Research universities themselves are a relatively recent innovation. For most of their history, beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries, European universities were teaching institutions which attracted students to hear lectures given by eminent scholars. It was only in the 19th century that German universities began to require their faculty members to engage in the production as well as the dissemination of knowledge. The German model began to be replicated in the United States (US) following the Civil War. By the turn of the century there were perhaps a dozen credible research universities in this country, a handful of them approaching world-class status.
US research universities are vital centers for the performance of research that advances knowledge across the entire spectrum of science and engineering disciplines, contributing to the national economy as well as to local and regional economies. That the US university system is undoubtedly the best in the world can be gauged by several indicators, including the number of Nobel Prizes awarded to faculty members, and the fact that US graduate schools are favored destinations for aspiring foreign-born scientists and engineers. Several countries have tried to replicate the success of the US university system, but with limited results. One probable reason is that, unlike the situation in the United States, most foreign university systems are highly centralized and subject to control by a Ministry of Education.
Clearly, US research universities face a number of problems and cannot afford to rest on their laurels or assume that the larger society appreciates the essential role they play in the nation’s well-being. The quality of research and teaching provided by East Asian universities has been improving rapidly in recent years. As in other regions of the world, these universities (particularly in China) aspire to become competitive with universities in the United States, and may have considerable success in the future. However, the record for the past 60 years suggests that US universities can continue to compete successfully in the world market for knowledge. But they can do so only if they understand the challenges ahead and are prepared to respond to them.
Medieval and Enlightenment Origins
The first European universities that emerged during the 11th to 13th centuries (starting with Bologna, Paris, and Oxford) were primarily, indeed almost exclusively, teaching institutions. Students were attracted to these centers of learning to hear lectures by prominent scholars who were at first largely clerics and later increasingly secular authorities.1 The more eminent of these scholars sometimes published their lectures as well as results of their independent investigations and speculations. However, their income was derived primarily from teaching, although it could be supplemented by sales of books or by royal, noble, or clerical patronage. The eminence of a university’s faculty was important in attracting good students. Since the leading European universities were acknowledged as centers of learning, they brought prestige to the cities and countries where they were located and were patronized for that reason. Nevertheless, they were devoted to the transmission rather than the production of knowledge.