Some Observations on the Governance of the American University

by William K. Selden - 1967

The author is probably unique in his ability to take the long view, as he does here, of the matter of "governance" of American institutions of higher learning. He traces the historical roots of present arrangements, identifies the cataclysmic changes now taking place, and discusses the need for clarifying our "conception" of the University today.

William Selden is now Vice President of the American Assembly; behind him there are years of rich experience in numerous dimensions of what he calls the "University." He is probably unique in his ability to take the long view, as he does here, of the matter of "governance" of American institutions of higher learning. He traces the historical roots of present arrangements, identifies the cataclysmic changes now taking place, and discusses the need for clarifying our "conception" of the University today. As this author views the problem, we are at a turning point where the creation of exemplary institutions is concerned. If higher education is to play its required role at the center of American society, if—at the same time—it is to maintain its freedom and autonomy, much innovative and creative thinking is still required. But, asserts Dr. Seiden, this must be done in a wider perspective than any yet developed. It may be that the great quest has just begun.

After some eight hundred years of continued existence the university has attained in the latter half of the twentieth century a position of unsurpassed importance. In fact, the contemporary university in the United States is the most important institution in our society.

To many individuals this statement may appear at first to be an exaggeration. Some will respond with counter reference to such institutions as the church, the United Nations, the Supreme Court, or the presidency of the United States. Others may mention such institutions as the banking system or the stock exchange whose non-existence would create immediate and irreparable disruption in economic operations and in most social functions. Regardless of the significant place that these necessary institutions fill, none exerts as widespread an influence nor has assumed a position of such pervading importance as the university. For this reason alone greater attention is now being given and must continue to be given to the changing governance of the American university.


Although there is no widely accepted definition of the term governance as it may relate to the university, its use in speeches and in the educational literature has been increasing during the past several years. I, for one, have been using this word because it is not well defined and it does not create, therefore, a stereotyped response or reaction.

When I speak of governance of the American university, I am referring in broad dimensions to at least three aspects: first, to the university and its total operations; second, to the responsibilities for those operations on the part of the faculty, the students, the administration, the trustees or regents, the alumni, donors, foundations, legislators, other government officials, educational associations, as well as the many organizations and forces in society; and third, to the changing concept of the university as an institution in society and to its politics, in the Aristotelian sense.


The pattern of governance of the American university was partially inherited from Britain and Europe and partially fashioned to meet indigenous needs. With education considered to be a normal function of the church it was natural that the colonial colleges would be created, with one exception, under religious auspices and that the state universities would later be organized along similar lines. Having no body of scholars to form universities as at Paris in a much earlier century, nor a body of students as at Bologna, but recognizing the need for education, the churchmen of the several denominations organized separate colleges and created bodies to serve as boards of trustees with the power to appoint presidents and tutors and with the power to outline the curricula to be offered. Formal legal charters for the colleges were, and still are, relatively easy to obtain.

In this earlier period, there was recognition of the need for an educated body politic: witness both the charter of the College of Rhode Island (now Brown University) and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Nevertheless, collegiate education until recent times was enjoyed as a privilege and not as a right by a small percentage of the population, and vocational or professional pursuits were not barred by nonattendance at a college. Furthermore, it was an incontrovertible assumption that decisions regarding the curriculum to be offered and the students to be enrolled were the responsibilities of the board of trustees, and the president and the faculty, subject to possible influence only from the church body.

Over the years there have been many readjustments—not without incidents of strains and misunderstandings—among boards of trustees, faculties, and administrations in the division of responsibilities for the governance of the colleges. Despite these adjustments the pattern of governance, which has also served as the pattern for the contemporary American university, was devised and developed largely for the single purpose college with a faculty in which all members knew each other personally and in which each was engaged in the institution's primary and almost exclusive responsibility, namely, teaching. Institutions were not then "cluttered" with administrative officials even though most were desperately in need of money and many closed in the nineteenth century for lack of funds, as well as for other reasons.

