This guest column, written by a former president of Emory University, examines arguments made by Jonathan Cole, a former provost of Columbia, in his book The Great American University. Cole illustrates his history of the modern American research university with a vivid comparison between two eminent academic leaders of the last century, Jacques Barzun of Columbia and Frederick Terman of Stanford. Employing data generated by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University Institute for Higher Education and Times Higher Education, Cole shows that universities are today ranked in order of prestige and eminence on the basis of their wealth and the magnitude of the support they receive for research activities. American universities, richer than all others, have greater resources to deploy and therefore are considered “the best.” Among them, Columbia and Stanford are among the very best. But, for Cole, Stanford has lately become superior to Columbia because Terman was more forward-looking, more ambitious in securing external support from government and industry, and more interested in building the strength of disciplines close to industry, commerce, and practical results. Barzun was more traditional, interested in supporting and encouraging the humanities, and “stuck in the historical past.” Cole reports that where Terman saw opportunities in the future, Barzun saw threats. Cole's book leaves many questions unanswered. In universities increasingly funded externally, what stance should academic administrators take toward professors more interested in their disciplines than in their employer? What is the fate of the underfunded humanities? What can be done about the stunning increase in tuition prices? Transfixed by Terman's definition of eminence, Cole ignores these difficult realities.

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