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The story behind the modern university

Archival photo of university in Berlin
It's generally believed that American research universities copied the 19th century German model, but Emily J. Levine's research reveals a more complicated story. (Image: University of Berlin, Germany, circa 1900, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The story behind the modern university

GSE professor Emily J. Levine explores the history of the research university and the lessons it offers for academic leaders today.

Many of us take for granted that universities are a natural home for both research and teaching. But that wasn’t always the case: When the first U.S. and European colleges were established, they were largely religious institutions, designed to reinforce sectarian ideas and beliefs.

“Probably the most charitable reading was that they [offered preparation] for a learned clergy,” said Emily J. Levine, an associate professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE). “At worst, they were finishing schools…. These were not places that inspired awe in science and innovation.”

On this episode of School’s In, Levine, author of the new book Allies and Rivals (University of Chicago Press, 2021), joined GSE Dean Dan Schwartz and Senior Lecturer Denise Pope to talk about how academic entrepreneurs both competed and collaborated to shape the modern research university.

Photo of Emily Levine

GSE Associate Professor Emily J. Levine

Levine, one of the principal investigators of a new Stanford Changing Human Experience grant, “Recovering the University as a Public Good,” also shared some of the lessons the institution’s history offers about academic leadership today.

The model for a university devoted to both research and teaching, Levine said, didn’t emerge until the 19th century, in Germany, with the rise of the nation-state. The German scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt was tapped to create an institution that would cultivate civil servants and support a more competitive military – while providing scholars the autonomy to pursue their own areas of study. 

This hybrid institution became “the envy of the world,” Levine said, and drew thousands of American students to Germany for a singular educational experience. After returning home to the United States, many went on to become university presidents.

The traditional narrative, she said, has American returnees importing the German model to America. But Levine’s research reveals a more complicated story. 

“They [didn’t] just cut and paste the German graduate school,” she said. “They [created] a new hybrid institution of their own.”

As Germans and Americans – the “allies and rivals” of the book’s title – competed for world leadership, they collaborated to innovate in educational models. The process of “competitive emulation,” Levine said, gave rise to the now-familiar institution replicated around the globe.

This history offers lessons for academic leaders today, said Levine. “What we see among these academic entrepreneurs … is that they’re very skilled at moving back and forth between different circles: between the scholars and their values of science and pure research, and the needs of society, be they economic or political,” she said. “You often don’t know what side they’re really on, which I think is key. The chameleon-like quality of that negotiation required to move across this complex terrain is really what we need in our leaders today.”

You can listen to School's In on SiriusXM, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Soundcloud.

Emily J. Levine will discuss her new book at an event sponsored by the Stanford Humanities Center on Friday, September 24. Learn more and register.


Faculty mentioned in this article: Emily Levine

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