Universities in America are at a hinge of history: while connected to the past, they are swinging in another direction.

            Among the many transformations that occurred with the Cold War, one of the most dramatic was that undertaken by elite American universities. The story of the ‘ivory tower‘ meeting the ‘national security state’ is all the more interesting for the fact that the meeting has continued through to the present. How did these two institutions come to join forces? What has been the nature of the partnership? What has that partnership meant to the society at large? Ultimately, who were the winners and who were the losers? One take, that of former University of California chancellor Clark Kerr, is that the modern university is the logical and laudable culmination of a process in which the American university has rightfully become an institution serving the 'national will.' From the standpoint of radical social critic Noam Chomsky, the university is the manufacturer of the apologists and defenders of the American Cold War consensus. Historian Rebecca Lowen finds the university to be a product of specific circumstances and evolving contradictions, neither obviously beneficial nor hurtful. For my part, I would consider the university to contain a bit of each of these conclusions: a central institution with a contingent and thus changing relationship with the American state focused on a relatively narrow conception of national interests which it is committed to serving.

Frameworks of Analysis

            Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University was first delivered as a series of lectures at Harvard in 1963. A prominent liberal and the then chancellor of UC Berkeley, Kerr offers an extremely optimistic view of the future of American research universities, which he terms ‘federal grant universities’ or ‘multiversities.’ He offers a rapid narrative of the rise of the research university (hereafter referred to as ‘the university’), explains its current function, and offers a prognosis on its future. Kerr sees the university as a dynamic institution at the center of society, contributing solutions to the problems of the age, powering the economy, and operating as an instrument of ‘national will.’ Its role is key, because its product, knowledge, is at the core of modern society. His piece is a liberal affirmation of what he sees as the modern American university.

            Noam Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” was originally given in lecture at Harvard University; some 3 years after Kerr delivered the substance of The Uses of the University in a series of talks at the same location. In what might have been better titled “The Irresponsibility of Intellectuals”, Chomsky makes a radical critique of the state of intellectuals in America. The MIT linguist argues, using a variety of historical examples, that intellectuals have a privileged position in western society, and hence have an obligation to criticize immoral behavior, especially as performed by the state. That intellectuals do not do that, and rather choose to legitimate all sorts of immorality, Chomsky opines, demonstrates deep irresponsibility. Moreover, he finds it indicative that the university is in fact part of the system, since it produces thinkers willing to ask only tactical questions, and unwilling to question the society at large. Chomsky does not offer an explanation of how this situation came about. The university he writes of is not a bastion of free thinkers and values, but simply another pillar of the establishment and the source of the technocrats who keep the state ticking.

Unlike the analyses of Kerr or Chomsky, Rebecca Lowen’s Creating the Cold War University is primarily a historical work in the sense that it analyzes change over time. Lowen’s work is intended to be the description of the changes undergone by one university, Stanford, over a roughly thirty year period (1930s-1960s). She calls it  “the story of evolving institutional contradictions, which assumed a particular form in mid-century and which, in the post-cold war period, will be reshaped rather than resolved.” The key question Lowen deals with is how Stanford went from being a conservative, privately funded institution to one of the nation's largest recipients of federal monies in a relatively short period, and how that change affected the university itself. Her narrative focuses on the remarkable career of Fred Terman whose leadership helped shape Stanford into a key component of the military-industrial complex, and profoundly shifted the direction of the university towards federally funded research.


            According to Kerr, the modern university (by which he means American research universities, primarily the top 15 or 20) is a product of a long history. Combining the intellect of Plato’s Academy with the practical interests of the Greek Sophists, the university has become a pragmatic and enlightening institution. Thus the best of the heritage of the German Humboldt University, renowned for its production of notable scientists, and the British Oxford, notable chiefly for its theorists and thinkers, is combined under the roof of a single institution. While the university as an institution had a medieval origin, in Kerr’s analysis, the American university’s key moments came in the mid 19th-20th centuries. Kerr credits Lincoln’s innovation of public universities funded first by land grants from the state as establishing the idea of a public role in education. Come World War II, universities are enlisted in the cause of American freedom, and vastly expanded through the creation of federal grants. These two events, Kerr argues, brought the modern American university to its present state.

            Lowen begins her narrative in the 1930s, when times were obviously not ideal for an institution dependent mainly on private philanthropy for its survival. The Great Depression forced the Stanford to seek money in new places. University President Ray Wilbur and his associates were quite worried about federal influence, particularly by a left-leaning Roosevelt administration, and so eschewed federal aid once it was offered. Instead they sought help from industry. The attempt, especially the research on, and development, of the klysostron, in conjunction with the Sperry Corporation, was not a success. It did not help that industry was also short on money.

