Higher Expectations

The Great American University: Its Rise to Prominence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected, by Jonathan R. Cole, PublicAffairs, 616 pages, $35

Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Henry Holt and Company, 288 pages, $26

More than nine Americans in 10 say that universities are among the nation's "most valuable resources," but they hold different and sometimes conflicting ideas about what universities are valuable for. Universities are expected to generate ideas and generate jobs, to prepare the next generation of leaders and open their doors to the great mass of high school graduates, to speak truth to power and serve as resources for those in power.

Needless to say, higher education hasn't figured out how to do all these things at once, and its failings have been grist for a cottage industry of sharp-eyed critics. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus' Higher Education is the latest addition to this bookshelf of broadsides, the question mark in the title signaling its viewpoint. In sharp contrast, Jonathan Cole's The Great American University is a 616-page paean to elite research universities. Each book offers something of value but goes too far: American universities are neither the frauds that Higher Education asserts nor as impressive as The Great American University imagines.

Cole possesses the credentials to craft the definitive account of the nation's foremost research universities. He has been at Columbia, among the best of those institutions, for nearly half a century, from undergraduate to professor to provost, and that personal history gives him a fine-grained understanding of how such universities run. As an eminent scholar of the sociology of science, he has delved deeply into the social processes that yield pathbreaking research.

The Great American University contends, with mountains of evidence, that the research universities have been "the principal source of discovery and innovation in the United States," profoundly shaping how we live. Yet Cole sees trouble ahead, with challenges coming from an overreaching government that, in the post-September 11 era, has constricted academic freedom in the name of national security, as well as from within the gates, where the intolerance of those who regard themselves as enlightened undermines intellectual life.

American universities do have much to boast about. Eight of the world's top 10 research universities, and 17 of the top 20, are located in the United States, according to the influential Shanghai Jiao Tong University's 2009 rankings. Those institutions are home to the most Nobel Prize winners in science and medicine and the sources of the most patents. Although we take such achievements for granted, this preeminence dates only to the 1930s.

But as valuable as American universities are, Cole claims too much credit for them. They are not responsible for every discovery in which university researchers have had a hand; industry, government, and think tanks have carried out pivotal studies, sometimes collaboratively and sometimes competitively. Cutting-edge work has also become an international affair, with numerous articles in scientific journals co-authored by intellectual border-crossing researchers.

Dilemmas arise when the fruits of research find a commercial market. Under what circumstances do the campus- industry technology-transfer deals that Cole embraces distort the priorities of the professoriate or the mission of the university? Cole envisions the university as a "free zone removed from the powers that be" -- an admirable notion, but one that's not necessarily congruent with the priorities of the mercantile partners.

Government marauding threatens this preeminence. Cole spends two chapters excoriating the Bush administration, and rightly so, for interfering with science -- stem-cell research and global warming are two notorious examples -- as well as for keeping scholars out of the country on improbable security grounds. Even more important is public disinvestment in higher education. The University of California boasts five of the world's top 50 universities, but their preeminence is in jeopardy as the state government retrenches. The flagship universities in Michigan and Virginia, facing the same predicament, have responded by raising tuition to levels that put them out of reach for many families. Meanwhile, "academic dogmatism" -- freezing out the dissenters -- threatens academic freedom more invidiously than an outright witch hunt. Even as know-nothing politicians come and go, these academic dogmatists have the luxuriant staying power of tenure. These days, you're more likely to find a full-throated expression of ideas on talk radio than on a college campus.

The fact that undergraduates are rarely seen in The Great American University is somewhat surprising because Columbia prides itself on its dedication to teaching. As Cole acknowledges, there's a connection between research and teaching; a professor who is actively engaged in scholarship on the frontiers of research seems more likely to keep up with new knowledge and to integrate it into an undergraduate course, even an introductory one. To bolster his argument for the pivotal role of the research university, Cole draws on The Race between Education and Technology, Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz's pathbreaking demonstration of the historic importance of higher education for America's economic preeminence. But Goldin and Katz aren't writing about research. Their concern is the slowing since 1970 of the rate of increase in college enrollment, which, they demonstrate, is producing a workforce that is technologically underprepared.

