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The Origins of Systemic Reform in American Higher Education, 1895–1920

by Ethan W. Ris - 2018

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.

In recent years, “higher education policy” has become synonymous with “higher education reform.” Policy elites from all orientations and all political stripes agree that American colleges and universities must become, in various ways, more efficient, more accountable, and more instrumental, either societally or economically.

The above statement was written in 2017, but it could have been written in 1917. The impulse to reform higher education, especially at the undergraduate level, is not new. It is cyclical. Thus, what may seem to scholars and administrators as an unprecedented assault on the campus gates is no more than the latest cohort of prominent ideologues with strong opinions about the form and function of college.

In this article, I examine the century-old origins of a continuing reform impulse in higher education. I classify 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 cohort of reformers I examine here envisioned a hierarchical system in which elite universities and national foundations set the rules for the lower tiers of higher education, including normal schools, technical schools, stand-alone undergraduate colleges, and historically Black colleges. In the name of social efficiency, they also sought to restrict those subordinate institutions from offering a liberal education, instead focusing on class-appropriate vocational curricula. Finally, they worked together to cut away the extraneous aspects of the American college, including its long-standing religious affiliation and its emergent extracurriculum.

These reforms largely failed, but this does not make them unworthy of study. Examining the counterfactual is a critical component to understanding the trajectory of institutions. My approach here is an attempt to avoid the Whig history that pervades much of the literature on higher education—that is, linear explanations of the inexorable growth of enrollments, endowments, and importance. Instead, I offer a novel examination of an alternate vision of higher education: one that saw higher education as a scarce good that should remain scarce, as a sector in need of tight coupling and vertical integration, and as the province of elite policy makers, not educators and students. Understanding this vision and its collapse helps us understand the considerable inertia of the status quo in higher education, but it also sheds light on the strengths and potency of American colleges and universities, features that allowed them in some ways to escape Weber’s famous “iron cage” of increasing rationality.

Drawing on new archival research and borrowing from organizational theory, I ask four key questions in this article: Who were the individuals so motivated to reform higher education, and what was their impetus? What did their intended reforms look like? Why did so many of their efforts fall short, despite their considerable wealth and power? And what aspects of their actions and discourse lived past the Progressive Era, helping to build a permanent edifice on which debates over the form and function of undergraduate education continue to this day?


The first two decades of the 20th century were marked by what McGerr (2005) succinctly called “a fierce discontent” about American society, as manifested through the state and through public associations. Colleges and universities, especially public ones, stood at the intersection of those organizational forms. They were thus the object of intense reform efforts, especially by professional elites who saw them as keys to nation-building in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, growing urbanization, and massive immigration. Again borrowing from McGerr, the reformers sought “to remake the nation’s feuding, polyglot population in their own middle class image” (p. xiv), and the existing infrastructure of higher education provided a ready apparatus for their designs.

Perhaps because of their myriad failures, these reformers have received little attention from historians. The nearest analysis comes from scholarship on K–12 education reform, most notably from David Tyack and his followers. While historians studying the turn of the 20th century have long focused on progressive reformers (Hofstadter, 1955; Wiebe, 1967), Tyack made the strongest case for their presence as a definable cohort active in education policy—the “administrative progressives”—in The One Best System (1974). His most direct forebear in this line of inquiry is Raymond Callahan, whose Education and the Cult of Efficiency (1962) explains how the United States’ emerging “business society” demanded that public schools be administered with the same type of efficiency-minded expertise that animated Frederick W. Taylor’s much-celebrated Principles of Scientific Management (1911). Callahan’s analysis is mostly confined to the curriculum and internal dynamics of schools, especially high schools, whereas Tyack focuses his attention on administrative organization: the consolidation and centralization of school districts, and the installation of “expert” and “nonpartisan” administrators and school boards. David Labaree picked up on this difference, writing that administrative progressivism was “a movement aimed at the formal structure of schooling and not at the instructional core” (Labaree, 2009, p. 48).

As an analogue to administrative progressives, I call the reformers at the heart of this article “academic engineers.” For the most part, they were not actual engineers (as Taylor was), but they revered—even fetishized—engineering. The discipline, which had only been formalized in the 1880s (Armytage 1961/2003), spoke to the central goals of the effort to reshape the formal structure of higher education: systemization, efficiency, and utility. “Efficiency,” above all, was a ubiquitous buzzword for the reformers. They viewed colleges and universities as engines with inputs and outputs; conserving a low ratio of the former (expenditures, both from philanthropic giving and from tax dollars) to the latter (the production of human capital and useful knowledge) represented the pinnacle of academic engineering.

The academic engineers also drew inspiration from the business world, which provided much of the operating costs of their projects. They shared the mentality of Tyack’s K12 reformers, utterly convinced of their ability to cut out waste and inefficiency from the business of schooling and replace it with centralized, rationalized management:

They talked about accountability, about cutting red tape, about organizing coalitions to push educational reform, about the need to face the realities of class and power in American society. “They” were members of a movement composed mostly of business and professional elites, including university people and the new school managers. At the turn of the twentieth century, they planned a basic shift in the control of urban education which would vest political power in a small committee composed of “successful men.” They wished to emulate the process of decision-making used by men of the board of directors of a modern business corporation. (Tyack, 1974, p. 126)

Although Tyack is clear about the detrimental effects of the administrative progressives’ reforms, especially the relegation of students from impoverished or minority communities to a second-class form of schooling, he took care to point out that these individuals saw themselves as making positive, forward-looking changes. American business and American engineering were, after all, tremendous success stories at the turn of the 20th century. Borrowing a Progressive Era term of derision, Tyack described an “interlocking directorate” of “liberal industrialists” and “civic-minded elites” who were willing to spend their own money to build schools, fund research, and sponsor political efforts to fulfill their vision of reform (Tyack 1974, pp. 128–129).

The administrative progressives, unlike the academic engineers, were successful in their efforts. Echoing Joseph Cronin (1973), Tyack argued that “their success so framed the structure of urban education that the subsequent history of these schools has been in large part an unfolding of the organizational consequences of centralization” (Tyack, 1974, p. 127). Later historians have framed the administrative progressives’ exertions as part of winning struggle with “pedagogical progressives,” a rival reformist cohort led by John Dewey that advocated child-centered curricular and infrastructural innovations (Ravitch, 2001). Ellen Lagemann provided a succinct description of the end result of this contest in her description of the academic Edward Thorndike, a leading administrative progressive: “Thorndike won and Dewey lost” (Lagemann, 1989). The would-be reformers of the American college, however, would not be so victorious.

Thorndike was not a business leader; he was a professor at Teachers College of Columbia University. Indeed, a huge number of administrative progressives were what Tyack called “university people.” They included faculty members like Thorndike and Stanford professor Elwood P. Cubberley, one of the central figures of Tyack’s narrative, but their most prominent members were heads of institutions. Columbia’s Nicholas Murray Butler, Harvard’s Charles Eliot, and Chicago’s William Rainey Harper were all leaders in the project to centralize and modernize urban school systems. The presidents of the University of Illinois, the University of Iowa, and Brown University all served terms as superintendents of major city systems during this era, and many other college and university presidents sat on school boards (Tyack, 1974).

It was inevitable that these reformers would turn their attention to their home province of higher education. Administrative progressives with academic appointments had strong ideas about the governance and organization of higher education, and they did more than their part to contribute to the wide-ranging debates of the day, which especially focused on undergraduate education. Their efforts to promote systemic reform, however, have received little notice in the historiography of higher education. Part of the reason is that that many of them are so strongly identified with internal reform of their own elite institutions that their work to reshape the lower tiers of higher education has been forgotten. Thus, Charles Eliot is remembered for the dramatic restructuring of Harvard’s curriculum and the growth of its endowment (Hawkins, 1972; Kimball & Johnson, 2012) and not for his work in setting national standards for undergraduate education; William Rainey Harper is remembered for creating the University of Chicago more or less out of thin air (Mayer, 1957) and not for his plan to create tightly coupled hierarchies of colleges and universities; Woodrow Wilson is remembered for his battles to instate academic purity and the primacy of research at Princeton (Axtell, 2006) and not his efforts to support differentiated colleges offering vocational forms of higher education. The trend even extends to academic engineers who operated far from the elite research universities; Booker T. Washington is remembered more for growing Tuskegee Institute from its origins in a church basement to a robust institution whose endowment dwarfed most White colleges (Harlan, 1983) than for his ardent work to create a tightly controlled system of Black pseudo-colleges across the South, dubbed by contemporary critics “The Tuskegee Machine.”

