Public research universities face several challenges related to declining state support and growing public distrust. Many leaders have responded with calls to "renew the covenant" between research universities and society. This paper examines the context in which such covenants might be understood, exploring the cultural, social, and intellectual movements that have shaped the role of the modern public research university. This analysis suggests that early public research universities were situated within a broad Protestant tradition which maintained a social cohesion with the public in the midst of their growing research ambitions. With the academic revolution of the twentieth century, institutions lost connection with society and the state-university relationship became one of a legalized, social contract. The move from covenant to contract is reflected in tuition policy, performance-funding, and governance reforms. Implications of this shift are discussed in the context of creating a good society.