What are universities for?

I recently reviewed two books on higher education for the Wall Street Journal, James Axtell’s Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University and Jonathan Cole’s Toward a More Perfect University.

Here are some excerpts from the review.

The claim is simple: Higher education is ripe for disruption. In recent years there has been a wave of publications expressing skepticism about the future of our colleges and universities—skepticism about the value of their educational outcomes, the deservedness of their social prestige, the sustainability of their business models. A sampling of titles tells the tale: “Academically Adrift,” “College Unbound,” “The End of College,” “Higher Education in Crisis.” No more, claimed the critics, would tuition costs continue to rise precipitously; no more would students accept packed lecture halls when they could watch star educators on their smartphones; no more would students clamor to get into a brand university without assurances that it would truly prepare them for life after graduation; no more would anyone assume that, just because a school was hard to get into, it must be worth a king’s ransom to attend. Economic, social and technological pressures, the story goes, will “disintermediate” traditional campus operations.

The titles of the two books under review here—“Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University” and “Toward a More Perfect University”—point to a different view of where higher education is today and how it got there… These two authors are not disruptors. Both believe that American higher education can be improved, but they are confident that this improvement will occur through the evolution of its capacity for producing new knowledge and disseminating it.

Mr. Axtell takes the long view, showing us the medieval origins of the university, beginning with the need of the Catholic Church for more men with advanced training in philosophy, mathematics and law. Twelfth-century Arab scholars in Spain inspired the rethinking of interpretative assumptions, leading to new specializations and to institutions that we can recognize as the forerunners of our colleges today…

“Wisdom’s Workshop” describes how Oxford and Cambridge became models that inspired advanced schools in colonial America. Henry VIII’s “bear hug” of Oxbridge “made it difficult for them to distinguish affection from coercion,” Mr. Axtell writes. Henry VIII protected his professors as long as they toed the line—a Cambridge chancellor who didn’t was beheaded. The two institutions grew in size, stature and social import. After visiting the impressive new Oxford library in the early 17th century, James I remarked: “If I were not a king, I would wish to be a University man.”

Mr. Axtell has much ground to cover, and he does so lightly…The author notes that our first six presidents favored the creation of a national university, but he doesn’t spend much time discussing the American aversion to an organized, central institution of higher education. By the middle of the 19th century, the United States had become a “land of colleges,” and Mr. Axtell emphasizes that all of them, “whatever their funding, fulfilled a public function, producing citizens of a democratic republic and responsive to multiple constituencies.”

…In the last part of the 19th century, higher education in the United States changed dramatically. American students flocked to Berlin and other academic centers to experience new methods of inquiry, learning there that specialized, published research was what set the modern educational institution apart from public opinion, religion and government. These students were mostly wealthy and white—though there were important exceptions, like W.E.B. Du Bois.

Led by Harvard, the older, prestigious American institutions would eventually follow the German model, and new ones, like Johns Hopkins, were created to bring modern Germanic productivity to higher education in the New World. The research university may have started off speaking German, but it would ultimately flourish in the United States like nowhere else.


Jonathan Cole’s last book, ​”The Great American University” (2009), argued that what has made our universities great is not so much the quality of their teaching (though he defends that, too) but the power of their research…In “Toward a More Perfect University,” Mr. Cole argues that we must restore trust among the government, the public and higher ed. He examines regulations imposed by Washington on universities and sees many of them as symptoms of the distrust between the public and those who value the free inquiry at the heart of the academic enterprise. As in the 16th century, today’s governmental interest in universities is often more about suspicion and coercion than affection and support. And, I would add, in the pursuit of specialization many universities have abandoned the tradition of pragmatic liberal education and failed to connect their academic mission to the public good.

Mr. Cole explains how, in the 19th century, the federal government’s two Morrill Acts—in the 1860s and 1890s—helped establish, with land grants, the great public universities that would educate large numbers of undergraduates while fostering high-level research. During World War II, universities saw funding soar for scientific inquiry that could aid the military effort, and after the Allied victory, the GI Bill of Rights ensured that schools across the country would be able to provide returning soldiers with access to higher education. In the 1950s, Cold War competition helped guarantee that Washington would continue to allocate extraordinary sums of money to maintain a scientific, even a cultural, advantage.

Today, Mr. Cole writes, “the federal government needs a plan as bold and ambitious as the Morrill Act and the GI Bill.” He proposes a “Morrill Act III,” with, among other things, coordinated academic efforts among prestigious universities to reduce duplication and to offer the best students increased access to the most powerful researchers—an Ivy League of academic cooperation.

Mr. Cole implores the great (and wealthy) schools to start playing more of a role in secondary education so as to model what kind of preparation would best serve high-school grads for advanced work in any number of disciplines. He also recommends expanding the number of students served by elite schools, reducing the number of graduate programs in fields where there are few jobs, and improving the curriculum and teaching in professional schools. Following on the work of Columbia economist Joseph Stiglitz, Mr. Cole writes that “unless Americans come to grips with the rising inequality of income and wealth among our citizens, we will fail to have the resources necessary for providing opportunity and access to higher education for many children of middle-class families.” Perhaps the greatest threat to universities today, in other words, is the inequality rampant in our society. And without the support of the middle class, public trust will never be rebuilt.

For all their faults, our universities have traditionally promised the possibility of social mobility through learning. They’ve served the wealthy, to be sure, but they have not just been about the accumulation of privilege. That is changing. In the beginning of the 20th century, Du Bois stressed that education was empowerment, especially for the disenfranchised, and pragmatists like Jane Addams and John Dewey described how teaching and research could be linked to the public good in ways that enhanced democracy rather than elitism. Mr. Cole is surely right that rebuilding the trust between the people’s representatives and great universities is essential—not just for the benefit of the happy few on campus but for the country as a whole.

