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The Academic Corporation: A History of College and University Governing Boards

reviewed by Robert J. Barak & William R. Nelson - 2002

coverTitle: The Academic Corporation: A History of College and University Governing Boards
Author(s): Edwin D. Duryea
Publisher: Falmer Press, London
ISBN: 0815333765 , Pages: 274, Year: 2000
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The culture and process of college and university governance vary widely around the world.  The presence of lay citizen governing boards, however, distinguishes American higher education from most of the world.  How American colleges and universities developed this unique and successful approach to academic governance has been a lifelong research focus of Edwin Duryea.  In this book, Duryea shares the fascinating story of how this form of governance evolved over time and illustrates its status in higher education today.

Much has been written about higher education governance in the United States.  Most of the literature has focused on “Trusteeship", concerned primarily with the membership, functions, and responsibilities of governing boards.  However, little has been written about the development of the academic corporation and its enduring presence in American higher education.  Duryea’s book more than fills this void.  It is a detailed history of the academic corporation from ancient times to the present. This work represents a significant contribution to the study of higher education governance and governing boards.

Duryea credits the early Roman Empire with the creation of the corporation and its historical evolution into the governing boards of today (Chapter Two).  He relates how the Roman Emperors used the corporate charter as a means of confirming their sovereign authority while escaping the burden of daily oversight.  Later in the Middle Ages, the corporate charter was strengthened further and applied to educational settings.  Both religious and later secular leaders found the concept of the corporation useful in legitimizing their authority and furthering their political agendas.  In doing so, they solidified the concept by allowing provisions in the corporate charters for self-governance and election of officers.  

The conversion of the medieval application of the corporate charter into the incorporated commercial, philanthropic, and educational corporation was achieved in 17th century England (Chapter Three).  Duryea describes these corporations as having a high degree of internal autonomy to fulfill their purposes as stated in their charter. They were free from Royal oversight, enabling faculty and students to gather in guilds to pursue their educational aims, unhampered by external interference.  These early forms of colleges were believed to perform a function important for the public good, and therefore, were legitimized by the government without being an internal agency of government.  Duryea identifies five essential characteristics of an incorporated association as it evolved in England prior to appearing in Colonial America: to have perpetual succession, to sue and be sued, to purchase lands and hold them in succession, to have a common seal, and to make by-laws for regulation of their affairs.

Contrary to some accounts of the adaptation of the English governing system in Colonial America, Duryea asserts that historical accounts confirm that Colonial leaders also drew upon their own experience and personal knowledge to incorporate governance aspects from other areas of the world (Chapter Four). The American corporate structure, with trustees and a president at the administrative helm, was derived in part from earlier developments in Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Scotland, and Ireland.  Duryea suggests that this governance approach with civil corporations governed by external trustees and under governmental supervision, had important long-term implications for academic autonomy and the flowering of intellectual freedom for higher education (Chapter Five).

In adapting to the American culture, governing boards in the early years of the country made further transitions toward more secular interests.  Governing board membership began to include fewer ministers and more persons of wealth and influence.  The American version of the academic corporation also was shaped by actions of the courts, in particular the 1819 Dartmouth College Case (Chapter Six).  The Dartmouth decision by the U. S. Supreme Court is described in detail, as is its important precedent for corporate-state relationships.  In essence, the Dartmouth Case established the legal basis for the identity of colleges as private associations.  Duryea appropriately places this sometimes over-acclaimed case in perspective in the development of academic corporations.  He further notes that the Dartmouth Case underwent substantial modification, as privately supported colleges became increasingly separate from their publicly funded counterparts based on external control of their functions.

As American higher education expanded in the 19th and 20th centuries, government continued to retain authority to charter private colleges in the interest of public welfare (Chapter Seven).  While private colleges enjoyed internal operating autonomy, in the public sector, governors and legislatures withheld certain authorities such as the selection of trustees and their terms of office.  Duryea maintains that perhaps more significant, government control over public colleges increased dramatically as a result of the annual/biennial cycles of state appropriations for the operation of the colleges.  With the funds came an increasing number of mandates, which provided both opportunities and restrictions.

According to Duryea, by the 20th century the role of trustees had become increasingly refined as external and internal influences on higher education institutions had additional impact on their responsibilities (Chapter Eight).  Externally, federal and state government influence grew as more strings were attached from funding sources and as various regulatory agencies expanded their roles in higher education.  Internally, trustees increasingly delegated to the presidents and acceded to faculty influence over academic matters.  Duryea concludes (Chapter Nine) that the expansion of outside influences has externalized former internal higher education decision-making processes.  The locus of decision making for public institutions, in large part, has left campus to locations within the state and federal capitols.

"Will a form of governance so functional since its Roman-medieval origins continue to perform as well in the future" (pp. 228-229)?  Duryea is optimistic.  With academic corporations/governing boards existing for hundreds of years, history suggests that they will continue to play a critical role in the autonomy and intellectual freedom of American higher education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 104 Number 1, 2002, p. 54-75
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10750, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 6:55:59 AM

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About the Author
  • Robert Barak

    E-mail Author

  • William Nelson
    Iowa State University
    E-mail Author
    William R. Nelson is a Doctoral Candidate at Iowa State University, completing his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies with an emphasis in Higher Education Administration. Currently, he is serving as a Doctoral Intern with the Board of Regents, State of Iowa.
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