The onset of WWII had the effect of making federal money acceptable, as a matter of patriotism, not politics. Roosevelt’s appointment of the conservative Vannevar Bush, president of MIT, to lead the National Research Defense Council in 1942 helped too. He knew the constraints on universities, and made formula as painless as possible. Lowen credits few strings, generous ‘overhead’ allowances and otherwise dire circumstances with convincing universities like Stanford to accept. Although it did not receive nearly as much in grant money as its rivals, the 25 contracts Stanford received over the war were more than enough to fund its entire sciences program.

            Despite the changes, after the war, the question of funding remained. A new university president, and the appointment of Fred Terman as provost continued the reorientation process begun during the war. Lowen shows how he adeptly modified Stanford’s academics to take advantage of continuing federal research grants. Terman’s goal of making Stanford a world-class institution relied on massive amounts of DOD research money, and so he pushed the university to expand ‘salable’ departments, hire professors interested in DOD research, and deemphasize or shrink other programs. Terman received help from like-minded administrators and professors, and was able to largely ignore what feeble opposition there was from faculty.


            According to Kerr, the modern university is a loosely knit institution. The power of departments and faculties have waned since their high-water mark in the early days, eroded by the growing power of administrators and the system of federal grants. This leaves control to a growing army of administrators, in a ‘managerial revolution’ of sorts. These administrators allocate research funds, organize hiring, and with the president of the institution, attempt to direct its overall course. As the funder, the public, through its choice of politicians and its patronage, has substantial power yielding what Kerr considers a ‘unique’ public-private partnership. The university’s purpose has become the production of knowledge (research). Its clients include the public (government) and the business community. As a result, the university is an economic engine, driving national growth, as well as an engine of ideas, helping to win the Cold War and better society as a whole. In Kerr’s mind, the university has become a pragmatic institution, deeply entwined with the society that surrounds it.

Chomsky analyzes the role of the university implicitly through the role played by its product: intellectuals. He critiques a number of highly educated individuals. Many, like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Walter Rostow, and McGeorge Bundy, served under liberal presidents like Kennedy and Johnson, while also having academic careers. Schlesinger lies about the Bay of Pigs to the press, and later admits the fact without shame, justifying it as in ‘the national interest’. Rostow publicly accuses Soviets of intransigence in Central Europe, not bothering to mention facts to the contrary. He also worries that Chinese communism may prove more successful than American capitalism, while simultaneously insisting that America must continue its efforts to ‘export democracy.’ The role of the university for Chomsky is to prop up the current system and avoid discussion of real change . In a Faustian bargain, intellectuals trade their silence on real problems in return for affluence and influence: namely a hand at “running the welfare state.” The intellectuals thus become a part of the elite, and so see little reason to rock the boat by worrying about moral questions and criticizing their patrons.

            The Stanford Terman constructed, in Lowen’s eyes, is one of the focal points in a three-way ‘triangular’ relationship. DOD provided funds, Stanford did research, and industry conducted production. To get money from DOD, Stanford hired the best people from whatever field DOD expressed interest, or encouraged existing professors to shift research in that direction. Overhead money could go to pay those professors who didn’t have grants (‘salary-splitting’). Industry benefited from Stanford’s know-how, which helped in production and gaining DOD contracts. Terman considered it all a ‘win-win-win’ situation. Everybody benefited: DOD, the university, and industry. Stanford gained funding and prestige, DOD gained research, and industry gained contracts and expertise. In practice, too, the university entered what Kerr termed the ‘knowledge industry.’


            Kerr’s rather giddy vision for the future is notable for its similarity to the present. In a postscript, Kerr complains that critics took his book a ‘prescriptive’ and not ‘descriptive’ accusing him of supporting things he did not. Yet given the extremely positive characterization he gives the future, which shares much of its foundation with the present, it’s hard to believe that Kerr’s description is devoid of personal preference. At any rate, Kerr’s university of the future, 'ideopolis', is even more involved in society: driving industry and innovation, serving a greater student population, providing a stable environment for scholars to pursue that new knowledge. Kerr implies that larger social problems in society (and thus political issues) will also need to be addressed. Finally, ‘institutional balance’ and the creation of clusters of institution to further these imperatives will come about through federal funding and directed organization. In short, Kerr believes in and hopes for an activist institution that will improve society and respond to public goals and needs, particularly as articulated by the federal government and its students.

