Background/Context: The traditional literature on the history of higher education in the United States focuses on linear explanations of the inexorable growth of the size, mission, and importance of colleges and universities. That approach ignores or minimizes a recurrent strain of discontent with the higher education sector, especially from policy elites.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article examines the century-old origins of a continuing reform impulse in higher education. It identifies the reforms in question as “systemic,” both because they extended beyond the workings of individual colleges and universities and because they had at their heart the dream of systemization, linking and coordinating policy at groupings of institutions at the state, regional, or national level. The narrative focuses on the establishment, operations, and ideology of two early philanthropic foundations designed to spur systemic reform in the higher education sector: the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the General Education Board.
Research Design: This article relies on historical analysis informed by organizational theory.
Data Collection and Analysis: The data for this article come from new archival research, mostly conducted at the Rockefeller Archive Center (Sleepy Hollow, NY), Library of Congress Manuscript Division (Washington, DC), and Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library (New York, NY).
Conclusions/Recommendations: This article identifies an ideologically consistent, interlocked cohort of reformers whom the author calls “the academic engineers.” These individuals, associated with elite universities and philanthropic foundations, articulated a vision of higher education reform based on increasing the efficiency and utility of institutions and linking them together in a hierarchical system. The author identifies four key features of this vision and describes the academic engineers’ efforts to enact them. The reformers had some successes but failed to realize their overarching goals; in the article’s conclusion, the author examines the historical context and organizational theory as partial explanations for this shortfall.