To this institution, known as the college, graduate schools of arts and sciences were appended commencing in the last quarter of the past century, both preceded and followed by professional schools of dentistry, engineering, forestry, law, medicine, music, nursing, social work, speech, veterinary medicine, and numerous other fields. The universities that resulted from these accretions later sprouted institutes to conduct specialized research and investigations in aspects of human endeavor ranging from the extremely abstruse to the most practical. In addition, bureaus have been attached to universities to perform services for the public, for government, for industry, for labor, for agriculture, and for most every segment of society, including the mentally deficient and, more recently, the socially and culturally disadvantaged. No other institution performs the multifaceted functions of the contemporary American university; no other institution encompasses the entire panorama of human concerns; and no other institution is concurrently exerting as much stimuli for change in all aspects of society. Furthermore, all these operations are being conducted under a pattern of governance devised originally for the small, intimate liberal arts college.


In the transition from the college to the contemporary American university, a transition in most of the universities that began within the past fifty years, it is inevitable that there would be strains. The histories of our colleges and universities are replete with accounts of them, and today the press loses no opportunity to report current developments on our campuses, whether at Berkeley, Chicago, Cornell, North Carolina, St. John's, Yale or the City University of New York. The importance of this institution and the prominence of many of the individuals involved in its never ending activities increase public awareness of the struggles both within and outside the American university as it endeavors further to adjust and revise its pattern of governance. It is a question, however, whether we have yet identified and analyzed adequately all of the forces that are shaping and will shape the American university of the future. Successful planning for the future of this vitally important institution will depend to a great extent upon our collective ability to perform these functions of identification and analysis.

Many of these forces have been well identified by others and need only 279 passing reference in this essay. Accordingly, I will merely mention some factors under five topical headings: population, public service, finance, specialization and organization. In conclusion I will refer to some other forces and developments not yet commonly considered in relation to the governance of the American university.


Probably no other current factor has more directly and widely affected higher education in the United States, as in other countries, than the growth in population during the past two decades. Year after year, as enrollments have mounted, universities have become increasingly overcrowded; more students have been denied admission; physical facilities have become progressively inadequate; construction of new buildings has been increased; new institutions of different kinds have been created; competition for faculty personnel has grown intense; administrations have been doubled and tripled in size; pressures on students have mounted; and many patterns of relationships among students, faculty, administrations and trustees, previously accepted and followed, have become outmoded. No abatement in the pressures on higher education from the population expansion can be expected in the next decade.


Although the presidents and individual professors in the early colleges were frequently engaged in a form of public service, largely of a religious nature, it was not until the i86o's that the public service function was formally recognized as an appropriate activity of institutions of higher education. The Morrill Act providing for the creation of colleges of agricultural and mechanical arts started the footpath to public service that has now been transformed into what might be likened to a multi-laned freeway. This crisscrossing freeway of public service, more extensive in our day than the Roman roads were two thousand years ago, could lead to a situation in which our universities would eventually be as over-extended as the Romans were in the governance of their far-flung empire.

Despite this possibility, one of the great contributions to education has been the recognition in the United States that the university must be a part of and not apart from society. Partially as a result of this concept our country has become a pre-eminent world power and our universities are now inextricably involved in every aspect of human and national concern. No field of research is being left unexplored, and no activity of government is unrelated to some university.

Because the techniques of research and analysis have been so well developed on our campuses and because the campuses are a reservoir of highly trained human talent, the universities are continuously solicited for their assistance in all kinds of services, and their world-wide activities have been extended and abetted by encouragement and tangible inducements from government and non-government sources. To perform these recently added functions, which universities have assumed with avid alacrity, expedient administrative relationships have been devised, and in the haste to respond to pressures the universities have distorted their traditional patterns of governance.


With respect to finance the history of higher education in the United States can be divided broadly into three different periods. The first began in colonial times when the colleges were either established under religious auspices or conformed in their pattern of governance to those that were. Operating funds were obtained from tuition fees and individual contributions, the latter stimulated in most cases by the ordained clergy, led by the president, and by other members of the church. Understandably the boards of trustees included many clerics.