            The implication of the university’s role to Chomsky is that the intellectuals and university are the engineers of ‘liberal imperialism’: “In the university, these scholar-experts construct a ‘value-free technology’ for the solution of technical problems that arise in contemporary society…” They’re ‘the domestic analogue’ of those, “… who justify the application of American power, whatever the human cost, on the grounds that it is necessary to contain ‘the expansion of China’…” The university is embedded in creating top-tier bureaucrats whose purpose is to offer solutions to ‘technical problems’ in society, while concomitantly preventing an open, meaningful discussion. For Chomsky, they’re a part of the problem, having miserably failed to do their duty and tell the unvarnished 'facts' as they are.

Comparing Process

            The two authors who address the process of the creation of the university in its present incarnation are Kerr and Lowen. Because Kerr is focused on the present, his analysis of the process of reaching the present is for the most part a short series of interesting vignettes. Missing is a sense of continuity. Lowen is somewhat more careful, and thus more believable. In particularly, it is WWII, the Cold War and a variety of localized factors that fundamentally shape how the university turns out.

            In Kerr’s description, events jump around. If the university is truly rooted in the medieval period, as he quotes Hastings Rashdall to show, then roughly speaking, how does one get from 1500 to 1960? Kerr’s narrative makes a couple of broad generalizations about medieval universities, but never elucidates. He cites Lincoln’s 1862 Morrill Land Act and federal research expenditures in WWII as the critical events molding the American university system, but his arguments as to why are sketchy at best. He comments that, “leading universities entered into a common-law marriage” with the federal government, having not quite explained how such ‘conservative’ institutions could have changed to drastically in such a short period of time. The result is that Kerr maps out a nice long path from antiquity to present, gives a few milestones along the way, but never sufficiently marks it to offer more than a rough idea of how one is supposed to go. All this makes the process seem either incomprehensible or inevitable.

            Lowen demonstrates that a reasonably high level of contingency was present in the growth of Stanford University. In some cases, that growth is stymied by unwilling administrators or protective departments. The central role of Fred Terman suggests the question of whether Stanford would have ‘modernized’ without Terman. Granted, Terman acted in concert with other administrators and faculty, and his aggressive marketing of Stanford to DOD and industry depended on their good will. But, much of the initiative also derived from Terman, and we see that Terman also often operated contrary to the established interests in various departments, not to mention the more cautious leaders, like Donald Tresidder. The process is very much touch and go, unlike the smooth transition Kerr gives. If Stanford is indeed at all representative of Kerr’s ‘multiversity’ at large, it is hard to believe the changes from the 1930s to the 1950s made the eventual outcome either inevitable or even entirely expected.

Comparing the Role

            The next important question to answer is what has the university become. Here, all three authors offer opinions, differing mostly in how to evaluate the university’s role. Kerr seems convinced that the university has become the driving force behind changes in American society, and a beneficial force at that. Lowen agrees, inasmuch as the changes are considerable in the region she studies (the bay area) but does not take an obvious stance. Chomsky’s dim view of intellectuals as a group reflects on the university as well: it produces those who inform and consolidate the elites’ consensus. Unlike the preceding two, Chomsky does not address the university’s scientific role, but its ideological one is clearly that of technocratic conservatism.

            Kerr states that “many of the hopes and fears of the American people are now related to our educational system and particularly to our universities…” He goes on to describe the university as “the prime instrument of national purpose.” Hyperbole aside, the obvious implication is that the university is expected to better the nation. He is most concrete about the economic case, where ideas give rise to products, industry, and American technology. Thus universities help new industries develop and grow, improving living standards and so on. It’s a nice theory, and Kerr cites a few large examples that seem to support it. He also offers a few suitably vague broader possibilities, like longer life expectancy and other medical improvements.

            Lowen’s analysis is not dissimilar from Kerr’s. In the case of Stanford, the university grows in conjunction with a large number of defense contractors in the Bay Area. The result of Terman’s ‘win-win-win’ situation is a region that expands enormously. The corporations in question even go so far as to provide fellowships to the university to express their gratitude for the consulting and employee training that Stanford does for them. Since this 'military-industrial complex' is the obvious creation of the 'national security state', all this corresponds reasonably well to Kerr's vision of carrying out the 'national will,' Lowen does posit that this comprises a somewhat narrow conception of national interest.

