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Research and Relevant Knowledge: American Research Universities since World War II

reviewed by W. J. Rorabaugh - 1994

coverTitle: Research and Relevant Knowledge: American Research Universities since World War II
Author(s): Roger L. Geiger
Publisher: Oxford University Press, Oxford
ISBN: 019505346X, Pages: , Year: 1993
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This fine study thoroughly chronicles the history of American research universities since World War II. Roger Geiger marshals abundant evidence and moves easily from general statements to key case studies to tell a subtle and complex story. Here is a summary of what happened. Until World War II, the United States had little organized research outside big business; universities received modest grants, mostly from private foundations for narrow purposes. During the war universities became defense research centers. By 1945, when university-based nuclear physicists got credit for winning the war, both the academy and the federal government wanted to maintain a close relationship. As the Cold War began, campuses obtained defense contracts for applied research and Atomic Energy Commission funds. Schools did not complain about the narrowness of these grants because they received generous general support through tuition reimbursement under the GI bill, which supported half of all students.

Medical research developed strong support in Congress, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which began to expand rapidly in 1947, quickly provided important new university awards. In 1950 the National Science Foundation (NSF) was created to sustain basic science, which had been undernourished. The Cold War kept dollars flowing, and the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 generated more funds, including National Defense Education Act (NDEA) graduate fellowships. In these years the Ford Foundation also became important, especially in the social sciences. In the 1960s President John Kennedy's space program made the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) a major player, but by the end of that decade research funds from NASA, NDEA, defense, and Ford had declined. NSF remained static, and universities in the 1970s increasingly depended on NIH. This trend favored institutions with medical schools. While the 1980s brought no new federal initiatives, research universities profited from increased girls, higher tuition, and corporate sponsorship, amid rising internal disputes about the nature of universities in a diverse society.

This summary fails to convey the richness of this book, which always introduces the telling statistic or the useful case study at just the right moment. Thus, for the 1940s, Geiger emphasizes Berkeley's rise, crediting President Robert Gordon Sproul and Radiation Laboratory Director Ernest O. Lawrence. Chancellor (later, President) Clark Kerr continued the tradition of excellence. Stanford, facing different problems, built more slowly but in a powerful long-term fashion under President Wallace Sterling and Provost Frederick Terman, who wanted Stanford to be the West Coast's Harvard. While Sterling cultivated the Ford Foundation, which decided to uplift one private western university to national prominence, Terman acted to establish a few departments as "steeples of excellence" from which assaults might later be launched in other areas. Stanford climbed from the second tier into the top rank of research universities, a feat that went unmatched, although others shared the ambition. Pitt's near-fatal overexpansion in the 1960s is recounted in detail. More inspiring are the rise of Arizona and Georgia Tech after 1970. In all these cases, Geiger focuses on talented individual leaders and perhaps understates the importance of institutional arrangements, although all large organizations do reflect the values held at the top.

The book stimulates a series of questions: Did the shift between 1940 and 1970 from private to public higher education have significance politically? culturally? educationally? Why was California the home of two extraordinary success stories? And why were both in the Bay Area? Why, compared with Berkeley and Stanford, were UCLA and the University of Southern California laggards, especially when most of the wealth and population was in southern California? Why was California unique in supporting public higher education that was competitive at the highest level? At what point did other states come to recognize that spending money on research universities was a net producer of income? Why did the South lag?

Geiger notes that throughout the postwar period research became dispersed among more and more schools. Did this trend reflect larger numbers of strong institutions, or was it merely the development of a pork-barrel distribution system driven by the politics of federal funding? Which of the shifting ways of doing business for research universities over the past half-century produced the best research? the best universities? Did anyone care about efficiency? How could this be measured? Perhaps the stimulation of such questions rather than answers is the real purpose of this book. Geiger's frequently illuminating and always scholarly work will be highly useful to anyone who thinks seriously about the past, present, or future of research universities.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 95 Number 4, 1994, p. 586-588
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 121, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 8:17:23 PM

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