The modern Western university was born in medieval Europe. It was supported by the two dominant sources of power and wealth of the time: the Church and the State. In contrast, “the American college in the nineteenth century was a hometown entity,” writes education historian David Larabee. In a land of competing churches, founding a college was an effective way to “plant the flag and promote the faith.” A college was a solid claim for a sleepy country town to get on the map so that it could demand a railway stop, the county seat, or even the state capital, and in turn, raise the value of local real estate.
Unlike the cosmopolitan ambitions of the European university, the American university system started out as humble and provincial. This history continues to live in its deep community engagement, commitment to collegiate sports and alumni support. Later, two very different elements were imported from Europe that would blend surprisingly with its foundation in the local community: the German research university and the British undergraduate college.
This was an unexpected development: three contradictory forces, populist, elite and practical, coming together to shape one of the most formidable institutional forces of the 20th century.
The Oxbridge style undergraduate college experience provided the populist element: fraternities, Greek life, football, care-driven pedagogy and residential life. The clearest embodiment of the practical function is the land-grant college, set up on federally controlled plots of land by the Morill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890.
The advent of the German research university model in the US in the 1880s provided the final element—the elite value of high scientific and philosophical research. Johns Hopkins was the first institution to adopt the model.