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The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected Hardcover – January 12, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

From Viagra to global positioning systems, America’s research universities have made major contributions to education, health, commerce, and the general well-being of the nation and maintained international preeminence since the 1930s. Cole brings passion and insight based on a 50-year association, from student to professor to provost, with Columbia University, one of the nation’s leading research universities, to an examination of the history and future of these schools. He begins by examining the origins of the research university, the values behind them, and the social and economic structures that have supported them. He moves on to detail the innovations that have come directly out of research universities, including the laser, magnetic resonance imaging, the algorithm behind the Google search engines, and current biological research that may have implications for combating bioterrorism. Finally, Cole examines the forces that threaten the continued preeminence of America’s best research universities, including competition from China and other developing nations and government restrictions on research based on national security or political morality. --Vanessa Bush


Kirkus,STARRED review
“An elegant, comprehensive examination of how American universities became the best in the world, and why research matters….A sound, enthusiastic look at the crucial vitality of the American university system.” 

William G. Bowen, President Emeritus, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
“Jonathan Cole has given us a stimulating and provocative account of how the American research university came to be, the ideas it has contributed, and the challenges it faces. Not everyone will agree with all of the argument, but everyone can learn from it.” 

Geoffrey R. Stone, Former Provost of the University of Chicago and author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime
“Jonathan Cole has written the definitive work on the American research university. A monumental achievement, The Great American University explores the complex historical and cultural reasons for the international preeminence of American higher education, documents the profound contributions American research universities have made, and continue to make, to our nation and to the world, and identifies and analyzes the dangers that now threaten to undermine one of the strongest pillars of American excellence.”

Jeffrey D. Sachs, professor, Columbia University; director, the Earth Institute
“Jonathan Cole has produced a masterpiece, a modern classic. This is at once a scintillating biography of the great American university, a powerful diagnosis of its major challenges today, and an invaluable guide for a robust future of this unique, world-changing institution. This is sociological inquiry, technological history, and social philosophy at its most powerful, a penetrating study of how America’s research universities have been shaped by and have shaped American society. Cole’s study will be avidly read in all parts of the world, as societies attempt to emulate and adapt the strengths of America’s research universities to the challenges of building knowledge-based economies and democratic societies of the twenty-first century.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor, Harvard University
“I can think of no one better than Jonathan Cole to lead the crucial discussion on the role of the American university as the preeminent seat of intellectual and technological innovation. In the face of alarming trends in legislation and government intervention, he offers a precise and extremely well written prescription for how the American university can once again prevail.” 

Cori Bargmann, professor, the Rockefeller University; member of the National Academy of Science
“A passionate and intelligent defense of the university’s role in creating knowledge, not just disseminating it. Every university has its own story; this book steps back to tell the history of American universities as a whole. Cole describes the logic, people, and context that drove the universities to pair teaching with research and discovery. He provides an irresistible tour of advances in science and culture that grew in the universities, from artificial hips to Google to eyewitness unreliability, and a clear-eyed view of their failings, from red scares to groupthink. Cole is a compelling advocate, and his book is a resource for academics, students, and all friends of the university.”

Vartan Gregorian, president, Carnegie Corporation of New York; former president, Brown University
“The story of American universities has been one of great success. Now, at a time when American higher education in general—and American public higher education in particular—is in crisis, Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University is a timely analysis of higher education’s current problems and prospects. I hope that policymakers will heed the author’s cogent arguments about the centrality of American universities in the panoply of our national life, as well as their vital contribution to the economic, political, and social advancement of the United States.”

Library Journal
“Cole has amassed extensive information to make a convincing case. Highly recommended, particularly for those interested in American history, social institutions, and public policy, as well as those working in higher education.”

New York Times Book Review
“As provost of Columbia University for 14 years and a professor of sociology and dean of faculties before that, Jonathan R. Cole is an excellent position to write about the rise of the American research university and its special contribution to American life. In “The Great American University,” he makes a case for the extraordinary role such institutions play in improving our daily lives. He also argues that these ‘jewels in our nation’s crown face a host of serious threats.’”

Dallas Morning News
“This is a work that should be read and studied by college faculties, administrators, regents and trustees, legislators and particularly large monetary donors to today's colleges and universities…The Great American University is one of the most important books on higher education to be written in the past several decades.”

