In the following essay, we respond to the Douglass book on Neo-Nationalism and Universities (2021) and the Global Perspectives Review Symposium: Universities between Inter- and Renationalization. We see the university’s extraordinary success as a transcendent global institution fomenting tensions with specific instances of the university in national (and neo-nationalist) contexts. Attacks tend to be on organizational issues in local cases, rather than on The University as a powerful but inchoate global institution.
Prefatory note: We appreciate the contributions of Douglass (2021) and his colleagues, with which our work is being compared—and the thoughtful attention of the Global Perspectives essayists, who contrast the projects in the review symposium (“Universities between Inter- and Renationalization”). Here, we comment on both, seeing the extraordinary success of the university as a global institution as leading to tensions with specific instances of it at national levels. Attacks tend to be on organizational issues in local cases, rather than on “the university” as a powerful but inchoate global institution.
In our book The University and the Global Knowledge Society (Frank and Meyer 2020), we consider the university as a global institution—a set of rule-like cultural assumptions and models that define the university’s form and function on a worldwide scale. Thousands of specific local organizations shelter themselves under this name and legitimating umbrella, as do a great many academic fields, millions of professors and researchers, and hundreds of millions of students and graduates. Now, worldwide, close to 40 percent of young people participate.
The history of the institution begins almost a thousand years ago, in the High Middle Ages. A few specific organizations trace their origins all the way back to that time. But the sector’s steady and strikingly increased rate of expansion means that most specific cases of the university arise only in a half dozen recent decades. Originally an institution of Western Christendom, the university spread through processes of diffusion (occasionally coercive but more often voluntaristic) and is now decidedly global, with organizations claiming to be instances of it everywhere in the world.
At no point in its long history—or in the contemporary era—is the institution of the university formally structured or lawfully grounded in a centralized supranational organization. There is no such thing as a global Ministry of Higher Education with any executive authority. Early on, there were papal, imperial, and royal charters. Much later, nation-states founded universities and established regulations and guidelines.1 But the university’s ultimate basis is and always was cultural, embedded in associational structures, status, reputation, rankings, ratings, opinion—and faith.
This culture is religious-like in character. It infuses the evanescent structure of the university with coherence, endurance, and power. It comprises on one hand a set of meta-assumptions about the nature and comprehensibility of the universe, according to which reality is integrated, rational, and structured by universalistic rules. It comprises on the other hand a set of meta-assumptions about the nature of human beings, whereby persons—at least those properly instructed or saved—have the capacity to comprehend the general features of the universe, and to become masters of its design. Together, these premises legitimate systematic inquiry and enable the possibility of bona fide Knowledge, the acquisition of which grants humans a quasi-godlike actorhood. On these cultural bases, the search for Truth is not a ridiculous wild goose chase or an Icarus-like exercise in hubris. It is, rather, a high calling, to be properly pursued by doctors and professors.
The premises at the root of this system represent grandiose but also substantively empty and even vacuous cultural assertions, which map onto growing segments of the universe and human population with the rise and reverberation of modernity. The pretenses to integration, rationality, and universalism initially applied only to the circumscribed arenas of transcendental being and order, where they gave rise to the university’s originally dominant faculties of theology and law. Later, they spread into the domains of high heavenly and human creation—the faculties of medicine and philosophy—and later still into rather lower heavenly and human creation—the faculties of natural sciences, social sciences, and engineering. By the present day, virtually any cultural object (bears, beers, bees, or best practices) can be seen through their prism. In parallel, the conceit of human understanding courses through the world’s population, crossing barriers of religion, sex, nationality, ethnicity, ability, and so on and on. Even as their applications grow, the underlying metaprinciples of culture remain intact. On faith, the universe is comprehensible; on faith, humans can comprehend it. The aspirational Truth need never be bogged down with the slovenly details of ordinary life (Shils 1958); it floats unfettered and content free, as when students of economics confidently prescribe development schemes for countries they know nothing about—or that indeed do not exist.
