Emily Levine on the Hard Compromises behind Academic Innovation

In conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Emily Levine (Stanford University) discusses key ideas in her new book Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research UniversityAllies and Rivals is a transatlantic monograph that draws on extensive historical research and applies sociological theory to study how the academic social contract was repeatedly renegotiated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The conversation addresses the rise of modern research universities and its alternatives, questions of meritocracy and democracy, academic freedom and hard compromises, the global exchange of ideas and academic innovation in the twenty-first century.

Ferenc LaczóYour new book, Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University, discusses the institutionalization process of the modern university ideal as a compromise you call “the academic social contract.” You refer to the university as “a space of negotiated autonomy.” Let us perhaps begin our conversation by talking about these points in turn. You write in the book that the essence of the contract between the university and its partners remained largely the same, namely that scholars receive relative autonomy in exchange for services to society and the state. However, the balance could shift so much toward service to society and the state that the benefits scholars received in return were at times rather difficult to recognize. An exciting part of the book focuses on what you call the “un-university.” You zoom in on the stories of extra-university institutions in this part, such as research institutes, experiments in adult education or the somewhat special case of liberal arts colleges, which have all been developed in the wake of various critiques of modern universities. Could I ask you to explain what you mean by the academic social contract and in what ways has this contract been renegotiated in the 19th and 20th centuries? What can the additional focus on such “un-universities” reveal to us about this process of renegotiation?

Emily Levine: The book tells the story of the university as a history of compromises iterated over time by cultural brokers, in which they reconcile aspects of the university ideal with broader social needs and political stakeholders. This begins in my story with the University of Berlin, which was established in 1810 as an institution with the dual tasks of both knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination, what we today call research and teaching. In a series of letters and documents, the German linguist, diplomat, and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt lays out the relationship of this new institution to society, whereby scholars receive autonomy to pursue research in exchange for providing services to that society, which is sometimes understood as teaching and at other times as other kinds of services. It is this exchange that I identify as the academic social contract. My telling marks the beginning of the modern research university, which becomes an essential building block for the modern nation state.

A pattern emerges over the course of the book: academic entrepreneurs develop contracts with their communities and polities exchanging services to society in return for institutional autonomy. 

These contracts evolve over time on both sides of the Atlantic, as the needs of societies change and as the aspirations of academic leaders grow. Once an academic social contract is exhausted, academic entrepreneurs find new partners, formulate new ideas and establish new institutions – sometimes even outside the university.

This leads me to your excellent point about the “un-university”, which is an integral part of my story that distinguishes it from other studies. 

From the moment it was founded in Germany and iterated upon in America, there were contradictory cries that the university that combined research and teaching was self-evident and totally inefficient – an idea that persists to this day. 

Thus, over time we see cycles of discontent, in which new institutions are founded that aim to address that inefficiency by devoting itself exclusively to one task or the other – teaching or research. For instance, with WWI underway, and the interest in German models of research waning, a window opens for academic innovators in America who want to devote more attention to teaching and one-on-one instruction – that they felt had been overshadowed by the overemphasis on specialization.

In the 1920s, the liberal arts college experienced a revival of sorts, influenced by philosophers like John Dewey and looking to other influences like Plato or the Cambridge and Oxford model. The result was the founding of such new institutions as Bennington College, Sarah Lawrence College and Black Mountain College, which I discuss in the book. Their position is, if we cannot provide high quality teaching at the same time that we conduct research – meaning, if we cannot disseminate knowledge while we advance it – we have to remove one of these activities to a different location. 

At the same time, other education reformers like Abraham Flexner ridiculed the debasement of the American university that has been reduced to what he called a department store of knowledge. These education reformers wanted nothing to do with undergraduates. Flexner founded the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, which would open in 1933. He aspired to create an institution for top scholars in their field who, without the distraction of teaching, would ensure American prominence in research – he had in mind a kind of Max Planck Institute in America. 

However, despite these additions to the system, the model of the research university that combines both the research and the teaching tasks has remained and continues to remain the gold standard. The inefficiency of that system now has had huge implications, in particular, for the undervalued and unsupported side that is teaching.