Equally overlooked are the progressive business leaders who often partnered with these academic leaders in plans to use philanthropic gifts to reshape higher education. The legacy of these reformers, too, is obscured by associations with singular, elite institutions, as in the case of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., with Chicago, or Andrew Carnegie with what is now Carnegie Mellon University. Add to this a historiographic tradition that emphasizes the generic benevolence of these leading philanthropists, and the omission is deeper. A key example is Lagemann (1983), who described Carnegie’s philanthropy as a “simple distributive mechanism” rather than one designed to produce systemic reform. Lagemann argued that his motives were largely humanitarian and that his money funded projects “whose full implications he did not thoroughly understand” (Lagemann, 1983, pp. 2, 42–51). The authors of popular surveys echoed this theme, including Thelin and Trollinger (2014) and Brubacher and Rudy (2008). Geiger (2014) construed Carnegie’s and Rockefeller’s gifts to higher education mainly in terms of a contest rather than an ideological project. One important exception to this oversight has been the work of historians studying the higher education of African Americans. J. D. Anderson (1988) and Watkins (2001) acknowledged and criticized the active role of elite business leaders in educational reform, arguing that the main effect of northern White educational philanthropy for African Americans in the South was socioeconomic subordination, shaped by segregated, vocationally oriented postsecondary institutions like Tuskegee. Their work, however, examined this phenomenon only for historically Black institutions, without tying it in to the larger higher education reform movement.

A final subset of the reformers has been studied primarily as part of the history of philanthropy, not the history of education. Borrowing from MacDonald (1956), we can call these individuals “philanthropoids”: the first group of individuals to make a profession of giving away other people’s money. The ideas and efforts of two of these philanthropoids form the heart of this article’s data. One is Frederick T. Gates, Rockefeller’s philanthropic consigliere, and a former Baptist minister who had crafted a career as an educational administrator and professional fundraiser. While he is associated with a number of Rockefeller charities, much of his work concerned higher education, including the establishment of both the University of Chicago and Rockefeller University. Most important for this article, he was the founding leader of the General Education Board (GEB), Rockefeller’s best endowed philanthropic agency until he established the Rockefeller Foundation in 1913. The second leading figure is Henry S. Pritchett, the founding president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT), who had served as the president of MIT from 1900 to 1905. Pritchett’s writings and correspondence were more voluminous (and better preserved) than Gates’s and as such are more prominent in this article. The two were almost of one mind, however, as I will show here, despite the alleged rivalry between Rockefeller and Carnegie. The two philanthropoids shared ideas and even colleagues; Eliot and University of Chicago president William Rainey Harper, for example, served on both of their boards simultaneously, and they fought over the theorist Abraham Flexner, who wrote his celebrated report on medical education (the one higher education reform effort from this period to achieve unequivocal success) for CFAT before he left to join the GEB staff in 1914. Carnegie himself became a GEB trustee in 1908. Pritchett and Gates are also evidence that academic engineering was a movement that had little to do with social class. They both had humble upbringings and did not attend elite colleges (Pritchett lacked a bachelor’s degree). The same can be said, redoubled, for their fellow reformer Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery. It can also be said for their wealthy benefactors; Carnegie and Rockefeller both grew up in poverty and did not attend college. These individuals were elites in wealth and influence but not in caste.

Now that they had arrived, the reformers were determined to wield that wealth and influence. The academic engineers’ philanthropic bounties gave them both coercive mechanisms (using pecuniary carrots and sticks) and normative mechanisms (creating and supporting exemplary institutions) to enact specific reforms. The pages that follow describe four of these. They met with varying degrees of success, but each is emblematic of the project to centralize, standardize, and rationalize American education.


Tyack’s emphasis on “the one best system” is a neat encapsulation of one of the driving tenets of progressive reform: that maximum efficiency came from the coordination of individuals and institutions. The turn of the 20th century witnessed numerous movements that centralized and systemized public affairs: a rapidly growing and strengthening federal state, a coordinated national transportation system, and growing interest in international systemization. It is not a coincidence that 1905, the pivotal year in this article’s narrative, witnessed the first World Conference on Esperanto. It is also the pivotal year in Daniel Carpenter’s account of the development of “bureaucratic autonomy” in federal agencies; his description of the legitimizing power of “a reputation for expertise, efficiency, or moral protection and a uniquely diverse complex of ties to organized interests and the media” is an excellent descriptor for the nascent philanthropic foundations I describe in this article (Carpenter, 2001, p. 4).

No sector, however, was more transformed by the trend toward coordination and systemization than business enterprise. This was the age of the great industrial trusts, most famously those held by Carnegie and Rockefeller, that consolidated and integrated the operations of vast arrays of for-profit activities, from the extraction of raw materials to the retail sale of goods and commodities. Before the U.S. Congress clamped down on these corporations with the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, they proved to be extraordinarily remunerative, generating enormous profits for their leaders and shareholders.

The American business sector’s success in systemization held particular appeal for the would-be reformers of higher education. Elsewhere (Ris, 2017), I have shown the evolution of Andrew Carnegie from a position of antipathy and indifference to higher education in the 1880s, into a critic and would-be reformer of the sector after 1900. Much of this transformation, I argue, originated with the assiduous efforts of higher education leaders to draw him—and his pocketbook—into their plans. These leaders included the statesman and founding president of Cornell University, Andrew D. White, who attempted to enlist Carnegie in an effort to establish a national university in Washington, DC, and Abram S. Hewitt, an arch-progressive and former mayor of New York City, who successfully recruited the industrialist to endow Cooper Union. Carnegie and his peers first took an interest in novel institutions like these but then quickly turned their expertise in efficiency and vertical integration to the entire higher education sector. This dovetailed with the vision of White, Hewitt, and other academic engineers who revered German higher education, a tightly coupled system that I will discuss later in this section.

Progressive reformers had begun winning major victories in urban K–12 schools in the 1890s, and by 1905 they were increasingly animated by the lack of coordination in American colleges and universities. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Dartmouth College v. Woodward decision in 1819, states had largely allowed colleges and universities to incorporate and operate with few restrictions. The result was a huge number of autonomous institutions, both public and private, conducting business with almost no oversight. This was a source of deep grief for the academic engineers.

John D. Rockefeller, Sr., had endowed the General Education Board with $1 million in 1902, largely for the purpose of advancing primary and secondary education in the South, but in May 1905, he dwarfed that sum with a gift of $10 million, expressly marked in his gift letter for new efforts to “promote a comprehensive system of higher education in the United States” (Gates, 1905). In a memo to the founding GEB board members, Gates made clear that he intended to follow the philanthropist’s wishes (which were of course influenced by Gates’ own advice): “the letter holds our aim strictly to the higher education, that is, to colleges and to universities or to schools having similar educational compass and rank. Other people may give us other funds for other objects. This fund is for higher education exclusively” (Gates, 1906a). He went on in language that perfectly expressed his ethos: “This word in the letter is a word about which every other word turns—this word ‘system.’ That word is the pivot of the whole conception.”

Gates identified four chief characteristics of an idealized system, emphasizing that colleges and universities “must be comprehensively and efficiently distributed,” that they “must be related to each other harmoniously and helpfully and not hurtfully,” that they “should be each within its assigned compass,” and, finally, that “the scheme, as a whole and in all its parts, must be essentially stable and permanent and not temporary or fluctuating.” These goals were vaguely worded, but they amounted to a vision of a network of institutions spread evenly throughout the country so as to not compete with one another for students and resources, and that stability be ensured through generous, permanent endowments. His plan for accomplishing this goal involved using Rockefeller’s money to pick winners and losers in the higher education sector, a bold approach that necessitated the use of capital letters:

[There are] some four hundred and fifty institutions of learning calling themselves colleges or universities. These are sown unevenly over the great landscape. In spots they are clustered. If our directions were not explicit, we could do little more than stand and hesitate amid a din of discordant voices, for all want money. Shall we try to help all of these schools or some of them only - if some, which, and how shall we help these best? Happily our founder has explored the ground before us. . . . WE ARE TO SELECT FOR OUR BENEFACTION NOT ALL COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES, BUT ONLY SUCH AGENCIES OF LEARNING AS MAY JUSTLY CLAIM A PLACE IN A SYSTEM OF HIGHER EDUCATION, AND WE ARE TO CHOOSE SUCH WAYS OF AIDING THESE SELECTED AGENCIES AS IN OUR JUDGMENT WILL BE BEST ADAPTED TO PROMOTE SUCH SYSTEM. (Gates, 1906a, emphasis in original)

Pritchett, who styled himself as a public intellectual, tended to use more delicate language, but his impulse toward systemization was on par with Gates’s. Writing in the Atlantic in 1908, he explained,

[I]n great continuing movements, such as the education of a nation, organization is indispensable. In no other way can continuity and efficiency be had. Not only is this true, but organization which is wise, which respects fundamental tendencies and forces, which separates incongruous phases of activity, may not only add to the efficiency of a national educational effort, but may offer a larger measure of freedom than can be hoped for in chaotic and unrelated efforts to accomplish the same ends. Isolation and lack of cooperation are no less deadening than unthinking obedience to established routine. . . . To-day our schools, from the elementary school to the university, are inefficient, superficial, lacking expert supervision. They are disjointed members of what ought to be a consistent system. (Pritchett, 1908a)

In a 1905 essay in the same publication, Pritchett had made the comparison between the internal dynamics of individual universities and business enterprises, noting some drawbacks (such as diminishing academic freedom) but also significant strengths. The modern university, he argued, “partakes in its nature and in its operation of the methods and oftentimes of the spirit of the business corporation. It has the compactness and the directness of responsibility which the business organization carries with it” (Pritchett, 1905b). In that same year, he gained the tools to apply this ethos to higher education at large.

