What U.S. Universities Need to Do to Stay on Top

What are the biggest threats to the preeminence of U.S. research universities? Last week a National Academies' panel and several dozen invited guests circled around that question during a 2.5 day meeting devoted to a congressionally requested study on how those institutions can help the country prosper in a global economy.

The report won't be out until next summer, and it's unlikely to address the question directly. But the participants, leading figures in academia and industry, offered a range of opinions. On one end are those who believe that several Asian nations are on the verge of creating research universities on a par with the best that the West has to offer. On the other are those who feel not only that U.S. research universities are still formidable, but that helping the rest of the world rise to their level will benefit everyone.

Paul Chu, president emeritus of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and William Green, chairman and CEO of Accenture, took the lead in articulating the point of view that parity is not far off.

"I'm not from your world, and I'm eternally grateful for that," Green said, referring to the contingent of university presidents and senior administrators in the room. "What happened to industry in 2010 was an incredible power shift, from north to south and from west to east, in terms of economic and political power. The leading competitors to U.S. companies today have names that the average person can't even pronounce."

Green said that last year Accenture hired 64,000 people, only 7000 of whom work in the United States. The same changes are sweeping through academic research, he asserted, and at a pace that's quicker than most people think. "I think we need a call to arms."

Chu, now a physics professor at the University of Houston in Texas, shares that sense of urgency. One big advantage that developing nations enjoy, he noted, is the chance to be fast followers. "The rest of the world is trying to build itself up using the best of the U.S. model without the baggage of what doesn't work well," he said. "China's next 5-year plan sets a goal of devoting 2% of GDP to research. And the provincial governments are also kicking in, with support for start-up packages and other incentives. That's the real threat to the United States, and it's happening right now."

At the other end of the spectrum sat Jonathan Cole, a sociologist and former provost of Columbia University who said that U.S. universities could be even more dominant than they are now. "There's simply too much talent for [U.S. schools] to become third-rate institutions," he told the panel. "But we are not willing to make the changes needed for universities to realize their potential. So the real threat is that the slope [of progress] will flatten, and they will never reach their peak." He also urged the panel to be measured in its response to Congress. "I like the idea of a call to arms," he said. "But I don't think we should overstate what is happening and what others can do to us."

Cole also questioned China's ability to embrace "the nature of academic freedom," adding that tepid support for that principle "will slow them down." But former Massachusetts Institute of Technology president Charles Vest, now president of the National Academy of Engineering, suggested that Cole was selling China short.

"I think the rate of change [in the rankings of] academic institutions may be faster than you are describing," Vest remarked. To which Green added, "I think the speed is profound, and that [China] is capable of dramatic progress. It makes me wonder if it's enough for us to just nibble around the edges, or does the system need to really transform itself?"

Participants offered an abundance of opinions on the internal impediments to U.S. research excellence, which some panelists felt were just as serious as the external threats. Panelist James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, suggested that the country needs a national education policy that encompasses its research universities. "Most countries have one, and it usually includes a statement about creating X number of world-class research universities," Duderstadt said. "Our emphasis has always been on providing access. But maybe we should have a national policy that says we need to have a certain number of global research universities." But Peter Lange, provost of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, thought that such an approach would be too prescriptive. He would prefer to see the government remove specific obstacles and then let the market play out. "I don't think that [a national policy] is necessary," he said. "If you write the rules right, the leading universities will emerge."

Sally Mason, president of the University of Iowa, pointed to state legislatures cutting support to higher education in an attempt to balance state budgets. "We can cut expenses—and we have—because we're smart," she said. "But decisions about our contribution to creativity and innovation have to be under our own control. The watchful eyes of state legislators are not helpful."

Robert Berdahl, president of the 63-member Association of American Universities, noted "the rise of for-profit schools" as a major threat to research institutions. "I worry that the public will see them as a good alternative model to educate U.S. students," he told the panel, without mentioning by name such rapidly growing institutions as the University of Phoenix and DeVry University. "But their cost structures are entirely different. If the public thinks they are more cost-effective, it will undermine our existence."

The chair of the panel, Chad Holliday, said after the meeting that he leans toward Cole's optimistic assessment of where U.S. research universities stand in the global pecking order but that he also agrees on the need for decisive action. "I agree with Cole that we're not about to be overtaken" by the rest of the world, Holliday, chairman of the Bank of America and former CEO of DuPont, told ScienceInsider. "But that doesn't mean China isn't doing a great job of using its science and technology to create jobs and raise the standard of living for its people. We're not behind, but when you see someone closing on you so fast, we need to make sure that our universities are doing what they need to do to strengthen our economy. And clearly we are not."

Citing funding cuts to public institutions in California and other states, Cole himself warned that "we could blow it if we follow the lead of some states, which don't seem to understand that it's infinitely more difficult to recreate excellence than to preserve it." Holliday reiterated that sentiment: "If we even do fall behind, it will be very hard to get back on top."