Racing to Global Prestige–The Nation in University Systems

Ryan M. Allen


Empires of Ideas Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China William C. Kirby, Belknap Press, 2022, 504 pp. Hdbk $37.95, ISBN: 9780674737716


The United States has largely been the leader in international higher education since the end of World War II, surpassing European powers destroyed by fighting. In recent decades, China’s institutions have rapidly risen, becoming peers in powerful fields such as artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. In Empires of Ideas William Kirby explores the question of whether America’s turn on top of the global higher education hierarchy is nearing an end, and if China can ascend the pedestal in its place. Kirby weaves together traditional historical analysis with personal narratives and experiences with German, American, and Chinese higher education systems.  


University rankings have been described as the ‘Olympic Games’ of higher education (Yudkevich et al, 2015). Just as runners in the 100-meter dash, countries around the world jockey for coveted positions to earn bragging rights at having universities atop the global pedestal. Scholars have directly tied fervor for ‘world-class’ universities to university rankings, highlighting how countries enact costly elite-making policies on a handful of institutions with the hope they will rise in the latest Times or QS league table (Allen, 2021). Unlike the Olympics, though, the stakes for having globally renowned universities are seen as critical to national development and technological capabilities.


Kirby juxtaposes Germany, the previous higher education powerhouse, with the United States, the present higher education leader, and China, the promised higher education contender. The book lays out these previous, present, and promised cases. Initially dubious that the three cases would neatly fit together in a logical progression, by the end of the book, Kirby makes a convincing case that these systems do indeed smartly belong grouped sequentially.


The book is an ambitious project: an attempt to patch together three wildly different histories of national higher education sectors in Germany, the US, and China, all the while making explicit and relevant comparisons and connections across each. He uses several cases in each country to tell the broader historical narratives of higher education in the countries. In Germany, it’s the University of Berlin (later Humboldt University) and the Free University of Berlin; in the US, it’s Harvard University, University of California Berkeley, and Duke University; and in China, it’s Tsinghua University, Nanjing University, and University of Hong Kong.


The German chapters of the book feel the most historically rooted, separate from some of the personal narratives that drive the later sections.. The book roots Germany as a past power, focusing on their past greatness and accomplishments, along with their eventual downfall on the global stage. The lesson that the German case illustrates is how far a system can fall. Before World Wars, German scientists received an outsized share of Nobel Prizes.


This includes self-inflicted wounds, going from ‘poets and thinkers’ to ‘judges and hangman’ from 1933 to 1945 (p. 43), including book burning and the expelling of Jewish faculty. The Cold War partition of the county also led to the partition of its leading institution, the University of Berlin, into what is now known as Humboldt University and the Free University of Berlin. Germany’s fall proved to be a boon for American higher education. The seeds that are laid in the Germany sections of the book nicely blossom throughout the comparisons in the US and Chinese chapters.


The throughline for the case of American universities is that many early educational leaders in the US were inspired by the German model. During the 19th century, over 9,000 Americans studied at German universities. Indeed, Johns Hopkins University’s first graduate school in the US was based directly on the University of Berlin, and most of the faculty studied in Germany. German scientists had also flocked to American universities to escape the Nazification of Germany and the chaos after World War II.


While the book comes in at over 500 pages, the US sections move briskly, and I would have liked to see more about the neophyte state of learning from Germany rather than some of the more modern lessons offered from the past 20 years. For instance, Kirby discusses how Harvard’s $37 billion endowment took a hit during the financial crisis. Likewise, the Duke chapter centers on modern fundraising campaigns. These aspects are simply not as compelling because these universities are some of the richest on the planet. There should be a more critical eye when looking at the modern worship of the endowment. The example of UC Berkeley being at the whims of state legislatures as a public institution is a much more buyable panic, especially considering the disastrous football stadium albatross that is touched upon in the book and that has only been exacerbated with the new college football realignment.


Kirby offers a genuine insider’s glimpse into the inner workings of these universities, such as the relationships between Duke-Kunshan and Schwarzman-Tsinghua. He recounts how he personally offered guidance to these ventures and was there for early decision-making. These sections are living history that will be relevant to read for decades to come, providing insight into the future success or failure of the ventures. 


The same device used to connect Americans to Germany was used in the book’s progression from the US to China. Kirby highlighted the many human-to-human connections between the schools in the book. For instance, Harvard's John K. Fairbank studied under a Chinese historian at Tsinghua, igniting the formalized study of China in US higher education for decades to come. The personal anecdotes in these Chinese-focused chapters made the book feel more like ethnographic work rather than the traditional archival historical volume, a refreshing aspect of the volume.


Prestige is the runner throughout the book that ties all three cases together. Kirby calls government efforts to improve the global standing of their universities ‘Excellence Initiatives’ (also known as ‘Elite-Making Projects’ in the field of education). However, one of the book’s shortcomings is the constant measuring of success in terms of university rankings. Scholars have long critiqued these for-profit ranking companies for manufacturing farces of measures that would never pass validity or reliability tests that we uphold in our research (Brankovic et al., 2018; Shahjahan et al., 2021).


While students and parents still use league tables to choose colleges, and even governments may consider them in policymaking, offering them as scholarly evidence throughout the book takes away from the rich historically rooted material and decades of experience. Reporting credulously, for instance, on a drop from one to seven within a global league table does not provide evidence of dropping quality in a singular institution, as hard-cut ordinal ranks skew the tiniest changes. University rankings are not science and should be better contextualized in the scholarship.


Ryan M. Allen is Assistant Professor of Comparative and International Education and Leadership at Soka University of America

11 January 2023





Brankovic, J., Ringel, L., & Werron, T. (2018). How Rankings Produce Competition: The Case of Global University Rankings. Zeitschrift Für Soziologie, 47(4), 270–288.


Shahjahan, R. A., Grimm, A., & Allen, R. M. (2021). The ‘LOOMING DISASTER’ for higher education: how commercial rankers use social media to amplify and foster affect. Higher Education, 1-17.


Yudkevich, M., Altbach, P. G., & Rumbley, L. E. (2015). Global university rankings: The ‘Olympic Games’ of higher education? Prospects45(4), 411-419.





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