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The University and the Global Knowledge Society

reviewed by Rebecca S. Natow - April 18, 2022

coverTitle: The University and the Global Knowledge Society
Author(s): David John Frank and John W. Meyer
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691202052, Pages: 182, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

Observers of higher education often speculate about the future of the field. Every so often, these speculations suggest that vast segments of the sector may not have a future at all. Prognosticators such as the late Clayton Christensen, a Harvard University business professor who helped popularize disruptive innovation theory (Bower & Christensen, 1995), have predicted that a large proportion of higher education institutions would permanently close their doors in the near future (Hess, 2018; Warner, 2017). More recently, predictions of large-scale college closures abounded during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some observers forecasting the global public health crisis would accelerate the decline of the already beleaguered postsecondary sector (e.g., Kroger, 2020; Vedder, 2020). Yet through it all, traditional higher education has survived. Although there have been college closures, these are few and far between, frequently involving small and little-known private colleges, and more often than not resulting in a merger with another institution rather than an outright closure (Higher Ed Dive, 2022). History has shown that higher education can overcome serious obstacles (e.g., Platt et al., 2017). After reading The University and the Global Knowledge Society by David John Frank and John W. Meyer, I am convinced that the vast majority of higher education institutions—particularly those that conform to the model of what Frank and Meyer call “the university”—are likely to survive for the long term.

In their book, Frank and Meyer provide insight into how and why the university has become so ingrained in the social fabric as to be omnipresent and indispensable. Their analysis, steeped in the sociology of organizations and drawing on data that reach back over a century, examines the expansion of universities across the globe, particularly since the early twentieth century. The university, as an institutionalized organization (Meyer & Rowan, 1977), flourishes in the modern environment of liberalism (which the authors define as “models of national society as driven by the choices of participating actors”) and neoliberalism (defined by the authors as “the globalization or universalization of such models”) (p. 147n1). As organizations that conform to the archetype of a purveyor of “universal knowledge” (p. 4), and that perpetuate the perception that the benefits they bestow on students and scholars result from the hard work and capabilities of those rugged individuals, it is not difficult to see why the university thrives in such an environment.

From the beginning, The University and the Global Knowledge Society reminds the reader that every university is part of the broader conceptualization of the university-as-global-institution, and this association is what gives universities their stature. The authors liken the university to religion: Both promote concepts of “universal truths” (p. 4)—in the case of universities, this is the knowledge they provide—and both purport “to explain the fundamental nature of being by interpreting local facts in light of transcendent truths” (p. 3). Frank and Meyer write that in the context of a “global knowledge society, which is … built on assumptions of standardized and rationalized universalism” (p. 5), the university has replaced religion as “the central sense-making institution” (p. 17). The authors also observe that university education is linked to the rise of professionalism and the social stratification that exists in highly professionalized societies. Thus, the university as a global institution has played an instrumental role in continued social stratification.

Throughout the book, Frank and Meyer demonstrate how the university expanded and became institutionalized since the time of the Enlightenment and particularly after World War II. Their analysis also shows how the university has evolved over the years. For example, as the curriculum has expanded, it has also allowed for more specialization. The social sciences and applied fields have similarly expanded, as has the academicization of nearly everything. Chapters 1 through 5 of the book document universities’ expansion and evolution in terms of the number of organizations, affiliated individuals, and covered subject matters. Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the relationship between the university and society, and how each influences the other. Frank and Meyer close with an outlook for the future of the university in global society. They warn here and elsewhere in the text that the university’s status and institutionalization are not set in stone— should global society shift away from neoliberalism and more toward populism or back in the direction of strong nation-states, the university may no longer enjoy the prominent, institutionalized status it currently holds.

The authors’ analysis draws on a variety of sources that illustrate the evolution and institutionalization of the university over the centuries. This includes works such as the Minerva Jahrbuch der Universitäten der Welt, “a yearbook of the scholarly world,” which tracked higher education institutions worldwide beginning in 1895 until 1969 (p. 25). The authors also make use of modern data sources in their analysis, for example by using Google Ngram Viewer to show how frequently terms such as overeducation and school dropout have appeared in English-language publications between the years 1880 and 2000. The authors skillfully draw from old and new resources such as these to provide a multidimensional depiction of the university’s expansion and evolution throughout history and into the present day.

Through The University and the Global Knowledge Society, Frank and Meyer provide a unique and thorough assessment of the university as an institution and how it has persisted through the centuries, largely in the same form and despite numerous external challenges, including increased competition from arguably more efficient training providers. They also present a convincing explanation as to why so many prognostications of the demise of higher education have been wrong. This book makes a useful contribution to the institutional analysis of universities and will certainly find a prominent place on reading lists for students and scholars of organizational sociology, higher education, and globalization.


Bower, J. L., & Christensen, C. M. (1995, January-February). Disruptive technologies: Catching the wave. Harvard Business Review, 43–53.  

Frank, D. J., & Meyer, J. W. (2020). The university and the global knowledge society. Princeton University Press.

Hess, A. J. (2018, August 30). Harvard business school professor: Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/08/30/hbs-prof-says-half-of-us-colleges-will-be-bankrupt-in-10-to-15-years.html

Higher Ed Dive Team. (2022). A look at trends in college consolidation since 2016. Higher Ed Dive. https://www.highereddive.com/news/how-many-colleges-and-universities-have-closed-since-2016/539379/

Kroger, J. (2020, May 26). 10 predictions for higher education’s future. Inside Higher  Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/leadership-higher-education/10-predictions-higher-education%E2%80%99s-future

Meyer, J. W., & Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony. American Journal of Sociology83(2), 340–363.

Platt, R. E., Chesnut, S. R., McGee, M., & Song, X. (2017). Changing names, merging colleges: Investigating the history of higher education adaptation. American Educational History Journal44(1/2), 49–67.

Vedder, R. (2020, April 7). Why the coronavirus will kill 500-1,000 colleges. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/richardvedder/2020/04/07/500-1000-colleges-to-disappear-survival-of-the-fittest

Warner, J. (2017, November 21). Disruptive innovation? More like destructive innovation. Inside

Higher Education. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/just-visiting/disruptive-innovation-more-destructive-innovation

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 18, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 24035, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 11:26:12 AM

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About the Author
  • Rebecca Natow
    Hofstra University
    REBECCA S. NATOW, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at Hofstra University. She is an expert in higher education policy and has authored and coauthored articles and books about federal higher education policymaking, the U.S. Department of Education’s rulemaking process, and performance-based funding for higher education, among other topics. Dr. Natow’s research and teaching focus on higher education law and policy, federal education policy processes, qualitative research methods, and higher education leadership.
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