            For Chomsky, the purpose of the university, at present, is the creation of characters like Arthur Schlesinger, who can lie in the name of national interest and not feel any twinges of guilt. Functionally, the university is responsible for choking off radical and unseemly ideas. While Chomsky does not mention the scientific community, there is clearly no inconsistency between a DOD-oriented scientist and a State Department-oriented economist or historian. Terman, who contended that idealists were pontificating while engineers ‘solved’ the real problems of society, is the perfect counterpart to Kerr, both are fully in line with a particular elite consensus.

            Chomsky does claim that intellectuals have little interest in improving society at home. “It seems fairly obvious that the classical problems are very much with us… For example the classical paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty is now an ever increasing problem on an international scale,” he observes. The fact that such problems exist and elicit minimal comment are evidence, to Chomsky, of the intellectuals’ desire to remain ‘welfare-state technicians’ as opposed to real problem solvers. While Chomsky doesn't provide specific evidence supporting either statement, both Kerr and Terman as presented by Lowen do. Their idea of changing society seems to involve designing new technology, or perhaps extending industry to a new locale (or making Stanford the lead engineering school). All that goes to show that their ideas of significant change compare to Chomsky's ideas of optimizing the 'welfare state.' Curiously, even Kerr the optimist is not certain that intellect will “… be the salvation of our society,” although in his estimation, it will not be for lack of trying.


            In addition to Kerr’s tendency to ignore contingency, a problem he does not address that looms large in historical hindsight is that of who defines ‘national interest’ or ‘national will.’ Kerr does see the potential for federal imperatives to clash with the university’s day-to-day workings. His solutions indicate that these are tactical problems, and so adjustments of funding formulas or a national council on higher education can solve them. National will as he constructs it is equivalent to federal policy. His unconcern is perhaps understandable during the Ike and JFK years when fundamental debates did not occur. But what about cases where the federal government asks the university to do something wrong, or immoral, or counter to the wishes of most people? What about cases where people in academia and the government have fundamental differences about what constitutes national interest? Or for that matter, what if the government itself is split over what projects are and are not in the national interest? Kerr’s entire piece depends on some form of consensus, and he does not concern himself with the possibility of that consensus disappearing.

            Lowen’s piece is more convincing. She has ample evidence to support her argument on how Stanford developed. Her case is informed by letters, official documents and other scholarly works. Yet because her book is so focused, can it be successfully generalized? Is most of what she said about Stanford also true of Harvard, Princeton, MIT or other major research universities? She does provide certain anecdotal parallels, but these hardly can be considered conclusive. Certainly, parts of her narrative seem specific. Terman was by all accounts a unique individual. His motivation, making his university into a top-notch research institution, may have been shared to some degree elsewhere, but since most other institutions did not gain or lose significantly in prestige, it could not have explained actions at other schools nearly as well. Moreover, Terman was instrumental in a great many changes and decisions, setting the direction and the tone of Stanford's academics. Were individuals of equal authority and insistence present elsewhere?

            Chomsky’s piece is mainly problematic for its evidence. He repeatedly invokes class as an explanation for the actions of intellectual. For instance: “A good case can be made for the conclusion that there is indeed something of a consensus among intellectuals who have already achieved power and affluence.” It is certainly not inherently unbelievable, but he gives no broad-based reason to consider affluent and powerful intellectuals as a unified group. Similarly, he defines the American project abroad as ‘liberal imperialism,’ which surely deserves some form of detailed explanation.

Weighing the Evidence

            On balance I suspect that some combination of Lowen’s and Chomsky’s argument is closest to reality. The rather haphazard process by which Stanford became a prominent Cold War university is certainly a better explanation for changes at other schools than the non-explanation Kerr gives. The sort of issues that informed the decision: financial difficulties, anti-communism and the desire to become or remain ahead are both understandable and reasonably universal. Kerr is correct when he claims the ‘multiversity’ has achieved a prominence unparalleled in the history of higher education. By failing to recognize the details of the process by which the modern university was created, Kerr fails to recognize the tension between the goals of some academics and the federal government as more than merely an overweening conservatism on the part of faculty.

