Creation of the Future

Frank H. T. Rhodes

Read February 2005

The US has evolved a remarkable system of higher education. In no other country will you find such a diversity of educational institutions, with extremely strong schools in every ecological niche. The spectra from community college to research university, local to national, tiny to huge, private to public (yes, even that is a spectrum), and so on represent a dazzling array of choice that is richly differentiated in nearly every aspect but price (but this isn't the place for that discussion!). For the US to remain competitive, it's clear that this sytem must grow and evolve further.

To understand this system better, I informally took Brown's course uc0170, a seminar on the modern research university. Rhodes's book was one of the course readings. Rhodes was president of Cornell.

This book promises a great deal and does several things well, but it falls short of being really good. If only Rhodes could have kept just a little more from writing like an academic, this could have been a great book—but by the time you've become a college president, I think there are certain habits that are simply beyond cure.

This book is principally a defense of the modern American research university. To Rhodes, a ``research university'' is a place like Cornell or Michigan (his two most recent academic homes). In this context, it's worth noting that the Cornell of Rhodes's experience is virtually a large and bustling state university, not the extension of a liberal arts college one might expect of an Ivy League institution.

To be sure, the book has many strong points beyond the usual platitudes. Rhodes rebels against received education, wants to create scholarly communities, and respects universities expanding their mission to engage public schools. He wants to reform PhD programs. He provides superb examples of just what the very best professors can accomplish as teachers and creators of knowledge.

On the other hand, there are many things Rhodes does poorly:

Thus, while he can turn a good phrase (as when he says ``instruction is still a cottage industry'' (p. 207)), he doesn't bring as much perspective or depth as one might wish.

What the general readership market really needs is a different book, written without the long and flowing sentences of academia. Some parts of this book would stay, such as his case studies of successful faculty. But what the book really must do is explain to the many consumers—parents, bosses, senators, even those whose social programs are affected by spending on higher education—how research universities work. In an era where many people genuinely ask, ``If you teach one course in a semester, and the course meets three hours a week, what do you do the other thirty-seven hours?'', our profession must provide firm but respectful answers. The people asking these questions are not dumb, just underinformed; even if sometimes hostile, they are primarily curious; and most of all, if left in the dark on questions such as this, they can turn hostile and dismantle the entire system. Rhodes's book is too weak, too shorn of details, and too full of platitudes to keep the curious from turning into a mob.

A more creatively presented complement is Kirp's book, which touches on much less but does it better (at least for a lay reader).