From an article about Jonathan Cole‘s new book, The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence and Threatened Future (2010):

The book is a dissection of the greatest system of higher education in the world, with about 4,700 institutions and which Mr. Cole dates not to the birth of Harvard University in 1636 but to the opening of Johns Hopkins University in 1876. It also argues that the main mission of universities is not the education of undergraduates, as most of us think. No, the system’s real importance involves research.

“When we think of these universities, we don’t think that lasers, FM radio, magnetic resonance imaging, global positioning systems, bar codes, transistors, improved weather forecasting, methods of surveying public opinion all had their origins in our research universities,” Mr. Cole, a prominent sociologist and Columbia’s former longtime provost and dean of faculties, said by phone shortly before I immersed myself in another staple of higher education, the Bowl Championship Series title game on Thursday night.

Read the book and you will learn that the algorithm for Google searches, DNA fingerprinting, fetal monitoring, scientific cattle breeding and, yes, Viagra are other results of university research, along with thousands of other inventions, devices and medical breakthroughs. Mr. Cole somehow misses fraternity toga parties.

He focuses on about 100 elite universities, and a basic theme is that while their research is an engine of innovation and inspiration for new industries, they are threatened by public ignorance of their needs, declining financial support and needless politicization. The latter is reflected in security-obsessed, post-Sept. 11 government policies that, for example, make it harder for foreign-born researchers to study and work in this country.

The University of Chicago is, in his contention, “our closest approximation to the idea of a great university,” Mr. Cole said in our phone chat. “It is a meritocracy of ideas, a place where ideas flourish in an open way.”

There’s no doubt that this will be an exciting book for anyone interested in the place of the university in America.

Still–given its back-cover blurbs which describe it as an important attempt to think through the crisis in American higher education–it’s hard not to disappointed by its focus on the top 100 or so research universities. There are 4000-odd other institutions of higher learning in the nation.

Bonus music video: Paper Lace’s “The Night Chicago Died”–