Our Universities: Why Are They Failing? by Anthony Grafton | The New York Review of Books

Our Universities: Why Are They Failing? by Anthony Grafton | The New York Review of Books.

Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?

November 24, 2011

Anthony Grafton

American universities crowd the tops of many world rankings, and though these ratings are basically entertainment for university administrators and alumni, they do reflect certain facts. A number of American universities offer their faculty salaries and working conditions, laboratories and libraries that few institutions elsewhere can match. They spend more not only on their staff, but also on their graduate and undergraduate students, than their peers overseas. Though their fees seem enormous by European or Asian standards, they have worked hard in recent years to keep them from deterring poor students by offering more generous aid for undergraduates and by paying full fees for all doctoral students. At every level of the system, dedicated professors are setting students on fire with enthusiasm for everything from the structure of crystals to the structure of poems.

Yet American universities also attract ferocious criticism, much of it from professors and from journalists who know them well, and that’s entirely reasonable too. Every coin has its other side, every virtue its corresponding vice—and practically every university its festering sores. At the most prestigious medical schools, professors publish the work of paid flacks for pharmaceutical companies under their own names. At many state universities and more than a few private ones, head football and basketball coaches earn millions and their assistants hundreds of thousands for running semiprofessional teams. Few of these teams earn much money for the universities that sponsor them, and some brutally exploit their players.

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