Author discusses book on efforts to reform higher education


People in higher education tend to think of the Bill & Melinda Gates and the Lumina Foundations as relatively recent players in the world of academe. Actually, as Ethan W. Ris describes it, they are part of a tradition that is 115 years old—of philanthropists using foundations to reform higher education. He looks at the origins of this movement and its success and failures in Other People’s Colleges: The Origins of American Higher Education Reform (University of Chicago Press).

Ris is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Nevada at Reno. He responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: Many American educators seem to think that the efforts of the Gates Foundation, the Lumina Foundation and others today are shockingly different than philanthropy in the past. How is that not the case?

A: The specific programs advanced by Gates, Lumina and their philanthropic brethren may be new, but their ideology and tactics are certainly not. Big-time foundations have been attempting to reform postsecondary education in the United States for more than 115 years. Their theory of action has always been the same: to dangle money and legitimacy in front of institutions to entice them to comply with the foundations’ visions, and to publicly shame those who don’t take the bait.

One of the most surprising takeaways from Other People’s Colleges is that the institution we call the philanthropic foundation began with the cause of higher education reform, not fighting disease, poverty or war. Plutocrats like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Sr. poured the equivalent of billions of today’s dollars into this cause, well before they established the general purpose foundations that they are best known for. That fact shows us how elites in foundations and government have long perceived higher education as a field critical to American society and economy—but also one in urgent need of reform.

Q: In the early 20th century, what were the main goals of those seeking to reform higher education?

A: Systemic higher education reform started with a singular goal: to cut down the number of colleges and universities in the United States. The reformers, whom I named “the academic engineers,” were obsessed with ideas that they had borrowed from the fields of engineering and business, including efficiency, noncompetition and vertical integration.

The abundance of postsecondary institutions across the country seemed to stand in the way of each of those ideas. So, the academic engineers focused on reductive programs. Fred Gates, who led Rockefeller’s reform foundation, envisioned just 100 degree-granting colleges in the U.S., geographically spread out so as to not compete with each other. William Rainey Harper, the president of the University of Chicago and a board member of both Rockefeller’s and Carnegie’s foundations, came up with the idea of the junior college (now called the community college) and suggested that 50 percent of all four-year institutions convert to this new model. Booker T. Washington, who was closely involved with both foundations and with Carnegie himself, promoted the idea of industrial institutes like the Tuskegee Institute, which he ran, and encouraged Black colleges and universities to give up their degree-granting programs and instead focus on vocational postsecondary education.

The academic engineers also wanted to measure and grade colleges and universities. The goals of today’s “accountability era” are certainly not new—as I describe in the book, the early-20th-century reformers developed certification and ranking systems both through the federal Bureau of Education and within the foundations themselves. The Carnegie Foundation’s “accepted list,” published annually, was an early version of today’s U.S. News rankings and itself caused many institutions to reform themselves in order to be list eligible, including by dropping their religious affiliations.

Q: Which colleges did they seek to reform—the elite private colleges or the public colleges?

A: Actually, neither. Public higher education had not yet taken off in this time period. Private institutions enrolled the majority of U.S. undergraduates until 1950. So, the objects of reform were largely private colleges.

That said, elite privates were certainly not the targets of reform. That’s one reason I titled the book Other People’s Colleges. Many of the academic engineers were affiliated with elite colleges, or at least sent their children to them. The colleges they wanted to reform were low-status schools with limited resources. The reformers saw these institutions as inefficient and duplicative and demanded that they either close, consolidate or affiliate with elite universities. Colleges with ties to Christian denominations came under the strictest scrutiny because they were perceived as premodern and antithetical to the goals of social efficiency.

Of course, public colleges and universities were in many cases the objects of reform as well. For example, many academic engineers insisted that each state should only have one degree-granting public university and were infuriated by states that supported multiple institutions. Even in California, a geographically vast state with rapid population growth, academic engineers fought the creation of the University of California, Los Angeles, on the theory that it would compete with Berkeley, 350 miles away.

Q: What were some of the successes and failures of these movements?

A: This first wave of higher education reform definitely left an infrastructural legacy. The most obvious example is the community college, which the academic engineers created and promulgated. At the other end of the status spectrum, they also cemented the idea of a singular “flagship” public university in each state, as well as the very notion of pyramidal state “systems” of higher education, with the flagship sitting on top of tiers of land-grant schools and regional state universities, and a broad base of community colleges on the bottom.

Perhaps their most important legacy was a logic of reform: that American higher education is a problem to be solved. The academic engineers insisted that colleges and universities justify their existence and then submit to systems and schemata imposed from the top down. That logic has not always been in place. For nearly three decades following World War II, American higher education enjoyed a period in which elites viewed it as the solution to social and economic problems, rather than a problem itself. That’s the subject of my next book. However, this so-called golden age of higher education was a short-lived exception, not the rule. The academic engineers’ reform regime preceded it, and today we live with its revitalized forms.

The reformers had plenty of failures, too. The biggest one of all was their thwarted dream of creating a national system of higher education in emulation of other nations like Germany, which they greatly admired. The second biggest failure was their attempt to shut down or demote colleges and thereby restrict access to the bachelor’s degree. While some schools did close or decapitate themselves to become junior colleges, most avoided those fates. The number of postsecondary institutions continued to grow, and many of the sub-baccalaureate institutions that the academic engineers backed (including normal schools and technical institutes) became colleges and even universities by the mid-20th century.

Q: Your book talks about the many ways that colleges defeated reform efforts. Can you describe some of those efforts?

A: Low-status colleges and universities developed what I call a “counter-reform toolbox.” This included rhetorical strategies like championing local control, expanding the notion of academic freedom to include institutional autonomy and recruiting allies among journalists, religious leaders and local business communities to help push back on top-down control.

The toolbox also included associational strategies. At the height of the academic engineering movement, colleges and universities banded together in new groups like the AAC (representing liberal arts colleges), the ACNY (representing Black colleges), the AATC (representing teachers’ colleges) and the AAUP (representing professors). These associations gave the schools and their faculties a platform from which to oppose the big foundations. Most important of all were regional accreditation agencies, which coopted the accountability ethos from the academic engineers and established peer evaluation, rather than top-down control, as the normative system of standards.

The colleges and universities did not “defeat” higher education reform. After all, it is still very much with us. What they did accomplish was figuring out how to assimilate, divert or subvert reform—techniques that prevented the American higher education sector from becoming a standardized arm of the state, constricted in its ability to strive and grow. Those of us who inhabit colleges and universities today as faculty, administrators or students should take note of this legacy. I hope it provides both solace—we have been through this before—and confidence in our ability to control our own fates, even in the face of wealth and power.


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