Towards a History of the Professional: On the Class Composition of the Research University


At first glance, it seems like a rather hoary con­tro­versy: Mitch Daniels, as gov­er­nor of Indi­ana, fail­ing in an attempt to ban Howard Zinn’s A People’s His­tory of the United State from K-12 class­rooms. Another con­ser­v­a­tive politi­cian attempt­ing to con­trol what peo­ple can read and think, arous­ing the ire of a Left par­tic­u­larly adept at pub­lic dis­plays of out­rage. How­ever, as a report by the Huff­in­g­ton Post details, this case pos­si­bly rep­re­sents an exis­ten­tial threat to the mod­ern research uni­ver­sity: Daniels aimed to overtly deter­mine the con­tent of Teacher’s Train­ing courses at Indi­ana Uni­ver­sity. “Go for it,” Daniels wrote. “Dis­qual­ify pro­pa­ganda and high­light (if there is any) the more use­ful offer­ings. Don’t the ed schools have at least some sub­stan­tive PD (pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment) course­ware to upgrade knowl­edge of math, sci­ence, etc.” Not only that, but in the midst of a larger attempt to purge “anti-Amer­i­can” works (those that high­light women, work­ers and non-whites), Daniels attempted to cut fund­ing from a pro­fes­sor who had had the temer­ity to crit­i­cize him.

While these attempts to curb aca­d­e­mic free­dom are ris­i­ble on their own, sub­se­quent uproar has focused on Daniels’ qual­i­fi­ca­tions for his cur­rent post: Daniels, now Pres­i­dent of Pur­due Uni­ver­sity – “an insti­tu­tion pred­i­cated on free thought,” writes – is nei­ther a trained aca­d­e­mic, nor has he worked as one. As the same site details else­where, he couldn’t even defend him­self with­out resort­ing to pla­gia­rism – the car­di­nal sin of acad­e­mia! And the plot thick­ens: as gov­er­nor of Indi­ana, Daniels appointed trustees who later appointed him Pres­i­dent of Pur­due. Even before that, he had attempted to use his polit­i­cal power to med­dle in the aca­d­e­mic affairs of pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties and the course­work of the women and men train­ing to become teach­ers.

This lit­tle episode reveals a tremen­dous amount about the ide­ol­ogy sur­round­ing uni­ver­si­ties and higher edu­ca­tion, while also clar­i­fy­ing what the neolib­eral attack on uni­ver­si­ties is really attempt­ing to do, how ide­ol­ogy and state power make it pos­si­ble, and why defend­ing these insti­tu­tions is a nec­es­sary but insuf­fi­cient response. To get there, though, requires a jaunt through his­tory, to see what ani­mated the cre­ation of the mod­ern research uni­ver­sity. This will entail a dis­cus­sion of the para­me­ters of “free thought,” aca­d­e­mic con­trol of edu­ca­tion, and the for­ma­tion of the mod­ern research uni­ver­sity – all of which date back to the 19th cen­tury. The intro­duc­tion of research into the mis­sion of higher edu­ca­tion, a trans­for­ma­tion which took place first in Ger­many and Scot­land (where devel­op­ing links between man­u­fac­tur­ers, bankers, and uni­ver­si­ties were bol­ster­ing the bur­geon­ing cap­i­tal­ist class), had pro­found and last­ing effects; prin­ci­pal among them was pro­vid­ing a means by which fac­ulty in the United States (where the state was far weaker than it was in Europe) could pro­fes­sion­al­ize, orga­nize, and cre­ate a new insti­tu­tional form – a hybrid of Euro­pean and US higher edu­ca­tion now hailed as the Amer­i­can Research Uni­ver­sity.

To Control Labor

The hall­mark of a pro­fes­sion is that it is self-reg­u­lat­ing. No one else, its prac­ti­tion­ers claim, has the power or knowl­edge to crit­i­cize or dis­ci­pline it. For pro­fes­sion­als to best oper­ate, they need to be able to con­trol, as much as pos­si­ble, the con­di­tions under which they work and under which they develop their rules of prac­tice. As Ter­ence John­son, a soci­ol­o­gist of the pro­fes­sions, writes:

A pro­fes­sion is not, then, an occu­pa­tion, but a means of con­trol­ling an occu­pa­tion. Like­wise, pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion is a his­tor­i­cally speci­fic process which some occu­pa­tions have under­gone at a par­tic­u­lar time, rather than a process which cer­tain occu­pa­tions may always be expected to undergo because of their “essen­tial” qual­i­ties.1

Another such soci­ol­o­gist, Eliot Frei­d­son, writes that “the min­i­mal char­ac­ter­is­tic of the pro­fes­sional employee, then, is tech­ni­cal auton­omy, the free­dom to employ dis­cre­tion in per­form­ing work in the light of per­sonal, pre­sum­ably schooled judg­ment that is not avail­able to those with­out the same qual­i­fi­ca­tions.”2 In order for this sys­tem of labor con­trol to work, a mech­a­nism to ensure qual­ity of knowl­edge and ser­vice on behalf of all those cer­ti­fied as a pro­fes­sional is nec­es­sary – for aca­d­e­mics, and many oth­ers, the uni­ver­sity would turn out to be just such an insti­tu­tion.