Your book explores the origins of the research university through historical research and sociological frameworks of interpretation. You claim that the purpose of the university from the beginning was both utilitarian and symbolic, practical and idealistic. You insist that political and intellectual histories “can be improved by attending to organizational form.” Allies and Rivals offers a rich and fascinating longue durée history of the university’s relations to external interests not least to show how the modern university was enabled by nationalization and globalization while it preserved an internal raison d’être that continues to diverge from the self-interested politics of nations and the logic of markets. How would you characterize your approach and how does it differ from previous approaches to the modern university? Why do you place such emphases on the sociological and on questions of organizational form, and what new insights do these emphases yield?

Most studies of the university have taken either an internal perspective, focusing on the university ideal, or an institutional perspective, oriented towards questions around organizational and sociological issues. Allies and Rivals aims to bridge this internalist and externalist divide, which is also a divide between the history of education, on the one hand, and intellectual and political history, on the other. The book is archivally-driven. As you say, it is interdisciplinary, it is transatlantic, and it aims to be resonant. It is based on eight years of archival research and over two dozen archives in Germany and America. 

The main challenge I see to writing a history of the university that is true to its features is that the university is part of the world of ideas but also part of the world of hard compromises. 

I make this challenge also essential to my methodological approach, which aims to understand the university not exclusively as a history of an ideal, but also, as I’ve said, as a history of compromises in a quasi-dialectical evolution, in which those compromises are iterating and institutionalizing ideals over time. That requires that I employ a mixed methodology, drawing on the sociology of knowledge as much as I employee history.

Why this is important or necessary, we can illustrate with an example. Internal histories of the university simply do not explain everything. In particular, they cannot explain entirely the successes and the failures of individual systems: this becomes clear with the wildly different successes of the French and German systems that I described in my first chapter. Hence, I argue their innovations at the end of the 19th century in some ways are not all that different: they both pursue research and teaching; they both integrate technical skills into education; and they both envision elite roles for a university-trained professional class. To be sure, the Germans would play up their rejection of the French, but their similarities suggest that the external political context is as important as any internal logic. That also explains what, by the 20th century, would often be called French decline.

Thus, what we see when mapping the sociology of knowledge onto an international political context are those competitive dynamics through which universities as institutions of higher learning evolve. Systems like Germany and America which had robust debates about whether knowledge and power should be organized in strong regional centres turned out to be critical conditions for success. At the same time, nations with centralized systems like France, or a bipolar system as we might describe the one in Great Britain, lacked the competitive energy that resulted from strong center-periphery dynamics – dynamics that turned out to be crucial for the advancement of knowledge.

Your book indeed offers a transatlantic interpretation focused primarily on Germany and the United States. How have Germany and the US interacted when it comes to the modern university and in what sense were they “allies and rivals”? Where exactly have the systems of higher education in the two countries come to differ? What provided the foundation for the US to solidify its lead in the global knowledge economy in the twentieth century and in what ways have US universities preserved elements of their “German models” which might actually have gotten lost in Germany?

At a basic level, Germans and Americans were allies in the social sciences and rivals in politics. On a more nuanced level, I also show how the system that governs the relationships among universities was a value system separate and apart from the politics of nations and the movements of markets. Thus, through the lens of higher education, the book tells the story of the ascent of Germany in America and their ambitions for world power at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. 

It also contains more universal lessons about how ideas spread and where innovation comes from: namely, as I argue, through the open exchange of ideas and competitive emulation – and perhaps especially from institutional rivals.

Sometimes, when historians speak of the relationship between Germany and America, they refer to the so-called import of the German university, or the influence of Germany. However, I would argue, universities are not commodities that are imported, while the concept of influence suggests a unilateralism that is just not correct. In my analysis, it is the bi-directional transatlantic exchange that spins the motor of intellectual, institutional, and political history. Here I am drawing on (the French approach of) histoire croisée and (the German approach of) transatlantische Geschichte, of entanglement among scholars as a model for describing how academic entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic visit one another’s institutions, exchange ideas about how to organize ideas, and then make decisions about what innovations to adapt and integrate – inevitably with different results.