The idea of the university germinates within this cultural framework rather than dispersing from a high organizational center (though Napoleon may have had the idea to establish one). Today more than ten thousand organizations claim to be instances of the university, and as such derive their existence, legitimacy, and resources. The claim may be backed by nation-states or upheld by memberships in sub- or supranational associations or verified by surveys of relevant professional groups. It is likely to be validated by lists compiled in university directories, yearbooks, and rankings. Sometimes, it stands by simple assertion with little added external corroboration: the university model is so deeply institutionalized that some organizations barely manifested in the real world can successfully claim to be one.2
In the absence of any organizational center, no specific case of the university ever completely comprehends every feature of available models. All concrete organizations may be faulted for leaving out pieces that are common elsewhere—perhaps a veterinary school or a Department of Arabic Literature—and including elements that are somewhat distinctive—Stanford’s Contemplative Center, for example, or the Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh. Such conflicts are part and parcel of an institution that is never organizationally stipulated and ever changing. In the medieval world, for example, a university lacking canon law might have raised questions, while in the contemporary world, dropping one’s French or botany department may cause consternation (above all from French and botany professors).
Thus, every concrete instance of a university is subject to potential criticism from one or another standpoint. Perhaps the university includes excessively vulgar topics (e.g., a major in sales or marketing) or too many remedial classes in math or English. Perhaps it is over- or underresponsive to student demands. Or perhaps it omits too many of the topics thought to be core and should be reclassified as a technical school. The articulation of such judgments invokes many different stakeholder perspectives, including those of nation-states, professional associations, religious and ethnic groups, external populations, and so on. Throughout the history of the university, criticism has been endemic. But it is essential to note that the criticism rarely focuses on the institution and instead carps along the organizational edge, usually celebrating the grand institution and stigmatizing the local instance as deviant. The animating cultural conception of the university as an institution, concerning the comprehensibility of the universe and the capacities of humans for comprehending, remains untouched. Criticism attends to specific university organizations and their putative failures or excesses. Throughout the last millennium and especially since the end of World War II, growth has been the order of the day: there are more universities involving more personnel and covering more cultural content. Movements to bar or eliminate the university and its instances from particular places in the world have been extremely rare and very ineffective.
Because of the centrality of abstract and almost vacuous conceptions of Knowledge, the Knower, and their Truth throughout Western and now world society, the university as an institution survives and prospers. These central features of the institution enable it to change in all specific ways in response to wider social development. New student populations may be added (e.g., Catholics, women); new professorships may be created (in child development or neurobiology); and all sorts of new topics may be drawn under the umbrellas of Knowledge and Truth. New organizations pop up in formerly unlikely places in the furthest periphery (now extending to outer space—see the International Space University, “shaping the international space ecosystem” since 1987).3
Periods of dramatic social change naturally produce much criticism of the university in tandem with larger adaptive processes. This occurred during the Enlightenment and its revolutions, amid the expansion of democracy and capitalism afterward, during the liberal heyday after World War II, and amid the neoliberal transformation after 1990. In the current post-neoliberal period, likewise, there is an upsurge of criticisms, from left, center, and right. Almost none of them take aim at the abstract ideal of the institution, but they certainly summon change from the immediate organizations at hand. Globalization partially disconnects the university from the nation-state organizational controls in which its instances were embedded, and local organizational reactions are common.
Some of these attacks—especially those from the populist right as it rises around the world—are depicted in the valuable collection assembled by Douglass (2021). The main chapters consist of case studies of neonationalism and higher education, especially in the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, China, and Brazil. The underlying argument is that national political environments have been the central determinants of the mission, role, and effectiveness of the universities within their borders. Indeed, Douglass and contributors find that contemporary neonationalisms have real impact on particular universities, albeit variable according to their national settings.
[N]eo-nationalists often attack universities as hubs of dissent, symbols of global elitism, and generators of biased research; academic freedom is being more overtly suppressed, faculty and administrators fired and jailed, and university governance and management altered to ensure greater control by autocratic-leaning politicians (Douglass 2021, 22–23).
The contemporary wave of neonationalism, in short, elevates efforts, against globalization, to subordinate universities to national political agendas and their authoritarian leaders. Some specific fields become targets (e.g., gender studies, international relations). Specific academic elites are unhorsed (deans, liberal professors). Particular organizations are suppressed. Much of this is done in the name of the claimed true university, bringing it back to True Knowledge.