Just because the pro­fes­sion is self-reg­u­lat­ing, how­ever, doesn’t mean that there is an equal dis­tri­b­u­tion of influ­ence within its ranks. Through pro­fes­sional asso­ci­a­tions and con­fer­ences, the gen­eral body of pro­fes­sion­als is enlisted to pro­pose and police bound­aries, but an inter­nal hier­ar­chy gen­er­ally sets the stan­dards, estab­lishes the ground­work, and estab­lishes high-level con­nec­tions with those out­side the pro­fes­sion. This means that there are those who rise to elite sta­tus within a pro­fes­sion, or who take on admin­is­tra­tive or boss-like func­tions: how­ever, they remain within the purview of the pro­fes­sion, respon­si­ble for the con­tin­u­a­tion of that profession’s prac­tices and inde­pen­dence. Research uni­ver­sity pres­i­dents, for instance, have gen­er­ally been ambi­tious aca­d­e­mics who rose through the ranks. Mitch Daniels and Janet Napoli­tano flout this con­ven­tion – in fact, Napoli­tano will be the first non-aca­d­e­mic Pres­i­dent of the UC. For pro­fes­sion­als, the reach of out­siders into impor­tant admin­is­tra­tive posi­tions can be legit­i­mately under­stood as an attack on their auton­omy and their abil­ity to con­trol the con­di­tions under which they labor.

In a cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, pro­fes­sional labor oper­ates within a field set by the strug­gle of cap­i­tal and labor. At the birth of the research uni­ver­sity in the US, cri­sis and social strife were obvi­ous and con­stant. From the mid-cen­tury on, mas­sive increases in immi­gra­tion, the Civil War and North­ern occu­pa­tion of the South, Eman­ci­pa­tion and Recon­struc­tion fol­lowed by Jim Crow, urban­iza­tion, geo­graphic and demo­graphic growth, and waves of agri­cul­tural and indus­trial con­flict engulfed the eco­nomic, social, and polit­i­cal field. At heart, these struc­tural con­flicts revolved around the con­trol of labor, cap­i­tal, and prop­erty. Whereas in late 19th cen­tury con­ti­nen­tal Europe, as Ser­gio Bologna has shown, a rigid Euro­pean sys­tem of skilled and craft labor directly led to work­ers form­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary work­ers’ coun­cils, in the US out­right class con­flict, while by no means absent, was ame­lio­rated by a loose and fluid sys­tem of labor.3 The devel­op­ment of a new pro­fes­sional class – headed by lawyers, jour­nal­ists, and aca­d­e­mics – tied to uni­ver­sity enroll­ment pro­vided an occu­pa­tional alter­na­tive to both skilled and unskilled labor, as well as a sci­en­tific solu­tion to labor con­flict. This pro­fes­sion­al­iz­ing layer (re-pro­fes­sion­al­iz­ing, in the case of lawyers) began to orga­nize on a plat­form of indus­trial effi­ciency and ratio­nal­iza­tion, humane work­ing con­di­tions, checks on cap­i­tal accu­mu­la­tion, and oppo­si­tion to slav­ery. Through orga­ni­za­tions like the Amer­i­can Social Sci­ence Asso­ci­a­tion (1865), they devel­oped a cogent ide­ol­ogy; through mag­a­zi­nes like Harper’s Weekly (1857) and The Nation (1865), they ful­mi­nated on the issues; and through the for­ma­tion of the Repub­li­can Party (1854), they formed a base of polit­i­cal power. How­ever, it was through the for­ma­tion of the mod­ern research uni­ver­sity, orga­nized by aca­d­e­mics and sup­ported by these reform­ers, that they were able to con­sol­i­date, to a great degree, the auton­omy of their labor.

Through pris­ons, unions, and the mod­ern cor­po­ra­tion, the state, the work­ing class, and cap­i­tal­ists orga­nized for class con­flict. Through the research uni­ver­sity (includ­ing its pro­fes­sional schools), the pro­fes­sional and man­age­rial class orga­nized to ame­lio­rate this con­flict in their inter­ests. It is partly for this rea­son that aca­d­e­mics received the sup­port they did. These pro­fes­sion­als set them­selves for and against both cap­i­tal­ists and the work­ing class, carv­ing out space for them­selves between the two as a medi­at­ing layer, the lubri­ca­tion between cap­i­tal and labor that would allow the smooth func­tion­ing of a renewed cap­i­tal­ism.

