Public Affairs
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The Great American University
Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected


Although America’s universities have become the envy of the world for their creative energy and their production of transformative knowledge, few understand how and why they have become preeminent. This groundbreaking book traces the origins and the evolution of our great universities. It shows how they grew out of sleepy colleges at the turn of the twentieth century into powerful institutions that continue to generate new industries and advance our standard of living. Far from inevitable, this transformation was enabled by a highly competitive system that invested public tax dollars in university research and students while granting universities substantial autonomy.

Today, America’s universities face considerable threats. Even greater than foreign competition are the threats from within the United States. Under the Bush administration, government increasingly imposed ideological constraints on the freedom of academic inquiry. Restrictive visa policies instituted after 9/11 continue to discourage talented foreign graduate students from training in the United States. The international financial crisis, which has depleted university endowments and state investments in higher education, threatens the vitality of some of our greatest institutions of higher learning. In order to sustain and enhance the American tradition of excellence, we must nurture this powerful—yet underappreciated—national resource.


about Jonathan R. Cole

  • Jonathan R. Cole is widely known throughout the United States for his fourteen years (1989-2003) as Columbia's provost and dean of faculties, holding the position as the university's chief academic officer for the second-longest tenure in its 254-year history. He is currently the John Mitchell Mason Professor at Columbia University.


Kirkus,STARRED review
“An elegant, comprehensive examination of how American universities became the best in the world, and why research matters….A sound, enthusiastic look at the crucial vitality of the American university system.” 

William G. Bowen, President Emeritus, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
“Jonathan Cole has given us a stimulating and provocative account of how the American research university came to be, the ideas it has contributed, and the challenges it faces. Not everyone will agree with all of the argument, but everyone can learn from it.” 

Geoffrey R. Stone, Former Provost of the University of Chicago and author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime
“Jonathan Cole has written the definitive work on the American research university. A monumental achievement, The Great American University explores the complex historical and cultural reasons for the international preeminence of American higher education, documents the profound contributions American research universities have made, and continue to make, to our nation and to the world, and identifies and analyzes the dangers that now threaten to undermine one of the strongest pillars of American excellence.”

Jeffrey D. Sachs, professor, Columbia University; director, the Earth Institute
“Jonathan Cole has produced a masterpiece, a modern classic. This is at once a scintillating biography of the great American university, a powerful diagnosis of its major challenges today, and an invaluable guide for a robust future of this unique, world-changing institution. This is sociological inquiry, technological history, and social philosophy at its most powerful, a penetrating study of how America’s research universities have been shaped by and have shaped American society. Cole’s study will be avidly read in all parts of the world, as societies attempt to emulate and adapt the strengths of America’s research universities to the challenges of building knowledge-based economies and democratic societies of the twenty-first century.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor, Harvard University
“I can think of no one better than Jonathan Cole to lead the crucial discussion on the role of the American university as the preeminent seat of intellectual and technological innovation. In the face of alarming trends in legislation and government intervention, he offers a precise and extremely well written prescription for how the American university can once again prevail.” 

Cori Bargmann, professor, the Rockefeller University; member of the National Academy of Science
“A passionate and intelligent defense of the university’s role in creating knowledge, not just disseminating it. Every university has its own story; this book steps back to tell the history of American universities as a whole. Cole describes the logic, people, and context that drove the universities to pair teaching with research and discovery. He provides an irresistible tour of advances in science and culture that grew in the universities, from artificial hips to Google to eyewitness unreliability, and a clear-eyed view of their failings, from red scares to groupthink. Cole is a compelling advocate, and his book is a resource for academics, students, and all friends of the university.”

Vartan Gregorian, president, Carnegie Corporation of New York; former president, Brown University
“The story of American universities has been one of great success. Now, at a time when American higher education in general—and American public higher education in particular—is in crisis, Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University is a timely analysis of higher education’s current problems and prospects. I hope that policymakers will heed the

other editions

  • Paperback | ISBN 9781610390972
    Pub date: 2012-04-10 | Price: $22.99/26.50 Canada
    Publisher: PublicAffairs
    6.200 x 9.300 | 640 Pages
    Education / Higher
    Education / History

  • eBook | ISBN 9780786746194
    Pub date: 2010-01-12 | Price: $15.99/19.99 Canada
    Publisher: PublicAffairs
    .000 x .000 | 640 Pages
    History / Modern / General

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