Denver Post
“Our high schools may be hurting, but the best U.S. universities — the Ivies, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, the select state universities — are the envy of the world. In his new book, Jonathan R. Cole, a former provost and dean of faculties at Columbia, shows how our research universities in particular came to be what they are.”

Boston Globe
In his capacious, candid, and compelling new book, “The Great American University,’’ Cole explains the emergence of the research university; provides an eye-popping account of the discoveries made by professors in the last half century; and assesses the threats that place higher education in the United States “at risk of losing its dominant status.’’

Prism Magazine
“[Cole’s] argument is a persuasive one, and he presents his material clearly and incisively, keeping readers engaged throughout these 600-plus pages. Even those within the system will find new and thought-provoking material on the university’s importance to economic, social, and national advancement.”

Prism Magazine, April 2010
“[Cole’s] argument is a persuasive one, and he presents his material clearly and incisively, keeping readers engaged throughout these 600-plus pages. Even those within the system will find new and thought-provoking material on the university’s importance to economic, social, and national advancement.”
CHOICE, June 2010
“This will be an instant classic. Deploying vast knowledge and lengthy experience as professor of sociology and provost at Columbia University, Cole blends sociological and historical insights to explain the rise and importance of, and threats now facing, top-tier universities in the US.”
American Scientist, August 2010
“[Cole] combines scholarly expertise on the inner workings of science with abundant real-world experience running an enormous, eminent research university. Clearly he knows of what he speaks.”



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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 640 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs (January 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586484087
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586484088
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.1 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #807,400 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jonathan R. Cole (born August 27, 1942), is an American sociologist and educator. He is currently is John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University at Columbia University. He is best known for his scholarly work developing the sociology of science and his work on science policy. He is also widely known for the fourteen years (from 1989 to 2003) that he spent as Columbia University's chief academic officer - its Provost and Dean of Faculties.

Customer Reviews

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88 of 105 people found the following review helpful By Bibliomane on January 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is problematic because it gives a sharply slanted view of the university. In Cole's hands, it is "great" because it serves, with inventions, technology, and patents, the commercial life-blood of the US. That is why Stanford is great (Silicon Valley) and MIT is great (Rte. 128) and why Columbia could not be great under Jacques Barzun because THAT provost did not relish the connections between the campus and the business/governmental/medical interests of NYC. For Cole, universities in this country deserve our respect because they have learned how to couple inventive thinkers with commercial off-campus entities (computer companies, hospitals, the military) that develop practical uses for on-campus innovations. Owing to this servo-mechanistic function of the university, Cole displays no interest in the following: undergraduate education, disciplines such as history, the fine arts, philosophy, and literature; that is because they serve no interests other than themselves. Nor is he interested in why universities cost the consumer (students and parents) so much. Nor does he treat the ballooning growth of administrative salaries; the various scandals of inter-collegiate sports; the dramatic decline of tenured or tenurable professors and their replacement with part-time instructors; the complexities of affirmative action; nor the curriculum nor the ways in which some students are admitted and others rejected. For Cole's eye is on the prize: the "use" of the university, the fusion of mind with technology, the instrumentality of education. He champions one special aspect of higher education in this country; he neglects everything else; what he ignores is immense.
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39 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Mark bennett on March 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a ironic book in that illustrates unintentionally the problems at the top of American higher education. The first problem is that education itself is considered completely irrelivant to the mission of the institution. Cole sees Universities as factories that produce "results" rather than serve a community, state or nation. They are entitled to an essentially unlimited amount of public funding to do whatever they please. And while they are funded with public money, they are not accountable to the public. The problem is of course that whatever these institutions have evolved into, they are certainly not universities anymore nor is their mission remotely educational.

What Cole's top universities resemble today are the system of national labratories created by the government. And there is nothing wrong with that. But its well past time to be honest about what these institutions are in structure and mission. They are not educational institutions anymore. Many of them should not have undergraduate programs at all.

Cole backs his arguments by the nortoriously useless evaluations of "top universities". These so-called evaluations amount to populatity polls among academics and brand names. And he neglects to see that often what really makes a top university in those sorts of polls is throwing money at top academic stars. He also has the usual fixation on noble prizes despite the backward looking nature of those prizes and the limited range of academic disciplines they cover.

Cole also decends into populist nonsense. He smears German higher educational institutions and claims not one of them is fit to be considered for a list of the top 50 insitutions in the world.
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22 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Loyd E. Eskildson HALL OF FAME on February 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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.
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