The cen­tral claim of my work is that the his­tory of the uni­ver­sity, in the United States and beyond, is the his­tory of the self-orga­nized activ­ity of men and women who devel­oped the prac­tice of their labor into a new field and, in doing so, cre­ated a new insti­tu­tion – the mod­ern research uni­ver­sity – to deter­mine, within the bound­aries set by cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions, the con­di­tions under which they prac­ticed. While these aca­d­e­mics by no means set them­selves against cap­i­tal­ism, they sought, through pro­fes­sional train­ing, to carve out a mid­dle class, with its own inter­ests and insti­tu­tions, between the emer­gent cap­i­tal­ists and work­ing class. Almost imme­di­ately upon con­struct­ing that insti­tu­tion, they faced the prob­lem char­ac­ter­is­tic of every pro­fes­sion: what is its rela­tion­ship to its client, and how does it con­sol­i­date what power it has? In the case of the uni­ver­sity, a whole new client base had to be devel­oped; new rules of oper­a­tion, new forms of teach­ing, new forms of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion, and new asso­ci­a­tional bod­ies had to be brought into being; new rela­tion­ships with the state, with the wealthy, with work­ers and with cap­i­tal were devel­oped; new forms by which to dis­sem­i­nate research and to inform peers had to be devel­oped; and new legit­i­ma­tions had to be invented to bring more and more sub­jects and pro­fes­sions under the purview of the uni­ver­sity – both to bring in income in the form of stu­dent fees and asso­ci­a­tional sup­port, and to strengthen the role of the uni­ver­sity in soci­ety. It was a long process that pro­gressed through fits and starts over the course of the cen­tury.


Higher edu­ca­tion in the United States, from the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War to the present, has devel­oped out­side of any cen­tral­ized plan: the new states, Repub­li­cans, reli­gious denom­i­na­tions, mis­sion­ary orga­ni­za­tions, towns, rich peo­ple, cap­i­tal­ists, women, teach­ers, mechan­ics asso­ci­a­tions, and other workingmen’s asso­ci­a­tions all founded edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions to advance their causes (Repub­li­can democ­racy, craft worker auton­omy, ele­men­tary edu­ca­tion, the plight of freed slaves, and numer­ous other con­stituen­cies and con­cerns). That said, the colo­nial col­lege, mod­eled on the exam­ples of Har­vard and Yale, was the dom­i­nant form of higher edu­ca­tion. These col­leges existed not for a class between cap­i­tal­ists and the work­ing class, but rather for the elite man­agers of soci­ety (that poor stu­dents attended does not viti­ate this claim). These col­leges tended to serve two pri­mary pur­poses: to imbue men with the basic moral and social knowl­edge nec­es­sary for later advanced pro­fes­sional train­ing, and to provide dis­ci­pline for the youth of the wealthy (for this rea­son, col­le­giate life played a more impor­tant role than books). A third pur­pose – to bring legit­i­macy to the spec­u­la­tive plans of town fathers on the fron­tier – helps account for the tremen­dous num­ber of new such col­leges char­tered (and some­times founded) once British rule could not stymie west­ward expan­sion.4 Tra­di­tion­ally, wealth­ier stu­dents took to law and med­i­cine while poorer stu­dents, often the first to attend col­lege, took to the min­istry (lack­ing the net­works that would allow them to suc­ceed in the other two).

While men and women together devel­oped insti­tu­tions that led to the pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of lower school teach­ing – begin­ning in the 1830s and reach­ing matu­rity with the advent of Nor­mal Schools, whose func­tion was to train teach­ers – men were the dri­ving force for the devel­op­ment of research uni­ver­si­ties. For those seek­ing to pur­sue schol­arly research, Europe was the best option. Ger­man and Scot­tish uni­ver­si­ties, pos­sess­ing rela­tion­ships with cap­i­tal­ist entre­pre­neurs and the state, had some espe­cially intrigu­ing fea­tures – per­haps most impor­tant, for the men who trav­elled abroad to these uni­ver­si­ties for advanced edu­ca­tion, the oppor­tu­nity to do research, teach a sub­ject informed by that research, and the pos­si­bil­ity, through the con­cept of aca­d­e­mic free­dom, of man­ag­ing their own labor. (By the 1860s, women, too, trav­elled over­seas for advanced study and found pro­fes­sional jobs at women’s col­leges). While the large cor­po­ra­tions that would come to dom­i­nate the land with the rise of rail­roads did not yet exist, some man­u­fac­tur­ers and bankers in New York and other man­u­fac­tur­ing cities saw in new types of research based edu­ca­tion a means of max­i­miz­ing the labor and cap­i­tal they had at their dis­posal. As the cen­tury pro­gressed, agrar­ian cap­i­tal­ists would also move to back the move­ment for a research uni­ver­sity.

