Academic Research To 1940

TO ADVANCE KNOWLEDGE The Growth of American Research Universities, 1900-1940. Roger L. Geiger. Oxford University Press, New York, 1986. 335 pp. $27.50. Among the systems of higher education in Western nations, the American system is something of an anomaly in its size, diversity and capacity to accommodate new lines of research.

By | November 17, 1986

The Growth of American Research Universities, 1900-1940.
Roger L. Geiger.
Oxford University Press, New York, 1986. 335 pp.

Among the systems of higher education in Western nations, the American system is something of an anomaly in its size, diversity and capacity to accommodate new lines of research. The American university unites research and teaching, linking higher learning to the broad based system of colleges, in which middle class people ac quire the values, skills and social connections for middle class careers. The locus of entrepreneur ship has remained in the departments, relatively free of control from the top. Research is seen as a career for the many, not a calling for a few.

How this system took shape and how it works is the subject of Roger Geiger's book. The book is in tended to be a survey for the general reader. It is based almost exclusively on printed sources (for example, university reports) and a slender secondary literature. This reliance on secondary sources has limited Geiger's ability to draw out sound general themes; the book is a survey of the state of the art, not a novel interpretive synthesis.

If there is a unifying theme in the book it is that academic scholarship is shaped by who provides the capital resources for research, and how. Geiger, a historian of education, has done original work in analyzing the financial resources of the 16 research universities he considers. He tries to match the profile of support with the profile of re search to show how the different purposes of alumni, promoters of civic culture, foundations, corporations and other patrons have shaped research style.

Prior to World War I, support for research came mainly from small ad hoc gifts from local communities. This support slowly dwindled, Geiger suggests, when disciplines became professionalized and scholars looked more exclusively to their peers.

The 1920s saw the rise of fundraising campaigns among alumni, who were far more interested in collegiate life than in scholarship. As a result, though research benefited from growing budgets, it did so indirectly, and the earlier unity between teaching and research began to erode.

Business and cultural elites had a broader vision of the economic and cultural role of universities, and their patronage shaped academic values and practices in quite different ways, generally more favorable to scholarship.

Finally there were the great foundations, especially the six Carnegie and Rockefeller boards, which Geiger sees as the "most dynamic element in the research system" in the 1920s. Rightly, I think, he dismisses criticisms that foundations dominated university policy and sees instead a complex mix of common goals and cross purposes and a growing ability to understand and accommodate to each others' needs and limitations.

The chapters on foundations illustrate the limitations of Geiger's reliance on the secondary literature; without systematic research on how foundation programs actually worked and how departments actually got and used foundation grants, his conclusions are predictably limp.

The account of industrial patronage, which is based on two studies, one of MIT and one of Caltech, gives little sense of the ex tent of industrial patronage in the 1920s and 1930s. The role of agricultural industries in state universities is not even mentioned.

Where Geiger has systematically gathered evidence on the various kinds of support for research, his observations are informed and shrewd. So too where he has systematically gathered evidence from university reports. He displays a real knack for bringing institutional personalities to life, and one of the most tantalizing sections of the book is a comparative analysis of the diverse profiles of patronage and research at Chicago, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Michigan and California. But the analysis re mains at the level of the administrations and seldom descends to the level of the departments, where the real action was. Consequently, Geiger is able to conclude only that the system got bigger and remained diverse. There is a great idea for a book here, but the research re mains to be done.

The other theme that ties the book together is careers-how individuals are recruited to academic and scholarly careers and how conditions of academic employment are controlled and changed. Here there is a substantial body of re search on which to build, and the author's experience in the history of education serves him well. Academic readers will take a personal interest in much that he has to say; for example, in how the "publish or perish" system of promotion arose to remedy the inequities of an older system of "luck or languish," in which regular, predictable promotion depended on getting outside offers. So do we always seem to leap from the frying pan into the fire.

Geiger does not attempt to bring history to bear on the current state of affairs in academia but gives his readers much food for reflection. I was struck by how resistant the American university system has proved to be to all efforts to change its fundamental structure.

The history of American research universities shows that the best strategy for improving academic scholarship is to work within existing structures, discovering what an institution does best and seeing how these advantages can be better used. But will this continue to be the best strategy? The research university in the 1980s and 1990s is confronted with new and multiple threats. Might the resurgence of alumni power fatally erode the ideal that the best teaching is that based on unsolved problems? And what about the growing competition from corporations in fields like biotechnology and information science? Will university scientists remain competitive only in those lines of research where a slower pace of progress is suited to a hybrid role that permits only part-time research?

There are no answers to these crucial questions. We will have to see what happens. But we will see more clearly if we have the historical knowledge and perspective that Geiger has brought together here. Read the book. It's not the last word, but it is a start.

Kohler is a professor in the Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 19104.

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