Defending the University

Government interference. Watchdog groups. Ingrained orthodoxies. Jonathan R. Cole says they’re putting one of America’s greatest resources at risk.

Interview by Michael B. Shavelson Published Spring 2010
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Illlustrations by James SteinbergIn a hefty new book, sociologist and provost emeritus Jonathan R. Cole describes how research universities in the United States became the best in the world — and how they are now under assault from multiple quarters. Cole ’64CC,’69GSAS, who is currently John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University, discusses The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected.

Columbia magazine: You have written a great deal about universities’ contributions to society: the role of universities in medical treatment, breakthroughs in physics and electronics, advances in our understanding of climate and earth sciences. At the same time, you say you are surprised by how little not only the public, but even students, know about those contributions and about how a university is run.

Jonathan R. Cole: It’s true. Students are here to take their courses, to learn, and then to go out into the world. No one tells them about the place they have entered, except that it’s wonderful. No one gives them a history of the institution. No one explains why we organize universities the way we do. I teach a graduate course on the university in American life and I ask my students, Why does society have universities? What are the missions of universities? Why do we organize them the way that we do? Why do we have a law school? Why do we have undergraduate education? Third-year law students look perplexed. Graduate students look perplexed. They have not really thought about it. The remarkable thing is that most of our own faculty and even some trustees haven’t a clue about how universities are organized, how they really work, and — to some significant degree outside their own disciplines — how they contribute to the welfare of American society or to our daily lives.

Columbia: Your book is mostly about graduate schools and research institutions, places that deal more with the discovery of new information than with the transmission of information from one generation to the next.

Cole: One of the extraordinary features of American universities is the close relationship between teaching and research at the graduate level. Many of the discoveries in laboratories at these universities are made by graduate students and by postdoctoral students working under the close supervision of faculty mentors.

Columbia: The European system is quite different.

Cole: Europe made a decision a long time ago to separate the research mission — which they have handed over to government-based laboratories, like the CNRS [Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique] in France, or to institutes like the Pasteur Institute — from the universities. Of course that’s the least of the problems of the French system, and the German system, and the Italian system. There are many deep structural problems with European universities today, including the tendency for them to be hierarchical, much less democratic than ours. When the great German physicists and scholars came to the United States as a result of Hitler, they were struck and delighted by the democracy in the laboratory and the classroom — the give-and-take. That does not exist traditionally in German or French universities. For that matter, it certainly doesn’t exist in Chinese universities. In China, the hierarchical arrangement of master and apprentice has been a tradition for thousands of years.

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