Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr, Review of Jonathan R. Cole's "The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National, Why It Must Be Protected" (PublicAffairs, 2010)

Feb 14, 2010 3:18 pm

Luther Spoehr, Review of Jonathan R. Cole's "The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National, Why It Must Be Protected" (PublicAffairs, 2010)

In 1963 Clark Kerr, President of the University of California, delivered three lectures on “The Uses of the University.” Still in print, his incisive, comprehensive presentation traced the evolution of American higher education, from college to university to what he termed the “multiversity.” All in less than 100 pages.

Jonathan Cole, longtime provost at Columbia University, takes over 500 discursive pages to celebrate “The Great American University,” by which he means the great American RESEARCH university. And by “research” he means mainly science and technology. Cole’s narrow focus and lack of pithiness are unfortunate, because his book raises important questions for anyone interested in how well university-based research will continue to propel American economic progress.

Elite American research universities, Cole notes, “produce a very high proportion of the most important fundamental knowledge and practical research discoveries in the world.” So he focuses “primarily on the very top tier of educational institutions in our country,” 100 at most, that produced “the laser, magnetic resonance imaging, FM radio, the algorithm for Google searches, Global Positioning Systems, DNA fingerprinting, fetal monitoring, scientific cattle breeding, advanced methods of surveying public opinion, and even Viagra.”

The book’s first third tells the story of how research, imported as an ideal from Germany in the late 19th century, came into its own in this country. A central figure in Cole’s narrative is Vannevar Bush, the influential World War II-era science advisor and author of Science, The Endless Frontier, who successfully advocated locating “big science” in universities rather than government laboratories. Shrewd administrators, such as Fred Terman at Stanford, led their institutions to prominence as what Kerr called “federal grant” (rather than “land grant”) institutions.

The book’s second part, “Discoveries that Alter Our Lives,” is a digression that seems to belong in the “Oxford Book of Anecdotes” series. Stories, some only a paragraph or two long, about “Buckyballs, Bar Codes, and GPS,” and other products of (mainly scientific) research, occupy 150 pages.

In the final section, “Facing Challenges and Looking Forward,” Cole’s penchant for cataloguing actually pays off, as he cites “a host of examples of attacks [on universities] during the Bush years that may have been more harmful…than we found even in the McCarthy period.” Whether mindlessly enforcing the Patriot Act, excessively limiting stem cell research, or distorting results of investigation into climate change, George W. Bush’s administration stalled and warped academic research. The Great Recession is keeping progress in low gear.

Cole’s eagerness to defend unfettered academic research means he minimizes its costs and tensions. For instance, he minimizes threats to academic freedom posed by commercialization of research, and he virtually ignores institutional tensions between research and teaching. His book won’t have the staying power of Kerr’s. But for highlighting academic research’s current precarious state, it merits our attention.
[Luther Spoehr, a Senior Lecturer at Brown University, teaches courses on the history of American higher education.]

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