10 Forgotten Leaders in Higher Education

Emily J. Levine
Vesto Review
Published in
7 min readSep 20, 2021


Like the fields of diplomacy or politics, education, too, has great leaders about whom we rarely hear and, rarer still, do we actively emulate. Some of the individuals below, like Pritchett and Carey, are truly unknown outside the world of specialists, while others, like Du Bois, Carnegie, and Humboldt, often appear in other disciplinary studies. Their inclusion here has new meaning and lessons for today. In the spirit of making history usable below is a list drawn from my new book, Allies and Rivals, of ten forgotten leaders in higher education.

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835)

Wilhelm von Humboldt: Following the defeat to Napoleon, Humboldt, a linguist and diplomat, was asked by King Friedrich Wilhelm III to reform the Prussian education system. Though his first response was one of resignation, his efforts resulted in 1810 in the first modern research university — the University of Berlin — an institution that combined the dissemination of knowledge (teaching) with the advancement of knowledge (research). As I write in Allies and Rivals, this institution embodied the first academic social contract in which professors were given an unprecedented amount of autonomy in exchange for services to that society.

Daniel Coit Gilman (1831–1908)

Daniel Coit Gilman: Gilman was the founder of the first American research university, Johns Hopkins University. He previously traveled in Germany and was influenced to create what was later called “Göttingen at Baltimore.” He took specific inspiration from German universities such as a lack of distinguishing features from the wider environment, emphasizing “men not buildings”. He saw outsiders as critical to giving his new institution a competitive edge and controversially appointed a Jewish academic to be the first chair of the mathematics department. Initially Gilman strongly opposed the integration of women into Hopkins but relented amid pressure from Martha Carey Thomas and, in 1899, observed “admission of women to the advantage of higher education” was one “of the remarkable changes of recent years”.

Henry Pritchett (1857–1939)

Henry Pritchett: In 1824, Pritchett studied astronomy in Munich to receive the “coveted doctorate” and Germany left a lasting impression on his thinking. The founder of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a former head of MIT, Pritchett was an organizer as much as academic. Through CFAT, Pritchett aimed to standardize American teaching inspired by the German system by offering pensions to universities that were willing to meet certain criteria. In a similar vein, Pritchett commissioned the Flexner Report to elevate the institutions providing medical education in America.

“As I happen to be the President of one of the four largest and best endowed separate colleges for women in the United States, you will not think me unduly biased, if I say that, as women, we should throw all our influence in favor of unrestricted co- education of the sexes from the Kindergarten through the university.”

Martha Carey Thomas

Martha Carey Thomas: Thomas took advantage of the Quaker’s openness to female education and her family’s wealth to travel to Leipzig and Zurich to complete a PhD summa cum laude in 1882. From there, she became the founding president “in all but name” of Brynn Mawr, which she shaped as a Johns Hopkins University for women insofar as it drew on German traditions and awarded the PhD. Thomas was ultimately an advocate of universal co-education across genders, rather than single gender education, and once observed to her German colleagues, “As I happen to be the President of one of the four largest and best endowed separate colleges for women in the United States, you will not think me unduly biased, if I say that, as women, we should throw all our influence in favor of unrestricted co- education of the sexes from the Kindergarten through the university.” Despite this ambition, she devoted her time and energy to what was possible to change, and elevating women’s education in America, had a longstanding impact.

Friedrich Althoff (1839–1908)

Friedrich Althoff: The director of academic affairs in the Prussian Education Ministry for twenty-seven years, Althoff enjoyed much greater influence over the education system than did the American university leaders in their respective country. Althoff controlled budgets and policies of universities so tightly he was called the “Bismarck of the university system.” Together with Adolf Harnack, Althoff founded the Koppel Foundation for the Promotion of Intellectual Relations Between Germany and Foreign Countries and created an exchange of professors from University of Berlin and Harvard. Their policies aimed to promote both the advancement of science and the aggrandizement of the nation state — to ensure the “worldwide enterprise of academic knowledge” (Weltbetrieb der Wissenschaft) worked to maintain Germany’s “worldwide reputation of German academic research” (Weltgeltung deutscher Wissenschaft).

