Rediscovering the Social Contract of Successful Universities

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Since its origins, the university has persisted, not because it has stayed the same but because it has been remarkably flexible. 

Dr. Emily Levine, Associate Professor of Education and (by courtesy) History at Stanford University joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about her new book, Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University, and lessons we can learn today from past evolution of the academic social contract.

Allies and Rivals

Myths shroud the history of higher education. Emily’s book, Allies and Rivals, attempts to dispel those myths and make the past useful.

For example…

The Myth

  • The university is old. It’s hidebound and stagnant. 

The Truth

  • Longevity is not the same as stagnation. If you take that long historical view, you get to see what it takes to make institutional change happen. 

The history of the university is useful because it’s a history of entrepreneurship, of failures and startups and charismatic individual leaders.  

Part of what made those leaders successful — maybe even the most important thing that makes them successful — was their ability to negotiate academic social contracts with different constituents. 

The Social Contract Higher Education Needs to Rediscover Today

Universities have always had a reciprocal relationship with their host societies. One justification for university patronage and support has been that universities and societies serve each other’s interests — an academic social contract if you will. 

Over time, that contract reconciles academic ideals with the practical needs and particular ambitions of its patrons, be they governments, civil societies, or private donors. That contract and those needs change over time. 

“This is a very different framework from how scholars typically write about the university,” Emily told us, “and one of the distinct contributions of Allies and Rivals.” 

Typically we hear about a university ideal abstracted from the world, but it’s better to understand university history as a story of compromises or contracts iterated by leaders over time. 

And there isn’t just one model for a successful academic contract. Each one is different. The contract is what’s constant.

Higher Ed’s Success is Not Just About Models; It’s About Leaders

None of this happens without leadership.

That’s one of Emily’s focuses in the book. 

Unique, charismatic, visionary and impactful academic innovators of the past hold lessons for the future. These individuals were extremely skilled at negotiating among different constituents. They’re the ones who iterate different versions of the contract over time. 

Many were scholars, but more importantly, they were expert organizers who navigated the complex terrains of universities on one hand and with society on the other.

One common feature of success is that these leaders were able to speak to different constituents in the ways that they needed to be heard, bringing multiple positions and viewpoints under a big tent to make that change happen. 

Emily believes we need to seek out leaders who have a system-wide view and can negotiate among multiple partners. But we also need to train and cultivate new leaders who can navigate the complex terrain of the public good.

Warning Signs of Unsuccessful Colleges and Universities

Failures are important.

“Part of what my book is trying to argue against is this notion of the idealist university, a university as a place of ideas,” Emily said. 

A good example is the debate over diversity. We assume tension between social justice and institutional self interest. In fact, bringing excluded figures and marginal ideas into the university serves the institutional interest. 

Historically, marginal ideas often provided the source of innovation and competition. At a time when antisemitism was pervasive, Daniel Gilman used the freedom of non-denominationalism at Johns Hopkins to hire a Jew, the British mathematician, James Joseph Sylvester, as the first chair of the department of mathematics. 

That action was less a product of religious pluralism than Gilman’s strategy to top this tremendous underutilized talent to give his new institution an edge. 

Getting those contracts right yields institutions that stand the test of time.

Next Steps to Navigate the Future of Higher Ed

History is your friend. 

Take history seriously, and don’t just view it as an obstacle. If you were going into politics or the military, you wouldn’t think twice about mastering the grand strategy, reading a biography of Eisenhower or studying the Peloponnesian War, for instance. These people and events happened long ago, but they provided a foundation for understanding the principles of diplomacy and military strategy. 

The great academic innovators by contrast seem largely forgotten in education circles. But we can create opportunities to learn from them and take seriously their models of leadership from the past as opening up new formulations for the future.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Emily Levine of Stanford University. Her new book is Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.