• September 3, 2015

Can American Research Universities Remain the Best in the World?

The Clouded Future of American Research Universities 1

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle

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close The Clouded Future of American Research Universities 1

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle

Within the past century, and especially within the past 60 years, the United States has built the greatest system of higher learning in the world. What has made our universities so distinguished is not the quality of our undergraduate education. Other systems of higher learning, including our own liberal-arts colleges, compete well against research universities in transmitting knowledge to undergraduates. While such transmission of knowledge is a core mission of our universities, it is not what makes them the best. Our finest universities have achieved international pre-eminence because they produce a very high percentage of the most important fundamental and practical discoveries in the world. That is true across the board: in the sciences and engineering, the social and behavioral sciences, and the humanistic disciplines.

Ambition to excel, and fierce competitiveness, have led American research universities (about 120 institutions within the much larger system of higher education) to become the engines of our prosperity. The laser, magnetic-resonance imaging, FM radio, the algorithm for Google searches, global-positioning systems, DNA fingerprinting, fetal monitoring, bar codes, transistors, improved weather forecasting, mainframe computers, scientific cattle breeding, advanced methods of surveying public opinion, even Viagra had their origins in America's research universities. Those are only a few of the tens of thousands of advances, originating on those campuses, that have transformed the world.

Such discoveries have provided industry with the material needed for the growth of new, high-technology businesses—and universities have trained most of the highly skilled work force that populates our major industrial laboratories. Stanford University reports, for example, that faculty members, students, and alumni have founded more than 2,400 companies—and a subset, including Cisco Systems, Google, and Hewlett-Packard, generated $255-billion of total revenue among the "Silicon Valley 150" in 2008.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has reported that 4,000 MIT-related companies employ 1.1 million people and have annual world sales of $232-billion—a little less than the gross domestic product of South Africa and of Thailand, which would make MIT companies among the 40 largest economies in the world.

By design, great universities challenge social values, policies, and institutions. They are, in short, meant to be unsettling. They require autonomy and trust within the larger society. Built as a hybrid of the English undergraduate residential college and the German emphasis on graduate specialization and research, the American system came to emphasize, among other things, meritocracy, open communication of ideas, academic freedom and free inquiry, skepticism about claims to fact and truth, the creation of knowledge, standards of excellence based on peer review, and scholarship without borders. It was a more democratic and less hierarchical system than could be found in Europe. By the end of the 1930s, the core values that were necessary for greatness were in place. The takeoff toward pre-eminence began in January 1933, when Hitler dismantled the great German university system, purging it of its Jewish scholars, many of whom migrated to the United States and became leaders at American universities.

The American system flourished in a society that gave it unusual autonomy under a post-World War II science policy that provided taxpayer dollars to produce new knowledge at our universities rather than in government-controlled laboratories. With huge resources for research in hand, unusually prescient and creative leaders built steeples of excellence. The universities delivered on their part of the contract with society by producing the talented work force required in a postindustrial society, and the fruits of discoveries that have transformed the quality of our lives.

Despite this uniquely distinguished record of achievement, these institutions remain fragile. Forces both outside and inside our most distinguished universities are threatening their continued dominant position in the world of higher education. I believe that the chief threats to our standing come from within the United States rather than from foreign competition.

Consider just a few of the internal threats to the values of free inquiry and open communication of ideas that were exacerbated during the administration of President George W. Bush: Brilliant young students were denied entry into the United States because they were born in the "wrong" countries, such as Iran. Invited scholars were denied visas to lecture and conduct research. Engineers born in Iran, Cuba, and some other countries were unable to publish in American scholarly journals, because such publication would have been viewed as supporting an enemy. Any scholar who sharply criticized the Israeli government's policies toward the Palestinians was subjected to harassment and efforts by ideologically committed private organizations to penalize those critics.

The integrity of science at our universities was imperiled following September 11, 2001, with the passage of the USA Patriot Act, in 2001, and the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act, in 2002. Scientists working with "select agents," which included 80-some viruses, bacteria, or toxins that could be used as weapons, were required to register with the federal government and clear any movement of those materials with the FBI.

Plagued by potential criminal violations of those acts, scientists began to abandon their research to find vaccines, antidotes, and methods of dealing with the pathogens. Thomas C. Butler, one of the nation's leading immunologists, who was studying plague at Texas Tech University, lost his job and found himself in jail after a trial that found him innocent of all major violations of the Patriot Act, but guilty of minor charges of improperly transporting biohazardous materials (in the same way he had transported them for 25 years) as well as numerous other trumped-up charges, including tax evasion.

More than 35 Cornell scientists all but abandoned promising scientific work on select agents, leaving the nation with fewer people working on interventions to vaccinate against diseases such as anthrax, West Nile virus, and many other scourges. More recently, political appointees at NASA tried to censor the scientific papers and speeches of one of the world's most distinguished climate scientists, James E. Hansen, who worked at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and at Columbia University. Attacks on the peer-review process at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation by politicians who disapprove of the content of ideas, regardless of their scientific merit, undermined still further the central values of great universities.

