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Author discusses rise of American research universities

Author and Columbia Prof. Jonathan R. Cole promoted his new book, “The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensible National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected,” at the Arrillaga Alumni Center. (DANIEL SHAFFER/The Stanford Daily)

Author and Columbia Prof. Jonathan R. Cole promoted his new book, “The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensible National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected,” at the Arrillaga Alumni Center. (DANIEL SHAFFER/The Stanford Daily)

“I wanted to tell the story, in writing this book, of how our university system became the greatest in the world at producing new knowledge.”

Jonathan R. Cole described the motivating goal of his new book “The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected” last night to a large audience at the Arrillaga Alumni Center.

Cole, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, came to Stanford as part of a nationwide tour promoting his book, which was published earlier this month. Provost John Etchemendy and Vice Provost and Dean of Research Ann Arvin were in attendance for a panel discussion following the presentation.

“This is an exciting time to be involved in higher education,” said Richard Saller, dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, introducing Cole.

“In 1997, there were 10 million students in higher education throughout the world; today, there are 100 million,” Saller said. “This is a watershed moment in the creation of an educated global workforce.”

The rise of American research universities, Cole argues, was brought on by an evolution in the social structure of America and the radical social upheaval of World War II.

Cole said that in the beginning of the 20th century, the rise of the idea that people’s academic and professional success should depend on their talent alone suddenly made upward social mobility possible for the poor of America.

Then, following Hitler’s systematic destruction of the German university system and occupation of greater Europe, the U.S. saw a massive influx of world-class researchers and scholars to aid and lead its rising talent. The urgency and necessity of war — bringing about such focused and concerted research efforts as the Manhattan project — cemented America’s preeminence in the creation of knowledge.

“The American system was also deeply committed to extraordinarily great values,” Cole said, which ensured the promotion of free inquiry and autonomy from the state.

Due in large part to these developments, 80 percent of the top 20 universities in the world are American. But, Cole argued, “in the last decade, American research institutions have come under attack.”

This attack, however, does not come from the increasing quality of education emerging in countries like China or India. Cole emphasized that other countries still have a long way to go before overtaking American institutions. And, he said, increased competition will only improve the quality of American research. In fact, Cole said, “the enemy is us.”

The real threat, Cole said, is posed by the increasing influence of political interests on academia. Cole highlighted the adoption of anti-terrorism legislation, such as the Patriot Act, which restricted certain avenues of research and made it a criminal offense for students from blacklisted countries to even set foot in, for example, laboratories directly related to specific kinds of nuclear physics. The well-publicized attempt by the Bush administration to restrict stem-cell research on ideological grounds is another example of this conflict.

“The extraordinarily great values,” for Cole, are increasingly at risk. And, Cole said, with the erosion of free inquiry, “legislators must realize that to rebuild excellence is far more costly than to maintain it.”

Etchemendy, in the follow-up discussion, countered by saying that Cole overemphasized the effect of political restrictions on research in American universities, arguing that most of the negative affects are in fact borne by the wider public.

But, he concluded, “Jon has written a wonderful book that should be required reading for all the political leadership of our country and [for] anyone involved in academia.”