With the end of the Civil War and with the ensuing industrial and economic expansion of the country surplus funds were accumulated, and individuals with or without religious affiliations or motives initiated the period of munificent giving to colleges and universities. Extending into the present, this period has been punctuated by the formation of independent foundations with their various influences in the governance of higher education, by the cultivation of alumni giving, with its related movement to provide for the election of alumni trustees, and by the more recent expansion in the fund raising and public relations activities of all universities and colleges culminating in the receipt of extensive corporate contributions.

This period, in which tax moneys have concurrently gone to higher education, is far from ended, but a third has just begun in which there will be progressively larger and massive federal support for higher education. As a result of widening the breach in the barrier to making tax funds available to non-public institutions the financial base of higher education is being refashioned and the pattern of governance has been irrevocably altered.

Government agencies with differing interests and sometimes conflicting goals and procedural requirements are now authorized to grant large sums of money for specific programs, for research, for curricular development, for construction and for other purposes. In some cases matching funds are required, and in others endorsement of a state committee is necessary as part of a state plan. Whatever the patterns of support may be, all have introduced an element in the governance of the American university that is proving difficult to assimilate. However, the need for funds is so great that a delay for reflection and coordinated planning on the part of an institution may result in the assignment of the funds to a nearby competitor.

With an anticipated doubling in the expenditures for higher education during the coming decade we can only conjecture at this moment what fundamental changes may develop in this third period of financing higher education in the United States. In any case, we do know that government, both state and federal, will be more involved in the governance of the American university than we could have anticipated only a few years past.


We generally think of this as the age of science and technology, but we could equally consider it to be the age of specialization. These activities are so dependent on each other that they are inseparable. They have all helped to revolutionize society and have wrought fundamental changes in our institutions of higher education.

No longer is a single professor capable of teaching all the fields of science and philosophy, or the subjects identified as economics, history, political science and religion. Seldom is one person now considered qualified merely to teach all the courses offered in any one department of instruction. To be appointed to the faculty and to gain promotion today in an American university, an individual must be a recognized specialist in a field within a field of study. His research and publications are expected to be in this sub-specialized field, and his graduate students are trained in the same manner. The result is a departmentalization and further subdivision of the university faculties to such an extent that few professors are prepared to view the complex educational issues of our time with sufficient perspective to exercise broad judgment on them.

The situation is being confounded further by the commonly described explosion of knowledge in which new specialties are evolving and in which professional fields are splintering or coalescing to form new ones. Even the administrative functions of the university are becoming both specialized and professionalized. Though the faculty of an American university understandably continues to insist on its prerogative of exercising "equal rights" in institutional decision making, it is no longer capable of performing these functions in the manner that evolved and then became traditional during the late nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth century. New patterns of governance for the American university must be fashioned but as they are being developed we may expect to encounter further stresses and strains in the process. It will not be an easy evolution.


As the population has grown, as specialization has increased, as universities have expanded and extended their public services, and as competition for funds has become more intense, we have been experiencing a greater structuring of the many groups directly concerned with the governance of the American university.

A century ago associations of individuals with specialized academic and professional interests were first organized nationally, and ever since the number of such groups and subgroups has been multiplying. Some of these groups merely meet once a year for the purpose of interchanging knowledge and ideas. Others have developed methods of exerting influence, often formal pressures, on universities to force general conformity to the wishes of the organization. Examples of fields of study with such organizations are chemistry, dentistry, law, medicine, or psychology. Following the precedent of the academic and professional groups various specialized administrative officers of universities have also created separate organizations and are publishing journals for the purpose of stimulating improvement in their individual competence and collective status. Even further, a number are trying to transform themselves into professional associations and are exploring methods of exerting influence in the governance of universities.

Another type of organization capable of exerting pressures on institutions, but not limited to a single field of study, includes the American Association of University Professors, the American Association of University Women, Phi Beta Kappa, and the Federation of College Teachers of which we may expect to hear much more in the future.

Note should also be made of the associations of institutions of all types that are organized on a national, regional, or state basis. Some have been created for the simple purpose of providing voluntary cooperation, others to provide coordination, and a few have been granted the power of sanction, such as accreditation.