Just a month before Rockefeller’s gift to the GEB, Carnegie also gave $10 million toward the cause of reforming higher education. His goals were more understated than Rockefeller’s. The gift established the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT), with Pritchett as its founding president, a fund ostensibly designed to provide pensions for retired college professors. Pensions fit neatly into Carnegie’s capitalist ethos. The economics of wage labor created efficiencies, but they only accounted for active workers. As individuals increasingly spent their entire careers working for one corporation, deferring some compensation until after retirement served the interests of “welfare capitalism,” in which benevolent actions also improved organizational efficiency (Rodgers, 1998; Sass, 1997). Carnegie set up pensions for the employees of his businesses and sponsored personal ones for his friends (including Booker T. Washington), but he had no particular interest in retired college professors. Instead, his enormous gift was made in the cause of higher education reform. In 1904, Pritchett had approached the industrialist seeking contributions to MIT’s modest pension fund. Carnegie did not contribute, but proposed a much further reaching plan, which became CFAT. Pritchett enthusiastically joined in, writing in February 1905, “Since I talked with you I have been thinking over your idea of a large plan for dealing with the problem of retired pay or insurance for the principal American institutions of learning, and the more I think of it the more feasible the plan seems” (Pritchett, 1905a).

Instead of easing the golden years of aged professors, the CFAT pension scheme was designed to usher them out the door. In a letter announcing his gift, Carnegie wrote that without guaranteed pensions, “Able men hesitate to adopt teaching as a career, and many old professors whose places should be occupied by younger men, cannot be retired” (Carnegie, 1905a). Writing to thank him, the president of McGill University explained to Carnegie exactly how pensioning would reform his institution:

I have met with no greater difficulties in the course of my administration than those which are involved in a decision to take action in regard to superannuation. The demand for efficiency must, of course, be paramount, and yet, of course, on the other side of the account are the services of the individual often rendered most ungrudgingly through long periods of depression. (Peterson, 1905)

The CFAT plan offered a way out. Gates offered his own circumspect assessment of the plan a few years later:

The purpose of this fund is stated to be to increase the efficiency of college teaching. This it aims to do in part by pensioning off inefficient college teachers so that their places may be supplied with younger and better instructors and possibly the founder may hope, erroneously I think, that ultimately an abler class of young men will be brought into the teaching profession. (Gates, 1910)

CFAT’s mission, however, went well beyond clearing out deadwood in the professoriate. Carnegie granted Pritchett and the board expansive power to promote systemization and standardization in the higher education sector. The CFAT charter established firm criteria for admitting institutions into the pension system and authorized the board to impose additional “terms and conditions” on participating schools, “in case two-thirds of the Trustees decide that times have so changed that the form specified is no longer the best way to aid the cause we have all at heart” (CFAT, 1907). In a variation of Gates’s vision for the GEB, Carnegie and Pritchett’s goal was to deny money and status to subpar institutions, whose choice would be to reform or perish. Within their first year of operations, the board announced a minimum definition of a “college,” requiring that participating institutions have at least six full-time professors, an endowment over $200,000, and an admissions policy that required matriculating students to have completed a specific sequence of high school coursework. (This final provision is the origin of the now-notorious “Carnegie Unit.”)

The foundation was far more than a pension fund. As Pritchett explained in 1906, it was “a central agency in educational administration” that would promote the progressive ideal:

The single step of adopting a modest but reasonable definition of a college is a far-reaching one in education. The idea of the scope of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a centralizing and standardizing influence in American education promises to outweigh in importance the primary purpose of the fund, great as that primary purpose is. (Pritchett, 1906b)

Specifically, it was acting as a de facto accrediting body, a role it shared with other interlocked groups. Its criteria for participation in the pension scheme were borrowed wholesale from the definition of a college established by the Regents of the University of the State of New York, which in 1890 had begun supervising and accrediting all educational institutions in the state. The regents were closely tied to academic engineering, and some of them had in fact invited Carnegie to serve as their Chancellor in 1902 (Reid, 1902). The American Association of Universities, formed in 1900, also served as a prototype for CFAT. Hugh Hawkins describes it as a “president’s club” of elite universities, whose goals for American higher education were “greater uniformity and the elevation of standards of ‘our own weaker institutions’” (Hawkins, 1985, p. 46). Many of the AAU presidents sat on the CFAT board, and by 1908, the AAU was regularly convening in CFAT’s Manhattan offices (CFR 77). When the association, in 1914, compiled a list of “approved” colleges whose undergraduate coursework they deemed high quality, the actual compilation was done by CFAT staff (Furst, 1914).

Much of the academic engineers’ project of “centralizing and standardizing” higher education was borrowed from overseas. Germany was the leading example, especially fitting since it was a nation that had centralization at its heart: In just a few decades at the end of the 19th century, a small handful of Prussian leaders consolidated a vast array of independent principalities into Europe’s most powerful nation-state (Blackbourn, 1998; Schleunes, 1989). Pritchett, like many American academics, had done graduate study in Germany, at a time when the Ph.D. was almost nonexistent at domestic universities. His fondness for German education was predicated on its systemic form:

We have barely the framework of what might be called a national system of education, as that is conceived in the more advanced civilized countries. In Prussia, for example, there exists a system of education which begins with the elementary schools. . . . The organization is complete from the beginning to the end, and while the system in some respects to us appears rigid, it nevertheless has greater elasticity than our more incomplete and desultory system, while offering at the same time an enormously greater number of opportunities to the children of the commonwealth for educational advancement. (Pritchett, 1908d)

Writing to President Theodore Roosevelt, he betrayed a strong admiration for the socially efficient educational policies of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was less than a decade from unleashing the horrors of the First World War:

As I have gone about Germany and talked with various men, I have everywhere run across the trail of that remarkable executive, the German Emperor. No one thing which he has done has been more wise or far-sighted than the plan by which he has pushed forward industrial training as a factor in national development. As he himself tersely puts it: “I intend to develop a system under which each individual citizen shall be trained to be an effective economic unit, and I intend to organize these units into the most effective organizations.” It is the carrying out of this policy which has made Germany the power it is to-day. (Pritchett, 1906c)

In 1912, he was still fawning over the German model, writing in an Atlantic piece that “The twenty-one German universities are comparable in their standards of admission and in the character of the courses of study which they offer. . . . [T]he university itself becomes, under such conditions, representative of national ideals rather than an agent of local education” (Pritchett, 1912). The academic engineers ardently believed that they could replicate such a formally stratified system, with a handful of elite research universities looming over a vertically integrated landscape of lesser institutions whose locations, missions, and curricula were optimized for efficiency.


One immediate problem with the academic engineers’ call for systemization was that American higher education at the turn of the 20th century was far from anarchic. Although there was no national agency regulating the sector, some states had oversight mechanisms (especially New York, as mentioned earlier) of both public and private institutions. Far more important, however, was a collection of national networks that did coordinate and supervise private colleges: Christian denominations. Mainline Protestant denominations like the Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Episcopalians, as well as the Roman Catholics, maintained regional and national governance agencies overseeing the dozens of affiliated colleges.

The academic engineers had to reckon with these existing systems, which by Pritchett’s estimation in 1906 controlled at least 218 colleges and universities (Pritchett, 1906c). Gates was mostly accommodating toward them, which made sense: His role before working for Rockefeller full time had been as the secretary (the de facto leader) of the American Baptist Education Society. In a 1906 GEB report, he argued that in their mission to create a national system of higher education, “We should work harmoniously with the denominational agencies. . . . Religion is the foster-mother of education” (Gates, 1906a). He gave lip service to the spirit of antidenominationalism that was at the forefront of liberal American thought (Marsden, 1994) but still claimed that the orders could help the larger project: “We may deplore sectarianism. But the sects exist. They harness the powerful motives of religion to the educational chariot. They are the mightiest agencies possible, ready made to our hand” (Gates, 1906a).

In a separate report the same year, however, Gates expressed frustration with denominational orders, which in his view had contributed to an overabundance of colleges that was sapping the overall strength of American higher education:

This over-multiplication is not only not helpful, it is in its necessary results, destructive of higher education. . . . Each sect reasons that its efficiency as a sect depends upon retaining the higher education of its youth in its own hands, and that the establishment and support of a college or colleges under its own control is a necessity of its competitive growth, if not indeed of its continued existence. I suppose that with reasoning of this kind the General Education Board can have nothing to do. It is indeed a part of our policy to assist denominational colleges, but it is not as such that we assist them, but as educational forces, and we aim to assist them only when as educational forces they are needed, and not only needed, but have within themselves and their constituency a reasonable promise of growth, permanence and power. (Gates, 1906b)

Part of the problem of this overabundance, as Gates saw it, was that naïve churchmen were falling victim to greedy interlopers who saw colleges as key components of land development schemes: “Many, if not all of these colleges, originated in the minds of the children of this world—in the imagination of real estate speculators and town site promoters who flattered the vanity and beguiled the simplicity of the children of light” (Gates, 1906b).

