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The Jewels in the Crown

THE GREAT AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensible National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected. Jonathan R. Cole. xii + 616 pp. PublicAffairs, 2009. $35.

For Jonathan R. Cole, “our great American research universities . . . are national treasures, the jewels in our nation’s crown.” He wrote The Great American University to convey their story, describe the values that have shaped their culture and show how they have transformed our lives. Cole is a well-respected sociologist of science who served as chief academic officer of Columbia University for 14 years, from 1989 to 2003. He thus combines scholarly expertise on the inner workings of science with abundant real-world experience running an enormous, eminent research university. Clearly he knows of what he speaks, and the massive size of this volume indicates that he has much to tell. It addresses three subjects.

Part 1 is a discursive, semihistorical account of the nature and development of American universities. Much of the descriptive material will be familiar to those who know these institutions well, but this book is intended to convey such information to a broad reading public. Moreover, Cole wishes to drive home some fundamental truths. He argues that the unique model of the American university was in place by 1930—our own combination of the English residential undergraduate college and the research-oriented German university. More significant, the interwar years saw the institutionalization of core values that have guided American universities ever since. These values consist of the well-known norms of science (universalism, organized skepticism, disinterestedness and open communication) as well as academic freedom, internationalism and peer review. Cole also posits as core values the expectations that universities will work toward the common good and form vital communities of knowledge seekers. In the post–World War II era, these values undergirded the commitment to excellence among existing and developing leaders.

Here Cole offers a list of 13 “things that make for a great research university.” Faculty research productivity heads the list, followed by several associated factors—the quality and impact of research, funding from grants and contracts, and awards of the sort that indicate recognition of the faculty for their scholarly contributions. Access to top students is also necessary, and with it comes the obligation to teach them well. Resources (physical facilities, advanced information technologies, large endowments) are indispensible, and large academic departments have a better chance of being highly regarded. Academic freedom and contributions to the public good mirror the core values mentioned above. Cole also favors urban locations over bucolic land-grant oases. Finally, excellent leadership is essential if a university is to thrive and advance in the highly competitive American system. Is this easy? Cole’s discussions of research trends, links with industry, competition for star professors and the difficulties of finding academic leaders make it clear that this is hardly the case.

Part 2 documents some of the myriad discoveries made by university researchers that have transformed everyday lives and the way we think about the world. Although some of the examples Cole gives are well known (Gatorade, Google), he has systematically collected data and information to identify the most consequential of these discoveries. (The fruits of this effort are available online at These chapters should probably be read in several sittings, considering the dizzying succession of topics covered, from fundamental knowledge of nature to foods we eat, devices we use, and advances in health care. The collective impression nevertheless drives home Cole’s basic point: The work of research universities has added immeasurably to our quality of life.

Cole repeatedly states that universities are fragile institutions. Part 3 addresses the challenges that threaten their core values and attributes. There are chapters examining the periodic transgressions against academic freedom, government surveillance in the name of national security, and the recent politicization of science under the Bush Administration. Today, Cole finds American universities to be structurally stronger than growing competitors in Europe or China. But he finds the resource flow that sustains our universities to be problematic (one might add, as always). Specifically, the increasing inequality between the research universities that are super-rich and those that are not is deeply troubling, as are the implications of that inequality for the distribution of talent. The financial battering that state universities have endured, with no sign of surcease, is particularly threatening to the overall health of the system. Cole recommends that universities develop greater administrative flexibility, learn to collaborate with each other and work more closely with industry. He also acknowledges the difficulties involved.

Cole offers an abundance of intelligent advice, but much of it consists of admonitions that no one is likely to follow: States should spend more on their universities; the humanities deserve better support; lower-tier universities should award fewer doctorates; universities should eschew conformity and protect iconoclastic opinion. Agreed. But by writing on a high level of generality, and from the perspective of the top research universities, he provides little insight into why these things are so hard to do in the real world.

Still, this volume is a cogent affirmation of the model of the American research university and its undeniable contributions. Given that so much writing about these institutions takes the opposite slant, The Great American University can be a valuable corrective.

Roger L. Geiger is Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at the Pennsylvania State University and editor of Perspectives on the History of Higher Education. He is the author of Knowledge and Money: Research Universities and the Paradox of the Marketplace (Stanford University Press, 2004) and is coauthor (with Creso Sá) of Tapping the Riches of Science: Universities and the Promise of Economic Growth (Harvard University Press, 2008). He is also a coeditor (with Carol Colbeck, Roger Williams and Christian Anderson) of Future of the American Public Research University (Sense Publishers, 2007).

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