In view of the complexity and specialization of society there is presently no foreseeable end to this structuring of organizations concerned directly with the American university. Even the trustees have taken steps within the past several years to strengthen their national organization and, conforming to the practice of other groups, have appointed a full-time executive with an office located in Washington.

Within this configuration of external forces the university is further buffeted by the struggles between its two large bureaucracies. One of these is the administration and the other is the faculty, each of which also contains its share of internal contentions. In endeavoring to resolve such structural strains the university, like other large and complex organizations, must continually decide between opposing policies: namely, whether to centralize or decentralize decision making. Each policy possesses advantages and disadvantages in varying degrees depending on the particular factors involved. However, whenever a decision is made to alter the pattern of decision making, cries of outrage are raised. These cries now appear to be increasing in frequency and intensity and to involve larger numbers of people than in the past; and this trend is likely to continue until we find answers to the many issues in governance with which our universities are presently confronted.


Within this maze of continued pressures of population, public service, finance, specialization and organization, most of our university administrators have grown accustomed to operate although some have grown weary of the operation. The daily pressures on these educators are so great that they seldom have sufficient opportunity to reflect on the various forces in society that are exerting or soon will exert an influence on the governance of the American university. Furthermore, as suggested earlier, professors are generally not performing this function since few are trained to look at educational issues in broad perspective. It can be noted, as a consequence, that many changes in the governance of the American university have been stimulated externally by foundations, many of whose officers have enjoyed a wider perspective of the educational scene and have also had access to sufficient financial leverage to encourage change.

It is necessary for the good of society that foundation officials continue to perform these functions even though the total funds available for higher education from the federal government now surpass the funds collectively available from the foundations. In fact, this situation makes it even more advisable that the present and potential trends in the governance of the American university be under continuous study not only by educators but also by foundation officials and other responsible individuals representing a broad spectrum of society.

All of us are well aware that, as a result of the higher birthrate of recent years, the enrollment in institutions of higher education, especially the public institutions, will continue to expand for at least the coming decade. With as much assurance we can assume that a higher percentage of the college age population than even of the past few years will be enrolled in colleges and universities, that it will be increasingly difficult to gain entrance to a profession and to many more vocational occupations without a collegiate education, and that adult and extension programs of study will expand rapidly. The undeclared national policy that higher education is a right, not just a privilege, assures both these developments and the appropriations of larger sums of money from tax sources for colleges and universities.

These appropriations will include more funds for research and for various programs of public service and will even more intimately involve the university as a major element in our national policy, as well as increase its activity in the civil political process. These factors should prompt us to consider some other features of social change that will affect the governance of the university.

For consideration I have selected three, which I have named student group coalescence, checks and balances, and conception. They are not intended to be inclusive, but suggestive, in fact provocative. Other factors could be identified.


In an earlier part of this essay reference was made to the steady increase in number of organizations concerned with the university and its operations. None of the groups mentioned were primarily beneficiaries of the universities. To the surprise of many educators we are finding that the students are now organizing themselves and not merely expressing their opinions but also frequently issuing their demands.

History has frequently witnessed the coalescence of individuals with a common interest to gain certain goals which would likely be unattainable without group action. The labor movement is such an example. To attain desired goals various techniques have been employed including the current practices of petitions, sit-ins, teach-ins, civil disobedience, even civil disturbances, all currently practiced by student groups.

Born into an age of religious uncertainty and social revolution, reared in an atmosphere of decreasing family cohesion, and being educated in universities where teaching has been assigned second place in importance to research and public service, students have begun to recognize that group action must be pursued if they are to have any influence in directing their own future and the future of society. Stimulated by anxiety, fear, hope, and staggering amounts of moral outrage with what they consider to be political and social injustice, these student organizations are becoming a political factor in the governance of the American university.