Pritchett echoed this theme, using almost identical language but adding more description, in a 1908 speech to the Conference on Education of the Methodist Episcopal Church:

This weakness of the denominational relation to education has been taken advantage of by the children of the world to impose upon the children of light many educational ventures which are sometimes little better than real estate schemes. It has not infrequently happened that an ambitious promoter has induced an unsuspecting denomination to assume the responsibility for a new college, which has proved in the end to be not only unnecessary but a weary load to carry. The offer of an attractive piece of real estate for educational purposes is one which few denominations have the strength to resist. The Presbyterians, for example, have very recently accepted the patronage of a newly fledged college in Denver (called a university!), in a region already well supplied with colleges and in a city where a representative of Christian education was already in existence and having difficulty in finding assistance. A large proportion of Protestant colleges are children by adoption. (Pritchett, 1908c)

Unlike Gates, however, Pritchett had no sympathy for denominational control—nor could he have, given his benefactor’s long-standing views on the subject. Carnegie was a well-known skeptic of organized religion who viewed religious sentiment as premodern and irrational. As he wrote for an address at St. Andrew’s University, he explained that after abandoning the Presbyterian church as a young man,

No creed, no system, reached me, all was chaos. I had outgrown the old and had found no substitute. . . . Here came to me Spencer and Darwin, whom I read with absorbing interest, until laying down a volume one day I was able to say, “That settles the question.” I had found at last the guides which led me to the temple of man’s real knowledge upon earth. . . . I was upon firm ground, and with every year of my life since there has come less dogmatism, less theology, and greater reverence. (Carnegie, 1902)

Herbert Spencer, whom Carnegie befriended and corresponded with for decades, was an ideal prophet for the industrialist (White, 1979). Spencer represented everything that Carnegie admired: He was an engineer-turned-philosopher who eschewed religion and strongly advocated pacifism. Most important, he was the thinker most closely identified with the emerging “social Darwinism” of the age, an ethos that applied Darwin’s theory of the “survival of the fittest” to human affairs.

Gates and Pritchett were drawing on this theory in their plans to pick winners and losers among the colleges. So was Carnegie, and his first set of losers were the denominational colleges. His gift letter establishing the CFAT pension fund specifically excluded colleges and universities “under control of a sect or require Trustees (or a majority thereof), Officers, Faculty or Students, to belong to any specified sect, or which impose any theological test” (Carnegie, 1905). He resolutely upheld this restriction, denying CFAT’s blessing even to otherwise robust institutions. In 1909, he held firm in a letter to the president of Northwestern University, who had complained about the Methodist-affiliated institution’s exclusion: “So many colleges have seen fit to broaden their views and become participants in the Pension Fund that it is best to adhere to present conditions, hoping the reform may soon be complete” (Carnegie, 1909). No longer would American colleges be headed by ministers and governed by church-appointed boards. Within four years of CFAT’s founding, at least 15 institutions had severed all ties to religious denominations, and within a decade, the total rose to at least 37, roughly 10% of all four-year institutions surveyed by the federal Department of the Interior. This group comprised many institutions that we know today as elite liberal arts colleges, including Bates, Bowdoin, Carleton, Colby, Colgate, Grinnell, Pomona, Swarthmore, Trinity, and Wesleyan, as well as ones that would come into their own as research universities, like Rochester, Syracuse, and Vanderbilt. Even Chicago, which Gates and Rockefeller had established as a denominational institution, severed its formal ties to the Baptist church during this period.1 Writing privately to Carnegie in 1907, Pritchett claimed victory:

It has been the misfortune of the world that wherever the organization called the church has tried to deal either with educational affairs or with politics is has proved both autocratic and a corrupter of all parties, and it is a great good fortune that we are now rid of any such connection. (Pritchett, 1907)

The campaign against denominational orders was intended to tear down existing premodern systems so that a new one could rise in its place. The academic engineers were offering colleges financial gifts (in the form of CFAT pension funds and GEB endowment grants) and legitimacy (in the form of endorsement by educational experts), but only in exchange for a renunciation of formal religion. The colleges, quite literally, could not serve both God and Mammon (see Marsden, 1994, for more on this theme). Pritchett went out of his way to endorse a generic form of Christian morality but insisted that it could emerge from nondenominational, nontheological college education:

[A] Christian organization may take the position that all colleges and universities, being influential agents in the training of men, are also agencies for moral and religious influence, and therefore the Church will seek by friendly cooperation, by sympathetic fellowship, by all the means of Christian activity, to make itself a religious influence in all institutions of the higher learning without assuming their control or support. (Pritchett, 1908c)

The choice proved too heretical for some, most notably the deeply religious politician William Jennings Bryan, who publicly resigned from the board of Illinois College (his alma mater) in 1907 after it severed its ties to the Presbyterian church in order to qualify for CFAT’s list of approved institutions. He wrote in his resignation letter, “Our college cannot serve God and Mammon. It cannot be a college for the people and at the same time commend itself to the commercial highwaymen who are now subsidizing the colleges” (Bryan, 1907).


The academic engineers may have chafed at being called “highwaymen” by Bryan, but there could be no doubt that their orientation was “commercial.” Their operating funds came directly from the high ranks of capitalism, and their strategy did as well. They had no compunctions about equating higher education with business economics, as did Charles F. Birdseye, a reformer whose son went on to found the Birdseye frozen foods empire; in a 1909 essay, he lamented failures of efficiency: “These terrible losses in educational efficiency and results come from the unwillingness of the American college to learn from and in part to pattern after the American factory” (Birdseye, 1909).

In particular, they revered the process by which industrial trusts had eliminated competition and consolidated operations, resulting in enormous efficiencies and profits. Monopoly had made the benefactors rich, and they naturally presumed that consolidation in the higher education system would produce similar benefits. In 1906, Carnegie was flustered by a request for funds from Boston University, across the Charles River from Harvard; his secretary wrote to Pritchett, “Mr. Carnegie does not see why Boston should have two universities and would be glad to receive a report and recommendation from you on the project” (Bertram, 1906). Pritchett replied with a dismissal of the younger institution, which was affiliated with the Methodist Church: “In a word, Boston University is an expression of the educational, social and religious preferences of that part of the community of Greater Boston which does not approve entirely of the liberalism and rather high professional requirements of Harvard” (Pritchett, 1906a).

Well before he became a philanthropoid, Pritchett’s sympathies rested with consolidation. This most notably took the form of his own ardent but unsuccessful effort as president of MIT to merge operations with Harvard (B. Sinclair, 2010). In a 1901 lecture, he noted that “almost all social organizations show in these days a tendency to combine.” He went on with a half-sardonic defense of industrial monopoly:

It seems to me, further, that the spectacle of a trust buying up factories wholesale, while not without food for thought, is not so terrifying as many would have us believe. I have been told that if we took into account the number of scrap-heaps which have been sold to the trusts under the name of factories, one now and then might squeeze out a tear of sympathy for the syndicates themselves. (Pritchett, 1901)

In the realm of higher education, the “scrap-heaps” were weak colleges whose size and character made them unworthy of existence as stand-alone institutions. In 1908, he lamented the lax conditions that allowed such schools to take root:

We have founded many more colleges under this system than we can possibly maintain, colleges which are colleges in name only and which will for many years continue to demoralize our standards of education and to place before our people false ideas of what education is. Ultimately, perhaps, the weaker and more objectionable of these colleges will disappear, but the process will be long, difficult, and expensive. (Pritchett, 1908d)

Gates was similarly dismayed by the scores of weak colleges that had somehow survived to see the 20th century. The strategy he outlined in 1906 relied on strategically allocating the interest from Rockefeller’s gift money (estimated at $500,000 a year) to bolster a handful of schools at the expense of the others:

These twenty colleges will be strategically located and pivotal parts of our system; each will invest its twenty-five thousand dollars and derive from it a permanent income. Each will be on a more solid foundation, each more independent, each more efficient than before, each relatively that much stronger than any unworthy rivals it may have. . . . [After 100 years,] this will make a total of two hundred millions of money massed on the strategic and pivotal points in higher education—massed, I say, on these, but at the same time diverted from the too numerous defective and mistaken claimants which ought to sink to secondary schools or disappear. So our system will gradually emerge—our children will see it and the nation will rejoice in the light of it and the glory of it to the end of time. (Gates, 1906a)

Gates’s use of the word sink in describing his choice of fate for weak colleges is a key to understanding the academic engineers’ vision for their much hoped for system of education. They aimed for a clear hierarchy of institutions, not just in terms of the still-new subordination of the high school below the college (VanOverbeke, 2008), but also in terms of colleges and universities with respect to one another. Gates had long-standing experience in this field, dating back to his leadership of the American Baptist Education Society, through which he had attempted to coordinate a nationwide hierarchy of Baptist institutions with the University of Chicago at its apex. He largely handed this project over to the university’s first president, William Rainey Harper, who established what are acknowledged to be the nation’s first “junior colleges” in the Upper Midwest, between 1895 and his death in 1906 (Larimer, 1977).