I should say that in the story, the convergences are as interesting as the divergences. You asked about where they might part ways, and in Chapter Six of the book I tell the story of what we might call competitive differentiation, how Germans and Americans make different decisions that produce new institutional hybridization to address that inefficiency we were talking about earlier, in particular, the awareness that research has outgrown the university. Both the Germans and Americans around 1900s saw the benefit of using private money to infuse the system with new resources, space, and laboratories to support the growing needs of research. 

In 1910, the Germans found the Kaiser Wilhelm Society outside the university – again, a quintessential example of the extra-university which spawned the Institutes that became known as the Max Planck Institute. While the Americans, through the benefaction of Carnegie, established the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C. in 1902. Thus, in Germany, the solution to this problem is effectively to remove research from the university to an extra-university space, giving directors of the new institute more resources and space to pursue what we would call interdisciplinary research today. This is a decision that unleashes anxiety that they would turn the universities into second-rate institutions focused exclusively on teaching. In America, conversely, Carnegie rejects the campaign to establish a new federal university, and instead creates a separate grant-giving institution to support rather than to compete with existing universities. 

The jury is still out on whether these extra-university systems that have expanded are more or less productive than the bundle of the modern research university. 

This is an intriguing question that I am exploring elsewhere. 

However, with respect to the organization of knowledge about which we have spoken, one could indeed say that America retains the purer version of the German university. In the US, within less than three decades of its founding, the modern research university becomes an ingrained institution that appears to have taken on a life of its own and is difficult or nearly impossible to reverse.

You also show in the book that the formalization of academic freedom occurred, despite, or perhaps because of, the state’s demands that most threatened it. The First World War acted as a fertilizer of sorts in this regard. However, the “contracted autonomous space” academics possessed would expand and then contract again as the result of a kind of pendulum swing. You assert in this context, for example, that the Nazification of the German universities highlights the malleability of the preexisting relationship rather than representing a true rupture. You also claim that throughout this process of oscillation academics would often willingly collaborate with state authorities or reach back to what you label “the nostalgic myth of the autonomous university” as a source of their authority and as a basis to renegotiate the academic social contract. Moreover, you claim that the gaps between freedom on campus, if successfully asserted, and in broader society would later blunt professors’ long-term ability to engage in public debate and guard against pseudoscience. May I therefore ask, what has your research revealed about the history of university autonomy and about academic freedom, more generally? In what exact ways have these lofty ideals been institutionalized or undermined in modern times, and with what consequences?

That is a really tough question, one that is pressing today. Let me give one example from the book of how academic freedom gets institutionalized in a transatlantic context and the consequences of that adaptation or maladaptation, and then one example of the way that freedom is undermined that might be surprising to readers and listeners, as you say.

I think we take the notion of academic freedom to be self-evident, it is something we get as scholars, and it is our right, but it is not. 

Academic freedom is an idea that was fashioned, in particular in the US, as an adaptation of a German concept, and iterated under particular circumstances – namely when that freedom was threatened during WWI, when the government was putting increasing pressure on what could and could not be said. 

In America, a group of scholars founded the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915. Although more than half of the signatories of its founding document, the “Declaration of Principles of Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure”, had studied in Germany, they exaggerated the freedom that academics experienced there. The American version distorted the German concept in crucial ways which had viewed academic freedom as part of an academic social contract as we’ve been talking about. In other words, the “German model”, unlike its adaptation by the AAUP in 1915, recognized that the university occupied the negotiated space between two worlds – the ideals of pure inquiry and the economic and political pressure outside its walls.

In America, academic freedom did not require fealty to a political order as it did in Germany – which was, we can add, a good thing. 

However, it ignored the fact that in Germany academic freedom worked and was indeed needed because there was more freedom inside the university than in the wider political culture. 

Just recall the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s famous phrase “argue as much as you please, but obey,” which captures that compromise succinctly. 

The American version had one goal: to permit tenured faculty to express controversial views without fear of dismissal. They were successful in creating a vision for academic freedom as a “freedom from” rather than a “freedom to”, defined as a negative rather than a positive liberty, to use Isaiah Berlin’s terms. 

I think this vision has mistakenly aligned academic freedom with civil liberties in the US and has decoupled academic freedom from the original social contract, freeing academics from any responsibility to society or citizenship. 

