Higher Education Challenges

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Columbia provost emeritus Jonathan Cole will discuss his new book “Toward a More Perfect University,” which deals with the way institutions of higher education should evolve in the decades ahead.

Ted Simons: How should Universities grow and change in the coming years? Columbia University provost emeritus Johnathan Cole addresses that issue in his new book "Toward a More Perfect University." Which deals with how institution was high are education can and should evolve. We recently spoke with Cole about his book. Good to have you back here. We had you here a few years ago. You were writing about universities. You are back at it again here with "Toward a More Perfect University." What should a University strive to be?

Johnathan Cole: Well, I think it's got to strive to do two things very, very well. And that is to educate as large a proportion of the population who are capable of learning at university, and they have to produce knowledge that is going to transform the nation and the people of the world. That is knowledge which may involve curing diseases, new technologies, and new thoughts and ideas in the social behavioral sciences. So they have to do both research and transit that knowledge.

Ted Simons: When Salmon said you got a University and you got a Research University, you are saying, you got both?

Johnathan Cole: Yes. The research universities, and there are only about 150 of them in the United States, are very much focused on doing both research and teaching, both undergraduate, graduates and professional school students. Research is as much at the center of what their mission is as is the teaching mission, although you can never forget that your first calling is teaching your students.

Ted Simons: And so again, some people say teaching versus the creation of new knowledge, you are saying there, those should be together?

Johnathan Cole: I think increasingly they should be together. Because the more that students even undergraduates actually have experiences in laboratories or working with professors on research, the more they actually learn, and there have been a lot of studies that have demonstrated that. So the combination is what you are really looking to get.

Ted Simons: Are American universities still the envy of the world?

Johnathan Cole: There's no question that they are the best in the world. We are kings and queens of the mountain. No competitors are in sight. So the question you might ask is, why am I writing a book called "Toward a More Perfect University"? And I think that the answer to that, simple answer is we haven't come close to the full possibilities of what we could be. So we ought to rethink the university despite there being no external competition, and improve upon every aspect of that university.

Ted Simons: Real quickly, who you did we get to that lofty place?

Johnathan Cole: We got there by a great values system which defended ideas, even radical ideas. We had very conservative methodologies to essentially vet those ideas. We built structures that were extraordinarily beneficial for the development of knowledge. And teaching of students. And we had at the end of the Second World War, the Federal government come in and sponsor research in ways that levels that we had never anticipated before and never existed in other countries.

Ted Simons: And so sounds great. And yet we constantly hear criticism of American Universities. I can get to some of the ideas here in a second and some of the concerns. Why all the criticism?

Johnathan Cole: Well, people always like to criticize and there's a lot to criticize. We can be better. And the critics have often points that are very valid. There's no reason why people who can't afford college but who have enormous ability shouldn't be able to attend college. We could be able to, as a nation, as a state, be able to make college affordable. And that should be a goal of the next five, 10 years. That everyone who is capable of learning at a college and graduating is able to go despite the absence of means. And they have criticisms that are sometimes unfounded. There's a great deal of waste at Universities. That I think is not really true. They criticize tuition increases. But in many ways the states are responsible for those tuition increases because they have cut back on the percentage of the budgets of these universities. Michigan, the University of Michigan now receives seven cents on dollar of its budget from the state. It's not much more in Arizona, frankly, or in California. Those have great institutions of higher learning.

Ted Simons: So when those say the costs to go to a university, the costs are excessive, the costs are escalating, that's their criticism. It's a valid criticism, is it not?

Johnathan Cole: If you can go to the University of Michigan for $7,000 a year, and if you get a degree from the University of Michigan, your lifetime earnings are apt to be between $1 and $2 million higher that if you graduated only with a high school diploma. Then it's a pretty good ratio of return for investment.

Ted Simons: You write that affordability is exaggerated by the media. Explain, please.

Johnathan Cole: Most of the time they are focusing on the ivy league schools that charge $55,000 in tuition, not on the city University of New York, for example, where 60 Persian of the students go without paying any tuition. California is quite similar. And the tuition is paid often in these states, is not very high comparable, compared to not only the private universities, which is the focal point. A lot of the discussion, but it is also not talked in terms of the value equation and what the return is on that investment.

Ted Simons: Some. Your other ideas you write that there's, it's a time for bold and new ideas. You want to better involvement with the K-12 system. You write about how we need to curtail our love affair with high stakes testing. Talk about that, please.

