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If any single theme can be said to dominate foreign affairs commentary in the United States, it’s the many threats to U.S. global pre-eminence: from climate change and extreme weather events. From cybersecurity attacks and disinformation campaigns. From threats to the dollar’s dominance as a global reserve currency. From economic espionage and intellectual property theft. From nuclear proliferation and infrastructure and supply chain attacks.

Add another challenge to the list: China’s threat to American academic primacy.

In 2010, the Columbia sociologist and former provost Jonathan Cole published The Great American University, a full-throated defense of the United States’ elite research universities. The book described these institutions as national treasures that were indispensable to the nation’s economic dynamism, technological prowess and global position as a great power.

But Cole advanced two other arguments that made his book as cautionary as celebratory. The first was that the elite American research universities’ rise to global pre-eminence was a recent, highly contingent development that was largely a byproduct of the influx of foreign scholars during the 1930s and 1940s and the ravages wrought on European universities by World War II. The academy should be on notice: what can go up can also go down.

His second key contention was that the elite research university—and therefore American pre-eminence—was far more fragile and vulnerable than the public or policy makers assumed.

The list of challenges that he listed no doubt sounds familiar today: foreign competition for talent, restrictive visa policies, ideological constraints on academic inquiry, public disinvestment, endowment volatility and a misguided populist war against academic excellence.

American academic ascendency, Cole “was enabled by a highly competitive system that invested public tax dollars in university research and students while granting universities substantial autonomy” and needed to be protected.

Now, a dozen years later, William C. Kirby, a former dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a professor of China studies and business administration, has written a worthy successor to Cole’s admonition. The central question that Kirby asks in Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China is summed up by a chapter title—“Can China Lead the World of Universities?” Spoiler alert: “Perhaps.”

The book examines a series of institutions that Kirby knows firsthand: the University of Berlin, the Free University of Berlin, Harvard, Berkeley, Tsinghua, Nanjing University, the University of Hong Kong. Underlying each of the author’s case studies is an implicit question: What factors make research universities great—and, conversely, what variables threaten these institutions’ eminence?

The case studies are highly revealing. The German examples illustrate a series of threats to academic and research excellence: political meddling, weak and unstable leadership, inadequate funding, and, perhaps most strikingly, an excess of democracy in priority setting and decision-making. According to Kirby, it was only when Germany decided to concentrate resources on a series of centers of excellence and found ways to empower presidents and chancellors and, to a lesser extent, faculty (as opposed to students and staff), that a small number of institutions have been able to climb the international rankings.

Unlike Germany, most basic research in the United States takes place in universities rather than in independent research centers (like the Max Planck Institutes). The result is to encourage the premier research institutions and their emulators to prioritize patentable and applied research, actively pursue university-industry partnerships, develop innovation districts, emphasize technology transfer and generate spin-offs.

U.S. higher education is distinctive in many ways, above all, in the public-private divide (which leaves public institutions subject to legislative whims) and the existence of a highly competitive national education marketplace in which institutions strive for prestige, resources, talent and revenue.

The strengths of the U.S. R-1s are many, including access to multiple revenue streams, relative autonomy from outside control and an entrepreneurial mind-set. So, too, are certain weaknesses—for example, the elites’ concern with exclusivity, the prioritization of research over teaching and the faculty members who regard themselves as free agents and who equate academic freedom with freedom from external oversight and accountability. Yet another negative: outside of a select number of highly elite institutions, cost has become a barrier to access to R-1s not just for those from the lowest income households, but the working class and lower middle class.

Kirby’s U.S. examples illustrate the dangers of overextension—of biting off more than they can chew, given the available amounts of funding. Lacking strategic focus and much central coordination, America’s elite research institutions strive to please every constituency and stakeholder. As a result, their structures have grown more complex and their roles increasingly diffuse. In addition to their traditional core functions—the triad of teaching, research and service—campuses have become engines of economic development, drivers of equity and upward mobility and service and activity providers (some student-facing and others community- or alumni-directed).

Like parents, universities pay a steep cost for their inability to say no. Paying the price has required campuses to become ardent and aggressive pursuers of revenue, with some of these income-generating activities at odds with their nonprofit mission.

Kirby doesn’t pull his punches. He considers Duke exceptional among elite universities in its more coherent and centralized approach to institutional planning, which led to a decision to emphasize interdisciplinarity, innovation and internationalization. In contrast, Harvard and UC Berkeley lacked such clarity of focus, unity of vision and centralized authority, making it far harder to adjust to shifting circumstances or respond to recurrent crises.

The book’s Chinese examples underscore the power, but also the potential weaknesses, of a national vision and strategic focus when coupled with coordinated state investment and robust talent pipelines. Between 1978 and 2020, university enrollment grew from 860,000 to 40 million, with half of all 18- to 22-year-olds attending college and six million students graduating annually. But even as college enrollment expanded at a breakneck pace, the government focused most resources on a small subset of state-favored institutions and closely monitored research performance in the natural, physical and biomedical sciences, engineering and agriculture. Especially striking is the Chinese universities’ stress on internationalization, symbolized by the Schwarzman Scholars program and which includes partnerships with foreign institutions and a rapid increase in the number of international students.

But whether the Chinese institutions can become and persist as global leaders ultimately hinges on politics. Political interference, whether in Berlin during the 1930s, or in Beijing, Hong Kong or Florida today, inevitably damages the quality of college teaching and research and makes it impossible to hire or retain the most productive scholars.

Kirby expresses hope for the future of Chinese education. He considers the leading Chinese institutions to be among the world’s most innovative and shows how aggressively they pursue Chinese scholars who were trained abroad. Adding to his hopefulness is the fact that these campuses grew up in interaction with Western universities. and that many of their leaders strongly embrace the same academic values as their Western counterparts.