Further evidence that we are our own worst enemy can be found in the responses by state legislators and governors to the financial crisis of 2008-9. The University of California, arguably the greatest public system of higher learning in the world, is at risk of being slowly dismantled through fiscal policies that are starving it. According to a ranking of world universities done in Shanghai, four of the top 20 research universities in the world are part of the public-education system in California, and their discoveries have transformed the state's economy. Yet if the financial famine continues, the exodus of high-quality minds will escalate. What most legislators in California and other states fail to appreciate is that it is far more costly to rebuild lost excellence than to maintain it.

Threats to our pre-eminence also can be found within the bellies of our great universities themselves. The commercialization of intellectual property undermines the core values of open communication and the normative prohibition on individual scientists' and scholars' profiting directly from their discoveries. Are our extraordinary universities selling their souls to the devil when scientists pursue the financially most lucrative research rather than the most fundamental problems? And how are scholars handling potential conflicts of interest produced by cozy financial relationships among physicians, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies? Meanwhile, a continued intolerance for ideas that challenge orthodoxy, or that run counter to the dominant intellectual fashions of the day, greatly inhibits the growth of knowledge and the instruction of students. There are too many subjects, like the relative influence of genetics versus environment in determining behavior patterns, that never enter the marketplace of ideas because of a fear of informal or formal retribution by colleagues or students.

While European nations, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and others have an abundance of human capital and a deep respect for intellect and discovery, few are, at the moment, in a position, for structural and ideological reasons, to challenge the dominance of American universities. Britain comes the closest to a fair representation of great universities among the very best, but other European and Asian nations lag far behind. There is not one German university in the top 50 today, and not one Chinese university in the top 200, by their own reckoning.

Still, within the next 25 years, we may find that a greater number of universities in other nations have achieved true distinction. European and Asian societies may leap ahead of us in training their youth, catch up with us in the production of scientific knowledge, and notably increase their investments in their universities, as some Asian countries have already begun to do. That should be viewed positively by the United States. Competition from abroad can lead American universities, as well as our international counterparts, to increase the rate of discovery, improving economic prosperity and the quality of life throughout the world. The potential for research discoveries in our universities seems limitless. We have the opportunity to change the world through the development of knowledge. There is a national need to retain our pre-eminent position in the world of learning, discovery, and application, but we do not have to be the sole occupants at the top of the food chain of knowledge.

We should fear that, as a society, we might allow anti-intellectual forces, which seem always to loom in the background, to come forward and successfully attack the structure and values of our institutions of higher learning. It is our decision, the decision of all Americans. Are we willing to make the choices, sometimes difficult choices, that are necessary to keep our great American universities the best in the world?

Jonathan R. Cole is a university professor at Columbia University. He was provost and dean of faculties there from 1989-2003. This essay is adapted from his book The Great American University: Its Rise to Pre-eminence, Its Indispensable National Role, and Why It Must Be Protected, published this month by PublicAffairs.


1. jeff1 - January 04, 2010 at 08:10 am

This is interesting. I would say that focusing on the impacts of a relatively few research institutions is too limiting. While others may not be focused on research it occurs nonetheless and as a whole has great impacts on society and local communities in particular. I would also suggest that there is too much elitism in the argument that the research universities are the only paragons of intellectualism and forward thinking. That said, I think we need to do all we can to assure we continue to be the best in the world . . . all of us . . . and education really needs to be a much bigger priority from cradle to grave not just during the elementary, secondary and college years.

2. novain - January 04, 2010 at 09:03 am

The author states "United States has built the greatest system of higher learning in the world." This statement symbolizes the naive ignorance of educational systems in other countries. Well, we do a good job of commending and trumpeting ourselves!

3. 11211250 - January 04, 2010 at 09:31 am

Thank you, Dr. Cole, you have hit on so many critically important issues for higher education. I would like to add some thoughts on one issue you raise. The way I see it, the problem with what universities are doing in regards to the commercialization of research no longer an exclusively internal matter; nor do I believe that research universities are selling their souls to the devil in engaging in this kind of work, especially among land grant institutions. It all comes down to a question of balance. Without basic research to build on, our society's development of new technologies that might help us deal with our most severe global challenges will dry up. By the same token, society cannot afford to spend billions in support of ivory-tower research that is simply curiosity based.

