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Allies and Rivals

German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University

During the nineteenth century, nearly ten thousand Americans traveled to Germany to study in universities renowned for their research and teaching. By the mid-twentieth century, American institutions led the world. How did America become the center of excellence in higher education? And what does that story reveal about who will lead in the twenty-first century?

Allies and Rivals is the first history of the ascent of American higher education seen through the lens of German-American exchange. In a series of compelling portraits of such leaders as Wilhelm von Humboldt, Martha Carey Thomas, and W. E. B. Du Bois, Emily J. Levine shows how academic innovators on both sides of the Atlantic competed and collaborated to shape the research university. Even as nations sought world dominance through scholarship, universities retained values apart from politics and economics. Open borders enabled Americans to unite the English college and German PhD to create the modern research university, a hybrid now replicated the world over.

In a captivating narrative spanning one hundred years, Levine upends notions of the university as a timeless ideal, restoring the contemporary university to its rightful place in history. In so doing she reveals that innovation in the twentieth century was rooted in international cooperation—a crucial lesson that bears remembering today.

Download the full bibliography. (PDF 424 kb)

384 pages | 12 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Education: Higher Education

History: European History, History of Ideas

Sociology: Theory and Sociology of Knowledge


“In her meticulously researched, sweeping tale of the modern research university, Levine shows how American higher education was inspired by the University of Berlin, and how this model was transformed on American soil, in constant competition with Germany, into the educational landscape we have in the United States today—for better and for worse. . . . Allies and Rivals illuminates the historical roots of a problem central to higher education: while many teachers strive to introduce progressive ideas and ideals, the research university itself is a conservative institution, wedded to stability at the expense of radical innovation.”

Los Angeles Review of Books

"Insightful . . . [Levine] delivers this story in great, and sometimes surprising, detail. . . . Read against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the daily reports of the breaking of another string that had bound Western and Russian intellectuals, Levine’s presentation of the sundering of ties during the First World War seems something less than the history of more than a century ago."

University World News

"It may be the best history of higher education of any type in the last decade. It is, quite simply, genius – not just because it tells an old story in a unique way, but also because it challenges certain well-worn parts of the legend and shows us how the trade-offs made in designing the research university more than a century ago remain relevant today."

Higher Education Strategy Associates

"In Allies and Rivals, Emily Levine tells the story of the emergence of the modern research university through the lens of the national rivalry and exchange that linked institutions in Germany and the United States. . . . This process is skillfully explored across ten thematic chapters in this elegantly written book. . . . . This book marks an important contribution to the history of modern universities—and much beyond."

German History

“Levine’s insightful, engaging account of the modern university’s origins tells a compelling story of the university’s key role as a bridge between state and society. But Allies and Rivals also offers a haunting narrative of how that relationship can sour. This close historical comparison of the origins of the university in Germany and the United States is full of rich detail that ultimately offers a powerful and prescient warning from the past about the possibilities of the present.”

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, American University

“In another breakthrough study, Levine reconstructs the transatlantic history of how higher learning became associated with the now-familiar institutional setting of the research university—a history with great relevance to our own need to reimagine education for a new era. With its examination of national and urban competition over a century, alongside diffusion, entrepreneurship, and hybridization, Allies and Rivals is a new kind of history of the unfinished project of education, and a warrant to reconsider the ongoing transformation of our own institutions today.”

Samuel Moyn, Yale University

Allies and Rivals is a beautifully researched and written exploration of the modern research university. It reveals the modern university to be a thing of paradox, a product of modernity and of international exchange, a jewel in the crown of the US-German relationship, and no less a product of competition, nationalism, and the many disruptions that mark the history of the early twentieth century. Levine has contributed a pathbreaking study of ideas, institutions, and international affairs—an extraordinary and riveting story.”

Michael Kimmage, The Catholic University of America

"Allies and Rivals, which explores the evolution of higher education in America and Germany during the nineteenth century through post-World War II, makes it clear that universities will always be in conversation with the state and society. Levine concludes that 'the university must strike a bargain with the state and society' and that 'any new contract must value autonomy and responsibility equally'. Anyone interested in this bargain would benefit from reading Allies and Rivals to understand where we are today, how we got here, and how the relationship between higher education, the state, and society more broadly must and can benefit all three.”

Catharine B. Hill, senior trustee of Yale University and former president of Vassar College

"Emily Levine’s closely researched history of the rise of the modern elite university, Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University, raises... serious questions about the relationship between universities and power."

The Globe and Mail

" A very readable scholarly study of an important chapter in the history of higher education and the university's social role... Recommended."


"A reader looking for a serious and rigorous treatment of this historical period can expect a good one from this book. It contains invaluable sources and references. It also features insightful quotes from visionary educational leaders. Most of all, Levine presented a compelling account of the modern research universities, with the traveling of ideas at its core."

ECNU Review of Education

"German-American relations in the educational field have been an issue at least since the early 19th century when American visitors studied the German university and sought to adapt the advantages they observed and/or implied. But the relationships were also observed themselves . . . not just for the university sector . .
Comparatively trained, [Levine] sees the mutual relationships as a process of 'borrowing and lending' controlled in each case's own interest. Above all, however, she does not see the shape and function of the university as governed by a single idea, such as that of autonomy, but as a construction of an organization that has to be constantly renegotiated and that has to balance heterogeneous and tension-filled expectations."

Educational Review

Table of Contents

Introduction: The University’s Century

1. The Humboldtian Contract and the Federalist Origins of the Research University

2. Göttingen in Baltimore: The Stakes of Knowledge Exchange

3. Meet Me in St. Louis: Dilemmas of the Knowledge Economy 

4. Reluctant Innovators: Change from the Margins

5. An “Aristocracy of Excellence”: The Rise of the Professions

6. Carnegie, Capital, and the Kaiser

7. World War I and the Invention of Academic Freedom

8. The “Hour for Experiment” in New York and Frankfurt

9. 1933: Annus Horribilis

10. 1933: Annus Mirabilis




Archives Consulted

Selected Bibliography

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