“The true university these days is a collection of books.”
—Thomas Carlyle

When Woodrow Wilson left his position as president of Princeton University to run for governor of New Jersey, a reporter asked him why he would voluntarily give up his prestigious position for a life of public service. Wilson hesitated for a moment, and then said, “To get out of politics.” While many who hear this story laugh, the punch line has a certain poignancy. Both meanings of politics in the academy—the petty, mean-spirited variety and a dedication to public activity—are explicated with extraordinary judgment by Jacob and Noam Neusner in The Price of Excellence: Universities in Conflict During the Cold War Era.

The son (Noam) offers the story of the evolving university from the end of World War II to the present, and the father (Jacob) weaves his personal story of accomplishment and disappointment into the fabric of the whole. What one gets from this book is a university saga that includes insulation and exclusiveness, public awareness and largess, democratization and eventually the vitiation of standards. It is hardly surprising in reading this work to find that as universities have altered their undertaking from teaching and research to redressing the wrongs of the past and serving as a catalyst for social change, public appreciation for the academy and its mission has declined. While a significant portion of the public could readily identify the purpose of higher education and its manifest results in the not very distant past, public attitudes today vary from mildly respectful to confused, with the typical response being, “Why is so much spent, for so little purpose?”

Alas, scholarship itself is the victim of politicization. Most scholarly positions are filtered through a cauldron of race, sex, class, and Third World ideology. When ideas are not considered within this orthodoxy, they are moved into a relativistic cosmology in which one opinion is as good as another. Is it any wonder that legislatures considering the funding for public colleges and universities often conclude that the value of learning such as it is may not be self-evident?

From the metaphorical ivory tower—institutions insulated from politics—the university has moved into the eye of the Washington hurricane. Once the campus became a battlefield for the Cold War, political intrusion became inevitable. Science and technology were mobilized for warfare, and Washington seduced professors with bounty worthy of Croesus. As the authors note: “Politics . . . governs learning; universities form an instrument in achieving the national will; and the shape and goal of scholarship for professors and of education for students . . . find their definition in that same consensus that dictates public policy for all else.”

Government blandishments were too appealing to deny. Instead of pursuing pure knowledge and abstract questions, the university allowed itself incrementally to become a center for practical knowledge and problem-solving. There were few limits on resources of any kind. The Neusners describe this period in the 1950’s as the “golden age.” Yet the money came with strings, and the politics, serious academies now lament, found its way into an academy that had heretofore resisted such incursions.

Jacob Neusner has had an academic career that spans the Cold War to the present. He found his metier at Harvard as an undergraduate and at Columbia as a graduate student through his intense interest in all things Jewish. For Neusner, there was no achievement higher than learning. His passion for scholarship shines through every sentence in this book. His love of Jewishness is not simply ethnic rejoicing, although he takes great pride in his background. His affection for Jewish history, law, fiction, language, and theology is rather a reflection of his immersion in scholarship, an affection, as he notes, which sometimes created tension with his colleagues at the Jewish Theological Seminary and later at Brown University.

Jacob Neusner does not mince words. Critics might confuse his unimpeachable standards with high dudgeon, but, in fact, his judgment about people and places with which I am familiar is impeccable, and his courage in the face of petty criticism admirable. I should note for the record that I was a student at Columbia when Neusner was there; I studied with his advisor Morton Smith, and I even lived on the same street (115th Street) in the year (1961) he resided there. But to my knowledge, we did not meet. After reading this book, that is my regret.

This book does have its flaws. Columbia, for example, did not provide the “first great spectacle” of student rebellion in 1968. That occurred four years earlier at Berkeley with the Free Speech Movement. And the University of Chicago was less insulated from student rebellion than the authors assume. There are also occasional lapses in syntax. On balance, however, these are niggling concerns. What stands out in this volume is the integrity of the authors, the plaintive plea for high standards in an institution overrun by relativism, mediocrity, petty jealousies, and radical egalitarianism. I never thought a professor would have the temerity to say—as Jacob Neusner does—that “universities work best under benign dictatorships, and, as the next decades were to teach me, they fall apart under mob rule, especially that of the common professors.” After having spent more than three decades in the academy, I am convinced Professor Neusner is right. Yet seeing these words in print is startling nonetheless.