In the US, the occu­pa­tion “col­lege pro­fes­sor” began to emerge at Har­vard in the mid-18th cen­tury, but the field would, for the next 100 years, be dom­i­nated by men who first made a mark in the non-aca­d­e­mic world, and then returned to the their alma mater to teach. Until the for­ma­tion of the research uni­ver­sity in the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury, fac­ulty had lit­tle con­trol over the courses they taught, were appointed by denom­i­na­tional and board approval, stood in loco par­en­tis above stu­dents, and, when they engaged in research, did so as a hobby rather than pro­fes­sional duty. The pres­i­dent, while he usu­ally taught the course in moral phi­los­o­phy – the cap­stone of col­lege edu­ca­tion – was not what we would call an aca­d­e­mic today: he did not make a name through research, he was not sub­ject to the stric­tures of a pro­fes­sion, and he was appointed by a board that was beholden to a denom­i­na­tion or town lead­ers, not aca­d­e­mics (because these did not yet exist).

Within the older col­leges, how­ever, demands for a new insti­tu­tion were com­ing ever more fre­quently as the com­po­si­tion of the aca­d­e­mic work­force con­tin­ued to change. Start­ing with George Tic­knor and oth­ers in the 1810s, ambi­tious intel­lec­tu­als had been trav­el­ing to Ger­many and Scot­land to pur­sue an edu­ca­tion beyond the capa­bil­i­ties of the US insti­tu­tions. On their return, these young men, from wealthy fam­i­lies, took jobs at the old and new col­leges dot­ting the coun­tryside and began to try their hand at reform within the col­lege. It is they who set the agenda and tone for what would become the stan­dard for pro­fes­sional fac­ulty (and pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als). At the same time, the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia (UVA) and a few other schools, seek­ing to attract older stu­dents who were bet­ter equipped for higher stud­ies, were import­ing fac­ulty from Ger­many, Scot­land, France, and Eng­land. As advances in trans­porta­tion made travel to Europe less expen­sive, and as the occu­pa­tion of pro­fes­sor became an option for grad­u­ates – with the expan­sion of older col­leges and for­ma­tion of sev­eral new ones, who could not count on suc­cess­ful alumni to shep­herd their flock – more stu­dents began to make the jour­ney over­seas. Oth­ers, hav­ing been the stu­dent of one of these men, also turned to the prac­tice of research and teach­ing.

One should not con­clude that stu­dents as a whole were par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in the mis­sion of either the col­lege or the reform­ers. The young men who attended col­leges in North Amer­ica in the first two hun­dred or so years were typ­i­cally aged between 14 and 22, and came from fairly diverse class back­grounds.5 There were, offi­cially at least, edu­ca­tional require­ments to get into col­lege: student’s fam­i­lies either employed tutors or, for the poorer stu­dents, sent their young to one of the “wilder­ness acad­e­mies” set up train min­is­ters in the wilder­ness. Given the need for stu­dents, how­ever, entrance require­ments were often per­func­tory. There was sim­ply not enough demand for higher edu­ca­tion for stu­dent tuition funds to be denied. The fam­i­lies of younger stu­dents saw in edu­ca­tion a means to instill dis­ci­pline in their heirs and extend influ­ence, mainly through careers in law (where lawyer states­man had been the high­est ideal), but also the church, med­i­cine and pub­lic office; through fam­ily wealth and influ­en­tial com­mu­nity posi­tions, they formed and coa­lesced an elite pat­tern of author­ity. Many of the wealth­ier stu­dents never received a degree, but instead attended for a year or two and then took posi­tions within net­works affil­i­ated with their fam­i­lies. With geo­graph­i­cal expan­sion, pro­fes­sion­als (lawyers, doc­tors, and clergy) were not strong enough to enforce their monopoly on eso­teric knowl­edge until the late 19th cen­tury: licenses or other mark­ings of merit were unnec­es­sary to enter any pro­fes­sion. How­ever, net­works still largely deter­mined the suc­cess of for­mer stu­dents.

With the bur­geon­ing North Atlantic seatrade in the 18th cen­tury, a change came over the colo­nial col­lege. The his­to­rian S.E. Mor­rison writes of 18th cen­tury stu­dents at Har­vard that “the increase came largely from the sea­ports which reaped the first har­vests from land spec­u­la­tion and West Indian com­merce, and the rum busi­ness… The new crop of young men came to be made gen­tle­men, not to study.”6 The high­est num­ber of enrolled stu­dents in the 17th cen­tury was 22, in 1695; by 1718, there were 124 stu­dents. Wealth and stu­dent expec­ta­tions affected stu­dent behav­ior. His­to­rian Kathryn Moore cites some par­tic­u­lar changes: a large increase in the num­ber of mis­de­meanors, par­ties and pranks, debauch­ery, and petty theft – “the kinds of crimes that increas­ing afflu­ence encour­aged” – were on the rise.7 Drunk­en­ness, fight­ing, card play­ing, sex, and other lewd acts were on the rise. Rote mem­o­riza­tion, early manda­tory chapels, capri­cious pun­ish­ment, and ter­ri­ble food were now less likely to cow the stu­dent into obe­di­ence.

