Cornell University president emeritus Frank Rhodes chuckles recalling the incident. It was back around 1986. Ronald Reagan’s acting science advisor John McTague had toured the campus and come away extremely impressed with Cornell’s scientific investigations. Afterward, at a symposium attended by several hundred faculty and guests, he joked that he was going to devote the entire $67 billion-plus federal research-and-development budget solely to Cornell. That was when the Nobel laureate physicist Kenneth Wilson called out: “Not enough.”
Although tongue-in-cheek, Wilson’s quip was telling. For reasons that extend from rising faculty salaries to the struggle to modernize curricula and facilities, the nation’s top universities have long been addicted to growth-a major factor in driving tuition rates consistently above the inflation rate. Unable to curb their habit, even in the face of flattening federal and state support, they have turned to alternative financing methods that include inking more deals with industry, licensing inventions and other novel profit-making ventures.
But it’s getting harder to keep the growth juggernaut rolling-and far-sighted advisors have warned for years that universities will one day find themselves spread too thin. Now, a day of reckoning seems at hand. The issue goes beyond just holding down costs. A growing body of the nation’s academic leaders also feel that perpetuating the old ways of teaching and research-especially via isolated academic disciplines-could hinder learning and discovery. They’re pressing to dismantle outdated departments to focus better on core strengths and break down barriers between remaining departments to form more interdisciplinary majors and research centers-addressing what Stanford chemist and former National Science Board chairman Richard Zare terms “the realization that many breakthroughs require clever combinations of the methods, approaches and tools of different disciplines.”
These plans are strikingly reminiscent of the retooling many U.S. corporations undertook to spark innovation in the 1990s. Wielding terms like “selective excellence,” university presidents, provosts, deans and professors are engineering a major change in the way schools operate. Rhodes calls this overhaul an escape from the “Harvardization of the campus.” U.S. institutions of higher learning have for too long followed Harvard’s style of trying to excel at everything-liberal arts, library collections, science and all the rest-he said at a Cornell symposium last December. But given today’s rapid accumulation of information in an ever-expanding array of disciplines, that is impossible now, even for Harvard. Proclaimed Rhodes, “The next century, I believe, will belong to those that are successful in de-Harvardizing.”