Academic Minute Podcast

William C. Kirby, Harvard University – The End of American Academic Leadership

Just because you’re the best now, doesn’t mean you always will be.

William C. Kirby, T. M. Chang professor of China Studies at Harvard University and Spangler Family Professor or Business Administration at Harvard Business School, details how American academic leadership may be threatened.

William C. Kirby is T. M. Chang Professor of China Studies at Harvard University and Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. He is the author of Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China

(Harvard University Press, 2022). Follow him on Twitter @BillKirbyHBS.

The End of American Academic Leadership

What makes a country powerful? Armies? Navies? Or the realm of ideas? In modern times, the influence of a nation can be measured by the strength of its universities. My work chronicles the rise and fall of great universities as nations compete in a world of knowledge. Through a series of case studies, I investigate three systems of higher education that have defined or promised to define, excellence in higher education over the past two centuries. The modern research university was born in Germany in the 19th century, propelling it to the forefront of science and power. In the twentieth century, the United States leapfrogged Germany to become the global leader in higher education. Today, American institutions dominate nearly every major ranking of global universities. However, America’s supremacy in higher education is under great stress, particularly at its public universities. At the same time, Chinese universities are on the ascent. Today, no country invests more in higher education and research than China. Will China threaten American primacy in the 21st century?

Public institutions in the United States educate three-quarters of all American university students. However, 43 of 50 states have disinvested in higher education since 2008. This slow-motion defunding of US public higher education will also hurt our famous private universities. After all, they compete for the same faculty, graduate students, and senior administrators. Competition—in education as in any business—is a key to excellence.

Meanwhile, China has shown an unmatched ambition to build more of the best, ‘world-class’ universities, with now more than forty million students. To this effort, China has mobilized both state and private resources, and it has more of the best human capital available—Chinese scholars at home or in the diaspora—than any university system in the world. Chinese universities continue to rise in global rankings tables, and two of them, Tsinghua and Peking Universities, now outrank most of the “Ivy League.”

Chinese higher education still faces challenges, including concerns about academic freedom concerns. I hope my research can act as a “wake-up call” to America to reinvest in its intellectual infrastructure.

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