The Biography of the Great American University

By Warren, Cat | Academe, May/June 2010 | Go to article overview

The Biography of the Great American University


Warren, Cat, Academe


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

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.

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. …

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