By Jeremy Manier
Photo by Dan Dry

Where Chicago shines beyond any other institution I know of is in this core value of academic freedom and free inquiry.”
—Jonathan Cole
Author, The Great American University

Jonathan Cole has no formal ties to the University of Chicago. But as he set out to explain what makes American universities essential to this country’s creativity and prosperity, Chicago kept coming up.

Cole, who served as Columbia University’s provost and dean of faculties for 14 years, sought to recount how American universities became “engines of innovation” that are envied around the world. His new book, The Great American University, analyzes the research universities that have spawned discoveries ranging from GPS devices and lasers to childhood leukemia treatments and the Heimlich Maneuver.

Along the way Cole realized that the story was about values as much as technology. History showed that to be innovative, a university also had to be free. It must reward good ideas regardless of their source, and foster a culture of constant questioning. Many of those values have found their fullest expression at the University of Chicago, Cole believes.

The University of Chicago as an Ideal Type

“Where Chicago shines beyond any other institution I know of is in this core value of academic freedom and free inquiry,” Cole said in an interview. “You can trace it back to discussions at the inception of the university. It’s clear that tradition was institutionalized and has been carried on ever since.”

True to form, on March 3 the University hosted a forum with Cole so scholars here could question and debate his ideas. Not that they disagreed with his basic conclusions—after all, the event’s title was The Great American University: The University of Chicago as an Ideal Type.”

The lead organizer was former University Provost Geoffrey Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School, who said his colleagues were “especially intrigued” by Cole’s positive portrait of their university. On a mild winter evening, students and faculty packed a lecture hall to listen and compare Cole’s ideal with reality.

Debate Ranges from Hutchins to the Kalven Report

Any traces of complacency were left behind as the panelists critiqued the University’s history. John Boyer, Dean of the College and the Martin A. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor in History and the College, tempered Cole’s praise of former University president Robert M. Hutchins as a champion of academic freedom. True, Boyer said, Hutchins made brave stands on academic freedom from the 1930s to 1950s, including his pivotal 1949 testimony against the anti-Communist “Broyles bills” in Illinois. “The policy of repression of ideas cannot work and has never worked,” Hutchins said.

But Boyer said many of Hutchins’ senior colleagues at the University felt he was overly autocratic and often intolerant of faculty-authored curricular plans that did not fit his ideal of undergraduate education. “Some felt Hutchins was fearless to the outside, reckless to the inside,” Boyer said.

Several speakers talked admiringly of the University’s 1967 Kalven report, which Cole described as “one of the briefest, clearest summaries of the essential values of free inquiry, and how they trump everything else at a university.” Richard Shweder, William Claude Reavis Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development, suggested only half-jokingly that all researchers should keep a copy of the Kalven report by their bedsides.

Shweder quoted from one of the report’s key passages: “A university faithful to its mission will provide enduring challenges to social values, policies, practices, and institutions. By design and effect, it is the institution which creates discontent with existing social arrangements and proposes new ones. In brief, a good university, like Socrates, will be upsetting.”

But Shweder argued that the freedom of researchers to do creative work is under threat today from the wide scope of federally mandated institutional review boards, whose oversight has grown to include projects that do not receive federal funding.

Humanities Research Central to Success

Some of Cole’s toughest criticism came from an audience member, former University President Hanna Holborn Gray, who questioned his use of the word “discovery” as an umbrella term to describe scholarly progress. She said research in the humanities and social sciences often strives for new interpretations or rethinking of texts, but may not involve discovery as such.

“In asking for a research university to be primarily responsible for discoveries, one loses a sense of what great scholarship can be,” said Gray, the Harry Pratt Judson Distinguished Service Professor Emerita in History. Gray said Cole also had overlooked the important role that undergraduate programs play in the reputation of research universities.

Although Cole’s book focuses on scientific advances, he said the humanities always have been central to the success of American universities—more than some foreign observers appreciate. He described a trip he took to China, where he was asked to “provide a blueprint for what it takes to create a great university from scratch.” His hosts were most interested in America’s success in science and technology, but they saw little need to develop programs in the social sciences or humanities.

“I had to tell them there simply aren’t any great universities that don’t have seamless interactions between the humanities and science,” Cole said. “Even if your main interest is science, it’s always embedded in a society. Virtually all the frontiers of science involve value questions, issues that require ethicists and people who are interested in how we make choices among competing goods.”

Interdisciplinary Culture a UChicago Hallmark

Such dialogue among disciplines is another historic achievement of the University, Cole said. Many places have tried to develop interdisciplinary cultures, he said, but “what is often a very ersatz effort at other universities has been authentic and sustained at Chicago.”

One reason for that success is the University’s tradition of evidence-driven debate in diverse fields. “Ideally, the university becomes a meeting ground where the most radical ideas can be entertained, but everyone expects the most rigorous standards of evidence,” Cole said.

Or as Shweder described his Socratic approach to education: “If someone asserts it, deny it. If someone denies it, assert it.”

In that light, the back-and-forth that Cole’s book inspired may have been the highest praise a University of Chicago audience could give.

“We think of criticism as a way to make things better,” said panelist Stephen Berry, the James Franck Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry and the College. “If you’re not comfortable with criticism, this probably isn’t the place for you. But if you can live with it and thrive on it, this is the most exciting place I know.”

Originally published on March 15, 2010.