By Richard Vedder
The great universities of our nation have largely neglected undergraduate teaching while emphasizing research instead. This is an extension of the German university model developed in the 19th century that took over U.S. higher education in the 20th century.
But there are other models of research that also work, as the great research labs and occasional university-based, quasi-independent research centers (e.g., the Hoover Institution at Stanford, the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton) demonstrate. To me, the most exciting development has been the growth of truly independent think tanks, particularly in the social sciences.
Yesterday, I was in DC for the American Enterprise Institute's (AEI's) annual dinner, and also attended a luncheon. I heard absolutely brilliant, riveting talks by Charles Murray and Bernard Lewis. To be sure, Lewis, the West's foremost scholar and interpreter of Islam, is Princeton-based, but AEI sponsored a marvelously illuminating lecture bringing to light a historical perspective on the challenges of future conflicts of religions and civilizations. And Charles Murray offered startling and controversial remarks on the future of liberty -- profound, provocative, and stimulating.
Two things strike me. First, it is not altogether clear that the university is always the best setting to do high level research and thinking. By trying to force most persons into a combined teaching-research role, we may not be doing justice to either important mission. Think tanks aside, the private sector is doing much cutting edge research, including basic research, and I suspect they are doing this with at least the same efficiency of universities. Second, in this day of political correctness, some things are difficult to say at a university. Murray is an absolutely world-class scholar, a political scientist educated at the best schools (i.e., a Ph.D. from M.I.T.), but I doubt any of the great universities would hire him -- he is controversial, and not a member of the fashionably left-wing establishment. Universities achieved their greatness by challenging conventions, by saying the unsayable, by using creativity and ingenuity to change the status quo for the social good. Some of that is gone now, as intellectual diversity is shunned while skin color diversity is praised. It is a shame. Thank God for competition and institutional diversity. Thank God for think tanks. Thank God for AEI