The Design of the University : German, American, and “World Class” book cover
1st Edition

The Design of the University
German, American, and “World Class”

ISBN 9780367152055
Published May 23, 2019 by Routledge
272 Pages

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Book Description

What is the reason for the American university’s global preeminence? How did the American university succeed where the development of the German university, from which it took so much, stalled? In this closely-argued book, Meyer suggests that the key to the American university’s success is its institutional design of self-government. Where other university systems are dependent on the patronage of state, church, or market, the American university is the first to achieve true autonomy, which it attained through an intricate system of engagements with societal actors and institutions that simultaneously act as amplifiers of its impact and as checks on the university’s ever-present corrosive tendencies.

Built on a searching analysis of the design thinking of Wilhelm von Humboldt and Adam Smith and closely tracing the learning process by which Americans adapted the German model, The Design of the University dismisses efforts to copy superficial features of the American university in order to achieve world-class rank. Calling attention to the design details of the university and the particulars of its institutional environment, this volume identifies the practices and choices that produced the gold standard for today’s world class higher education.

Table of Contents

Part 1: Glimpses of a New Design 1. Introduction: The "World Class" Discourse and the Perspective of Institutional Design 2. Ticknor in Göttingen: The Discovery of a New Institution 3. Adam Smith and "The Very Absurd Constitution of the English Universitys" 4. Humboldt’s Design Revolution: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back Part 2: Institutional Learning: Events, Actors, and Beliefs 5. The Migration of an Institution: From Boston to Berlin and Back 6. Contested Designs: Scholars and Patricians 7. Protestants and Philanthropists 8. Centralizers and Localizers 9. Purity or Utility? The Business School in the Academy 10. Fortuitous Idiosyncrasies: How Humboldt Flourished in America Part 3: Achieving Self-Government: Six American Design Shifts 11. Collegial Self-Government 12. Executive Presidents 13. Infrastructure of Independence 14. Hierarchies and Heterarchies 15. From State to Civil Society 16. Shared Governance17. Systemic Design Properties: Autonomy as Complex Self-Organization Part 4: Conclusion 18. Self-Government as Fragile Equilibrium Afterword: Towards "World Class" Managerialism?

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Heinz-Dieter Meyer is Associate Professor of Organization and Education at the State University of New York – Albany, USA.


"Thanks to an in-depth historical-comparative analysis of the German and American systems, Meyer succeeds in showing that the design features that account for the strengths of the American university are far more complex than is assumed in these efforts. A must-read for everyone interested to understand the past and possible perils of the globalization of the university."

--Edward P. St. John, Algo D. Henderson Collegiate Professor of Higher Education, University of Michigan, USA

"This is a great book that makes a significant contribution to comparative studies in higher education, in particular to the growing literature on institutional and policy transfer, in which it will find a secure place as a result of its sophisticated analysis of complex cross-national influence involving the American and German concepts of a university."

--David Phillips, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Education, University of Oxford, UK

"This book provides a fascinating account of how the American university both surpasses and perfects Humboldt’s model as the basis for the modern research university. This highly readable investigation offers an important counter-narrative to the model of the ‘national’ university (constructed around state control and funding) and the recent ‘world-class’ discourse emphasizing de-contextualized ‘one best way’ models of global excellence. True excellence, Meyer argues, is based on incremental institutional learning through a sustainable conversation in which scholars, not managers are in the drivers’ seat."

--Michael A. Peters, Professor of Education, University of Waikato, New Zealand, and Emeritus Professor in Educational Policy, Organization, and Leadership, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, USA


"Meyer demonstrates how the American university both extends and overcomes some of the key deficits of Smith’s and Humboldt’s models. The book instructively combines organizational sociology with an historical and comparative approach. A fine book!"

--Horst Kern, Professor of Sociology and President Emeritus of Georgia-Augusta University, Goettingen, Germany


Excerpts from Reviews:

Justin W. Powell, The design of the university: German, American, and ‘World Class,’ Comparative Education Review, Vol. 62, #3, 451-54.

This stimulating historical and comparative study exemplifies the importance of in-depth experience and engagement with the cultural and structural environments in which some of the world’s greatest universities have over centuries incrementally developed and been embedded. Heinz-Dieter Meyer is uniquely placed to grapple with the complex processes of institutional learning and design that have made the German and American universities among the globally most productive.


Krassimir Stojanov (2017): The design of the university: German, American, and ‘World Class’, Educational Philosophy and Theory. DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2017.1422339.

[A] theoretically very well founded and empirically excellent informed analysis of the American university in its historical development and in a highly original comparison to the German model of higher education, as well as by its profound criticism of the current managerialism of the ‘world class university’-ideology. A book that offers such an outstanding analysis and criticism is a must-read for everyone who is concerned with the state and the future of the modern university in a world, in which civil society and civil culture are increasingly exposed to various threats by both state authoritarianism and market fundamentalism.


Robert Cowen (2017): The design of the university: German, American, and ‘world class’, Comparative Education, DOI: 10.1080/03050068.2017.1361235

[T]he book manages – almost en passant – a severe critique of the intellectual banalities, offered in the name of the World Bank, that are in the concept and in the dangers of the pursuit of ‘world-class universities. … It is outstanding in the contemporary literature on comparative higher education. I believe that it will, in the longer term, become recognised as a contemporary classic in that literature. Meyer’s invocation of Tocqueville and Weber and Mary Douglas is not ritualistic. He too has aimed high. His work is serious.


Heinz-Elmar Tenorth, SLR / Sozialwissenschaftliche Literatur Rundschau. Issue 75/2017, 6-11. Heinz-Dieter Meyer: The Design of the University. German, American, and »World Class«. New York/London, 2017, Routledge/Taylor & Francis.

The worldwide debate about the university is conducted with great engagement and stark front lines ... [This book offers] a challenging … even provocative thesis that merits reading.