Bourdieu says autonomy has to be negotiated again and again, which is an idea I reference in the book. I think we are currently witnessing a moment in which that autonomy is being renegotiated. 

This is not to diminish the many challenges that we face structurally in the university, something that pales in America in comparison to the ones that you have experienced at the CEU. Nevertheless, I would like to see academics in America talking about not just what we are owed, but also what we owe society.

As for your question about undermining academic freedom, I believe this is a hard moment to discuss, but maybe it is also the more relevant and problematic one. One of the moments when academic freedom is undermined in the story that I tell is during the Nazi era, but it is not exactly the way that our readers and listeners might think. 

To be sure, academic freedom is undermined when Hitler coopts the universities and exiles Jewish, socialist, and non-Aryan scholars, but it is also undermined, I would argue, by the international community’s largely condoning this move. 

One of the most provocative conclusions in the book, which is based on archival evidence and builds on the work that Steven Remy did in The Heidelberg Myth, is that even during the Nazi era, as I describe in the penultimate chapter, Hitler and his leadership understood that if they wanted German universities to remain pre-eminent, they required foreign validation. In other words, Hitler cared about what foreigners thought and this was an opportunity for American scholars to speak out. But when they were invited to the 550thanniversary celebrations of the University of Heidelberg, they largely attended offering their support with the only currency that was available to them, which was mutual validation. The Germany’s universities, which had long and distinguished histories of academic freedom and international exchange and hosted the most active American colonies, but too few American leaders at the time drew on the university’s global ties to counter insidious nationalism and the new constraints on academic freedom. I would argue that the university as an ideal type, and the viability of the academic social contract, suffered as a result.

The last two chapters of the book marry your earlier themes of autonomy and power with questions about stratification and exclusion – questions that are much debated today. You seem to argue that US institutions married elitism with the appearance of equality of access through the idea of meritocracy. At one point, you state that, and I am quoting, “the ethnic, racial, and social expectations of scholars and students, which were inherited from the Germans” had “their hierarchical origins obscured by the ideology of meritocracy.” Since there has been so much discussion of the concept of meritocracy recently, could I ask you how you view this idea and its impact on the US system of higher education? How has university autonomy and power interacted with the reinforcement of stratification and exclusion over time?

There is a false assumption in the history of the university that the university ideal is pure and good while all ill comes from the corruption on the outside. That is just not the case in the story that you mentioned. 

In researching the history of standardization and professionalization, one thing becomes clear: the friction from two very different value systems, the meritocratic and the democratic one, is the result from the tensions within the university and not the result of anything done to it. 

I believe there is one story in the book that illustrates well the tension between excellence and access, which results from the improvements in standardization – or the raising of standards that are still very much with us today. It is the story of the Flexner Report published in 1910 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which was partly inspired by gains that the Germans had made in the professionalization of medicine. It was produced after a year of research in the US and Canada, and it was an exposé replete with embarrassing details about the subpar conditions at for-profit medical schools that had saturated the market of medical education at the time. The report recommended introducing entrance requirements, a four-year graded curriculum, and an integrated pre-clinical training – essentially the high-quality program that exists today. Those institutions that could not meet those standards after 1910 were effectively regulated out of existence.

One advantage of this very activist, almost Darwinian-like strategy is that, by 1915, the number of for-profit schools had dropped significantly – and we can agree that’s probably a good thing. However, since most black medical colleges were unable to fund the changes that Flexner demanded, they too could not make it. This understandably unleashed criticism of the undemocratic consequences of these high standards. The Flexner report had produced results, had led to the rise of excellent research schools of medicine that were much sought after. Despite the undemocratic or inegalitarian consequences, those schools provided a model that other fields would follow.

One lesson we learn from looking at the history of meritocracy in a transatlantic context is that, in taking the German model and wedging it into an American democracy, Americans like Abraham Flexner emphasized the pursuit of excellence over any systematic attention to democratization. 