In preparing belatedly for these developments we should anticipate that the university, as the most important institution in contemporary society, will increasingly be the object of concern of other groups which will be composed of recipients or beneficiaries of the universities. In anticipating this movement we should not overlook the implications of reapportionment in the states and the extension of the franchise to many previously disqualified voters. These developments themselves, as well as the civil rights movement, will in various ways have a marked effect on the future governance of the American university. Although I am not enlarging on these factors in this essay, their present and potential significance should neither be overlooked nor minimized.


This predicted coalescence of groups representing the recipients or beneficiaries of the university, state reapportionment, and the extension of the franchise are some of the changes presently occurring in the checks and balances of our body politic. Under pressures of a rising population, newer means of communication, rapid transportation, extensive industrialization, spreading urbanization, continuous scientific and technological discoveries, and abetted by the rivalries of mankind, our civil government is undergoing further changes, with the position of the executive branch attaining greater influence in comparison with the legislative branch. At the same time our federalistic form of government is changing, with different balances evolving among our local, state, and national political entities. Concurrently we are witnessing fewer distinctions between the private and public sectors of the economy, as well as a lessening of some traditional barriers between church and state. These developments are resulting in organizations of inevitably larger and larger size and in a new order of complexity in administration, especially of those activities related to public affairs, such as the university.

The university is not immune to these forces. Having attained a position of pre-eminent importance in society, having extended its operations into all phases of human activity, and at the same time serving as the gateway to all professions and many vocations, the university is in the throes of innumerable struggles as it endeavors to chart its course into the future. With a form of governance inherited from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when the philosophy of laissez-faire was developed and became supreme, the university must anticipate changes in its checks and balances at least as drastic as we are experiencing in our civil government.

The transition of the university from independence to interdependence has extended far beyond the stage of voluntary cooperation. We now have state boards, regional plans, federal involvement, and the currently developing interstate compact for education, all inciting controversies. In these new and emerging systems of governance the checks and balances of old to which we had grown accustomed are becoming realigned and fears are being expressed for the future freedom and integrity of the university.

These fears are further incited when individuals and groups believe that their interests are not being sufficiently well represented in the process of governance.

Much of the past and present contributions of the university to society can be attributed to its relatively autonomous position. If this position is destroyed all of society will suffer. In the past the greatest freedom has been accorded to those activities which have been involved in the search for truth and, in contrast, those activities which are closely related to power have been subject to control and have been required to submit to the test of political responsibility.

The university is now in an ambivalent position. Being the most important center in the search for truth it must continue to enjoy the greatest freedom of action. At the same time, its total activities are moving it closer to power and involving it in the process of civil political decision-making and in the exercise of power. Therefore, in this capacity it should be subject to the checks and restrictions of our political process. The resolution of this dilemma will require a persistent effort on the part of a broad spectrum of responsible individuals in society. The process will undoubtedly be arduous and tense, as it already is in every section of the country; and we may anticipate that many individuals and groups will be aggrieved when they believe that their interests and convictions are not being respected and when their positions appear to them to be threatened.

In order to gain another perspective on the checks and balances in the governance of the American university we might consider briefly a related but different aspect of society. Just as the universities have been granted relative freedom with respect to their academic affairs, the professions have been accorded freedom with respect to their professional matters. In fact, they have also been delegated semi-official public responsibilities with respect to the governance of their own professions.

In the case of medicine, as an example of a profession, the state medical societies maintain committees concerned with professional practice. In addition, the names of the nominees to serve on the state licensure boards are customarily proposed by the medical societies from among their own memberships. These boards, which seldom include representatives of the public, have authority to decide, within the provisions of the laws of the respective states, who will be permitted to practice. Of importance to the universities, these boards have influence on the curricular offerings and educational programs of the medical schools which are also subjected to accreditation by the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Through these legal and extra-legal means the profession of medicine has been involved for many years in matters relating to protection of the public from incompetent and unprofessional practice on the part of physicians and surgeons and on the part of many allied medical workers as well. At the same time it has been permitted considerable freedom in the governance of its own professional matters. Despite past accusations of excessive self-interest and professional self-protection, accusations that are again being resumed, medicine has continued to enjoy a freedom in the United States which has undoubtedly contributed to its pre-eminent position among the professions of the world. And yet, there are many who are questioning the appropriate extent of this freedom for a profession that engages in extensive and expensive lobbying to defeat a bill intended to improve the welfare of society, and especially that segment of society least able to provide for its own protection.

