Can American Research Universities Remain the Best in the World?

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle

January 03, 2010

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.