Columbia University

Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Toward a More Perfect University

An Interview with University Professor and sociologist Jonathan R. Cole

Jonathan R. Cole is currently the John Mitchell Mason Professor at Columbia University. He is widely known throughout the United States for his fourteen years (1989-2003) as Columbia’s Provost, holding the position for the second-longest tenure in the University’s 250-year history. He has also served as dean of faculties and vice president for Arts and Sciences. His new book, Toward a More Perfect University, challenges us to imagine the future of the top research universities in America. The following is a Q&A with the author about his latest book and the evolution of universities:

In imagining a “more perfect university,” you suggest that this is a “normative rather than a predictive effort” and that there are substantial changes that must be made to the system of higher learning in order for top research universities to reach their full potential. Of those changes, could you describe which are the most crucial at this time?

Jonathan R. Cole: Each chapter of Toward A More Perfect University takes up an important aspect of university life and suggests changes that ought to be instituted if we are to create still greater universities. That includes reforming and rethinking how we do admissions; the development of academic leagues and communities of knowledge that accentuate cooperative relationships among strong programs and departments at various universities around the world; reassessing the cost and affordability of college and the problem of student debt – in terms of facts and fictions in the media and among politicians; rethinking what we want from undergraduate education and how we ought to increase the diversity of colleges and universities; changes in the administrative structure and organization of the university; rethinking the nature of a university campus and its expansion in light of the way knowledge is growing; reconstructing a real partnership between the federal government and our universities by changing the role that the federal government plays and universities support and finance student access to a college degree and in the way the government supports research. It suggests, for example, the creation of a new Morrill Act, which in its original form was an act of Congress during the Civil War (that was signed by President Lincoln in 1862) that created the land grant colleges and research stations focusing on agriculture (that led to a revolution in the way we produced agricultural products); a turn in the way we view the humanities (and a rethinking of how they contribute in essential ways not only to our universities but to our national welfare); and the way we ought to examine the benefits and costs of professional school education. Those are only a few of the subjects addressed in the book and where I suggest changes that ought to take place that will enhance the quality of the system of America’s great research universities.

One of the challenges of today’s system of higher learning is that it receives a significant amount of criticism although “the outside world is increasingly uncertain of the role that these top schools serve in our nation.” What do you think can be done to increase the visibility of the important work that academics and American research universities are currently doing?

JRC: The American research university remains the great engine of innovation and discovery in the United States – and in the world. It has been the birthplace of discoveries such as the FM radio, the laser, the GPS system, advances in radar and in the development of the computer, scientific agriculture, cures for diseases, such as childhood leukemia, and the discovery of antibiotics, among thousands of other discoveries. It also has been the place where concepts such as the self-fulfilling prophecy, congestion pricing, decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, human capital, and political polling and social surveys have been born. Most educated Americans have no idea where these discoveries came from – the modal response to a recent survey was: 61 percent said they didn’t know; 11 percent said the National Institutes of Health; 5 percent said Harvard; and the rest was distributed among many potential sources. Unfortunately, as institutions we have done a miserable job in advertising ourselves to the educated public and what we do to improve the lives of our nation’s citizens and those around the world. We must make a stronger and more focused and unabashed effort, as have hospitals recently, in advertising ourselves. Businesses want to locate near great research universities because these seats of learning have largely taken over the research function that businesses need before they can develop products. We must and can tell a better story to the American public so that they understand the value of these seats of higher learning and are more willing to invest in them.

You suggest that the creation of new knowledge is more important than the transmission of knowledge within our system of higher education, which is currently the greatest in the world. You write, “Most new industrial nations are striving to match the quality of our great universities. Unfortunately, they are trying to imitate what we were and what we are, not what we will or should be.” Is it the responsibility of American research universities to focus primarily on the creation of new knowledge to encourage international institutions to aspire to this as well—and in turn precipitate solutions to the current social, economic, scientific, and health problems that are facing the world?

JRC: I don’t think that the creation of knowledge is more important than its transmission. In fact, I believe, as former Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti suggested, that for faculty members all of their research and their obligations are nurtured by and in some sense are a version of our first calling, which is to teach our students. In the United States, one remarkable trait of our system of higher learning at research universities is that teaching and research are combined – at least at the graduate and postdoctoral level. But whatever I may feel, in the external world, research universities are, in fact, evaluated more on the production of new knowledge than on the more difficult to assess teaching abilities of its faculties. And, we should not underestimate the value of the discoveries that we do make at these houses of intellect in changing the world for the better. Whether it is finding cures for disease, or the development of new methods and technologies – or discoveries – that lead to new, higher technology industries and businesses, our research universities are central to our future economic and social wellbeing. One only has to look at the products produced by Stanford University faculty and former students in Silicon Valley. The capitalization of those companies would place them as the 10th largest economy in the world. In short, it would be a mistake to falsely separate the teaching and research missions at our great universities. What we need to do in the future is to make sure that they are even more closely tied and that opportunities to engage in research is more frequently open to undergraduates. To answer your specific question: Those societies and research universities that do pathfinding research (increasingly with international partners) set the agenda for which problems are going to be addressed. The others may be free riders on the discoveries made at American universities, but they will not be key players unless they too develop world-class universities. Finally, we should encourage the development of other great universities around the world that we can collaborate with. With more top quality research universities, we are apt to find cures for diseases and new transformative discoveries more rapidly, which would benefit all citizens of the world.