More wor­ri­some than indi­vid­ual mis­be­hav­ior, how­ever, was the new direc­tion of stu­dent activ­ity: orga­niz­ing and incit­ing riots. The Bad But­ter Rebel­lion of 1766 is one of the most famous. In it, writes Moore, a com­plaint about ran­cid but­ter “esca­lated to a highly charged debate between the stu­dents, headed by the governor’s son, and the board of over­seers, headed by the gov­er­nor, over the oblig­a­tion to obey an unjust sov­er­eign.”8 The rebels nego­ti­ated a truce wherein they signed a con­fes­sion, but faced no con­se­quences. Because fac­ulty lacked the sub­stan­tive power to pun­ish them, and their par­ents largely refused, col­leges lacked the lever­age to impose their will on stu­dents. From time to time, some of the older and poorer stu­dents would band together to pro­tect them­selves and the school, mostly by inform­ing on other stu­dents. How­ever, this prac­tice, as it betrayed stu­dent sol­i­dar­ity, was unpop­u­lar.


Upris­ings were a com­mon expe­ri­ence through­out the colo­nial and Repub­li­can eras. Where the Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies had, Carl Becker notes in Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity: Founders and the Found­ing, sought in the Rights of Man what they could not find in their rights as cit­i­zens (that is, jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for revolt), stu­dents, too, took to demand­ing bet­ter treat­ment not as stu­dents, but in their claim to be men (though stu­dents con­tin­ued to revolt for less aus­pi­cious rea­sons as well). Har­vard faced stu­dent wrath a num­ber of times, clos­ing for a month in 1766, expelling sev­eral stu­dents in 1768 for a rebel­lion, and briefly shut­ting down in 1807 (to cite just a few cases). In 1830, Yale expe­ri­enced a mas­sive upris­ing known as the Conic Sec­tion Rebel­lion, which prompted the fac­ulty to expel nearly half the stu­dents. At Prince­ton, half of the stu­dents were dis­missed fol­low­ing a mas­sive riot in 1806 that essen­tially crip­pled Prince­ton for the next three decades.9 In one skir­mish, stu­dents man­aged to seize and hold a build­ing. At South Car­olina Col­lege, claims the early stu­dent life his­to­rian Henry David­son Shel­don, “all the stu­dents but twenty-eight were sus­pended for refus­ing to inform on one of their num­ber. Again, sixty were sus­pended; while, at one ses­sion, sev­enty-seven refused to return because the peti­tion on their favourite griev­ance, eat­ing, had not been granted.”10 In 1837, every mem­ber of the senior class at the Uni­ver­sity of Alabama was expelled. In nearly every case, stu­dents acted with their class; class con­scious­ness and sol­i­dar­ity, in fact, is a major hall­mark of the col­le­giate life before the rise of the research uni­ver­sity. “The fac­ulty,” Shel­don con­tin­ues, “real­ized that the class orga­ni­za­tion fur­nished the sup­port to out­breaks, and its atti­tude toward the class was bit­terly hos­tile.” Edu­ca­tion his­to­rian Roger Geiger writes that, “In the first three decades of the [19th] cen­tury, col­leges expe­ri­enced the worst stu­dent vio­lence of their his­to­ries… these years were dis­tin­guished by episodes of col­lec­tive resis­tance to col­lege author­ity.”11

For some pro­fes­sors, the answer to these dis­tur­bances was to end the enmity of stu­dents and fac­ulty, free­ing up time for spe­cial­ized study and train­ing. This, how­ever, was an exis­ten­tial threat to the pri­mary pur­pose of the col­lege. If the cul­ture of the col­lege was to “dis­ci­pline and fur­nish the mind,” as the Yale Report of 1828 claimed (to cre­ate the con­di­tions for expand­ing and train­ing the mind and only then fill­ing it), the dis­ci­pli­nary cul­ture of the col­lege must be main­tained. While cer­tain exper­i­ments and accom­mo­da­tions for the times must be intro­duced, the total­ity of the col­lege expe­ri­ence must revolve around this pri­mary func­tion. Against this dis­ci­pli­nary cul­ture, pro­fes­sion­al­iz­ing fac­ulty began to orga­nize for a uni­ver­sity in which to per­form research and engage in spe­cial­ized research.

