How Johns Hopkins Univ put American higher education on the path to world domination…

Researchers of business and organisation history look at all kinds of cases. Seldom do we look at places where these research ideas are actually written which is universities and institutions.

In this fascinating piece, Karl Rhodes documents history of John Hopkins University. In particular the story of Daniel Gilman who not just shaped the university but his ideas were adopted by other universities. America owes a lot to Gilman as his model helped American universities become the envy of the world.


In 1872, Daniel Gilman, president of the University of California, Berkeley, articulated his vision of what a university should be. During his inaugural address, he argued that the mission of a university should be “to advance the arts and sciences of every sort and to train young men as scholars for all the intellectual callings of life.”

Gilman further stated that universities should elevate scientific research to the same level as the study of language, history, literature, and art. “Give us more and not less science,” he demanded.  Encourage the most thorough and prolonged search for the truth which is to be found in the rocks, the sea, the soil, the air, the sun, and the stars; in light and heat, and magnetic forces; in plants and animals, and in the human frame.”

Such ideas were radical in 1872, a time when most American colleges still focused on teaching Latin, Greek, and mathematics to undergraduates. The advancement of knowledge — especially scientific research — was rarely encouraged.

Near the end of his speech, Gilman imagined what Berkeley would be like 100 years in the future. “I see a flourishing University,” he prophesized. “Students are flocking from east, west, and south, from South America, and Australia, and India, from Egypt and Asia Minor, with the ease and rapidity of a locomotion not yet discovered.”

Gilman’s address was eloquent enough but not sufficiently persuasive. He struggled to sell his plan to state legislators who had their own agendas. He also encountered an aggressive farm lobby that wanted the fledgling land-grant university to focus primarily on agricultural and mechanical arts. After two years of slow progress and growing frustration, he resigned to become the first president of Johns Hopkins University — transplanting his dream from Berkeley to Baltimore.

Back on the East Coast, funded by the unfettered bequests of Johns Hopkins — a recently deceased business owner and investor — Gilman and the university’s trustees established the first research university in the United States. It was a hybrid of the German model that emphasized graduate research and the British model that focused on undergraduate education. The founding faculty members added the uniquely American features of greater academic freedom and closer collaboration between professors and students. They made the laboratory and the seminar the primary centers of learning. They conducted research and published the results in academic journals, including several they started themselves.

The founding of Johns Hopkins was “perhaps the single, most decisive event in the history of learning in the Western Hemisphere,” according to the late Edward Shils, a University of Chicago sociologist. Shils’ assessment may go a bit too far, responds Jonathan Cole, former provost of Columbia University and author of The Great American University. “Nevertheless,” Cole adds, “Gilman’s molding of Hopkins’ mission represented the beginning of the great transformation in American higher learning.”

It is such a typical business story where the big idea is first rejected by  an estbalished organisation. Only for the idea to be implemented by a new/struggling one and rest is history…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: