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Loyd E. Eskildson
- Publié sur Amazon.com
Johnathan Cole is proud of America's preeminent research universities and worried that their future is threatened not by China or Europe, but by forces inside the U.S. These include Patriot Act impediments to overseas students coming to the U.S., inequities in university research endowments, the rise of 'political' science (Global Warming censorship; stem-cell research limitations; limitations on research with potential WMD agents) during the Bush years, and 'PC-police' (feminists, Israel supporters, IQ-testing opponents). Cole's "The Great American University" also provides a convincing case that American research universities have helped better the lives of ordinary Americans and boosted our economy.
Early in the book Cole cites a 2008 study at a Chinese university that evaluated 500 of the world's universities, largely on their research performance. That study found that 17 of the 20 most distinguished research universities were in the U.S., as were 40 of the top 50. Other studies have reached similar conclusions. Since the 1930s, about 60% of all Nobel Prizes have gone to Americans. Before Hitler, German universities were the world's best - now not one is ranked in the world's top 50. Hitler's rise created an intellectual migration that brought more than 100 physicists alone to the U.S. between 1933 and 1941, including Albert Einstein.
Cole asserts that about 260 U.S. schools offering master's degrees can be classified as research universities, though only about 125 contribute in meaningful ways to the growth of knowledge. Coe lists a small sample of their contributions as including "the laser, MRI, FM radio, Google's initial search algorithm, GPS, DNA fingerprinting, fetal monitoring, scientific cattle breeding, and advanced methods of surveying public opinion," though in truth major advances often occur in cooperation with government and private industry. Coe later devotes 135 pages to greater detail on seemingly innumerable relatively recent contributions of American research universities to U.S. industry and users.
University research, however, became heavily weighted towards medical centers and other health-related departments after 1960. For example, Columbia University Medical Center accounted for 11% of the university's overall budget in 1960-61, and 54% in 2005-06. Unwittingly, Cole is weakening his case as Marcia Angell, former Editor in Chief of the "New England Journal of Medicine" points out in her "The Truth About Drug Companies." She states that "only a handful of truly important drugs have been brought to market in recent years . . . the great majority of 'new' drugs are not new at all but merely variations of older drugs already on the market . . . (and are) called 'me-too' drugs." Further, much of recent drug-efficacy 'research' has been tainted by experimental designs intentionally biased to favor funding drug companies. Finally, the economic impact of these efforts is limited - drug-testing, a major research expense component, is increasingly likely to move overseas to Asia for lower costs, increasing proportions of our drugs are manufactured overseas, and they generate little, if anything, in exports.
Some research universities earn substantial revenues from their efforts - Columbia earned over $150 million/year in the late 1990s and early 2000s from the revenues of a few patents, and Stanford has recently garnered over $100 million/year, plus a one-time $336 million from the sale of Google stock given in return for the founders' early research at Stanford. Coe adds that by 2006, about 30 research universities raked in at least $5 million/year from their patents and licenses. Cole is worried that these revenues will skew research from general to applied. Actually, this 'feedback' is highly useful, though drug companies have created conflicts of interest and skewed reports.
One of "The Great American University's" strengths is that Coe doesn't overstate his case, and admits that "most scholars and scientists receive almost no citations to their work" - and a very few generate the greatest number. Nobel-prize winner Julius Axelrod (1970 - medicine) claims that "99% of the discoveries are made by 1% of the scientists." Here, Cole and Axelrod have identified one of the weaknesses of arguments for increased across-the-board funding for American research universities. A second is that contributions from the social sciences have been far fewer and less impressive, at best.
University research in the area of management practice would seem a natural source of economic progress - however, none of the 20th-century management breakthroughs (Taylorism, Ford's assembly line, the Toyota Production System, Jack Welch's off-shoring, be #1 or #2 in the industry, and delayering strategies) came from universities. One could even argue that all today's managers need to know is where to offshore (China for manufacturing, India for software, accounting, consulting, and call-centers), and where to find cheap illegal immigrant workers (local Home Depot parking lot). No research or MBA needed!
Vested interests are part of the problem in social science research - especially education. The late James Coleman, sociologist at the University of Chicago, conducted one of the largest and most credible studies of factors influencing pupil achievement and reported that factors outside the school were the most significant. Instead of acting upon that finding (confirmed by many other quality studies), educators instead chose other poorly designed studies that 'proved' more money was the key. As a result, we have wasted decades, probably over a trillion dollars going down the wrong path in education, and our pupils, economy, and research universities have suffered.
American university researchers in the field of economics deserve a special place in Hell for their 'contributions.' These include the erroneous contention that 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariffs deepened and prolonged the Great Depression (net exports at the time represented only about .1% of U.S. GDP) which has created unquestioning support for 'Free Trade," the loss of millions of American jobs, and today's floundering economy. It's true that Bernanke's research on the Great Depression helped prevent a 2008 repeat, however, his misreading of early signals also deepened the 2008 Great Recession. Regardless, President Truman was so frustrated with their advice that he complained that he never could find a 'one-handed economist' with a clear answer. Meanwhile, the decades-old debate between 'the Chicago school' and Keynesians continues unresolved, and America's research economists have yet to contribute a cogent approach to reforming health care - absent reform predicted to consume 37% of GDP by 2050, despite growing numbers of uninsured and an estimated 100,000/year killed due to malpractice.
University research in finance has also brought disaster, only slightly less serious - Scholes (Harvard) and Merton (Stanford) won the Nobel Prize (1997) for their 'new method to determine the value of derivatives,' then ran their Long Term Capital Management off the cliff ($4.6 billion in losses), and inadvertently helped design Wall Street's 2006-08 equivalent of the 'neutron bomb' - widespread over-leveraging combined with derivatives.
Much university research takes place in the humanities - primarily brought to us not because of its value, but because university administrators are too gutless to force these professors to either produce something benefiting society or teach more classes. We certainly passed the point of diminishing returns in humanities research long ago when it comes to eg. reinterpretations of arcane literature, or newly nuanced historical findings that even researchers' academic colleagues don't bother to cite.
Foreign students collected 40% of 2005-06 American-granted PhDs in the physical sciences, and 57% in engineering. Coe points out that this strengthens the student pool, and many stay in the U.S. True. However, China is increasingly focused on, and successful at enticing their foreign students to return. Those students occupied seats that sometimes could be filled by Americans - thus acerbating the outsourcing of American jobs. Perhaps we should require such foreign students who return within eg. five years of graduating to fund the studies of an American student who will stay and contribute.
Bottom-Line: "The American Research University" provides an excellent summary of recent contributions made by our top institutions. However, that does not translate into a good case for providing more money overall - there also is clear evidence of enormous waste. The 1910 Flexner Report revolutionized and improved American medical education, starting with more rigorous admission standards. Today, nearly half of matriculating students fail to graduate, largely because they aren't qualified or that interested. Another outcome was that the number of medical schools fell from 155 to 66, by 1935. Coe himself admits that most American universities and researchers contribute little (if anything). Why not a similar purge today of research programs at lesser-ranked colleges and universities, and social sciences and humanities in general? Part of the reason higher education costs have exploded in the U.S. over the last several decades is due to a growing surfeit of research. Savings from eliminating both useless programs and unqualified students could be split - half poured back into the best of the best research universities, and the other half returned to parents and taxpayers. The result - more qualified American pupils could attend our colleges and great research universities.
2 internautes sur 2 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile
Richard B. Schwartz
- Publié sur Amazon.com
This is a very large book (600pp.+) on an equally large subject. Its author is a distinguished academic, principally known for his service as provost at Columbia. He is a sociologist. I have had occasion to work with him when he served as a member of a site visit team evaluating the structure and positioning of one of our schools at Georgetown University. He has superb academic judgment and rock-solid academic instincts, coupled with (and informed by) deep experience.
