Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

February 11, 2010


Host: Ted Simons

The Great American University


  • Jonathan Cole, author of “The Great American University”, discusses how great American universities have transformed the Nation, why they’re under attack and what must be done to protect them.
Guests:
  • Jonathan Cole - Author, “The Great American University”
Category: Education

View Transcript
Ted Simons: How have great American universities transformed our country? And why are these universities now under attack? Here to talk about that and more is Jonathan Cole, author of the book, "The Great American University." Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Jonathan Cole: Good to be here.

Ted Simons: A great university is a creative machine, or so you say. Explain.

Jonathan Cole: Well, I think what makes the university truly great and what allows American universities to be preeminent, is that they not only are extraordinary transmitters of knowledge that is great teachers, teachers of graduate students, undergraduates, professional school students . But they have become the engines of innovation in our society. The discovers that are -- the discoveries that are coming out, the development of new medical devices to help improve healthcare, these discoveries whether they are the F.M. radio, magnetic resonance imaging, global positioning systems, the laser, all of these things came from universities and transforming our societies in ways most people don't really understand.

Ted Simons: How did American universities get so good so fast?

Jonathan Cole: That's an excellent question. The way in which they did it was to adapt from two different models, one was the German model which had existed and succeeded into the early part of the 20th Century. Which was based upon research, it was focused on research and discovery. It was hierarchical. We didn’t adopt the hierarchy we were much more democratic in the structure. And we also adapted from the British model, which was the collegian model. The ideas behind Oxford and Cambridge and the idea of undergraduates. We brought these together and we created a system which was also unique and these gave us the potential to being great. We needed other conditions also. After the Second World War, we developed a way of the government supporting higher education in an unprecedented way. They used taxpayer dollars to support research but outsourced them. They weren't going to build government laboratories they weren’t going to build government-controlled institutions. They built institutions that were highly competitive in which they were trying to develop their own research knowledge and being facilitated in part by those resources. And also able to track the most extraordinary talent from all over the world to the United States and that helped as well.

Ted Simons: I thought that part of the book was fascinating. When you talked about what happened in Nazi Germany and what happened in Vienna and parts of Europe and so many people with innovative minds brilliant minds saw a threat and came to America and really changed academia in America forever.

Jonathan Cole: A very important moment was January 1933. Hitler came to power. The German universities were the best in the world. FDR was inaugurated and James Conan became president of Harvard, that was less important. But I can tell you that within three months, Hitler had taken the greatest system of higher learning in the world, that had dominated Nobel Prizes in the first third of the century and decimated and dismantled that system. Those intellectual migrants were not only great physicists but they were artists writers, poets and social scientists and they sought to the safe haven of the United States and we gave them places at our universities and they became leaders of young very very talented people who are upwardly mobile. I talk about the interesting convergence of social mobility, vertical social mobility in the United States, and the horizontal mobility of all those intellectual migrants coming across the great pond coming to the American university and making it their home.

Ted Simons: And the accessibility for Americans to go to college increased greatly with the G.I. bill. Talk about that and let's move into the UC system university of California system and Clark Kerr who you write about the mix of elitism and populism that changed the nature of universities.

Jonathan Cole: The G.I. bill was one the most important things that the congress passed after the Second World War. It opened up enormous opportunities for education improving human capital among people who’s opportunities had been limited before. There was a huge number of students coming into the system. What Clark Kerr did in the California plan of 1960 was to have dual goals of having a university that provided access to anybody with talent regardless of whether they had the means to go to college, and also to create engines of innovation in terms of the research that was being produced at places like Berkeley and UCLA and the like. He believed these were not inconsistent. The idea of opening up the university, teaching them and getting them to be better citizens and better skilled and able to do better jobs in terms of high-skilled industry and at the same time, creating the discoveries that are going to transform our lives was possible and he did an amazing job actually in California.

Ted Simons: Critics then and I guess critics even now, and critics of Arizona state university say the research is wonderful, that's fine, but think there's a disconnect between research and teaching. Is that a valid complaint?

Jonathan Cole: No I don’t really think it is. I think that in Arizona President Michael Crow has done an extraordinary job of not only opening up access and investing resources into the transmission of knowledge to very talented undergraduates who would not otherwise have opportunities. Also training extraordinary graduate students, who are going to become the future discoverers of the world, and also stimulating an amazing amount of discovery. What I think President Crow has done is take the model that existed in California under KERR and taken it a step further in a very innovative way. He believes and I think he's correct in saying that society's problems are large, they take many disciplines great expertise across the entire university to solve these problems. We should be interested in the common good and try to solve those problems and let's bring together the talent that we have throughout the entire universities so with the end of silos and the beginning of opening up the idea that everyone can contribute to the advancement of the knowledge at these places.

Ted Simons: Talk about the balancing act that this university will have-- the great American university, the future university, the research university has between government, private enterprise, the academic world itself. There's a little bit of a juggling act going on there. Can it succeed?

Jonathan Cole: It has succeeded and I think it can continue to succeed. But the government cannot disinvest in higher education. It would be extraordinarily unwise and unproductive for the states or the federal government for them to do so. If they cannot create a highly skilled labor force they're not going to have the basis for economic development and sustainability in their states. The dismantling which is taking place in California today is a great tragedy. The idea that we're going to take resources away from places like Berkeley and UCLA and give them to the prison systems and consequently dismantle those institutions is very, very shortsighted. Those legislators simply do not understand that it's infinitely more difficult to rebuild great universities than to maintain them as great universities.

Ted Simons: In reading the section about Clark KERR, some of the critics of the original plan were saying government money; state money may not always be there. We're putting too much into that pie. It sounds as though, what? -- 40, 50 years later, that has a little bit of presence to it. Does it make sense to take so much government money and then worry about it or not be prepared when that government money is gone?

Jonathan Cole: I think we have to think of the investments in higher education and education as investments in the state's future. Anything short of that is shortsighted, in my view. When the state of California spends more money on prisons than higher education, it's a very shortsighted policy. In Arizona, I think it would be a tragedy, frankly, if they were to disinvest in higher education and stop the momentum that is being produced at these great universities. This is enormously important for Phoenix, for the whole state's economy, for the welfare of the nation, quite frankly, so it would be quite unfortunate for them to do that, I think.

Ted Simons: When you look at Arizona State University or a great university across the country, biggest threat? Biggest challenge?

Jonathan Cole: I think the enemy is us. It's not the universities in China. It's not the universities in India it’s not the universities in Europe. They are a good, but not as great and we can stay ahead of them and competition from them shouldn't be a bad thing. It can help us all, frankly. The worst thing we can do is undermine ourselves by over control of these universities by the government and disinvesting in them economically. Those two things, which could seriously damage free inquiry at the universities, academic freedom in the universities and cut the university off from its talent base. For example, extraordinary student who might want to come from anywhere, who come to these places. We've been open to the world. Higher education is perhaps the only industry with a favorable balance of trade and we have the smartest people in the world who want to come to the United States and to cut them off by unwise visa policies makes no sense at all to our future.

Ted Simons: Last question, are you optimistic?

Jonathan Cole:I'm very optimistic.

Ted Simons: Fascinating book. Thank you so much for joining us.

Jonathan Cole: Nice to meet you.

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