course, is not the only university that has faced such issues. At Columbia University, while you were provost in the post–September 11 years, there were concrete challenges to academic freedom. What is the role that university leaders and administrators should play in these contentious cases?

Cole: When I was provost of the university, there were many, many attacks from outside the university on Edward Said, who was a very distinguished literary critic but was also an outspoken advocate for the Palestinian people. On several occasions, I received tens of thousands of e-mails calling for the university to abandon Edward Said, to fire him. Some alumni would tell me that they would never give another dime to the university if we didn’t fire him. But I felt strongly that Said was representing a point of view—perhaps one that a vast majority of people found offensive. But it is the responsibility of good university leaders to defend the idea of free inquiry, to defend the idea of the freedom to be able to have discourse on difficult subjects and not to cut off debate.

I do believe there is a central role for academic leaders not only to take a very strong stand defending free inquiry and academic freedom but also to educate the American people as to why academic freedom isn’t simply a privilege, sort of a garment worn by professors, but is more important than that—it is, after all, the underpinning of so much about the structure and values of great universities, and without it, we could not build great universities.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid, courage is not a trait that is found in great abundance in our society, nor among academic leaders in the United States. During the post–September 11 period, when the USA Patriot Act [2001] and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act [2002] were passed, very few academic leaders were standing up as Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago did, for example, during the McCarthy period—giving a civics lesson about the value of university discourse to the American public and to state legislatures. Very few have been willing to do that. I think that is very unfortunate; there is an important role for academic leaders to defend these core values and these principles, and all too few do.

Warren: We’ve been talking about academic freedom, but let’s turn to something we’ve discussed before, a slightly more fungible term: the public good. Part of the AAUP’s mission is to protect academic freedom and develop faculty governance. These in turn further the public good. What is the role of the great research university in protecting the public good?

Cole: A good deal of my book is about the production of knowledge that can be used by our society. University research, not all, but a great deal of it, has practical applications and therefore is intended to serve the public good. For a long time, a goal of American education was to train individuals who could contribute to the public good. Of course, a college or university education was designed to prepare people for occupations that would improve their life chances. But it was also designed so that graduates could contribute to the public good. Too often in the last twenty-five or thirty years, I think we’ve thought of education as a means to an end— as a way for individuals to maximize personal status, wealth, and power. We have subordinated the need to reinforce in young people the value of their contributions to the larger needs of society— beyond themselves and their immediate families. I think colleges and universities need to emphasize far more the personal satisfaction that can come from contributions to the public good.

Warren: As you were finishing your book, we were seeing the beginning of the potential death of some great public universities in California. Could you spend some time talking about the “unmaking of the public university,” which is the title of Christopher Newfield’s book, and talk about the dangers you see?

Cole: What is happening to the University of California is a particularly good, if tragic, case because California has built arguably the greatest system of public higher learning that the world has ever known. The California plan of Clark Kerr tried to accentuate both access to higher education for young people in California with talent but limited economic means and the excellence associated with world-class research universities. The University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the University of California, San Diego, are three of the top universities in the world. The idea that the state would disinvest in these universities to the point where they will lose students who can no longer afford to go, lose great faculty because they no longer can compete with other great universities that are poised to pick off the best of those faculty members, would be tragic for the system of higher learning in the United States. These legislators do not understand that it is far more expensive and difficult to rebuild greatness than to maintain it. They also don’t realize that these universities are economic engines in California. To use Stanford University as an example, the companies begun by Stanford faculty and alums generated about $250 billion in worldwide sales in 2008—an economic impact roughly equal to the GDP of South Africa or Thailand. The University of California has had a similar, if not greater, economic impact on the welfare of the state. And this says nothing about the civic pride that Californians actually take in having a great university system. California is not alone. Arizona, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, are all committing the same crime—killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Warren: So what is to be done?

Cole: Choices will have to be made. Do we want more great universities and better K–12 education or more people incarcerated in costly prisons? Do we want to spend more on defense and foreign wars than on research that will cure diseases and the poverty that produces anger and violence? Do we want to create incentives for our universities to create discoveries that will advance our economic power and social welfare in a society increasingly dependent on knowledge?

Our great universities have become engines of innovation. With that also comes responsibility to keep our house in order. And we don’t always live up to our own ideals. While I am a great believer in the potential benefits in linking universities with industry, we must protect ourselves against conflicts of interest. The values of great universities and industry do differ—that we must recognize. And for want of new sources of revenue, we must not sell our souls to the devil. We must continue to value knowledge as an intrinsic good and reinforce the study of the humanities and the arts—and other subjects that don’t have obvious practical applications. And we must search for answers to fundamental truths in science and the humanities that do not have obvious economic payoffs.

But sooner or later, I believe we are going to have to recognize that you have to pay for things that are really great, and as long as it is impossible for us to even raise questions about increasing taxes of various kinds, or to undo propositions which have governed the state of California for thirty years, then we’re going to have to live with the consequences. The consequences are going to be the weakening of the states and the nation economically and socially, the slowing down of the rate at which knowledge grows, and the weakening of our great centers of higher learning.

Warren: It’s a little grim.

Cole: It’s a little grim for the moment, but I think we can survive.

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