Felix Klein (1849–1925)

Felix Klein: A German mathematician and intellectual leader, Klein was significant in mediating between technical and research universities. He was also rare insofar as he was a professor who took secondary education seriously and an unconverted Jew in an Ordinarius (tenured) position in Germany. Gilman offered Klein a job at Johns Hopkins that he ultimately declined. Instead, Klein took a job at the University of Göttingen where he implemented American-style innovations like the private philanthropy for research and coeducation. Through his acceptance of American female students in Germany and his travels to the US, Klein had a widespread influence on the field of American mathematics.

“Education is national, but scholarship is international.”

— Adolf Harnack

Adolf Harnack: A church historian and Althoff ’s “favorite” professor, Harnack advocated for ensuring the “international recognition of German scholarship.” Despite controversy, Harnack advocated for academic exchange as a way of ensuring Germany’s position in global scholarship — seeing exchange as essential to advancement. Harnack noted, “education is national, but scholarship is international.” In his capacity as an organizer, Harnack also campaigned for the founding of extra-academic research institutes to keep Germany competitive — efforts that resulted in the founding of the Kaiser Wilhem Society and its accompanying institutes, later known as the Max Planck Institutes.

Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919)

Andrew Carnegie: An aspiring writer from youth, Carnegie began in 1889 to chart the best uses of private money for the public good; his most famous book was Gospel of Wealth. In 1901, he retired from business and made good on his promise endowing his first institution, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, with $10 million (or about $292,000,000 today). Soon after he announced his intention, Carnegie was lobbied by different parties about what to do with his money — reviving an old debate about federalism and knowledge organization and, in particular, whether to found a national university. Carnegie’s decision to create a fellowship system that supported rather than competed with universities, contrasted with that of the Germans’ contemporary decision, and became a hallmark of the decentralization of the American system.

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963)

W.E.B. Du Bois: Born in 1868 to a poor home with a mother who worked as a housekeeper in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois attended an integrated school where he received a classical education, and by the time he was fifteen he was covering local black issues for the New York Globe. Du Bois’s lifelong preoccupation with German culture was sparked at Fisk University and in 1888, he chose to deliver his public oration on Bismarck. The recipient of a Price Greenleaf Fellowship at Harvard in 1888, Du Bois received further training in the German tradition through William James. He then traveled to Germany in 1892 supported by the John F. Slater Fund , one of a number of new foundations in 1890s established to support African American education. But Du Bois required more funding to complete his degree and the Fund denied his request. His consolation prize was a PhD from Harvard, a reflection of his persistent insider-outsider status. Du Bois would go on to innovate through his Atlanta Seminars, elevating the education of African Americans, and creating a new school of sociology whose impact has only recently been fully acknowledged.

Abraham Flexner (1866–1959)

Abraham Flexner: a Midwesterner and son of German-Jewish immigrants, Flexner studied at Johns Hopkins and traveled in Europe. Commissioned by Pritchett in 1908 and working in 1909, Flexner authored an explosively critical report on the state of medical education in the US. Concluding medical schools were in an embarrassing state, Flexner sought an institutional and system-wide renovation modeled on the German system. This report led to much of what we take for granted about medical training today (“high standards of admission for medical school, uniform prerequisites for medical training, and the strength of state regulation of medical licensure.” In the early 1930s, Flexner went on to found the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ as an institution not entirely in or outside the university that gave appointments to many German and German-Jewish scholarly refugees — as much an attempt to give his institution a competitive edge as a gesture of humanitarian support.

(University of Chicago Press, 2021)

Emily J. Levine is Associate Professor of Education and (by courtesy) History at Stanford University. Her previous book, Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School (Chicago, 2013), was awarded the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize by the American Historical Association.



Emily J. Levine
Vesto Review

Historian at @StanfordEd. Current project: transatlantic history of the research university.