One may appropriately ask if the inevitably changing practice and governance of medicine presents any implications for the university. As with the university the professions are now so intimately involved in serving society that they become entwined in the civil political process and consequently can no longer rightfully claim the same freedom of action that they have been enjoying for many years. This fact will have to be recognized by the university as it adjusts to the changing checks and balances in its own governance.


The last of the social influences on the governance of the American university to which I wish to call your attention can be identified by a single word. Encouraged by specialists adept in advertising, fund raising, and public relations, education has readily incorporated some of the Madison Avenue terminology in its own vocabulary. We now hear frequent reference to the various "publics" and to the "image" that the university creates. Instead of image the French employ a word with a better connotation—la presence. In contrast to either of these I wish to suggest a more inclusive term; namely, conception.

Just as the use of the phrase "governance of the university" required definition, so does the word "conception" in the context of this essay. In contrast to image—what a person or group of people think of a single institution—I am implying by the use of the word conception what one conceives the university should be and what its place in society should be. Let me demonstrate my meaning by referring through an analogy to the corporation. As an economic institution the corporation has proven in the past to be as significant to our society as the contemporary university is in the present epoch. Through the corporation technological process has been stimulated; our urban development has been made possible; millions of workers have been gainfully employed; and the comforts of life have been enormously expanded. Simultaneously modern capitalism has matured and corporate power has become a reality. Despite these noteworthy achievements few persons recognized the corporation for what it is—a fictitious legal person that has an existence aside from or independent of its individual members.

Through the centuries the corporation has changed as a social and legal institution. First established in English law in the thirteenth century for the benefit of ecclesiastical orders, municipalities, and mercantile and craft guilds, it became many centuries later a means through which business functions could be performed on a large scale. The growth of its power led to governmental regulatory agencies; and now the courts are busily involved in interpreting and applying the many laws that have been enacted to regulate this multifaceted institution as it performs its innumerable activities and as it changes its form and structure through recurrent combinations and mergers.

Although the corporation has been the subject of all kinds of analyses and studies there are varying conceptions, even widespread misconceptions, of what this institution is and what its place in society should be. This fact has abetted some socially harmful consequences which the university would do well to avoid, if at all possible.

Without recourse to examples let me merely state that when there is a lack of clear conception and real definition of an institution, it is difficult to develop ethical conduct and standards of behavior in the enterprise. Similarly when there is a lack of understanding of the vital processes of an institution, there is likewise a loss of freedom. Some students of the corporation believe that it is afflicted with these features.

Is it not possible that the university could find itself in the same situation? To help prevent such an eventuality more attention should be focused on the governance of the American university from a broader perspective than has been the case in the past.


In order to serve as a stimulant for further consideration and discussion, this essay has called attention to three social factors that are affecting the governance of higher education: student group coalescence, checks and balances, and conception. I will conclude with a comment on the functions of the university.

These functions are now generally considered to be threefold: teaching, research, and public service. Another function considered important in all of the early colleges and many of those today that are smaller and church related, but now seemingly eschewed by many members of university faculties, is the character or moral development of the students. To these functions I add a fifth; namely, the university conducting its own governance in such a way that it is an example for all of society.

In order that it may conduct its own governance in an exemplary manner the university cannot be satisfied merely to create a good image for its many publics. It must accomplish the much more demanding and difficult task of creating a widespread conception of what the university should be and what place it should fill in society. If it succeeds in an exemplary way, the university will be able to maintain that relative freedom of operation on which its future and the future of society is dependent. On the other hand, if its governance is such that its relative freedom is undermined or eroded, all of society will suffer, and future historians will be able to report that the American university attained its apogee of importance and influence in the middle of the twentieth century.

For all of these factors the future governance of the American university is a matter of great social significance.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 68 Number 4, 1967, p. 277-288 ID Number: 2178, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:49:22 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review