Of course, Douglass and coauthors recognize that the university arose some centuries before nationalism and the nation-state (Hoelscher and Schubert 2022). Despite the disjuncture in time, the two institutions share important building blocks, above all a commitment to rationalized understandings of the world and faith in the ability of humans to harvest reason for the great goals of progress, variably including economic growth, order, equity, democracy, and sustainability (Carpentier and Unterhalter 2022). What is more, they provide impetus to each other. Most strikingly, the rise of the nation-state system engendered a big expansion in the university system, with a raft of university foundings and major new sources of revenue. Even at their historical outset, nation-states without universities were incomplete, and over time they grew increasingly rare in practice.4
As they rose over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nation-states successfully imposed a set of organizational controls over universities. Most dramatically, perhaps, they established and chartered so-called public universities, with some sway over their form and function (e.g., the exclusion of theology, the inclusion of agriculture; differential admissions and tuition for citizen and noncitizen students; approved languages of instruction; etc.). Moreover, they established accrediting regimes to set functional standards for public and private universities alike. Additionally, nation-states provided funding to underwrite university operations and often to cover the costs of research and teaching. Governance and administration proved amenable to political controls.
Where nation-states managed to establish fewer controls is over the definitional bedrock of the university—the Knowledge that distinguishes it from other institutions. For example, the chemistry taught in one university classroom is likely to be very similar to the chemistry taught in another university classroom on the other side of the world—despite vast differences in economic, political, and cultural settings. The case is even stronger on the research side, where chemists under every national flag angle to publish in high-status global chemistry journals and contribute to the great body of global chemistry.5
Broadly, there is a mismatch or cultural clash between the universalism that is a defining feature of the university and the nationalism (and neonationalism) associated with the nation-state. In contrast with other forms of understanding, such as intuition or experience, academic Knowledge is seen to be universal, holding across time and space. Atoms are atoms, and kinetics are kinetics, whether the country is Brazil, Tanzania, or Malaysia. Even the details of social structure are reported and analyzed in standardized fashion. Efforts to nationalize academic knowledge typically fail. An interesting case at the margins is nuclear science, where a handful of countries expend enormous effort to build firewalls that limit diffusion, above all as nuclear science merges into nuclear policy in regard to weapons. But diffusion happens nevertheless, and much nuclear science is everywhere, and nuclear weapons now exist in Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. National containment, even in this highest-stakes arena, proves difficult.
Accordingly, the neonationalist spasms occurring around the world carry much starker implications for university organizations than for the university as an institution. But even at the organizational level, the neonationalist threat is variegated (Brøgger and Moscovitz 2022). During the Erdoğan regime in Turkey, for example, the tertiary gross enrollment ratio increased greatly, growing from 87 percent in 2014 (the first year of the regime) to 117 percent in 2020 (the most recent year with World Bank data). Likewise in India under Modi, the tertiary gross enrollment ratio increased substantially, growing from 25 percent in 2014 (the first year of the regime) to 31 percent in 2021 (most recent World Bank data). Meanwhile, in Hungary under Orban, the tertiary gross enrollment ratio decreased, falling from 64 percent in 2010 (the first year of the regime) to 55 percent in 2020 (most recent World Bank data). And in the United States under Trump, the tertiary gross enrollment ratio remained roughly the same: 89 percent in 2016 (the first year of the regime) and 88 percent in 2020 (the last year of the regime).6 The organizational impacts of high-profile neonationalist regimes on university enrollments, in other words, are not strictly negative, and it seems likely that other macro-indicators of institutional vitality (e.g., public spending, curricular coverage) would show similar results. This, of course, makes sense. Neonationalism at its core seeks to promote the position and interests of the nation, and doing so historically has almost always involved promoting, or collaborating with, higher education (Brint 2023). Even in its anti-elitist populist form, as in Brazil, neonationalist regimes may increase support for the sociosciences, such as engineering and medicine—fields that offer concrete solutions to concrete social problems—even as they slash support for the social sciences and the humanities, especially in their critical and subversive varieties (Anderson 2022).
The idea here is not to detract from the clear and certain threats neonationalism poses to the university: expulsions, closures, arrests, and violent attacks are very real and very damaging to academic freedom (Kennedy 2023). But the thousand-year history of the university does not suggest tremulous fragility. One might even call attention to reverse causal processes: threats the university poses to neonationalism. For example:
With ongoing expansion in the tertiary enrollment ratio—now at 40 percent globally, according to UNESCO—university education strips populist neonationalisms of the very populations among whom they have greatest resonance.
Ongoing university expansion promotes individual human actorhood by disentangling the universe into orderly principles and causal understandings. The process establishes the feasibility of actorhood and grounds the improbable conceit that everyday humans can clear hurdles of irrationality (Kosmützky and Krücken 2023). Broad distributions of actorhood undermine the authoritarian impulse.