The idea of the junior college fulfilled two goals for academic engineers working to reform higher education. The first was the emergence of a consolation prize for the abundant, weak colleges that the reformers saw as antithetical to an efficient system. In a 1906 report on higher education in Nebraska, Gates described his plan for struggling denominational colleges:

[T]he best service the General Education Board can do for the State of Nebraska is to discourage the well-meant but needless and hopeless attempts of the various Christian sects to establish private colleges, by refraining from granting them aid, encouraging them to become preparatory schools, or at least junior colleges closing their work the sophomore year. (Gates, 1906b)

Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia flatly stated in 1902 that “it would be an unmitigated advantage if one-third of the nearly five hundred colleges in the United States would give a two years’ course and that only” (Butler, 1902). A decade later, the CFAT official Clyde Furst extended this logic to women’s colleges, arguing that only 10% of them were doing true collegiate work. Of the remainder, he argued, “Most must become content, sooner or later, to adopt the name of institute, junior college or secondary school, which really describe their work. The earlier they arrive at this decision, the better for all concerned” (Furst, 1915).

The second goal that the junior college idea served was to remove some of the burden of undergraduate education from the nation’s elite universities. Stanford president David Starr Jordan wrote to the founder of California’s first junior college, “I am looking forward, as you know, to the time when the large high schools of the state in conjunction with the small colleges will relieve the two great universities from the expense and from the necessity of the two first university years” (McLane, 1913). Butler and Jordan were leading academic engineers who sat on the CFAT board from its founding, along with Harper, Eliot, Wilson and the presidents of Cornell, Yale, and a half dozen other emerging research universities. Outsourcing the freshman and sophomore years of college would free up money and professorial time for empirical inquiry, which was increasingly becoming the raison d’etre of the university (Geiger, 1986).

Pritchett did not match Gates in his commitment to the junior college idea, but he did seek ways to subordinate weak colleges. Writing in 1914, fresh off the triumph of the Flexner report in reforming medical education, he mused about a new ranking system in which colleges would be

segregated into groups comparable with each other, as the American Medical Association classifies the medical schools, so that the public may know whether a given institution is a No. 1 college, a No. 2 college, or a No. 3 college, just as it now thinks of the medical schools as belonging to Class A, B, or C. . . . There is no sure method by which the college goats may be separated from the college sheep. (Pritchett, 1914)

Pritchett’s real preferences, however, lay in relegating all colleges to a rung of the educational ladder below the university. He harbored considerable resentment about the arbitrary application of institutional markers, writing in CFAT’s 1907 annual report,

The names college and university have been assumed in a large majority of cases with little regard to the meaning of the names themselves and with still less consideration of the difference between the work of a college and that of a university. . . . Today we need to do for our institutions of learning a work similar to that which is being done for the railroad system, a work of standardization with clearer ideas of what the function of the various grades of institution ought to be. (CFAT, 1907)

His complaint went beyond haphazard nomenclature, into concern about what is today called institutional isomorphism (DiMaggio & Powell, 1983), in which institutions within an organizational field increasingly share formal structures. The reformers abhorred mimetic isomorphism, which DiMaggio and Powell attributed to ambiguity: “when goals are ambiguous, or when the environment creates symbolic uncertainty, organizations may model themselves on other organizations.” This meant replication of form and function, which was anathema for the academic engineers. But they, of course, did not reject the idea that organizations should be aligned and standardized. They simply thought that the process should be unambiguous, enacted through coercive isomorphism: dictated from on high by elite experts, like themselves, who had carrots and sticks at their disposal.

In an Atlantic article the next year, Pritchett explained that the higher education sector needed a clear hierarchical division:

The college not only must know what it seeks to do and show a fair coefficient of efficiency, but it must relate itself to the general system of education of the state and of the nation. . . . For the future, the college is to be a part of a general system of education; and the university, with its professional schools and its schools of research, is to rest upon it. In no other form of educational organization is the college likely permanently to survive. (Pritchett, 1908b)

In his reenvisioned scheme, a four-year college education would begin at age 16, followed by two years of university study beginning at age 20. Plans for such a scheme dated back at least to the 1850s, when Michigan president Henry Tappan attempted to import it from Germany (Larimer, 1977). Pritchett, who inherited Tappan’s passion for German education, lauded the example:

A German youth finishes his gymnasium when he is twenty, enters the university, better trained than our men, fully two years earlier, and comes into his profession, not only younger in point of time, but with a certain resilience which is likely to be lost by an excessive period in school. (Pritchett, 1923)

Ultimately, this radical restructuring of educational tiers never took off despite widespread support, especially from elite university leaders (Wechsler, 2001). Gates and Harper’s junior college idea, however, enjoyed a robust life in the public sector of higher education, where it provided the ideological framework for the tremendous growth of community colleges in the 20th century. Although it did not fulfill the reformers’ primary goal of serving as a consolation prize for demoted baccalaureate colleges, the idea did add a clearly subordinate tier to the higher education ladder.


The public sector indeed became the locus for most of the academic engineers’ efforts in higher education. Private institutions were simply too autonomous. Although efforts like CFAT’s had wrested control of many colleges away from religious orders, oftentimes their boards fell into the hands not of efficient experts, but of an even more pious and sentimental group than churchmen: alumni. In 1919, Pritchett complained that “alumni trustees elected as such have been inclined to represent at times rather the emotional side of college life than the thoughtful side. In some cases they have reflected the athletic aspirations of the student body to the exclusion of other interests” (Pritchett, 1919).

Public institutions, while not immune to the encroaching presence of intercollegiate athletics, were at least more amenable to reform through the political system, a mechanism that had worked with reshaping primary and secondary education. The locus of this political reform was unlikely to be at the federal level, however. In 1914, Pritchett expressed his disillusionment with Washington politics:

No Commissioner of Education could hold office permanently who undertook to tell the facts about education in the various States—in such a report, for example, as that of the Foundation’s studies on medical education recently published, or that on legal education about to appear. A report was prepared in the Bureau of Education, making straightforward comparisons between educational institutions of certain classes in the various States. The moment the nature of its contents became known, the local institutions in many States appealed to their Congressmen and Senators, and they in turn to the President. The report was suppressed. It reposes peacefully upon the shelves of the Bureau. There it will continue to repose. (Pritchett, 1914)

Instead, the academic engineers respected the notion known to political scientists as Dillon’s Rule, which states that true political power in the United States is concentrated in the individual state governments (Grumm & Murphy, 1974). In terms of public higher education, these jurisdictions (numbering 45 in 1905) could be perfect subdivisions of the much-hoped for national system of colleges and universities. Gates explained in 1906,

Our national system will be little else than the sum total of the state systems. This fact, while it may interfere slightly with symmetry, is as desirable as it is inevitable. It is this free local play of elemental forces that has produced our present educational development, not indeed perfect, but widely distributed, vast, precious and powerful. It is fortunate too for us as a Board. It simplifies our problem. We have only to study each state by itself, and the states are so far isolated that we may safely act in the order of convenience. (Gates, 1906a)

Both the GEB and CFAT commissioned reports and issued policy recommendations for reshaping state systems. A first order of business involved determining how many institutions were needed for a given state. Gates used an agricultural metaphor in speculating about the number of prospective enrollees might come from the rural state of Nebraska: “How big a crop of students may 717,000 people be expected to yield if the field is reasonably well tilled and proper facilities and inducements offered?” (Gates, 1906b) This was an age in which only a tiny percentage of young people were expected to go to college; invariably, the answer was that fewer colleges and universities were needed than currently existed. Gates continued,

It is highly probable that the University of Illinois or of California, or Harvard University, or Michigan or Leland Stanford, or Chicago, or the University of Indiana, or of Wisconsin, or of Minnesota, if set down in Lincoln, Nebraska, with present equipment and endowment, could meet the entire needs of the state of Nebraska. Nay more! (Gates, 1906b)

The academic engineers’ vision for state systems was strictly hierarchical. The goal, which drew heavily on the Gates/Harper plan for affiliating junior colleges with the University of Chicago, was to have a single strong institution at the top of each state pyramid. In the older states of the east, it was appropriate to have a private institution fill this role, but in newer states, public universities would lead the way. Pritchett established this theme in 1905, writing, “There are in almost every Western state private colleges and universities whose development has been practically stopped, and which must in the end become feeders to the great state universities” (Pritchett, 1905a). In a 1909 report on South Dakota, Gates explained,

