People in higher education tend to view the Bill & Melinda Gates and the Lumina Foundations as relatively new players in academia. In fact, as Ethan W. Ris describes it, they are part of a 115-year-old tradition – of philanthropists using foundations to reform higher education. He goes back over the origins of this movement, its successes and its failures in Other People’s Colleges: The Origins of Higher Education Reform in the United States (University of Chicago Press).

Ris is an assistant professor of instructional leadership at the University of Nevada in Reno. He answered questions about the book by email.

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

A: The specific agendas advanced by Gates, Lumina and their philanthropic brethren may be new, but their ideology and tactics certainly are not. Major foundations have been trying to reform post-secondary education in the United States for more than 115 years. Their theory of action has always been the same: dangling money and legitimacy at institutions to induce them to conform to the visions of foundations, and publicly shaming those who do not take the bait.

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

Q: At the beginning of the 20th century, what were the main objectives of those who sought to reform higher education?

A: Systemic reform of higher education began with one goal: to reduce the number of colleges and universities in the United States. The reformers, whom I have called “university engineers,” were obsessed with ideas they had borrowed from the fields of engineering and business, including efficiency, non-competition, and vertical integration.

The abundance of post-secondary institutions across the country seemed to stand in the way of each of these ideas. Thus, university engineers focused on reductionist programs. Fred Gates, who headed the Rockefeller Reform Foundation, envisioned just 100 degree-granting colleges in the United States, spread geographically so as not to compete with each other. William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago and board member of the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations, came up with the idea for the junior college (now called community college) and suggested that 50% of all colleges in four years are converted. to this new model. Booker T. Washington, who was closely involved with both foundations and with Carnegie himself, promoted the idea of ​​industrial institutes like the Tuskegee Institute, which he headed, and encouraged black colleges and universities to drop their degree-granting programs and to focus instead on higher professional education.

Academic engineers also wanted to measure and rate colleges and universities. The goals of today’s “Age of Accountability” are certainly not new – as I describe in the book, early 20th century reformers developed certification and ranking systems both by through the Federal Bureau of Education and within the foundations themselves. The Carnegie Foundation’s “Accepted List,” published annually, was an early version of the current list. American News rankings and himself pushed many institutions to reform in order to be eligible for the list, including dropping their religious affiliations.

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

A: In fact, neither. Public higher education had not yet taken off at that time. Private institutions enrolled the majority of American students until 1950. Thus, the objects of reform were largely private colleges.

That said, elite the private sector was certainly not the target of the reform. This is one of the reasons why I titled the book Other People’s Colleges. Many university engineers were affiliated with elite colleges, or at least sent their children there. The colleges they wanted to reform were lower status schools with limited resources. Reformers saw these institutions as inefficient and duplicative and demanded that they close, consolidate, or affiliate with elite universities. Colleges tied to Christian denominations came under scrutiny as they were seen as pre-modern and contrary to the goals of social efficiency.

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

Q: What have been the successes and failures of these movements?

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

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

The reformers also had many failures. Biggest of all was their thwarted dream of creating a national higher education system like other nations like Germany, which they greatly admired. The second biggest failure was their attempt to close or downgrade colleges and thereby restrict access to the baccalaureate. While some schools closed or decapitated to become junior colleges, most avoided those fates. The number of post-secondary institutions continued to grow, and many institutions below bachelor’s level supported by university engineers (including normal schools and technical institutes) became colleges and even universities in the mid-20th century.

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

A: Lower-status colleges and universities have developed what I call a “counter-reform toolkit.” This included rhetorical strategies such as advocating local control, expanding the notion of academic freedom to include institutional autonomy, and recruiting allies among journalists, religious leaders, and local business communities to help to repel top-down control.

The toolkit also included associative strategies. At the height of the academic engineering movement, colleges and universities coalesced into new groups like the AAC (representing liberal arts colleges), ACNY (representing black colleges), AATC ( representing the colleges of teachers) and the AAUP (representing the professors). These associations gave the schools and their faculties a platform to oppose large foundations. Most important of all were the regional accrediting agencies, which embraced the accountability philosophy of academic engineers and established peer review, rather than top-down control, as the prescriptive system of standards.

Colleges and universities have not “conquered” higher education reform. After all, he is still very much with us. What they accomplished was figuring out how to assimilate, hijack, or reverse reform—techniques that have kept America’s higher education sector from becoming a standardized arm of the state, limited in its ability to fight and to develop. Those of us who inhabit colleges and universities today as professors, administrators, or students should take note of this legacy. I hope it brings both comfort – we’ve been through this before – and confidence in our ability to control our own destiny, even in the face of wealth and power.