Near con­stant stu­dent revolt and riot, recal­ci­trant denom­i­na­tion­al­ists, the prob­lem of gov­er­nance, aca­d­e­mic free­dom, funds, pres­tige (a corol­lary of pay), and lack of clients stoked cri­sis in the old forms as well as entrenched inter­ests against the devel­op­ment of new. While the small fron­tier col­leges had to exper­i­ment out of neces­sity (Ober­lin, for instance, became the first col­lege to accept both men and women, as well as black stu­dents), they lacked the resources to provide a mate­rial base for the pro­fes­sion­al­iz­ing mid­dle class. Sev­eral of these issues can be clar­i­fied by exam­in­ing the for­ma­tion of the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia.

University of Virginia and Student Revolt

Thomas Jef­fer­son began plan­ning for what would become UVA fol­low­ing an abortive effort to reform William & Mary, his alma mater. But it would take a half a cen­tury before he was able to get UVA up and going. With state rather than reli­gious funds, he aimed to train pro­fes­sion­als for a kind of admin­is­tra­tion that would be repub­li­can rather than monar­chi­cal, requir­ing demo­c­ra­tic forms of edu­ca­tion, trust between stu­dents and fac­ulty, and the best fac­ulty avail­able. In addi­tion to his own frus­tra­tion with exist­ing edu­ca­tional forms, Jef­fer­son and Vir­ginian lead­ers had sev­eral rea­sons to develop UVA: desire for an elite school in the South through which to teach the tra­di­tion of gen­til­ity, North­ern con­tempt for the intel­lect of the South, and, sig­nalled by the Mis­souri Com­pro­mise of 1820, North­ern attacks on South­ern sov­er­eignty and regional auton­omy. Jef­fer­son bemoaned North­ern indoc­tri­na­tion in an 1821 let­ter to his friend Joseph Car­ring­ton Cabell: “How many of our youths she [Har­vard] now has, learn­ing the lessons of anti-Mis­souri­an­ism, I know not… These will return home, no doubt, deeply impressed with the sacred prin­ci­ples of our Holy Alliance of Restric­tion­ists.”12 The ancient pur­pose of higher edu­ca­tion, to provide the legal and reli­gious jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for forms of power, had to be picked up by the South and not just left to the North.

The Rock­fish Gap Com­mis­sion, tasked by the Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture with deter­min­ing the site, valid­ity, and breadth of UVA, had to work out what it was that higher edu­ca­tion was to do. Where pri­mary edu­ca­tion should provide for the basics – the abil­ity for all to trans­act their own busi­ness (ini­ti­ate, cal­cu­late and keep con­tracts), develop lit­er­acy and patri­o­tism, and main­tain Repub­li­can social rela­tions – higher edu­ca­tion was to train those who would admin­is­ter the state: those “on whom pub­lic pros­per­ity, & indi­vid­ual hap­pi­ness are so much to depend.”13 Uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion must, there­fore, con­cern itself with the nature and forms of gov­ern­ment and law, agri­cul­ture, man­u­fac­tur­ing, com­merce, and teach­ing math and the phys­i­cal sci­ences. Because the ori­en­ta­tion of those in a democ­racy should be towards soci­ety, that soci­ety should provide the funds nec­es­sary to edu­cate them. By sidelin­ing reli­gion – UVA replaced the Pro­fes­sor of Divin­ity with a Pro­fes­sor of Ethics – it was hoped that an alliance between the State and Uni­ver­sity could sup­plant the his­tor­i­cal rela­tion­ship of state and reli­gion. It was for this rea­son that George Wash­ing­ton, James Madison, and oth­ers sup­ported a National Uni­ver­sity, though pop­u­lar fear of cen­tral­ized author­ity scut­tled all such attempts.

Intel­lec­tual and pro­fes­sional train­ing, by a fac­ulty capa­ble of such an edu­ca­tion, was to sup­ple­ment a new ori­en­ta­tion to stu­dent life. One of the prin­ci­pal dif­fer­ences at UVA, Jef­fer­son informed George Tic­knor (who had been the first Amer­i­can stu­dent to travel to Europe for an advanced degree and later became a pro­fes­sor at Har­vard) in an 1823 let­ter, would be over­com­ing the unfor­tu­nate habit, formed at Har­vard, of mak­ing all stu­dents sub­scribe to one course of learn­ing decided by the Pres­i­dent. Stu­dents here would be allowed to attend those classes and lec­tures nec­es­sary for their own edu­ca­tions. Not only would this over­come the nar­row­ness of the clas­si­cal cur­ricu­lum, but it might achieve a new rela­tion between stu­dent and fac­ulty. Stu­dent dis­ci­pline and insub­or­di­na­tion were, Jef­fer­son believed, the biggest block to demo­c­ra­tic edu­ca­tion. For this rea­son, they eschewed the long lists of rules and penalties that char­ac­ter­ized every other school, choos­ing to teach with respect rather than fear. Fur­ther, stu­dents them­selves were in charge of dis­ci­pline, through stu­dent-led courts. He hoped that demo­c­ra­tic prin­ci­ples would sub­vert rebel­lion and ease the chore of dis­ci­pline.

