This post is a review essay of a new book called Research Universities and the Public Good. It appeared in the current issue of American Journal of Sociology. Here’s a link to a PDF of the original.
Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future
By Jason Owen-Smith. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press,
2018. Pp. xii + 213. $35.00.
David F. Labaree
American higher education has long been immune to the kind of criticism
levied against elementary and secondary education because it has been seen
as a great success story, in contrast to the popular narrative of failure that
has been applied to the lower levels of the system. And the rest of the world
seems to agree with this distinction. Families outside the United States have
not been eager to send their children to our schools, but they have been
clamoring for admission to the undergraduate and graduate programs at
our colleges and universities. In the last few years, however, this reputational
immunity has been quickly fading. The relentlessly rationalizing reformers
who have done so much harm to U.S. schools in the name of accountability
have now started to direct their attention to higher education. Watch out,
they’re coming for us.
One tiny sector of the huge and remarkably diverse structure of U.S.
higher education has been particularly vulnerable to this contagion, namely,
the research university. This group represents only 3% of the more than
5,000 degree-granting institutions in the country, and it educates only a
small percentage of college students while sucking up a massive amount of
public and private resources. Its highly paid faculty don’t teach very much,
instead focusing their time instead on producing research on obscure topics
published in journals for the perusal of their colleagues rather than the public.
No wonder state governments have been reducing their funding for public
research universities and the federal government has been cutting its support
for research. No wonder there are strong calls for disaggregating the
multiplicity of functions that make these institutions so complex, so that
the various services of the university can be delivered more cost-effectively
In his new book, Jason Owen-Smith, a sociology professor at the University
of Michigan, mounts a valiant and highly effective defense of the apparently
indefensible American research university. While acknowledging the
complexity of functions that run through these institutions, he focuses his
attention primarily on the public benefits that derive from their research
production. As he notes, although they represent less than 3% of the institutions
of higher education, they produce nearly 90% of the system’s research and development. In an era when education is increasingly portrayed as primarily a private good—providing degrees whose benefits only accrue to the degree holders—he deliberately zeroes in on the way that university research constitutes a public good whose benefits accrue to the community as a whole.
He argues that the core public functions of the research university are to
serve as “sources of knowledge and skilled people, anchors for communities,
industries, and regions, and hubs connecting all of the far-flung parts of society”
(p. 1; original emphasis). In chapter 1 he spells out the overall argument,
in chapter 2 he explores the usefulness of the peculiarly complex
organization of the research university, in chapters 3–5 he examines in more
detail each of the core functions, and at the end he suggests ways that university
administrators can help position their institutions to demonstrate
the value they provide the public.
The core function is to produce knowledge and skill. The most telling
point the author makes about this function is that it works best if allowed
to emerge organically from the complex incentive structure of the university
itself instead of being directed by government or industry toward solving
the most current problems. Trying to make research relevant may well
make it dysfunctional. Mie Augier and James March (“The Pursuit of Relevance
in Management Education,” California Management Review 49
: 129–46) argue that the pursuit of relevance is afflicted by both ambiguity
(we don’t know what’s going to be relevant until we encounter the
next problem) and myopia (by focusing too tightly on the current case we
miss what it is a case of ). In short, as Owen-Smith notes, investing in research
universities is a kind of social insurance by which we develop answers
to problems that haven’t yet emerged.While the private sector focuses
on applied research that is likely to have immediate utility, public funds are
most needed to support the basic research whose timeline for utility is unknown
but whose breadth of benefit is much greater.
The second function of the research university is to serve as a regional anchor.
A creative tension that energizes this institution is that it’s both cosmopolitan
and local. It aspires to universal knowledge, but it’s deeply grounded
in place. Companies can move, but universities can’t. This isn’t just because
of physical plant, a constraint that also affects companies; it’s because universities
develop a complex web of relationships with the industries and governments
and citizens in their neighborhood. Think Stanford and Silicon
Valley. Owen-Smith makes the analogy to the anchor store in a shopping
The third function of the research university is to serve as a hub, which is
the cosmopolitan side of its relationship with the world. It’s located in place
but connected to the intellectual and economic world through a complex
web of networks. Like the university itself, these webs emerge organically
out of the actions of a vast array of actors pursuing their own research enterprises
and connecting with colleagues and funding sources and clients
and sites of application around the country and the globe. Research
universities are uniquely capable of convening people from all sectors
around issues of mutual interest. Such synergies benefit everyone.
The current discourse on universities, which narrowly conceives of them
as mechanisms for delivering degrees to students, desperately needs the
message that Owen-Smith delivers here. Students may be able to get a degree
through a cheap online program, but only the complex and costly system
of research universities can deliver the kinds of knowledge production,
community development, and network building that provide such invaluable
benefits for the public as a whole. One thing I would add to the author’s
analysis is that American research universities have been able to develop
such strong public support in the past in large part because they combine
top-flight scholarship with large programs of undergraduate education that
are relatively accessible to the public and rather undemanding intellectually.
Elite graduate programs and research projects rest on a firm populist base
that may help the university survive the current assaults, a base grounded
as much in football and fraternities as in the erudition of its faculty. This,
however, is but a footnote to this powerfully framed contribution to the literature
on U.S. higher education.
American Journal of Sociology, 125:2 (September, 2019), pp. 610-12