When undergraduates do make an appearance in The Great American University, they are sometimes depicted as misguided youth, as when they heckle unpopular campus speakers. Still, Cole argues, "dedication to one's undergraduate population" pays off -- it subsidizes the research enterprise, "provid[ing] a significant portion of the resources needed to create and sustain great graduate and professional programs of study."

Such sentiments outrage Hacker and Dreifus, the co-authors of Higher Education Hacker teaches political science at Queens College, one of the divisions of the City University of New York, a 70-minute subway ride and a light-year from Columbia, and the perspective afforded by that less privileged perch doubtlessly shapes his views on higher education. Dreifus writes for the science section of The New York Times.

Higher Education is, by design, less temperate than Hacker's earlier books about racial and gender inequality or Dreifus' journalism. It's a j'accuse assault on seemingly every corner of academic life, broadly attacking shoddy courses, inept teaching, and padded tuition. The vision of a college education that Hacker and Dreifus advance is as timeless as Cardinal Newman's classic 19th-century account, The Idea of a University. "College should be a cultural journey, an intellectual expedition," the authors write. A major like sport management or sign-language interpretation has no place in this vision: "It isn't education. It is training." What should colleges do? Make undergraduates "more interesting people," Hacker and Dreifus say.

This understanding of the purposes of a college education animates more nuanced accounts such as Anthony Kronman's Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life and George Fallis' Multiversities, Ideas, and Democracy. At least for some of us, this is an appealing counterweight to the relentless focus on the economic returns that four years in college are said to generate. Not so long ago, colleges saw their students as young people whose preferences were to be formed, but in these market-driven times they regard students as consumers whose preferences are to be satisfied.

Higher Education points out some of the pernicious consequences of this shift. Colleges spend scads of money to make their campuses as spiffy as suburbia. The ratio of administrators to students has mushroomed, with such new positions as sustainability director, credential specialist, vice president of student success, and coordinator of learning-immersion experiences. Meanwhile, assert Hacker and Dreifus, faculty are paid handsomely for the hours they put into teaching (a claim based on a dubious calculation of professors' hourly pay). Especially in the leading universities, the tenured class is left to do its own thing, with the scut work of teaching largely carried out by adjuncts and teaching assistants. That's a bad deal for students: According to a large-scale 2008 study cited by Hacker and Dreifus, the more students are taught by itinerants, the more likely they are to drop out. At New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, among other highly ranked schools, the TAs who lead sections are undergraduates -- is this what $40,000-plus tuition should buy? Nor are the liberal arts colleges off the hook. A Swarthmore education, with an annual tuition of $37,510, is said to be no better than what's on offer at Linfield College, located in McMinnville, Oregon, where the tuition runs $26,834.

Most contentiously, Hacker and Dreifus contend that professors' research gets in the way of education (by which they mean teaching). "What if colleges and universities were to shed their research components so they could focus on education?" they ask. What if research were the province of places such as the Salk Institute and the Brookings Institution?

For Cole -- indeed, for most of us in the professoriate -- this is heresy, and taken literally it embodies the know-nothing brand of populism. Should Hacker, who has written many serious books, have migrated from Cornell to Brookings instead of Queens? But the provocation invites a reassessment of the hoary notion that doing research in one's narrow specialization is essential for good teaching. Conservative pundit William Bennett, whom Hacker and Dreifus quote, is on the money in pointing out that "too many faculty members want to teach their dissertation or their next article."

Academics are generally better at analyzing than prescribing, and these two books are not exceptions. In The Great American University, Cole muses about the possibility of the super-rich universities redistributing some of their wealth to worse-off private universities such as Chicago as well as cash-starved public research universities such as Wisconsin and UCLA. Don't hold your breath. The great public universities are a national treasure, but unless they receive an infusion of public funds, that intellectual capital may be lost.

Higher education in the United States isn't a system, a fact that partly explains its historic success. But in their different ways, The Great American University and Higher Education show that all is not well in the halls of ivy. The biggest need is to open the campus doors to the many who now can't afford to get in. During the past 30 years, average private tuition has gone from 20 percent to 50 percent of median family income. Average public tuition, 4 percent of median income in 1980, is now 11 percent. Meanwhile, more students are graduating from high school unprepared for the demands of college. Though increasing the number of students graduating from college is no cure-all, it's critical to the fortunes of the nation. It might even encourage the next generation to be more intellectually adventurous. Even if we can't all be rich, we can certainly be more interesting.

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