Sur­vey­ing the pro­posed uni­ver­sity for the North Amer­i­can Review, Edward Everett, then a pro­fes­sor at Har­vard who, like so many oth­ers, had also trav­elled to Ger­many to aug­ment his edu­ca­tion before teach­ing, noted that for all its admirable advances, there was still a glar­ing gap in the plan: there was no “des­ti­na­tion” for the grad­u­ate of the col­lege. With­out a use­ful con­nec­tion between edu­ca­tion and the pro­fes­sional world a stu­dent could enter upon com­ple­tion, it would be dif­fi­cult to get the stu­dents nec­es­sary to make the exper­i­ment suc­ceed. The con­nec­tion between knowl­edge pro­duc­tion, edu­ca­tion, and post-grad­u­ate life still had a long way to go, though UVA would be a strong open­ing salvo.

UVA was char­tered in 1819 and opened in 1825. Five Euro­pean fac­ulty mem­bers – four from Eng­land and Scot­land and one from Ger­many – were brought in to aug­ment three Amer­i­can fac­ulty. Other than the Ger­man pro­fes­sor, the fac­ulty were all under thirty. Jen­nings Wag­oner, Jr, an edu­ca­tional his­to­rian, has writ­ten that

the youth­ful­ness of some of the pro­fes­sors and their appar­ent lack of solic­i­tude for the per­sonal bear­ing and soci­ety of the stu­dents rather quickly pro­voked fric­tion… Equally sig­nif­i­cant, the pro­fes­sors’ posi­tion of author­ity, their more seri­ous and schol­arly ori­en­ta­tion, and the eth­i­cal code they embraced gen­er­ated numer­ous “clashes of honor” between fac­ulty and stu­dents.14

With­out a his­tory of pro­fes­sional respect, South­ern stu­dent cul­ture, steeped in gen­tle­manly honor, would prove too strong for the pro­posed exper­i­ment.

UVA’s stu­dents, on the whole, came from wealth­ier fam­i­lies than their North­ern coun­ter­parts. Most of them came from the South, and most of their fam­i­lies owned slaves. Some older stu­dents, who were inter­ested in seri­ous study, used UVA as a grad­u­ate school. Most stu­dents, showed lit­tle incli­na­tion to study as there was no social advan­tage to doing so. Wag­oner writes that only 55% of stu­dents, between 1825-1870, stayed for longer than one ses­sion, and only 11% were there for longer than three years. For those inter­ested in study, the uni­ver­sity was superb; for every­one else, lax dis­ci­pline, for­eign fac­ulty mem­bers, and a cult of honor frus­trated the advent of a new age.

Within just a few months of open­ing, these stu­dents had made a mock­ery of self-dis­ci­pline and self-gov­ern­ment while run­ning roughshod over the fac­ulty – who lacked the means and author­ity to rein them in. While heavy drink­ing and par­ty­ing were com­mon, what was really trou­ble­some was the fre­quent use of guns on the grounds, and vio­lence directed at fac­ulty. Though against the rules, many stu­dents had brought their pis­tols, mus­kets, and rifles with them, and enjoyed fir­ing them at night. They claimed that a firearm was nec­es­sary in case some­one affronted their honor. Honor, on one occa­sion, was the rea­son given by a group of stu­dents for beat­ing and horse­whip­ping the chair­man of the fac­ulty, while close to a hun­dred stu­dents watched.

While Jef­fer­son died (1826) before things got too bad, he did wit­ness his nephew smash what­ever illu­sions he’d had about Repub­li­can forms and stu­dent dis­ci­pline. In the very first semes­ter, stu­dents set about show­ing their dis­plea­sure for the Euro­pean fac­ulty. On one occa­sion, stu­dents threw a bot­tle of human excre­ment through a professor’s win­dow while he was enter­tain­ing guests. The next night, Wag­oner writes, a group of stu­dents dressed as “Indi­ans,” began shout­ing, “Damn the Euro­pean pro­fes­sors.” Rather than let the dis­tur­bance lie, two fac­ulty tried to inter­vene. One stu­dent was seized, though not before he called for help. Stu­dents flew out of their rooms and chased the pro­fes­sors off with sticks and stones – and words. The next day, sixty-five stu­dents pre­sented a res­o­lu­tion stat­ing that the fac­ulty were at fault. Two of the Euro­pean fac­ulty imme­di­ately quit. The oth­ers demanded order be imposed by the Board. Jef­fer­son, Madison, and James Mon­roe (all on the Board) and other dis­tin­guished board mem­bers gath­ered all those asso­ci­ated with the school. They implored the guilty stu­dents to con­fess so as not to make the inno­cent stu­dents sully their honor in defend­ing them. At this point, Jefferson’s nephew stepped for­ward in guilt. The lead­ers were expelled; stu­dent self-gov­ern­ment, within the first semes­ter, had been shown to be wholly unwork­able. This dis­tur­bance, though, was not even the most sev­ere: in 1836 and again in 1845 the state mili­tia was required to restore order, and in 1840 a pro­fes­sor died of a gun­shot wound. New reg­u­la­tions (which were later relaxed) and a fac­ulty com­posed of largely native pro­fes­sors – com­bined with larger sys­temic changes in stu­dent life and the social con­di­tions of South­ern life – helped bring a mea­sure of peace to the cam­pus before the Civil War. How­ever, the exper­i­ment was under­stood by most to have failed.