Coincident with the politicization of knowledge—the disruption and capture of climate science, for example, and the suppression of English-language international programs—there is the less ballyhooed but perhaps more important academicization of politics, which infuses raw exercise of politics with theory and method under the rubric of policy. Flashes of raw politics, naturally, continue to command attention, but they occur against giant backdrops of academicized policy.
The point is simply that there are two-way causal processes. The menace of the university for neonationalism may go at least some distance to counteracting the menace of neonationalism for the university.
Even the oft-told story of the Central European University—driven from Hungary by the neonationalist Orban regime and forced to relocate to Austria—is more layered than sometimes portrayed. Obviously, the conflict damaged the lives of students, administrators, and professors; and obviously, it damaged higher education in Hungary. But the Central European University, not to mention the global university of which it is one instance, survived and prospered. It occupies a gleaming new campus in Vienna and by 2022–23 was educating about 12 percent more students than in the last year of its operation in Budapest.7
It is striking how marginal the contemporary attacks are to the global concept of the university. It is offensive and painful when particular academics, departments, or schools are undercut, or when particular texts or lines of study are eliminated, or different classes of students excluded. And such attacks are common. But they tend to bear very little on the central cultural assumptions and models carried by the global university. Indeed, the crises appear as “crises” mainly because the big institution inflates local happenings with global significance.
Of course, whatever threats the university poses failed to stop the recent and virulent wave of neonationalism currently sweeping the world (Douglass 2021). The cultural challenges associated with that wave may subside, as they have done previously in history. But there is another alternative to which the Douglass volume calls attention. The cultural changes may represent an enduring shift in the world’s cultural framework—a broad retreat from the abiding faith in the comprehensibility of the universe and the comprehending capacities of the humans within it. In that case, as only time will tell, the future of the university is indeed foreboding.
We have no competing interests.
David John Frank is professor and chair of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. His work analyzes the dynamic structure of world society, including evolving models of the university, the natural environment, the individual, and sex and sexuality. His most recent paper is “Animals in World Society: Constitutional and Legislative Incorporation, 1972–2020” (with Mike Zapp and Marcelo Marques, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 2023). His most recent book is The University and the Global Knowledge Society (with John W. Meyer, Princeton University Press, 2020). Currently, he is working on “The Social Foundations of Academic Freedom: Heterogeneous Institutions in World Society, 1960–2022” (with Julia Lerch and Evan Schofer).
John W. Meyer is professor of sociology, emeritus, at Stanford University. He has contributed to institutional theory, the sociology of education, and formal organizations. He has studied the impact of global models on society (World Society, Oxford University Press, 2009; Jepperson and Meyer, Institutional Theory, Cambridge University Press, 2021). Main foci have been on the worldwide expansion of education (Frank and Meyer, The University and the Global Knowledge Society, Princeton University Press, 2020) and the organizational impact of globalization (Bromley and Meyer, Hyper-Organization, Oxford University Press, 2015).
According to Woods (2005), eighty-one universities had been established by the time of the Reformation, of which thirty-three had a papal charter, fifteen had a royal or an imperial charter, twenty had both, and thirteen had no charter.
A host of private consultancies can help one establish a university—perhaps anywhere, independent of the specifics of a local society. See, e.g., “How to Open a Private Californian University” at https://bppe.consulting/blog/starting-your-own-private-california-university.
Aspirations notwithstanding, the main campus of the International Space University remains, for now, earthbound in France. See https://www.isunet.edu.
The least populous countries in the world—Nauru (population 11,232), Tuvalu (population 11,722), and Palau (population 22,927)—do not have their own universities but share the University of the South Pacific with nine other small Pacific Island countries.
Among the twenty-one faculty in the György Hevesy Doctoral School of Chemistry at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, nineteen have doctoral degrees from Hungarian universities, indeed from Eötvös itself. However, their postdoctoral training is from a range of Western countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, etc.). And their research publications are flamboyantly universalistic: alkali halide force fields, synthetic- and DFT modeling studies, spectroscopic-network-assisted precision spectroscopy, electrochemical nanogravimetric studies of sulfur/sulfide redox processes, and so on. The latter betray no hint of the Hungarian context—despite Hungary being a poster child of neonationalism.
According to the World Bank, “Gross enrollment ratio is the ratio of total enrollment, regardless of age, to the population of the age group that officially corresponds to the level of education shown.” See https://databank.worldbank.org/metadataglossary/world-development-indicators/series/SE.TER.ENRR.