A second lesson is that, when you look at America next to Germany, you see that, with respect to prioritizing excellence and education over the goals of the “democratic uplift” of American society, America also created a tiered system, one that may be more like the German one than we care to admit, but that hierarchy is opaque to the outside observer. Because the US system leaves the door open to social mobility just a crack for individuals who can climb up the social ladder, we rarely call out that hierarchy, nor do we offer clear pathways for those on a more vocational path. For the most part we simply assert that the American system is different from the German or from the European one in providing opportunity for all, whereas the US system of higher education risks not providing good alternatives from education to career based on democratic rather than meritocratic values.

As a final question, let us discuss the current situation and prospects. You do state in the book that university autonomy and responsibility are to be valued equally but that universities in some sense need to operate under downright contradictory pressures. You argue in your conclusion that the contractual framework of the Cold War era still prevails today, however, universities are strapped by the regulations of that earlier period while no longer enjoying its benefits. How can the transatlantic study of past academic innovation be useful to the current reform of universities? Would you be willing to share some of your expectations in what ways academic entrepreneurs might find new partners, formulate new ideas, and establish new institutions in the early 21st century? In other words, where is the modern university currently heading and what innovations on the horizon might bring about transformative change, perhaps in the shape of new un-universities? Last but not least, would you say the US is likely to continue its global academic leadership in the 21st century or would you rather expect another major shift in geographic and national terms, this time to the Far East?

Historians are characteristically not great at predicting the future, but here are two historically rooted ways that occur to me when thinking about your questions. First, with respect to institutional innovation, in the most volatile thirty-year period that I write about in the book, the main source of institutional reform was to create hybrids, usually blending a previously existing institution with another one that usually presented a challenge or was first seen as a threatening idea. This is clearest in the form of the modern American research university, which combines the general education of the English college with the specialized education of the German research university: it combines the BA degree that had been associated with the English college with the PhD given by the German research universities. Thus, just as the BA-PhD research-teaching combination was a hybrid that resulted from that period and turned out to be wildly successful, I would like to see new hybrids coming out of our current moment of change. 

One might think about online and residential hybrids, high school and college hybrids, workforce and learning models, which might reinvigorate our landscape while also addressing some of those gaps that I was just talking about in the friction between meritocracy and democracy. 

The other thing to point out is that one of the lessons of the story is that there is no one good model; the US system has in fact always benefited from robust diversity and heterogeneity. If we can maintain that diversity and resist uniformity, what sociologists call institutional isomorphism, we are bound to see new models come out of this particularly pressing moment. Many will probably fail, but some will succeed and change the landscape forever – like Johns Hopkins University did back in the 19th century, which offered the first combination of research and teaching.

As to your question about the international or global element of the future, that involves a different set of dynamics. 

Here I believe the main lesson of the story that I would hope readers and listeners would take away is that the universities have long stood at the crossings of nations and the wider world. Even as they served the nation, they promoted the exchange of ideas and the free movement of scholars and students. 

That flow of academic ideas and people is now at risk. And there is no doubt in my mind that the German-American exchange of the 19th and 20th century should help us parse, for example, the Sino–American competition today – to name one with which the US is particularly preoccupied. Under the Trump administration, for instance, two bills were introduced that would reduce the number of Chinese graduate students, researchers, and money coming to America. University leaders insisted at the time that academic borders should remain open, but the nationalist rhetoric and protectionism now has traction, I think, among both parties. 

What Americans rarely acknowledge is that the Chinese are following a path much like the Americans pursued: in the 19th century, nearly 10,000 Americans traveled to study in universities in Germany, and exchanged research advances and innovations, accelerating science and technology on both sides of the Atlantic. 

China regularly sends 350,000 students to American universities – except that these days there are extra challenges related to getting visas and the political climate. Not least due to the impact of the pandemic, far fewer international students are coming to study in the US this year.

At the same time, American leadership is being expelled from branch campuses abroad, including most recently Yale-NUS College in Singapore and NYU Shanghai. Other campuses are being shattered entirely, as we have seen in the case of Bard College in St Petersburg. I do not have to tell you about the CEU moving to Vienna and that move’s implications for education and democracy associated with those threats. 

We live in a moment of dwindling global institutions and a closing of borders even at universities. I would hope leaders would consider the ways they can invoke the special mandate of globalism that universities have to support our shared humanity and counter resurgent nationalism and other illiberal threats.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Giancarlo Grignaschi.

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