For almost a century several critics of Italian university system have been looking at the United States, the emerging world-leading model in higher education policies, as an ideal point of reference for substantial reforms based on decentralization, deregulation, and "meritocracy". The essay clarifies some aspects concerning the origins and the development of such image of American university model in Italy. It starts from some significant moments of intervention in Italy of American agencies of cultural diplomacy for the establishment of mutual exchanges, such as the first U.S.-funded programs of international mobility of young scholars between the two Wars and the missions of American advisers for the education reforms in the 1960’s. It shows that, though following American stimuli, in Italian debates the example of U.S. universities acquired different meanings according to the contexts and the political objectives of its advocates.
Keywords: History of universities, public and cultural diplomacy, higher education reforms, contemporary Italy, United States, cultural and academic exchanges.