Jonathan R. Cole, former provost of Columbia University, has a new book on the history of the Ameican University, The Great American University. While the 616-page book does a cogent and comprehensive job of outlining the history of the American university and the role it has played in the development of the nation, it also poses some incisive questions about the future of the university–and, therefore, our nation.
The book notes the formation of American universities in colonial and early federalist times, but cites the important historical events that gave them their unique identity and made them a driving force in American life:
- The Land Grant College (Morrell) Act of 1862: At the height of the Civil War, Congress voted the authorization and support for the provisions that would initiate and implement the formation of our public college and university system.
- Hitler’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s assumption of power in 1933: Up until this time, German universities led the world, but as Hitler came to power, professors, such as Einstein, realized that their institutions would come under the dictates of the Nazi state and began their migration to other countries, a migration was of huge benefit to U.S. universities.
- The end of World War II in 1945: the G.I. Bill brought a strong and ambitious student population to the campuses and the work of scholars in the war effort motivated Congress to channel research funding through the American universities, a move which moved them to the head of the world class.
Cole points out that the list of the world’s best universities are dominated by American institutions, with other countries lagging far behind. However, he also points out that other countries are moving aggressively to bring their institutions into contention and to surpass the American higher education system. In a discussion of his book with other academic leaders on C-Span, Cole warned that American pre-eminence in higher education is vulnerable.
Cole cites the politicization of colleges and universities through repressive legislation and politics-based personnel decisions as suppressions of the academic freedom and neutrality that has been the life-blood of their success. As examples, he lists the political intrusion into some areas of research, such as stem cells, and features of the Patriot Act, which restrict some of the most promising students and researchers from being enrolled or given work visas, as limiting America’s one area where its exports exceed its imports: higher education.
Just as the professors in Germany in 1933 migrated to countries where they could conduct their work without interference, American professors are looking for places they can go to continue unfettered in their research and teaching.
The renewal of the Patriot Act without significant revisions does not signal a bright future for American universities. Ironically, two of my acquaintances in American universities are negotiating terms with German institutions.
The countries doing the heaviest recruiting of American professors are China, India, Russia, and a number of European countries.
What goes around does seem to come around.