The speaker called American higher education the nation's "crown jewel" and cited discoveries at research universities that have changed lives—from FM radio to the Heimlich maneuver.
But then Jonathan R. Cole, provost of Columbia University, asked a question that was surely on the minds of many presidents here at the American Council on Education's annual meeting. "If we are so good," he said, "why do we feel so bad?"
Mr. Cole's talk was based on his recent book, The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected (PublicAffairs, 2010). He also moderated a panel discussion on those issues among three research-university leaders.
While American universities face increasing global competition, said Mr. Cole, they still vastly outrank their foreign counterparts. "There is not a single German university that's in the top 50" worldwide, said Mr. Cole. "Not one Chinese university is in the top 200, and not one Indian university is in the top 300." He added: "Higher education is the only major industry in the U.S. where we have a favorable balance of trade." The values that make American higher education a hallmark, he said, include its emphasis on questioning ideas and on judging people on the basis of their work.
Yet threats to higher education—budget cuts chief among them—loom large.
"There is a paradox because we have the greatest university system in the world, the envy of the world," said Mr. Cole. "And yet we have a system that is deeply challenged, troubled."
Leaders on the panel here—William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland; Graham B. Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University; and Thomas F. Rosenbaum, provost of the University of Chicago—agreed. Mr. Spanier, whose university faces possibly substantial cuts under a plan by the state's new governor, called the budget reductions "a virus that's going around." He added: "It would be folly to pretend we will be as strong as we've been."
Mr. Kirwan said it was not universities' pre-eminent role in research that was at risk as much as its role in educating Americans. "We are on a trajectory of having the largest population of adults without a college degree of any industrialized nation," he said. The problem, he said, was that states now consider higher education "a discretionary item in the budget."
Mr. Spanier predicted the increasing privatization of public universities as support from states dwindles. If cuts proposed by the Pennsylvania governor, Tom Corbett, go through, less than 4 percent of Penn State's total operating budget would come from legislative appropriations, said Mr. Spanier. "It would be a shame," he said, "if we allowed our pre-eminence to erode."