Yet, what you say about the threat commercialization presents to universities cannot be overlooked. However, the greatest of these threats doesn't arise out of universities themselves. Some states have saddled universities with huge expectations in terms of creating and developing new technologies through its research programs that are quite impossible to attain. Likewise, the enormous investment of stimulus funds into university research is being measured not by scientific achievements but on the number of jobs it creates. Payoffs in job creation from research simply do not happen that quickly and are mostly seen in the private sector, and measuring the success of the stimulus investment in research by how many technicians and graduate students being put to work is totally absurd. Indeed, if the new accountability and transparency standards for ARRA funding simply is measured by jobs created per dollars spent then universities (along with NIH and NSF) are going to look really bad.

U.S. universities are still seen as the paragon of education and research around the globe. But India, China, and many other nation's are investing a much larger portion of their GDPs on higher education and research. Yet they are being created more in the U.S. model rather than the old European model. We can look forward to rising competition from these schools - especially in the areas of science, technology, education, and mathematics (STEM). But this could be a boom rather than a bust. If governments can promote real international research cooperation and collaboration, we'd be so much better off than emphasizing secrecy and worrying so much about technology leakage.

4. thomas_wilson - January 04, 2010 at 10:14 am

Dr. Cole, every time I was about to say, "wait a minute," you addressed my antithetical points. Good essay, but US higher ed is not just about premier research institutions as jeff1 notes. We need an entire spectrum of educational initiatives and opportunities to ensure that not only elite students have a place to better themselves and contribute.

Perhaps novain is confusing our inadequate primary and secondary educational system with the best of our institutions of higher education. Contrast this discussion with http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKKKgua7wQk. This evidence of an amazing lack of curiosity and willingness to question--foundations of any solid education--is not about what one's political proclivities, but more about how one comes to claim them and understand them. We are not producing an enlightened and engaged citizenry.

I agree with 11211250 that balance among myriad issues is key to success, but disagree strongly with the notion that "curiosity based" research has no place in higher ed. In my experience, one of our biggest challenges is the lack of curiosity on the part of some. The notion that curiosity leads to wasteful investment suggests that all research ends are known a priori; one need only select the appropriate mechanism to arrive at these pre-determined outcomes. Nothing could be more antithetical to the process of advanced education, research, and scholarly pursuits.

Having said these things, I do think that higher ed does need to continue to examine administrative and operational efficiencies that will permit the shift of available funds into direct support of research and instruction.

And finally, higher ed can not afford to ignore the growing anti-intellectual sentiments of the people who fund our institutions.

5. jschantz - January 04, 2010 at 12:06 pm

As someone whose spent that last 25 years planning, designing, and building teaching and research institutions at many of top US universities, as can say that I have yet to see a wasted dollar. OK, so some research programs are more successful than others, but even "under performing" programs have their value because so much in science and discovery actually is random. I have seen more than one time in my career, researchers who have set out looking for one result, only to discover something else that in the end, tuns out to be more valuable intellectually or economically. It is a fact that the entire research enterprise is messy, inefficient, and highly unpredictable.

The real issue is where do we want to be as a nation? Look at where we are: Our global leadership is key areas of prosperity have slipped at a time when we face great challenges politically and economically. In a global economy where China dominates manufacturing, India dominates services and software, a handful of despots (Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, Iran) control petroleum, and rising countries like Brazil are gaining quickly in aviation and alternative energy, how does the United States remain wealthy and relevant? What will keep the Western democracies relevant in this century?

If we don't offer the world a constant stream of new ideas and discoveries, what do we have to offer, and why would the world want to adopt our ideals and principles as a path to their own prosperity if we can't offer them a model for success?

To my mind, our research infrastructure at leading universities, national labs and other federally funded research agencies like NASA, provide the raw material of that model and it is the essence of what we have to offer.

6. 11211250 - January 04, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Thomas Wilson makes excellent points, but I want to clarify that I too totally believe in curiosity-driven research. Again, it's all a matter of balance. All good research is curiosity-driven. But Congress also puts a lot of pressure on federal agencies to demonstrate how research promotes the instruction of students, how researchers ensure that their results are shared with the general public in a way they can understand (outreach), how bio-medical research is being translated into better health care, etc. If federal sponsors of research and members of Congress can't show tangible benefits arising from taxpayers' money then research (along with financial support of it) will be lost as a national priority.

Dr. Cole mentions the difficulty in managing conflicts of interest when industry-university work together. If we want to avoid losing our nation's wealth and relevance as jschantz says, it will be imperative that we find better ways for universities and industry to work better together. Right now it seems the parties are suspicious of one another. The Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable and the Business-Higher Education Forum are trying to work on this (e.g., through the University-Industry Demonstration Partnership) but if we can't find better ways for ideas to move into products our economy will eventually suffer.
Robert Killoren

7. strider - January 04, 2010 at 04:21 pm

Hmmm, so what is the importance of being the (self-trumpeted) greatest university system in the world (as judged by a mish-mash of criteria, some of which include number of publications in English) if the greatest university system in the world before 1939 was the one that birthed Nazi Germany?

Yep, it's a Godwin point, but it's also an own goal on Cole's part...

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