American research universities are the envy of those around the world. So why is the value of these institutions so frequently questioned by politicians, pundits and others? In Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future (Stanford University Press), Jason Owen-Smith offers a defense of these institutions, while acknowledging that they are not always well understood. Owen-Smith, a professor of sociology and executive director of the Institute for Research on Innovation and Science at the University of Michigan, answered questions via email about his new book.
Q: To many in academe, it would seem obvious that research universities promote the public good. Why did you think it necessary to make the case in this way?
A: We may think the idea is so obvious that we don’t bother to make the case as clearly and rigorously as we should. I wrote this book to show how research universities look to someone like me. Their value is obvious and it needs to be explained.
The last decade was not good for higher education. A recent Pew survey found that 58 percent of Republican-identified respondents believe colleges and universities have a negative effect on the direction of the country. States continued, and often accelerated, divestment from public universities. Increasing tuition and concerns about student debt raise questions about the sustainability of our enterprise. Under Secretary Betsy DeVos, the U.S. Department of Education is rolling back Obama-era protections for students. President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposed cuts to federal research funding that would have taken us back to pre-recession levels and imposed a dramatic cap on indirect cost recovery rates.
A new Congress may mean things are looking up, but I remain concerned. Partisan disagreement about the value of universities is dangerous in a polarized political climate. Our dominant language for talking about the value of universities and their work is ill suited to seeing and sustaining their most important purposes. Being sanguine about our contributions to the public good is a loser’s game, especially now.