The ideal thing to do is to establish one institution of higher learning under the patronage of the state and support it by taxation in which all, from the highest to the lowest everywhere shall be obliged to contribute some small part. Let all the educational forces work together to this one end and establish one central college so supported. (Gates, 1909)

In an analysis of Kentucky the same year, Pritchett described the proper role of a state university:

Its function as a state university is to build up as rapidly as possible a consistent system, and to see to it that the distinction between the work of the college and the work of the secondary school is observed, and to educate the people of its state to this conception. . . . Sincerity, simplicity, thoroughness, mark the path and the only path along which a state university, which is to crown the educational system of a state, may hope to work out that realization of education which will be the highest expression of civilization in a modern democracy. (Pritchett, 1909)

The most frustrating condition in the eyes of the academic engineers was the existence in some states of multiple public institutions with similar curricular offerings. Pritchett lamented,

This whole process of competition between state colleges is demoralizing. It means low standards, political log-rolling, and waste of the state’s money. . . . The common sense and patriotism of those who direct the state governments, and of those who direct education in the state, should join to do away with such a situation. (Pritchett, 1910)

The “situation” was not so easy to eradicate. Some historians of higher education have recently conducted case studies in which an elite vision of systemic reform clashed with local and institutional interests. Megan Connerly (2013) detailed how the institution now known as the University of Northern Iowa, driven by isomorphic forces, broke out of its ordained subaccalaureate role as a normal school dedicated to teacher training during the first decades of the 20th century. Scott Gelber (2011) took a broader view of the same period, explaining how “academic Populism”—the political demand for greater access and utility in higher education—shaped the reform narrative in agrarian states like Kansas and Nebraska, helping to preserve and expand the mission of normal schools and agricultural colleges. To these nuanced cases, I add three more in which reformers tried to legislate the academic engineering vision, with little success. They take place in three states that contribute a range of geographical and political contexts to my nationwide narrative: Ohio, Mississippi, and California.

To the academic engineers, the most vexing state of all was Ohio, which had a long-standing reputation for the quantity, if not the quality, of its postsecondary institutions. Writing in another Atlantic article in 1910, Pritchett decried the situation:

Perhaps there is no other state in the Union in which the unlimited competition between denominational, state, and local institutions has so fully done its perfect work as Ohio. . . . It is certainly true that Ohio is the most becolleged state in the Union. Over fifty institutions have been chartered by that generous commonwealth with the power to confer the learned and professional degrees. . . . The state itself helps along in this matter by sustaining three state universities, which carry on a three-corned campaign for students and for appropriations. Under such conditions it is not to be wondered at that the public-school system of the state is inferior to that of nearby states. (Pritchett, 1910)

The three “corners” of Ohio’s public higher education sector were distributed throughout the state. In the far eastern foothills was Ohio University, founded in 1804 under the terms of the Northwest Ordinance. Across the state, almost on the Indiana border, was Miami University, five years younger and home to Ohio’s leading normal school. The most recently founded was Ohio State University, which in 1870 opened its doors in Columbus, the state capital, as a land-grant college. All received roughly equal appropriations from the legislature, but this division of efforts was not the only problem. As Hoover (1954) reported, quoting a contemporary observer from 1896, the two older institutions were tainted by denominationalism: “For many years an unwritten law has conceded the presidency of Miami U. to the Presbyterians and of O.U. to the Methodists” (Hoover, 1954, p. 176).

In 1906, banker and state representative Edwin L. Lybarger introduced a bill in the legislature attempting to reform the situation. His measure proposed dramatically curtailing state appropriations to Miami and Ohio University, limiting state funds to the normal school departments of those institutions. As Hoover wrote, “By this act the liberal arts colleges at the older institutions would have become meagre adjuncts to the teacher-training departments, or would have been closed entirely” (Hoover, 1954, p. 189). That was exactly the point of the bill, which would have clearly established Ohio State as the acme of the state’s pyramid. A pamphlet authored by Edward Orton, Jr., an engineer whose father was a former president of Ohio State, made the reformist case for the Lybarger bill:

Each session of the Legislature for many years has developed into a constant struggle among the competing forces, and this has resulted in a waste of public money, a lowering of educational ideals and a general failure to make the progress which the expenditures should have produced. . . . Ohio can not take a creditable place on the educational scale. This reflects not only upon state pride, but also on the efficiency of the training which our youth can receive. It will mean ultimately the loss of industrial and commercial supremacy, as this directly hinges on the quality and quantity of trained men and women available for the arts and industries. (Orton, 1906)

An intense lobbying effort by the presidents of Miami and Ohio, who proposed a counter-bill that would have restricted the curriculum at Ohio State to its original mission of agricultural and mechanical education, beat back the Lybarger Bill and allowed the older institutions to maintain their status as colleges. The reformers succeeded, however, with a compromise measure a month later, which restricted graduate education and research activities to Ohio State, placing it at the top of the state pyramid. To cement matters, the new bill granted Ohio State four times the annual appropriation of the older universities (Hoover, 1954).

This compromise was not enough for Pritchett, who weighed in on the matter three years after the fact in a letter to Ohio Governor Judson Harmon. The letter denied participation in the CFAT pension fund to all three institutions and went on with the complaint that in Ohio “the firmness and consistency that could be maintained by a single university capping the educational system is, of course, out of the question.”

Such overlapping as is here represented is not only wasteful, but it results in competitive bidding for students. It demoralizes the institutions concerned. . . . It is quite evident that the three state universities are not all real universities. That designation may be fairly conceded to Ohio State University, and if relieved from the pressure of state competition, it would no doubt assume within a reasonable time the efficient and orderly development of such an institution as the University of Wisconsin. (“The Carnegie Foundation and the Pritchett Bomb,” 1909)

Ohio University president Alston Ellis led a voluble counterattack. He distributed Pritchett’s letter (which the governor had forwarded to him) to newspapers around the state, along with his rebuttal, which directly condemned elitism and the academic engineers’ project of top-down reform:

The cry of the Foundation is for standards, STANDARDS, STANDARDS, with constantly increasing emphasis on the term. Educational effort must have no plebian trend if it seeks recognition in New York City. . . . What does it concern the Foundation how many colleges and universities the State of Ohio sees fit to establish and support? The fact that Ohio works along an independent line in this matter presents a condition so “extraordinary” that the President of the Foundation feels called up to tell the Governor of Ohio “who’s who and what’s what.” . . . At the risk of forever barring the doors of the educational aristocracy, sought to be established, against my admission, I must record my doubt of the ability of the Carnegie Foundation to order educational affairs in Ohio more wisely than our people are now directing them. At any rate, the people of Ohio will be in no hurry to give up sovereignty in that matter. They stand, at present, in no need of an educational wet nurse. (“The Carnegie Foundation and the Pritchett Bomb,” 1909; emphasis in original)

This astonishing retort was a strong indication that Pritchett had overstepped his bounds. Passion for efficiency and systemization was not universally felt, nor was an assumption that the business acumen of leaders like Carnegie and Rockefeller was an untarnished good. The pushback was not limited to defensive college presidents like Ellis; the editorial board of the Columbus Evening Dispatch weighed in on the controversy with strongly populist language: “Better that the Carnegie millions should be thrown into the sea than there should be this centralization of educational control in the hands of millionaires or their representatives” (“The Dictation of Swollen Wealth,” 1909).

Another defeat for the academic engineers would soon come in the South. As described by Sansing (1990), Mississippi at the dawn of the 20th century was still emerging from Reconstruction, and its politics retained a heavy element of outside reformers. One of these, Julius C. Zeller, was an Illinois native whose father, a doctor, had emigrated from Germany. After a stint as a Methodist minister and as the president of the University of Puget Sound in Washington State, Zeller landed in Mississippi, where he served as a superintendent of schools and won election to the state Senate. His national profile was well below that of Pritchett or Gates, but his credentials as an academic engineer were at least as good as theirs.

Zeller was aghast at Mississippi’s public higher education sector, which was split between three institutions serving White students. The eldest was the University of Mississippi at Oxford, founded in 1848. Mississippi Agricultural and Mechanical College was the state’s land-grant institution, founded in 1878, but in Sansing’s description, it “had become for all intents and purposes a liberal arts college.” The third was the Industrial Institute and College, dating from 1884, which held the distinction of being the first public women’s college in the United States and also offered a liberal arts curriculum. In 1910, the state legislature had abolished the individual boards of trustees for each college and consolidated control under a single board “composed mostly of businessmen.” However, this board had been almost entirely ineffective in streamlining operations and encouraging non-competition between institutions (Sansing, 1990).