He tilts left (as a New York academic sociologist would be expected to) but he is free of the extremes of political correctness. His take on the nature and importance of our major research universities is very predictable. That is not a criticism, but an observation that his views speak for the views of many. Hence, the book is extremely `representative' though few would be able to write it.
His audience is a large one--those individuals interested in our top research universities and their pivotal role in our society, the threats that challenge them, the opportunities that await them, the accomplishments that are a proper source of our collective pride in them.
The book `feels' different than that, however. It feels like a (highly-informed) lobbyist's document, in its thrusts, its tone and its emphases (though not, of course, in its length). Cole spends over 80 pp. decrying the threats to research universities posed by the (George W.) Bush administration and expresses hope concerning the Obama administration. He also expresses disappointment that President Obama has continued many of the policies of President Bush. It is not fawning or worshipful with regard to President Obama, but it is hortatory, the voice of one who would be sympathetic, quietly urging government benevolence with regard to the funding of the institutions which the author represents.
These institutions represent, of course, a very small (though very important) subset of American higher education. The fact that the Bush administration is perceived to have pressed a political orientation on the recipients of Title VI Area Studies grants, e.g., will not be of great concern to the thousands of institutions which have not received such grants. Similarly, the growing disparity between Harvard's endowment and the endowments of other once-more-financially-comparable institutions like Chicago will not make those at small liberal arts colleges and regional publics lose a great deal of sleep. That is not to say that those issues are unimportant, but one must reinforce the fact that Cole's book and many like it speak to the concerns of a small number of institutions (though these institutions have a disproportionate impact on our country).
The section on the American research universities' rise to preeminence is the strongest, by a wide margin. Hence, the book has great value for reference purposes. The section on research universities' discoveries and accomplishments is very interesting and readable, though far stronger on engineering and the physical and life sciences than on the social sciences. The section on the humanities is perfunctory and provincial. His examples of great accomplishments in literary studies, for example, now seem quaint (Lionel Trilling is mentioned prominently) and Edward Said comes in for a great deal of praise (though no criticism, with the acknowledgment in the appendix material that Said was one of Cole's close friends). There is almost nothing on the research achievements of historians; this is very curious, considering the fact that Columbia has traditionally had one of the truly great programs in that field.
The policy section (urging the acceptance of some practices, the jettisoning of others) is very interesting, but it is not likely to be of much use. Like most academic policy statements (and strategic planning documents) it offers hundreds of recommendations. That is all well and good, but such documents are generally met with smiles of recognition, sprinkles of holy water, polite bows and a quick return to the status quo. Major policy initiatives should be few in number, high in importance and pressed with rigor.
He does not exempt the universities themselves from criticism (this is much more than a `give us more' document), but his focus is basically on graduate education and big science and not undergraduate education. He says very little, for example, about the erosion of general education. General education is foundational and it was once very linguistic and literary, involving as it did the study of the classics, foreign languages, philosophy and English and American literature. The sometime focus on language in British institutions, e.g., has long given them a `cultural' advantage (Why can't our presidents speak like their prime ministers?) and there is no question that our country prizes literacy and articulate speech, sometimes to the exclusion of what is actually being said (or not said). This has now all changed within our universities and carries deep and important consequences. Since Columbia has long been distinguished from some of its Ivy peers for its adherence to traditional standards in this regard (in its undergraduate focus on specific texts, e.g.), I was surprised to see little or no attention given to this fact.
Cole notes the erosion of elementary and particularly secondary education in America, but has little to say about the erosion of undergraduate education and its consequences. He hovers above, focusing on great schools, great accomplishments and great challenges. The next book that I am reading is Bill Readings' The University in Ruins. There is little talk of `ruins' in Cole's book. Thus, despite its deep erudition and wide frame of reference it sounds a bit like the work of a lobbyist rather than a historian or analyst. It is not without its criticisms but they are subordinated to larger issues.