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Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected

By Jonathan R. Cole

Pub Date: Jan. 12th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-58648-408-8
Publisher: PublicAffairs

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.