In 1919, Zeller spearheaded legislation to dissolve all three institutions and organize them into a new unified university in Jackson, the state capital. He argued that the three existing campuses were in disrepair and that it would make more sense to build an entirely new institution “than to repair old, worn-out buildings.” In a public address, he added that

consolidation should not be based on considerations of brick and mortar alone: “This is the psychological moment for the legislature to realize that if we are ever to have a great university, an institution that will compare favorably with universities in other states, we must build anew, locate the institution at a center of population, broaden the scope of its work, and make it a University in something more than a name.” (Sansing, 1990, p. 86)

Zeller’s bill, however, was soundly defeated, most likely due to local constituencies that bristled at losing their institutions to the state capital; a subsequent bill to preserve the three colleges but move the University of Mississippi from Oxford to Jackson was also defeated. Zeller’s reform efforts were not entirely unproductive, however. In 1922, he authored successful legislation that established Mississippi’s system of junior colleges (Young & Ewing, 1978).

At the same time, another, more momentous defeat was brewing in the west. California had long been held up as an exemplar of hierarchical efficiency in higher education. In 1910, Pritchett praised the state for holding firm against the urge to scatter institutions across its vast territory:

From this temptation the University of California is happily delivered. When the law-makers of 1868 provided for a state institution to crown its public-school system, they wisely made the school of agriculture and the school of mines parts of a single institution. It may be that California virtue is so high that it might have dealt successfully with a divided university. But if the history of other states points any moral, one may suspect, at least, that, had the wise law-makers of that period established a state university at Berkeley and a college of agriculture and mechanic arts at Los Angeles, the state would by this time have upon its hands two weak competing institutions instead of a single strong university which stands to-day in the very first rank of American institutions of the higher learning. (Pritchett, 1910)

Los Angeles did not have a college of agriculture, but it did have a normal school. In 1881, the state authorized the establishment of a southern branch campus of its original normal school, located in San Jose. The Los Angeles campus was needed to train primary school teachers for a rapidly growing population center; Los Angeles would pass San Francisco as the state’s largest city in 1912. In 1918, the State Board of Education voted to allow the normal schools, which it controlled, to offer four-year degrees for the first time, although they were prohibited from calling them bachelor’s degrees. Later in the year, boosters of the Los Angeles branch began agitating for approval from the regents of the University of California to accept their institution as an affiliated teachers college, either offering its own bachelor’s degrees or acting as a junior college feeding students to the main campus at Berkeley for their final two years of undergraduate study. The suggestion was declined (K. Anderson, 2015).

The regents held unusual power over higher education in California; their role was enshrined in the state constitution as having “full powers of organization and government” over the university at Berkeley, subject to legislative oversight only regarding certain fiscal matters. Their ranks in 1915 were dominated by bankers, including Isais Hellman, a German immigrant who headed the massive Wells Fargo bank and had as its titular head Governor Hiram Johnson, a reformer who had been Theodore Roosevelt’s running mate on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912. They were strong supporters of the university’s president, Benjamin Wheeler, a linguist who held a German Ph.D. This board, fully representing the academic engineering movement, steadfastly maintained that there would only be one public college or university in California, at Berkeley. In 1915, legislators from the southern tier of the state introduced a bill to inaugurate a wholly new university, with a board separate from the regents, but they were defeated (Dundjerski, 2011).

One regent stood apart, however: Edward Dickson, a newspaper editor from Los Angeles. He worked to establish a branch of the university’s extension program in his city in 1915, followed by an annual summer session held at Los Angeles High School starting in 1917. In 1918, he fully turned his attention to elevating the local campus of the state Normal School into “a full-fledged university” under the aegis of the regents. He worked with allies in the legislature, which was increasingly filling with representatives from the southern part of the state, to create political pressure. In 1919, they introduced legislation to formally transfer the Los Angeles Normal School to the regents. This would be done against their will, according to Dundjerski: “The regents took offense that the Southern Branch would have degree-granting powers. Because of the constitutional protection, the regents felt this amounted to be legislated to, and they would not endorse it” (Dundjerski, 2011, pp. 20–21). She went on to describe the efforts of Dickson and his allies to broker a “gentlemen’s agreement” that actually amounted to total acquiescence on the part of the regents who had so strongly advocated for maintaining a single university at the top of California’s educational pyramid. UCLA was born.


By 1920 and the collapse of efforts to create either a national system of higher education or simplified hierarchical state systems, the bulk of the academic engineers’ project had clearly failed. There were partial victories along the way, most notably the erosion of denominational control in the private sector and the launch of the junior college movement in the public sector. The larger goals, however, were slipping out of reach as both the number and size of colleges and universities continued to grow, while administrative control remained as diffuse as ever. We can find partial explanations for these results both in the historical context and in organizational theory.

Part of the reason for failure was that the reformers had simply overplayed their hand. Pritchett acknowledged as much in a 1915 essay entitled “Should the Carnegie Foundation Be Repressed?” A decade into his efforts, he found resistance mounting:

The specter of a baneful educational influence exercised by a remote agency upon the policy of struggling colleges and universities is one that has been successfully invoked in some quarters. It is not easy to show the public how far this conception is from what actually takes place, or how much more human is the process of the studies the Foundation makes. The vision of a foreign corporation sitting in New York, issuing educational edicts manufactured from questionnaires, is well calculated to arouse all our latent patriotism for what [one critic] calls “provincial independence in education.” (Pritchett, 1915)

The reformers had run up against localism, the force that Kaestle called “one of the most enduring and pervasive sources of conflict in American educational history” (Kaestle, 1983, p. 147). Regardless of what was most efficient or practical, the desire to determine local affairs at the local level—and to maintain control over economic and social outcomes—animated pushback against the national foundations. But that pushback went beyond the concerns of individual localities and institutions. A national movement against “bigness” grew throughout the 1910s, marked by the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, which directly targeted the business models that had enriched Carnegie and Rockefeller, and the rise of Louis Brandeis, who championed “smallness” and argued that “No system of regulation can safely be substituted for the operation of individual liberty as expressed in competition” (Piott, 2006, p. 133). Academic engineering itself came in for direct criticism on a national scale, often focused on its corporate connections and form. The most notable examples were books from the sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1918), who scorned the academic engineers as “captains of erudition,” and the journalist Upton Sinclair, whose book The Goose-Step (1923) decried an “interlocking directorate” of business and university leaders who were perverting the pure nature of higher education.

Outside contingencies had also changed the situation. The most overwhelming of these was the coming of war in Europe, which both directed attention away from domestic issues like education reform and led to a sharp reappraisal of the foreign nation that the academic engineers had so admired. In a 1916 address at the University of Virginia, Pritchett displayed a palpable sense of betrayal by Germany, coupled with a surprising paean to a form of moral education that had little to do with efficiency:

This is the supreme lesson of this war. The democracies of the world have developed educational systems of high order. The great churches have formed organizations almost equal to governments themselves. But war, whether international or industrial, will cease only when those who conduct governments and churches are willing as men to deal with other men in the spirit of simple Christianity. The process is a slow one; men are always looking for short cuts, but there is no short cut. No system of education can be invented which can interpret class to class, nation to nation, unless it opens the doors of the individual human soul. (Pritchett, 1916)

The ruthless aggression of Germany, and its seemingly amoral conduct, especially in noncombatant nations like Belgium, pointed to a sinister product of cold-blooded efficiency. Sinclair’s 1923 book title explicitly linked higher education reform to the famous marching formation of the Prussian army. The tightly coupled, hierarchical German model that had been so promising was now poisonous.

Foreign affairs were not the only obstacles to academic engineering. Some reformers found themselves increasingly sympathetic to a student-focused, liberal model of college. Gates raged at fellow academic engineers who expressed such sentimentalities. In an indignant 1910 memo sent to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., he decried the apparent softening of Charles Eliot, aged 76 and recently retired from his Harvard presidency:

We find him careless of permanence, of endowment, of location, of future influence of power, ready to use the funds of the Board in such education as these institutions can give, and satisfied with such use irrespective of all the larger considerations which with us have been regarded as governing us in the distribution of our gifts. . . . The one thing he has chiefly in his mind is the relation between the teacher and the student. (Gates, 1910)

The tide was shifting away from standardization and control and toward a more holistic, student-centered understanding of college education. Carnegie, too, had eased his reformist impulse and by 1910 was giving away increasing amounts of money to colleges without conditions, even including denominational institutions (Ris, 2017). And Pritchett himself had to admit that there were limits to his driving ethos: “The word efficiency has been overworked and badly applied. It is perfectly true that one cannot gauge the work and cost of an educational agency by the hard-and-fast tests of business” (Pritchett, 1914). As David Levine (1986) showed, in the decades following 1915, colleges and universities increasingly became focused on catering to individual students, a trend that ran completely counter to the project of top-down rationalization.

In 1917, Gates stepped down as chairman of the GEB, turning his attention largely to medical philanthropy, especially in China. Pritchett continued on as the president of CFAT for another two decades, but in 1917, he also relinquished a major source of power by discontinuing the foundation’s pension fund. Instead of using that purse as a means of institutional reform, he directed the money into a new independent insurance association, which today lives on as TIAA-CREF (Lagemann, 1983). His foundation would no longer have coercive control over colleges and universities.

