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Higher education: The making of US academia

Rogers Hollingsworth traces the European influence on US research universities that began some 150 years ago.

The Rise of the Research University: A Sourcebook

Edited by:
University of Chicago Press: 2017. 9780226414683 | ISBN: 978-0-2264-1468-3

Vast technological, economic and political shifts are putting pressure on research universities, prompting heated debate over the nature, goals and value of these institutions. More than a century ago, there were similar debates in both Germany and the United States, where the German model was widely admired. Scholars argued over issues such as local autonomy versus central control, scientific breadth versus depth and emphasis on teaching over research. From around 1870 to 1920, the US research university took shape in new institutions including Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and the University of Chicago in Illinois, and through reform at established universities such as Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

A biology class at Johns Hopkins University in 1920. Credit: JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty

The Rise of the Research University — edited by Louis Menand, Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon — brings together 30 historical essays to shine a light on the evolution of German and US research universities during those years. Pieces by the likes of philosophers Friedrich Schiller, Johann Fichte and Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of the Humboldt University of Berlin, are newly translated from German. The US offerings include essays by noted educators such as Henry Tappan, first president of the University of Michigan and a strong proponent of the German model; Charles William Eliot of Harvard; William Rainey Harper and Robert Maynard Hutchins, both of the University of Chicago; and Noah Porter of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. The editors have also written valuable commentaries.

The essays range broadly. Some describe German research universities in the late nineteenth century. Others are reflections by US educators on the influence of German universities, or — like 'The Utility of Universities' (1885) by Johns Hopkins' first president, Daniel Coit Gilman — discuss the value of universities to society. There are essays on the emergence of higher education for women in Germany, and undergraduate education in the United States. Considerable attention is paid to the impact of US culture on its universities (as in Eliot's 'The New Education'; 1869) and on these institutions' important role in promoting and maintaining democratic society.

The Rise of the Research University delves into telling dissimilarities between the US and German models. The nineteenth-century German university tended to emphasize pure rather than applied research, and expected professors to be exemplary in both research and teaching. In time, the emphasis shifted to breadth over depth. Germany also has had many fewer professors per university than the United States — in part because of the common requirement for a habilitation (a degree beyond the PhD) to obtain a professorship. In the United States, expectations that professors should become specialized in teaching and research mean that universities have needed more of them. German federal state ministers have also occasionally influenced university appointments and approved curricula; US research universities have had much more autonomy.

By the early twentieth century, some of Germany's most distinguished professors began to demand better opportunities for specialized research, and to take on fewer students. They found those opportunities at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes, created in 1911 and renamed the Max Planck Institutes after the Second World War. Many leading scientists emerged from these institutes — Nobel laureates such as Richard Willstätter, Fritz Haber, Otto Meyerhoff and Otto Warburg. (In fact, universities have protested that the institutes have co-opted the most talented scientists.)

As this volume shows, the US trajectory was very different, despite the efforts of academics trained in or influenced by the German model. Graduate programmes began to emerge largely from undergraduate instruction (particularly in northeastern institutions such as Harvard and Yale, where they were grafted on to the collegiate system). With the exception of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 — which gave land to states, enabling them to finance public agricultural and technical colleges — the US government was relatively uninvolved in research universities until after the Second World War. Public universities have dominated in the US Midwest, West and South, although these regions also have exceptional private research universities. Public universities have been more democratic about admissions, have had more students (graduate and undergraduate) and have been more vocationally oriented. To a greater extent than in Germany, many US professors have become academic entrepreneurs — teaching what they wish, developing their own research programmes, moving from discipline to discipline, obtaining large research grants that permit establishment of small firms and securing patents.

After the Second World War, the US federal government became a major source of research funding, through the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the departments of defence, energy, agriculture and education. This influenced the research agendas of universities — facilitating both basic and applied research — and the number of researchers. US universities have also long had more funding from private foundations than have German institutions.

By the end of the twentieth century, many US public research universities had, unlike Germany's, become huge, bureaucratic, self-organizing and vastly complex. Some have numerous vice-chancellors, provosts and vice-provosts; more than half a dozen colleges (each with deans, associate deans and assistant deans); colleges with multiple departments (some with as many as 90 highly specialized faculty members); sprawling hospitals; and huge athletic programmes. Some have also managed large federal laboratories. And today, US universities seem to be in existential flux, questioning their size, function, structure, nature, philosophical bases and monumental student fees.

The Rise of the Research University charts how unpredictable and unstable university systems have been on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. It reveals that academic soul-searching about the role of research universities is as prevalent now as it was 150 years ago. But it also shows how important these bodies remain, in both the United States and Europe, in advancing understanding of the world.

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Correspondence to Rogers Hollingsworth.

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Hollingsworth, R. Higher education: The making of US academia. Nature 541, 461–462 (2017).

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