            On the issue of balance I don’t find Kerr convincing. As Lowen summarizes him, “… the cold war university could not be bound by old notions of balance; it must instead be flexible and ever-changing in response to national needs.” Again, there is no normative definition of national need. Ike’s ‘national need’ and JFK’s ‘national need’ have substantial differences. Moreover, if Joe McCarthy had suddenly found himself president, and declared ‘national need’ to include burning all books by such ‘fellow travelers’ as Mark Twain and Thorstein Veblen, I doubt Kerr would’ve felt obligated to obey without protest. At a minimum, he’d have a number of quotations that’d need to be removed from his piece. Defining academic balance based on the current whims of the White House and various Pentagon wonks is certainly not always a viable option. Yet this is exactly what Fred Terman did, and what Clark Kerr proposed as ‘natural.’

            The solutions that the ‘scholar-experts’ like Terman and Kerr offer tend to be remarkably technical and objective. Despite its exuberance, Kerr’s piece is in a major sense a manual on what the university is and how it should be tweaked for better performance. It is replete with lists of problems to be faced, solutions to be implemented, and parts of society to be bettered. Lowen’s protagonist Terman is clearly a man who intends to remake the university according to the principles of science and engineering. If one applies a moral lens, as Chomsky does, the results are not especially encouraging. In all such situations, federal interests and ‘the greater good’ preempt any sort of meaningful debate about the ongoing changes. Certainly until the mid-1960s, intellectuals on balance had little or nothing to say about problems, at home or abroad. There is no doubt that Kennedy’s ‘whiz kids’ were all bright, well-educated, and pretty much unconcerned with quaint issues like morality. Thus Chomsky’s suggestion that expert technocrats are uncritically a part of the ‘national security state’ seems pretty convincing to me.

            Why would scientists and intellectuals be uncritical of the state, and as Chomsky shows, on occasion downright duplicitous in its defense? Looking at Kerr or Terman, one sees men who genuinely believe in what they're doing, and consequently, they don't think to question it. Furthermore, science teaches one to seek minimal explanations and solutions for problems. Thus if one sees a problem occurring, rather than blaming the whole system as rotten, as Chomsky pretty much does, one will seek to explain the problem as minimally as possible. Technicians of the welfare-state tweak the state rather than redesign it because they have faith, rightly or wrongly in that state, and as engineers, their training is make adjustments as small as possible. The Faustian bargain mentioned above is thus largely unstated and subconscious.

            Are intellectuals at large guilty, as Chomsky accuses them, of having in some sense ‘sold out’? That’s a harder sell. Those with the most to gain from the ‘national security state’ seem to be the most loyal, and thus scientists and engineers in Lowen’s Stanford express no moral qualms about their activities. Yet at the same time, the decision isn't consciously to ignore these problems. In general American society at the time, the tradeoffs and occasional missteps of the 'national security state' also go largely unmentioned. That fact, I think, indicates that intellectuals aren't all that special, and in fact are simply reflective of larger societal patterns, whereby most accepted the state and didn't question its motives.

            All in all, the ‘Cold War University’ did mainly turn out ‘Cold Warriors’, at least through the Vietnam War. A rather narrow ‘Cold War’ consensus dominated individuals and institutions. Industry, the state, and certain sectors of the university benefited handsomely. Scientists and intellectuals did serve the purpose of upholding the consensus, but because they themselves held it, rather than because of some sinister plot. Scientists and intellectuals obviously failed the standards that Chomsky set, but in doing so, I think they followed the society as a whole. In the short-term, the intellectuals who accepted the consensus were the winners. In the long term, I would say the society as a whole was the loser. Questions have never damaged mature societies, but silence and provincialism most certainly have.


Chomsky, Noam. “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” In The Chomsky Reader, edited by James Peck. 1st ed. Cambridge: Pantheon Press, 1987.

Kerr, Clark. The Uses of the University. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Lowen, Rebecca S. Creating the Cold War University. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Kerr, vii

Kerr, viii

Chomsky, 460

Chomsky, 61

Lowen, 16

Lowen, 4

Kerr, 10

Kerr, 18

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Kerr, 46

Kerr, 48

Lowen, 33

Lowen, 41

Lowen, 50

Lowen, 57

Lowen, 80

Lowen, 109

Kerr, 22

Kerr, 28

Kerr, 2

Kerr, 38

Kerr, 116

Chomsky, 60

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Chomsky, 72

Chomsky, 74

Lowen, 236

Lowen, 146

Kerr, 147

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Chomsky, 75

Kerr, 10

Kerr, 46

Kerr, 50

Lowen, 166

Lowen, 235

Lowen, 116

Kerr, 87

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Lowen, 136

Lowen, 137

Chomsky, 75

Lowen, 137

Chomsky, 73

Kerr, 123

Kerr, 57

Chomsky, 75

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Lowen, 149

Kerr, 31


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