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 SteinbergColumbia: You don’t want the people who feed you to watch you eat.

Cole: Exactly. We are assuming — because it’s very hard to get real evidence on this — that without free inquiry, and without academic freedom, we couldn’t do our jobs well. The growth of knowledge would be impeded and our students would be less well trained. Our mission in the society is to generate better-trained students who are prepared for certain kinds of work, to be better citizens in the democracy, and to produce knowledge that will be useful for the society. To the extent we deliver on that, we expect the state to allow us to be basically autonomous.

Columbia: Are you telling society and the government, You just have to trust us?

Cole: There’s a tremendous element of trust, and if we lose that trust we will see more government interference. That will lead to the degrading of the quality of these universities.

I want the graduates of our universities to understand what these universities actually do for the society, and why, given the quality of what we’ve produced and how we have changed their lives, they should support us against the possible intrusion not only by government, but by external organizations that may not like what we’re doing.

Columbia: Much of the distress that one senses from your book has to do with the turn of events in academia following September 11, 2001. You write that we can find a host of examples of attacks on free inquiry during the following years that “may have been more harmful to the structure of the university than we found even during the McCarthy period.” Were you being hyperbolic?

Cole: The McCarthy period was devastating. Professors were fired, people who wouldn’t sign loyalty oaths were fired, individuals who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee were fired. It was all focused on speech, and on one’s affiliations and political sympathies. One of the things that differentiates the current period is that the attack has been less on speech — although there are examples of it — and more on research, which is less visible. But it still has aspects of the anti-intellectualism that was part of the McCarthy period, and which, as Richard Hofstadter taught us, rises up periodically in American society.

The resistance to stem-cell research is one example of this; the unwillingness to allow science to grow in that area for ideological reasons was quite unnecessary. Another example is the ironic halt to immunological research focused on finding cures and vaccines for major scourges and diseases. I quote Cornell’s Robert C. Richardson, who won the 1996 Nobel in physics. He describes how before 9/11 and the passage of the USA Patriot Act, the Health, Safety and Security Act, and the Bioterrorism Act, there were some 38 laboratories at Cornell working specifically on what are called select agents — those toxins, viruses, and bacteria that could cause lethal diseases and which bioterrorists might like to get their hands on. Well, the repressive nature of government interference with those laboratories’ work resulted in there now being only two laboratories at Cornell continuing to work on those problems. The nation’s loss is that we don’t have the progress toward vaccines, antidotes, and various ways of dealing with these diseases. So rather than use universities and their research potential effectively as a defense for the nation, the government, through its interference, has effectively eliminated lines of research that were very, very promising.

Columbia: Was it incompetence or do you see actual maliciousness?

Cole: I think there was a combination. There was a level of anti-intellectualism in the broader society. And fear tactics were part of the prior administration.

Columbia: Of course we’re more than a year into a new administration.

Cole: I have no doubt that President Obama understands the nature of research universities and values them greatly. Restrictive visa policies that treated foreign students as if they were enemy aliens have gotten somewhat better and more relaxed. On the other hand, there has been no effort, for example, to change legislation that protects people at universities against library surveillance. Nothing has been changed in the antiterrorism acts. My guess is, given the attempt to bomb the plane on Christmas, nothing will be done. There’s such fear in Washington of being soft on terrorism that I don’t think that legislation passed in the Bush era is going to be rescinded soon.

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