Toward A More Perfect University* – An Interview With Jonathan Cole

February 27, 2020
book cover for Toward A More Perfect University
  1. Might you give us a synopsis of the argument of this, your latest book on the American university as an institution?

I begin with a paradox. As of 2015, the United States has by far the greatest system of higher education in the world. By most reckonings, we have roughly 80 percent of the top twenty universities, 70 percent of the top 50, and 60 percent of the top 100. We win the majority of Nobel science and economics prizes and other internationally prestigious awards for scholarly and scientific achievements. Scholarship produced by our universities dominates most fields and has the greatest impact on discoveries in those disciplines. In fact, American universities have become the envy of the world. Because many of the brightest and most creative people in other nations want to attend them or work at them, they represent collectively perhaps the only American industry today with a favorable balance of trade.

Most of the educated American public think of our universities in terms of teaching and the transmission of knowledge, rather than the creation of new knowledge, and most critiques of higher education focus on undergraduate education. This point of view is understandable. Excellent teaching of undergraduates and graduate students is critically important and an integral part of the mission of great universities, but the fulfillment of this teaching mission is not what has made our research universities the best in the world. Rather, our ability to fulfill one of the other central missions of great universities— the production of new knowledge through discoveries that actually change the world— has produced virtual consensus about our preeminence.

In fact, most educated Americans don’t realize that lasers, FM radio, magnetic resonance imaging, global positioning systems, barcodes, the algorithm for Google, the fetal monitor, the nicotine patch, antibiotics, and the Richter scale were all born at our universities. Nor do they know that the development of Bucky balls and nanotechnology, the discovery of the insulin gene, the birth of computers, the origin of bioengineering through the discovery of DNA, the improvement of transistors, and innovations in treating diseases through work on the mind and the brain also took place at these institutions. Few are aware that improved weather forecasting, cures for childhood leukemia, the Pap smear, and scientific agriculture were also spawned there. In addition, not many know that social and behavioral science discoveries such as the method for surveying public opinion or for projecting election results, or the concepts of congestion pricing, human capital, behavioral economics, and the self-fulfilling prophecy came from work at these institutions. Even the electric toothbrush, Gatorade, the Heimlich maneuver and, yes, Viagra, had their start there. And these are just a few illustrations of the thousands of life- altering discoveries and ideas that have emerged from these great universities.

So, if we are so good, why is there today so much criticism of our system of higher learning and such concern about its supposed failures? Consider just a few of the challenges we face: The funding sources for building our universities, especially in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering, have been drying up. We face enormous “pipeline” problems with our K–12 education programs. High-anxiety testing is the metric used to compare our primary and secondary educational system against those of other nations. The humanities are under attack yet again for their supposed lack of marketability and extrinsic value. We don’t seem to be increasing social mobility through our educational system; levels of upward social mobility in Europe now exceed what we find in the United States. The public and politicians view the cost of a university education as excessive and increasingly unaffordable for the middle class. The economic and intellectual value of a college or graduate degree is questioned, yet rarely fully discussed. The unacceptable level of student debt continues to make headlines.

Within colleges and universities, there is a belief that the traditional structures on which our best universities have been built are rapidly becoming ossified. People are calling for an end to academic tenure. Academic freedom and free inquiry continue to be under attack. Anti-intellectualism simmers at the surface of public attitudes. The public questions the universities’ commitment to diversity, to transparency and accountability. There is a belief that professors do not like to teach; that more of the actual teaching of undergraduates is done by an “underclass” of adjunct professors and lecturers. And students, we are told, don’t study very much and place more value on the outcome— a job— than on the process of education.

Simultaneously, states are decreasing support for their flagship universities—including world-class institutions like the University of Wisconsin. State legislators and governors across the country continue to starve their universities while asking them to teach more students and do a better job of preparing them for meaningful careers. At the same time, states are directing universities to hold down tuition increases.

Beneath all of these particulars is a fundamental erosion of trust between the government—at all levels— and our finest universities. There is a growing belief that our system of higher learning may be incapable in the future of fulfilling its compact with the nation: to provide avenues of upward social mobility, a better stock of human capital, a labor force capable of handling an increasing number of technologically sophisticated jobs, a better-informed citizenry; and to remain a key engine of innovation and discovery in our society. Little effort has been made to distinguish fact from fiction in these matters, but there is no shortage of assertions of facts in books and articles critical of the current state of affairs. What ought to be done?

