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February 7, 2010

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In praise of higher learning

OF the top 20 universities in the world, according to one 2008 reckoning, just three were outside the United States. Of the top 50, just 14 were. American colleges and universities are unquestionably pre-eminent in teaching and research, attracting students and faculty members from around the world.

This is a relatively new phenomenon. Before the 1940s many of America's greatest scholars and scientists went abroad to study. Americans have won a majority of Nobel Prizes in science and medicine since 1955, but before 1935 Americans took far fewer of those trophies.

As provost of Columbia University for 14 years, Jonathan R. Cole is in 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 Americans' daily lives. He also argues that these "jewels in our nation's crown" face a host of serious threats.

As the parents of every prospective college student know all too well, America offers a mind-boggling array of choices. He lists their dazzling achievements, such as gene-splicing, recombinant DNA, retroviruses, cancer therapies, lasers, LEDs, bar codes, radar and transistors.

No one can for a moment doubt the special role universities play in innovations that arise from research in pure science and an interest in solving problems. But a 150-page inventory like the one Cole provides here tells us as much about why some universities are "great" as a list of names of accomplished people in a large family shows us why their family is "great" relative to others.

Moreover, it does nothing to illuminate whether universities did it alone and what kind of incentives were used to enhance researcher productivity.

According to Cole, the current threats to the American university don't come from the outside - no other nation's universities are within striking distance - but from within the borders and even within the university itself.

In his conclusion, Cole plays with the notion that universities could engage in cross subsidies, as in baseball, where a luxury tax applies to total payroll. Only one team can win, and taxing rich teams keeps the game more interesting.

But knowledge creation, unlike baseball, is not a zero sum game. Everyone can win.


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