I take several lessons away from Kirby’s book:

  1. Universities can improve rapidly. But they can also decline quickly. As the U.S. consul to Germany put it in 1904, “During the nineteenth century German universities led the world in erudition and scientific investigation and their great professors attracted many students from all parts of the world in quest of higher education.” But, of course, by the 1930s, that was no longer the case. Decline came from without, but also from within: from campus politicization and polarization, from a retreat from high academic standards and from the failure to retain and hire the most promising and productive scholars.
  2. Ambition is important and sustained ambition can make a big difference. But ambition is not enough. Quality scholars, by themselves, are insufficient. Great universities aren’t just an agglomeration of productive scholars; they are intellectual leaders. Here one thinks of Yale in its heyday, when its law school developed the concept of legal realism, its literature departments took the lead in the advent of postmodernism and deconstruction and the eminent U.S. historians—John Blassingame, Robert Cover, David Brion Davis, Edmund Morgan and C. Vann Woodward—dedicated themselves to demonstrating the centrality of slavery and the Black experience to everything that is American.
  3. The relationship between elite education and national power and world leadership is dialectical. No great power is without a great university and, conversely, great powers cultivate great universities. Great powers understand that intellectual and cultural leadership is a key component of power; they understand that great powers are pacesetters in culture and education. Great universities attract talent from around the world and when some of those graduates return home, they carry with them ideas that they learned overseas. But the relationship between elite education and national power takes other forms. Elite universities produce a disproportionate share of leaders, while the research that their faculty undertake informs government policy. In turn, these institutions depend heavily on government funding.

Kirby’s book tackles three key questions head-on:

  1. What is a great university? Early-19th-century Germany set the standard for what a great university should be: a dedication to the advancement of knowledge, not simply its preservation and transmission and a curriculum that rests on the liberal arts.
  2. What makes a university great? A supportive government that was not intrusive; a capacity for self-governance, including the faculty’s freedom to make appointments and design the curriculum without outside interference; and an intense commitment to academic freedom.
  3. Is American academic pre-eminence threatened? If the U.S. turns inward, if it fails to support these institutions generously, if its talent pipeline diminishes and if U.S. universities retreat from a strong emphasis on research, then, yes, American leadership is threatened.

I learned a lot from this fascinating book. It does, however, impel me to raise a few questions.

1. How should we measure academic excellence? Kirby is a humanist, but his book relies heavily on global rankings as a measure of quality, rankings slanted toward the sciences and with doubtful claims to objectivity. As he is well aware, such rankings can be gamed. Methodologies differ, the weighting of variables varies and the underlying data often prove unreliable, even in the case of patents or citations per faculty member.

Measures of learning tend to focus on inputs, like student-faculty ratios, rather than outcomes, while the worth of measures of “internationalization,” like the number of international faculty or students, isn’t self-evident. Assessments of institutional reputation are especially problematic. Not only are such assessments highly subjective, but are at times intentionally manipulated. Worse yet, a single indicator of institutional quality can conflate programs of disparate value and can reinforce disparities among institutions.

If one were to assess global impact in the humanities over the past half century, it might well be French universities that had the most powerful influence.

2. Which is more important—individual institutions or national ecosystems? University reputations rise and fall. Clark University, once a national leader in graduate education, is now ranked 94th among national universities by U.S. News. Recently, Yale’s reputation has fallen somewhat, while other U.S. institutions have climbed, most notably MIT, which now stands at the top of some international rankings. This country’s competitive higher education ecosystem gives ambitious institutions like Arizona State or the University of Houston, opportunities to climb.

3. Can and should the United States fundamentally alter its academic hierarchy? I hold out no fears for the future of the Ivy League. Those universities’ swollen endowments ensure that their research enterprise will remain strong come hell or high water. But academic talent—both of faculty and the students—is much more widely dispersed than it was in the past. As a consequence, government research investments need to be distributed far more democratically. As Steven Brint has argued, public research universities make a greater contribution to human capital development and research publication, then do private universities. The number of Research-1 universities has risen rapidly in recent years—from just 59 in 1994 to 137 in 2021—and I’m convinced that it makes sense to further encourage this process. The more, the merrier.

I wholeheartedly endorse two injunctions that undergird Kirby’s book:

  • Self-isolating universities—universities that fail to attract great talent from beyond their borders—will not remain great and their decline will harm the nation that they serve. America’s research universities will falter if they fail to recruit global talent as faculty and students and the nation will grow weaker if it fails to retain that talent.
  • No great university can remain great by standing still. Kirby cites Richard Brodhead’s remark about Harvard and the “inertia of excellence”: the complacency that ultimately weakens successful academic institutions when they fail to innovate in response to shifting realities.

For far too long, this country’s higher ed hierarchy evolved glacially. The result was that the institutions that served the most diverse and disadvantaged college students were not deemed research-intensive and their faculty were given teaching loads that made serious research trying at best and impossible at worst.

Many people disagree with me, but I don’t believe that students benefit from instructors who are wholly dedicated to teaching. I’m convinced that all students benefit from interacting with active, engaged scholars who contribute to the advancement of knowledge. A single-minded devotion to teaching, I’m afraid to say, will inevitably lead to stagnation, disengagement and burnout.

If we want American higher education to remain vibrant and dynamic, we need more research universities, not fewer. I’ve read that intellectual engagement slows cognitive decline in old age. I’m a historian, so I can’t say. But I can say this: It’s research and scholarly publication that keeps the faculty intellectually alive.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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