My latest book focuses on the top American research universities— perhaps 120— rather than on all of the 4,500 or so colleges and universities in the United States. Despite representing only a small proportion of the total, these distinguished educational institutions have a disproportionate impact on the nation and the world. Changes that they make often set the stage for transformations at other colleges and universities. They also produce the majority of advanced-degree recipients and an overwhelming proportion of the most significant scientific, engineering, and social and behavioral science discoveries and innovations.

Toward A More Perfect University does not try to prognosticate what a great university will look like 25 years from now; that would be a fool’s errand, given how poor social scientists are at prediction.  This is a normative book about what ought to change if America’s great universities are going to remain preeminent and move closer to their full potential.  I reexamine universities such as Columbia, Harvard, the University of Michigan, and UC Berkeley from bottom to top, and suggest fundamental changes that I believe would make them better universities.  The hope is to start a national conversation, as took place 100 years ago in our country, about what a great university ought to look like. I address each of the issues mentioned above and suggest changes in every aspect of the university.

  1. What is the most intractable challenge facing the American university system at present?

There are two major challenges that are worth mentioning here.  First, external to the great universities, the federal and state governments simply do not adequately comprehend the value of these institutions to their states, to the nation, and to the world, as engines of innovation and economic growth for almost a century.  So, if they are starved or pillaged, as is happening at the great public universities today, our preeminence is threatened.  And we are talking about real damage.  Since 2008, states have reduced by roughly 30% their annual support of institutions of higher learning– leading to significant tuition increases that the same legislators don’t want to see.  During the same years, the states’ allocation for incarceration and prisons rose by 130%.  These data suggest what legislators, governors, and the public really value.  That has to change, and universities have to do a much better job advertising themselves to the public to educate them about what would be lost if these great institutions decline. It is far more costly to rebuild greatness than to maintain it.  At the federal level, we must have significant funding for science, behavioral sciences, the humanities, and the arts.  These investments are as important as any in national defense.  And the federal government must streamline and eliminate hundreds of useless regulations of research and other aspects of university life.  Today, one study estimated that about 40% of the time of a scientist with an NIH research grant is spent on filling out paper related to compliance with regulations.  Federal regulations of universities have gotten out of control, and they ought to be reformed.  Finally, attacks on academic freedom and free inquiry by government sources must stop.  You cannot have a great university without a strict adherence to these enabling values.

Second, universities are incredibly conservative institutions; the faculty and most administrators abhor change.  They do this out of self-interest and fear – fear that if an ossified institute or center, or even a department, is closed – there but for the grace of God go I.  Consequently, it is very hard to move these huge tankers and steer them in new directions.  When knowledge is growing at an exponential rate and  requires many disciplines working together to solve some of our most vexing societal and global problems, the university’s structure too often represents fetters on that growth.  We must be willing to entertain significant structural change that will release the pent-up intellectual energy of our great universities – and we must recognize that such energy is found often in our humanities and social and behavioral science faculties.

  1. What are the strengths of Columbia University as it strives to become “a more perfect university”?

        Columbia remains one of the world’s great institutions of higher learning.  It has many extraordinarily creative minds within its faculty.  It has contributed not only to the education of brilliant young people and graduate and professional school students who have gone on to remarkable careers, but it has also been one of the world’s leaders in path-breaking discoveries and innovations that have altered our lives.  But, like other great universities, Columbia needs to take a hard look at itself – everything from the way it does College admissions to the way it organizes research and how it can be differentiated from almost all other universities by virtue of being part of the archipelago that is New York City. Indeed, Columbia is a hub for expanding the idea of the university into a global context; it can take the lead, as I suggest in the book, by helping to create new academic leagues and knowledge communities rather than new sports leagues.  It can be bold, but it is not.  It can embrace change, but it does not for the most part.  Of course, it is not different in this respect from virtually all of the other Ivy League institutions.  It desperately needs structural reforms that would enhance its quality and influence; its governance structure needs to be rethought; and it must appreciate more what the faculty do and what the students could become.  In a sense the quirkiness that Columbia was known for has been rung out of it. As great as Columbia is, its path is at best an evolutionary one.  There is no instinct to dramatically rethink features of the university and the relationships among them.  We talk about being a global university, but we don’t really specify what that means; and within our own borders, we do not place value on significant changes that could improve the quality of the institution and attract still better faculty and students from all over the world.  Within the framework of being great, we should not rest on our laurels – and even distort what we are – and instead enter into the conversation about what a great urban, international university ought to become.

* Part of what appears here has been adapted from Jonathan R. Cole, TOWARD A MORE PERFECT UNIVERSITY (Public Affairs, 2016)