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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Columbia: In France, in particular, there has been a split for 200 years between the grandes écoles and the major research institutes on the one hand, and every other university on the other. The well-funded grandes écoles are the elite schools; the other institutions are underfunded, overcrowded, and mostly mediocre.

Do you see the potential of there one day being a two-tiered system like this in the United States? The richest institutions — Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and so on — and then everybody else?

Cole: The growing inequality of wealth among even the private universities concerns me a great deal. Think about their endowments: Even with the losses of the last year or two, as the markets reequilibrate themselves and the endowments grow again, you’re going to have a doubling factor every 7 to 10 years. We could be in a situation that is much more akin to what England has, with Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College of London for certain specialties, and the London School of Economics, and then the rest.

It would be extraordinarily unfortunate if the competition among great American universities for the best and most talented people were to dissipate and we were to find ourselves in a situation where the University of Chicagos, the Columbias, and the Penns of the world have become farm systems for the wealthy elite graduate programs. That would have enormous negative repercussions on the growth of knowledge.

Columbia: One of the key sections of your book is the discussion of academic freedom. Could you explain the distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech?

Illlustrations by James SteinbergCole: Academic freedom provides faculty with freedom that really goes beyond the normal rights that we have as citizens under the First Amendment. The essential difference is that academic freedom defines the relationship between faculty members and the administration — the trustees, the administrative leaders — and that it defines the rights and obligations of the faculty members. Historically, it began with giving faculty the right to determine the curriculum and the right to evaluate the quality of teachers and students. It is the ability of faculty members to govern themselves in certain areas without interference, whether from the university’s central administration or from the government.

That does not mean there are not speech components. Academic freedom allows faculty members, after all, to determine what will be studied in the classroom, to organize the classroom as they see fit, to engage in conversations about ideas or experiments that might be radical, with the expectation that there will be a set of rigorous, conservative methods used to test the truth and value of those ideas.

I use the case of Stanley Prusiner in the book. For more than 100 years we had believed that there are only two sources of disease: bacteria and viruses. In 1982, at the University of California, San Francisco, Prusiner proposed that there was a third cause of disease, called prions. Well, he was appropriately and strongly resisted — he couldn’t get grants from NIH. His radical idea is held up to rigorous standards of evidence, and in the end he proves that he was right and wins the Nobel Prize in 1997. There are still people who resist the idea of prions, but overwhelmingly people accept it. This has happened many times in the history of science. The same thing should go on in other fields.

Columbia: You argue that the essence of the university is to question orthodoxies and state policies. Yet universities receive money from the state.

Cole: It’s a paradox. We expect the people who support us not to interfere with our criticisms.

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