Johnathan Cole: Yes, I think the Americans have become great believers that IQ test, sat tests, act tests are actual measures of intelligence. And they are measures of one kind of intelligence but not all the eight different types of intelligence. And so we tend to get people going to more selective schools like the Ivy League schools that turn out to be rather boring and very similar to each other. In fact, all the quirkiness has gone out of the student body because they all, always take the same beaten path. They don't deviate from it because otherwise they won't be able to get in or fear they bone are won't be able to get in. Poets like Allen Ginsburg couldn't get into Columbia because he got a C in chemistry. We shouldn't have a system that relies on these tests.

Ted Simons: The old John Dewey idea, learn by being engaged in life?

Johnathan Cole: I think it's a much better preferable system because it also is demonstrable that people not only learn better that way but they retain more learning that way.

Ted Simons: To that point, you also talk about increasing critical learning skills, increasing skepticism. Talk to us about that.

Johnathan Cole: I think we are fed a lot including by the media and by people who are in political parties running for election, so-called facts. And a lot of our citizens don't know how to discern between what is fact and what is fiction. If we have a more skeptical population about whether or not what is being fed to us is really factual, they will be able to critically analyze that and they will actually be able to engage in this civic responsibilities better than they would otherwise.

Ted Simons: Was that skepticism, that ability for critical thinking; was it there more when humanities were more at the center of the University? You write it's time for Universities to bring back humanities to the center instead of the perimeter. What happened to humanities? How did they fall from grace?

Johnathan Cole: It's not altogether clear but part of the reason for the humanities falling from the center of things is that people don't believe that they produce graduates who can get jobs. That's totally wrong. And business leaders will attest to the fact that people who can write well, think critically and think as part of a group are much more likely to be productive in the labor force than those who just are learning basically by rote in the sciences or the social sciences. The other thing is that one of the reasons the humanities has actually gone down in terms of numbers is that it used to be extremely appealing to young women. Now young women who didn't get jobs in other sectors of the economy are going to law school, going to medical school and they want to major in these premedical courses. It's the opening up the opportunity structure for women that had led in some sense to the downturn in the numbers.

Ted Simons: Interesting. Almost like Freakonomics there. You write a lot about Arizona state University. You write this is the, this is your -- the quintessential example of revolutionary change. My goodness.

Johnathan Cole: I happen to believe, truth in advertising is Mike, we worked at Columbia for a decade but I think he is the most dynamic leader in higher education today. He's charismatic and what he's done in 13 years to transform the kind of university, not only at ASU in any traditional sense, transform the way in which it is organized, structurally, the way we think about problem solving, represents a new model for us to think about.

Ted Simons: Well, and he is a charismatic fellow. You talk about charismatic authority. You write about how he has that. But what happens when he decides to go?

Johnathan Cole: Well, that's an open question. And I think it's a very difficult question. I think what you are going to need is either try to find somebody who is similar to Mike with that kind of charisma but also there are people who can carry on the idea without necessarily having his charisma. Because he is going to have left the institution having put in place so much by way of innovation that the next generation of leaders can basically expand on what he's done without necessarily radically changing it.

Ted Simons: But is it a sustainable model for other universities? I mean constant revolution sounds great but at some point you have to level off a little bit and sustain. Don't you?

Johnathan Cole: You do and it's a model that's good for a number of universities. But I think Mike would be the first person to say that he's not trying to make every university like ASU. It is a need for a diverse set of universities of different types. You can have the old stodgy universities like I'm at, Columbia, or the Harvards or the Yales or Princetons and they will keep on going. With their prestige and the rest. Organized the way they are. But you also need dynamic change and dynamic leadership and you are getting that here in Arizona.

Ted Simons: Last question. Are you optimistic that universities, American Universities, will remain the envy of the world and continue to grow and change?

Johnathan Cole: I am very optimist I can if the states understand the value of these institutions to their local economies, to their states, and to the country as a whole. Maybe the world as a whole and the Federal government becomes more involved in supporting higher education, higher learning, making sure that every youngster who has the ability can attain a college degree.

Ted Simons: All right. It's good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.

Johnathan Cole: Great to be here.

Ted Simons: And that is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS. Members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Jonathan Cole: Columbia Provost Emiritus

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