U of C is the Great American University, author says

Former Columbia University Provost Jonathan Cole said the University embodies the values of academia more than any other American university.

By Adam Janofsky

Former Columbia University Provost Jonathan Cole expressed his admiration for the U of C Wednesday, but cautioned that recent government intrusions on areas like stem cell and global warming research are weakening and threatening the University and its peers.

Cole, who has never been affiliated with the U of C, said it embodies the values of academia more than any other American university. “I hold the University of Chicago in such high regard because it offers us a reference point for how a value system associated with greatness…can pervade an institution in ways that advance free inquiry and open discourse,” Cole wrote about the U of C in his recent book, The Great American University.

U of C–affiliated panelists struck a similar tone. Chemistry professor emeritus R. Stephen Berry said the University’s attitude toward criticism and peer review makes it a self-selective university. “When I was in high school, I knew I was not mature enough to come to the University of Chicago,” Berry said. “I went to Harvard—that was okay. But I wasn’t ready for Chicago yet.”

Dean of the College John Boyer, law professor and former provost Geoffrey Stone, and psychology professor Richard Shweder also sat on the panel.

Cole said American universities are most valuable for the scientific discoveries they produce—calling them “the only American industry with a favorable balance of trade today”—but audience members and panelists said he was neglecting the value of undergraduate education.

“I don’t think you can talk about universities without talking about undergraduate education,” said former University President Hanna Holborn Gray, the first female president of a major American university. “A great university has to have a great undergraduate education.”

Although some see China and India’s intellectual growth as a threat to the preeminence of top American universities, Cole said it’s an opportunity. “We would get better if we had competition from abroad,” he said.

The American government is more likely to be a threat to the continued growth of the American university, Cole said, referring to restrictive and antiterrorist visa policies, restraints on biological research, and increased research surveillance conducted by the government.

American universities began to dominate global education during and after World War II, when German universities’ top professors were sent into exile because of their religion, Cole said. Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was president of the University at the time, was able to push the U of C past its peers. “This university was much more open to bringing in students based on their talent rather than their social factors,” Cole said, calling the U of C the best example of an academic meritocracy.