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The New Flagship University: Changing the Paradigm from Global Ranking to National Relevancy (Review)

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The core of the book presents a brief history of the flagship university and analyzes an expanded list of elements that constitute the ideal for the future.


The posting below is a review by Karen Merritt of the book, The New Flagship University: Changing the Paradigm from Global Ranking to National Relevancy, edited by John Aubrey Douglass. Palgrave. Macmillan 2016, 217 pages. Hardcopy ISBN: 978-1-137-50048-9. The review appeared in Planning for Higher Education. Volume 44, Number 2 April-June 2016. Society for College and University Planning Copyright © 201X Society for College and University Planning. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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The New Flagship University: Changing the Paradigm from Global Ranking to National Relevancy (Review)


SINCE THE BEGINNING OF THE 21ST CENTURY, higher education has seen an upsurge in global ranking systems that claim to identify the world’s best universities. Countries ranging from Japan, China, and Russia to Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam have set goals at the governmental level for placing and strengthening their own most competitive universities in those rankings. It is now a truism that to compete in what Clark Kerr in the 1960s presciently labeled the “knowledge industry,” having one or more world-class universities is of the essence.

Historian John Douglass, a senior research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, presents this picture with the aim of critiquing its limitations. In its place, he offers the characteristics of a more comprehensive and nuanced model for achieving excellence, which he identifies in the title of his latest book: The New Flagship University: Changing the Paradigm from Global Ranking to National Relevancy. With an ambitious goal of influencing the international discussion of what constitutes excellence in higher education, Douglass offers an amplified vision that builds on what public flagship universities have traditionally been: home to the best students and faculty; recipients of the most robust state funding to support a tripartite mission of research, teaching, and public service; and possessed of the prestige that comes with an outstanding history of research accomplishments and contributions to social mobility, national leadership, and societal development.

Douglass makes a special appeal to ministries of education to consider the “new flagship model” as a superior pathway to excellence in their countries. In keeping with the international scope of the book, his descriptive dissection of the constituent elements that make up the new flagship university is followed by commentaries from experts on higher education in Asia, South America, Scandinavia, and Russia. The commentaries critique the model from the perspective of each region’s higher education history, culture, and goals for the future. Harvard University’s Manja Klemenčič concludes the book with questions yet to be resolved in the model.

The core of the book presents a brief history of the flagship university and analyzes an expanded list of elements that constitute the ideal for the future. Douglass buttresses his analyses with snapshots of best practices drawn from a range of universities together with summary tables and graphic representations of how the elements interact. The issue of quality in undergraduate education represents one of the features of the model that has eluded easy measurement, yet is a sine qua non. Douglass brings to bear his insights as founder of the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) survey, which is conducted annually by a coalition of University of California campuses, AAU institutions, and research universities in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. Douglass presents a list of contemporary learning outcomes and elaborates by offering highlights of programs that achieve them. His examples are drawn from the University of Oregon, MIT, Brazil’s Unicamp, and Amsterdam University College, among many others.

Though Douglass hopes to reach an international audience of policy makers, those concerned with the direction of public higher education in America are likely to take particular note of his imperatives for maintaining excellence. Not surprisingly, the University of California predominates throughout as a source of illustrative policies and practices. This is especially notable in the discussions of institutional autonomy, shared governance, and the differentiation of missions formalized by California’s 1960 master plan for higher education. The University of London’s Simon Marginson has commented on the worldwide influence of the “Californian Model”: “A system approach, with an ordered and hierarchical division of labour, based on defined missions, sustaining access while protecting the elite research sector and maintaining the reproductive social order” (Marginson 2014, p. 7). Marginson expresses astonishment that while many nations have embraced this concept, constraints imposed by Californians on taxes and government spending have run the Californian Model “into the sand” (p. 7). Elsewhere, institutional autonomy, shared governance, and academic freedom, essential features of the new

flagship university model, have been eroded. In Wisconsin, the state government has eliminated faculty tenure and consultation on major administrative decisions. In the midst of international jockeying for higher education prestige, as foregrounded in Douglass’s book, will the universally admired higher education systems in the United States be able to maintain the place of their flagship universities in the worldwide competition?

Those who appreciate the analytical tradition of Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University (Harvard University Press 1963) and Burton Clark’s The Higher Education System (University of California Press 1983) will want to add The New Flagship University to their shelves. For those in higher education who are concerned about the continuing loss of public funding, once a defining strength of flagship universities across the country, this will be required reading.


Marginson, S. 2014. Clark Kerr and the Californian Model of Higher Education. Research and Occasional Paper Series: CSHE.12.14. Berkeley, CA: Center for Studies in Higher Education. Retrieved May 16, 2016, from the World Wide Web:



KAREN MERRITT, retired from director of academic planning positions at UC Merced and the UC Office of the President, is co-editor with Jane Lawrence of From Rangeland to Research University: The Birth of University of California, Merced (Jossey-Bass 2007). She is currently an associate at the UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education.