In this time of anti-intellectualism—whether technocratic or populist—we don’t need more smug disruptors. We need more hopeful builders. They will remind us of the democratic aspirations of pragmatic liberal education while recalling that the ambitions of our finest universities help fulfill the dreams of our best selves as a people.

THE STORY UNTIL NOW: Kit Reed’s radiant imagination still accelerating

The press sings the praises of Wesleyan writers on a regular basis. But this weekend the notices for Kit Reed’s recent collection of stories stopped me in my tracks.

From the first paragraph of the Wall Street Journal review:

The title of Kit Reed’s selection of her own short stories, The Story Until Now (Wesleyan University Press, 442 pages, $35), reminds us that although she has been writing award-winning fiction for some 50 years, she’s still accelerating. The scope of these 35 stories is immense, their variety unmatched.

And this from a recent Vanity Fair: “The Story Until Now unleashes new and classic stories fired by a radiant imagination.”

Kit Reed
Kit Reed


Kit has been inspiring students and readers for decades. A resident writer at Wesleyan, she stopped teaching full-time years ago, but she still works with students and publishes stories and novels that receive critical acclaim and a devoted readership. Speaking of devotion, the labyrinth at the south-east end of the CFA (behind the anthropology house) was installed by alumni to honor Kit and Joe Reed (Professor of English and American Studies, Emeritus). Stroll the labyrinth, and if you see Kit walking by on campus with her terrier, Killer, give her a high five. Better yet, pick up a copy of The Story Until Now. I bet she’ll be willing to sign it.




Getting In… Checking things Out

Last night admissions deans from eight schools gathered for an online forum at Wesleyan sponsored by Unigo and the Wall Street Journal. Thousands watched live as Jordan Goldman ’04 and members of the audience asked questions aimed at clarifying how highly selective institutions go about selecting a first-year class. Check out the video of the event (and some good footage of the campus).

The selection process is increasingly intense. Last year our applicant pool was as strong as ever, and it was more than 20% larger. Most university observers expected us to have some decline in apps this year, which is the normal rhythm at schools like ours. But the latest figures show that we have continued to grow — this year by more than 10% over last. The geographical and cultural diversity of the pool continues to improve, and the academic credentials of our applicants are truly impressive. I’m glad I don’t have to read the files!

One of the exciting aspects of last night’s event was the international web audience for it. The university has been using the web to share some of the great events on campus. Last year’s wonderful Navaratri Festival performance has now had more than 100,000 views on Youtube.

This weekend there are plenty of non-virtual chances to check out Wes culture. Friday at 8 pm, dance professor Nicole Stanton performs a piece created collaboratively with students and colleagues at Schönberg Dance Studio. Saturday at Freeman one can see several of our teams (track, swimming, squash, hockey) competing. I am looking forward to seeing Ariela Rotenberg’s ’10 senior thesis project, Our Day Will Come , at the Patricelli ’92 Theater. Maybe I can stay offline for a few days…

[tags]Unigo, Wall Street Journal, admissions process, applicant pool, Jordan Goldman ’04, Navaratri Festival performance, Professor Nicole Stanton, Ariela Rotenberg ’10[/tags]

Wesleyan and its “Peers”

On Wednesday evening eight Admissions Deans from some great schools will be visiting Wesleyan to discuss how they approach the admissions process. The event in the Daniel Family Commons (Usdan) is sponsored by UNIGO and the Wall Street Journal. UNIGO was founded by Jordan Goldman ’04, and he will be here to moderate the discussion. The University of Pennsylvania, Williams, Princeton and Grinnell are among the schools that are sending deans. The discussion will be broadcast live. Check out unigo.com for details.

I will miss this event because I’ll be in New York for a meeting with the presidents from the Consortium for Financing Higher Education (COFHE). The purpose of the organization is to “examine how selective, private colleges and universities could discuss their commitment to providing exceptional educational opportunities for highly talented students as well as best practices in fiscal management.” There are 31 COFHE members, including some of our traditional peer institutions like Amherst and Williams. Among the liberal arts colleges, Carleton, Mount Holyoke, Oberlin, Pomona, Smith, Swarthmore, Trinity, and Wellesley are represented. The Ivy League universities, Northwestern and the University of Chicago are some of the larger schools included. We share best practices to promote student access and promote affordability, and we also can check in with one another about cultural and economic trends that have an impact on higher education in this country.

This is the season when high school seniors are busy preparing applications (or awaiting Early Decision results). Over Thanksgiving I spent some time with some Wesleyan international students who were reminiscing about how happy they were to get the “thick envelope” in the mail. I also saw parents whose kids have made the Early Decision commitment and now are anxiously awaiting the results. Given our great surge in applications last fall (which seems to be holding this year) the competition is very stiff, indeed.

There are still a few intense weeks left in the semester, so those of us carried away by our work on campus can forget how excited we were when first given the opportunity to join the Wesleyan community. Over the next few weeks there will be plenty of events to remind us of our good fortune: Eiko & Koma’s exhibition in Zilkha, the Ebony Singers in Crowell, theater in 92, hockey and basketball in Freeman…

It’s good to meet with our peer institutions, but there’s no place like home.

[tags]admissions process, UNIGO, Jordan Goldman, Consortium for Financing Higher Education, financial aid[/tags]