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Decline and Fall

"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...

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