When Professor Neusner relocated from Dartmouth to Brown, he entered his new academic home at precisely the moment radical egalitarianism had reached its apogee, and grading, in the febrile minds of youthful avatars, was a conspiracy to foster class stratification. Soi disant revolutionaries managed to convince a browbeaten faculty that undifferentiated grades were fair and course requirements retrograde. Professors made peace with what they should have contested. And administrators cowed by student contentiousness acquiesced to almost every demand as “no trouble on my watch” became—with rare exceptions—the administrative calling-card.

Into the avalanche of academic corruption stepped Professor Neusner. He was in the minority opposing the Magaziner Report on academic reform at Brown (the same Magaziner who attempted to engineer the Clinton national health care plan: fortunately, the American public is more astute than the Brown faculty). He refused to compromise his scholarly pursuits when he was accused of “doing too much,” rate-busting among faculty members accustomed to teaching nine hours a week, And his faith in the standard of reason and the rationale of skepticism and “self-criticism for all” remained unwavering. Neusner writes, “I like to think that I was an equal opportunity critic.”

Goaded by the elimination of grades, a liberalization of admissions requirements, and a conquering belief that all opinions have validity, Neusner was driven to write a commencement speech that converted him into an international celebrity, and with 580 words he seared the collective memory at Brown, deploring the surrender of the academy to the demands of spoiled kids and the extent to which professors praised marginal student performance. Although he was now a pariah, excoriated by his colleagues and criticized by Brown’s president, Neusner had displayed yet again his unequivocal dedication to scholarship and idiosyncratic courage in a sea of pusillanimity. His days at Brown were effectively over. He blew the whistle on a great academic fraud, and those with a stake in the system could not let him get away with it.

Accelerating the shift in academic life described by the Neusners was the demographic trend of the 1980’s. With the pool of students available for colleges declining significantly, selectivity could not be sustained. During this period, I liked to say that if a student passed the feather test—that is to say, if he blew upon a feather and it moved—a college could be found to accommodate his talent, or lack thereof. With students on all manner of university committees, “decisions found definition in mere personal opinion, then prejudice, and finally bigotry.” The Neusners contend that when academic achievement was no longer valued, the golden age (if there ever was one) had come to an end. “It is the end of the wish to excel, resulting in the leveling of the academy,” Jacob Neusner reflects.

In their conclusion, the Neusners ask, “Why concentrate on the university’s unique union of research and teaching?” If the case can no longer be made for the academy in its present form, market conditions will demand change. Signs of that are already on the horizon, what with courses on the Internet and widespread public discontent with colleges and universities.

Renewal depends upon facing squarely the challenges of the moment. In a recent article about Duke University in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a student says, “The lack of intellectual focus here makes people more approachable,” while in another article, a professor contends that academic civility is an oxymoron. An AAUP study reports that “many junior faculty want new criteria for granting tenure. They press for placing more weight on teaching skills and student evaluations instead of publications and research” (my emphasis). Well, if an intellectual focus does not help to define the role of a student, and professors can no longer engage in the rational exchange of opinion without hurling insults, and tenure is to be conferred through student evaluation with research subordinated to teaching, then one can only hope that from this intellectual bankruptcy initiatives will emerge to restore the once great tradition of teaching and research. That is unquestionably the aim of the Neusners, who have chronicled in a remarkably honest way the woeful story of higher education’s decline.


[The Price of Excellence: Universities in Conflict During the Cold War, Era by Jacob Neusner and Noam MM. Neusner (New York: Continuum) 252 pp., $24.95]