Historical contingencies and changing priorities offer one explanation for the failure of academic engineering; organizational theory offers another. Powell (1990) provided a framework that may help us understand what the reformers did not. He attacked the notion of a bimodal model of transactional arrangements, limited to markets and hierarchical organizations. His pointed questions call for a third mode between free exchange among free actors and formal hierarchies (defined by the vertically integrated firm):

When the items exchanged between buyers and sellers possess qualities that are not easily measured, and the relations are so long-term and recurrent that it is difficult to speak of the parties as separate entities, can we still regard this as a market exchange? When the entangling of obligation and reputation reaches a point that the actions of the parties are interdependent, but there is no common ownership or legal framework, do we not need a new conceptual tool kit to describe and analyze this relationship? (p. 301)

His proposal to fill the gap between market and hierarchy, the network, is a close approximation of American higher education, but it was not on the radar screen of the academic engineers. Though they lacked the theoretical terminology, they primarily understood colleges and universities as players in a marketplace—a condition that, before the ubiquity of neoclassical economics, was considered inefficient in many ways. In its place, they wanted to impose a formal hierarchy of institutions, linking them together in order to maximize resources and limit wasteful competition. It is not insignificant, of course, that their operating capital came largely from the profits of the great industrial trusts, perhaps the best examples of monopolistic vertically integrated firms in history. They would replace the invisible hand of the marketplace with what Chandler (1977) called the “visible hand” of expert, accountable management. This would ideally take the form of a formal national system of institutions, but barring that, they were willing to settle for exactly as many systems as there were states. As Powell pointed out, however, hierarchies have their own built-in inefficiencies due to bureaucratic policies and inflexible relationships; these are especially evident when hierarchies are “confronted by sharp fluctuations in demand and unanticipated changes”—constant facts of life for American higher education.

The academic engineers thought they were turning a market into a hierarchy, but in fact neither model was appropriate for the colleges and universities in question. Instead, American higher education functions much more like a network, and it is naturally resistant to top-down reform. Powell (1990) explained the key features of this model, which applies to both interconnected industries like publishing and construction, and formal alliances and partnerships between firms: Long-term relationships between actors are more important than the value of specific transactions; sanctions are normative, not legal; “A mutual orientation—knowledge which the parties assume each has about the other and upon which they draw in communication and problem solving—is established. In short, complementarity and accommodation are the cornerstones of successful production networks” (pp. 303–304).

Even in the 19th century, American colleges and universities maintained informal exchange networks. But in the first decades of the 20th, as Hawkins (1992) explained, the institutions began uniting in semiformal regional and national associations. The most significant of these, in terms of a rebuttal to the academic engineers, was the 1915 formation of the Association of American Colleges. This brought together 150 small baccalaureate colleges, all of them private and many of them denominational, in order to promote “inter-helpfulness” and lobby federal and state officials on behalf of their own interests. The horizontally integrated, loosely coupled network model of higher education continues today, maintained through other associations that date to the Progressive Era. These include intermural athletic conferences and, most significantly, regional accreditation bodies in which all institutions are formally equivalent to the others, regardless of size, endowment, or prestige. The network model does not make American higher education impervious to reform, but it provides it with distinctive adaptability; institutions thus linked can absorb external demands while maintaining their essential relationships and functions (Gumport & Sporn, 1999). It also fosters isomorphism, although not in the mimetic mode abhorred by the academic engineers, or in the coercive mode they attempted to impose in its place. Instead, it trades on normative isomorphism, which DiMaggio and Powell (1983) argued stems from professionalization, especially “the growth and elaboration of professional networks that span organizations and across which new models diffuse rapidly” (p. 152) Accreditation bodies and the AAC fit this description in terms of institutions, and groups like the American Association of University Professors (also founded in 1915) did so for individuals.

The academic engineers were victims of limited vision and historical contingencies, but their short-term failures should not obscure their legacy. Their impetus remains the ghost in the higher education machine, starting with key features of its infrastructure. Today, although many institutions maintain religious ties, elite colleges and universities are almost as a rule nondenominational. (The exceptions are typically affiliated with the Catholic Church, especially the Jesuit order, whose colleges have their own internal hierarchical system; Leahy, 1991.) Junior colleges, now called community colleges, became a cherished part of the postsecondary landscape, offering a path to a degree to almost any aspirant and, some critics claim, a politically acceptable way to divert undesirable students away from elite institutions (Brint & Karabel, 1989). The vision of state-level hierarchies of institutions gained renewed attention in the second half of the 20th century. The high-water mark came with the celebrated 1960 creation of the California Master Plan, which owes a major debt to academic engineering. The Plan organized the state’s public higher education system into three tiers: community colleges offering a two-year program; California State University campuses offering up to the bachelor’s degree; and University of California campuses offering all levels up to the Ph.D. Although the tiers, driven by isomorphism and political demand, have expanded their ranks and their reach over time, the hierarchy remains both in terms of prestige and funding, and other states have sought to emulate the model (Douglass, 2000). A decade later, CFAT reemerged from a period of dormancy with a rubric for sorting colleges and universities into distinct strata; these live on as the well-known Carnegie Classifications, ranking institutions from “Doctoral Universities–Highest Research Activity” (commonly known as R1s) to “Associate’s Colleges–High Career & Technical-High Nontraditional.”2

The most important legacy of the academic engineers, however, is ideological. I opened this article by noting that the impulse toward systemic reform in higher education is cyclical. Indeed, the efficiency ideal is very much back in force today. A new generation of reformers, led once again by business, philanthropic, and political elites, is seeking to streamline operations, coordinate efforts, and differentiate and subordinate institutions.3 This new movement accepts the reality of mass higher education, which would have been inconceivable in 1895 or even 1920, but maintains the academic engineers’ belief that a liberal education is not appropriate for most Americans. Instead, today’s reformers want career-oriented education and human capital production to be the driving forces of the sector, paying dividends back into the corporate economy. We are now familiar with complaints about the “poor returns on investment” in higher education, especially in terms of labor-market returns. This is partially novel, when it comes from students and families dismayed by college tuition that rises much faster than wages or inflation. But when it comes from elite reformers, it echoes the logic of academic engineering. So does the drive to open up federal largesse, especially in the form of student grants and loans, to subbaccalaureate “postsecondary institutions” in addition to degree-granting colleges, thus fostering schools designed to produce working-class human capital. So does the state-based drive to centralize control of public colleges and universities, wresting it away from faculties and boards of trustees, on display in Wisconsin, Illinois, and elsewhere.

Although my circumspection about the aims of systemic reform has likely been evident throughout this article, this is not meant as a call to arms. The historically cyclical nature of the reform ethos first seen in the efforts of the academic engineers means that today’s rising tide is likely to ebb. Historical contingencies and changing demand will defer action. Colleges and universities will continue to operate as a network, in which reciprocity and adaptability outweigh formal transactions and structures. Goals and—perhaps much more important—attentions will shift. None of this is to say that people concerned about things like liberal education and institutional autonomy should let down their guards, but rather to remind them that the systemic reform agenda has existed for more than a century, and it will surely continue to exist. Despite this permanence, its demands can be diverted or subverted, or at the very least assimilated with minimal damage.


1. Statistics on colleges and universities that dropped religious affiliations are based on a comparison of data in the annual reports of the office of the U.S. Commissioner of Education, which collected self-reports from institutions on their religious affiliation. The data are incomplete, so 37 is the minimum number of institutions that became nonsectarian during the period. The CFAT stipulation was likely not the only factor in the severance of denominational ties during this period; as Reuben (1996) demonstrated, a wide variety of forces promoted secularization in colleges and universities. CFAT approval was a forcing function that enabled institutional leaders to convince boards to sever ties, a long-sought goal. See Ris (2017) for details on how this process played out.

2. In 2014, CFAT transferred responsibility for the Carnegie Classification index to the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University.

3. The most striking feature of the latter-day higher education reform movement is the juxtaposition of its convergent rhetoric with its divergent ideology. The reformers all call for instrumentality and returns on investment, but they represent a widely divergent panoply of institutional and political affiliations. Today’s reformers include institutional insiders from foundations and elite universities intent on tinkering toward efficiency (e.g., Bok, 2006; Bowen & McPherson, 2016) and outsiders who detest isomorphism and seek “disruption” (e.g., Carey, 2015; Craig, 2015). They also span the political spectrum, from liberals like President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who have sought to use the purse strings power of the federal government to regulate and differentiate the higher education sector, to conservatives like Utah senator Mike Lee and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who have proposed federal and state legislation attacking the liberal arts orientation of higher education and instead promoting human capital production.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 10, 2018, p. 1-42
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22250, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 11:42:59 PM

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  • Ethan Ris
    University of Nevada, Reno
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    ETHAN W. RIS is an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Nevada, Reno. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 2017. His research focuses on top-down reform and its effects on American schools and colleges in the 20th century. His recent work includes “The Education of Andrew Carnegie: Strategic Philanthropy in American Higher Education” (2017) in The Journal of Higher Education, and coauthorship of Higher Education and Silicon Valley: Connected but Conflicted (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).
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