One goal of Toward a More Perfect University is to argue that there is still a good deal of work to be done for American research universities to reach their maximum potential, and to imagine what those universities should look like in the future. As your research begins to inspire a new, informed dialogue about how to achieve that potential, who do you hope will be participating in that conversation, aside from academics?

JRC: My book is not an effort at prognostication. Social scientists are terrible at prediction. Rather it is a normative work, which attempts to say that despite no real external or foreign competition or threat that would undermine the preeminence of the best American universities at the top of the academic hierarchy, we ought to and can improve on almost every aspect of our system. If we are to maximize our true potential, I believe that we need to improve on almost every aspect of our universities from bottom to top, except for its extraordinary value system, which has served us brilliantly for 75 years. That includes, among themes in the book, the way we do admissions to college, the role of the humanities, a reassessment of the value added of professional education, a rethinking of a the structure and organization of knowledge, a reimagining of the university campus, structural changes that reinforce our universities’ values, a reexamination of the previously fruitful compact between the universities and the federal government – particularly in the way they fund and oversee research, a renewal of trust that has dissipated, and changes in the governance structure of the university. It focuses significantly on the role that the federal and state government ought to play in the access and affordability of education for all those capable of doing college level and professional level work. For example, state governments have lowered their budget allocations for higher education by roughly 30 percent since 2008, while they have increased their state allocations for incarceration by over 130 percent during the same period of time. What does this say about their actual beliefs about higher learning – and the revealed preferences of these legislators? A hundred years ago, presidents of leading universities wrote and spoke about their idea of a great university, as did critics of education who were well-known journalists and writers, business leaders and representatives of government engaged in a lively debate over “the idea of the university.” No individual dominated these conversations, but the outcome has served us well for over 75 years. But now there is a need for the same type of leaders to engage in a new dialogue about “the idea of the university” in the 21st century, since so much has changed in our society over the last century. My book is intended to stimulate that conversation.

You entered Columbia as an undergraduate history major before becoming a Ph.D. student in sociology, a faculty member, researcher, and eventually provost and dean of faculties. What were some of the most significant changes you witnessed within Columba—and within the American system of higher learning as a whole?

JRC: The changes have been enormous. When I entered Columbia the operating budget was roughly $100 million dollars annually. Today, that budget is close to $4 billion. So the sheer change in size has made a phenomenal difference. In the early 1960s, the health sciences complex represented about 12 percent of the university’s total operating budget; today it is more than 50 percent. There is also far more diversity of the student body and the faculty than there was in the past, although we still have far to go to provide access along with excellence at these great institutions. In my class, I believe we had 2 African-American students and perhaps no Latino students – and of course no women. Today that has all changed. But while the tapestry of the university has changed, I’m not sure that we have a more interesting or “quirky” group of students. Too many, in order to be admitted, have followed the same well-trodden path. They feel they have to be good at everything in order to “get in.” But we know that few if any individuals today are true polymaths. If we are truly outstanding at one thing, we have accomplished a great deal. But could an Allen Ginsburg, who would become a wonderful poet, but who might not have given a damn about chemistry in high school, even be guided to apply to an Ivy League institution these days? Another massive change has been both in the growth in federal funding of research (despite recent setbacks), the rate at which knowledge is growing, the multidisciplinarity of research required to solve complex problems, the growth in national and international collaborations, the growth in importance of the distinguished state universities and their fight against impoverishment, the growth of technology in education, the awareness of the relationship between the university and their surrounding communities, and the increased commodification of intellectual property and new discoveries. There continue, however, to be attacks on academic freedom, free inquiry, and free speech on our university campuses. We must remain vigilant in defending the principles of academic freedom and free inquiry – since I would argue no university can be truly great without adhering strictly to these core values. These are just a few. Many changes represent improvements in the system of higher learning, but some are truly regressive, such as the growing lack of trust between the federal government and the great universities; as well as the regulatory role of the government and the way it has impeded access to college and graduate schools while creating monetary and other burdens that have had a material effect on the successful conduct of research and teaching.

Q&A Compiled by Kristi DiLallo