Sig­nif­i­cantly, UVA was an elite project meant to develop a rul­ing class for its time, rather than a devel­op­ment by those who would work as fac­ulty or attend as stu­dents. The insti­tu­tion was the pro­duct of the Enlight­en­ment, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, and Virginia’s fear of North­ern aggres­sion. This unsteady mix lacked a social move­ment ready to take it up and make it a prin­ci­pal insti­tu­tion of a new era. There were nei­ther the fac­ulty to orga­nize the insti­tu­tion nor the soci­ety to require it. The com­po­si­tion of the fac­ulty – inter­na­tional and with lit­tle con­nec­tion to the area, stu­dents or cul­ture – could not imple­ment or sus­tain the desired reforms, and there was no social author­ity to impose order. It was the instan­ti­a­tion of an idea that lacked a base that could bring it into exis­tence.

New York, The Great City

If an edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tion hopes to suc­ceed, some sig­nif­i­cant ele­ment of soci­ety must have need of it. Higher edu­ca­tion did not exist to provide stu­dents with intel­lec­tual choices, to sat­isfy curios­ity about the world, or to provide a period of care­free years before assum­ing a posi­tion in the “real world.” To the extent that it existed for fac­ulty, this was so that they might give back to their alma mater by train­ing the next gen­er­a­tion. The boost­ers and towns that com­peted for new col­leges saw them as a source of legit­i­ma­tion (and there­fore prop­erty value spec­u­la­tion); the denom­i­na­tions saw in them the means to main­tain ortho­doxy across gen­er­a­tions and over an expand­ing geo­graph­i­cal area. For the men who were teach­ing at a younger and younger age and with more aca­d­e­mic train­ing, how­ever, the low salaries, long hours, lack of insti­tu­tional sup­port for research or the abil­ity to spe­cial­ize, entrenched inter­ests of gov­ern­ing boards and their sup­port­ers, enmity between them and stu­dents pro­vided impe­tus for think­ing of and orga­niz­ing new forms of higher edu­ca­tion.

In fact, at an 1830 con­fer­ence in New York City, a col­lec­tion of schol­ars and their sup­port­ers (doc­tors, lawyers, bankers and politi­cians who were inter­ested in rais­ing the national and inter­na­tional promi­nence of their city) gath­ered to dis­cuss the cur­rent state of higher edu­ca­tion (stateside and in Europe), out­line the frus­tra­tions with the exist­ing state of higher edu­ca­tion, and then to for­mu­late a the­ory of the Amer­i­can research uni­ver­sity. Metic­u­lously tran­scribed in the Jour­nal of the Pro­ceed­ings of a Con­ven­tion of Lit­er­ary and Sci­en­tific Gen­tle­men, pro­fes­sors, pres­i­dents, and other inter­ested men pointed to the com­po­si­tion of uni­ver­sity boards, the trou­ble with stu­dent life, poor pay, lack of flex­i­bil­ity in cur­ricu­lum, the inad­e­quate divi­sion of men­tal and phys­i­cal labor, the improper focus on the mori­bund pro­fes­sions, and the lack of a proper ori­en­ta­tion towards edu­ca­tion. Fore­most among the pro­fes­sors’ dis­con­tents, an appen­dix to the Con­ven­tion claimed, was that the exist­ing col­leges existed to “fit” young men “for the com­mon voca­tions of life.” The Uni­ver­sity, absent as yet in the US, existed not for stu­dents, but for the advance of sci­ence through research and pub­li­ca­tion. From sci­ence, com­merce would fol­low. Regard­ing the lat­ter, Rev. Dr. James Math­ews, who intro­duced the event, claimed that the finan­cial and cul­tural dom­i­nance of Munich, Lon­don, Berlin, and Paris came from their lit­er­ary and sci­en­tific insti­tu­tions – New York, to enter that pan­theon, must have their equal.

Sim­ply reform­ing the insti­tu­tions could not be enough – the need was too dire. “The neces­sity,” claimed the Hon­or­able Albert Gal­latin, “of assim­i­lat­ing the sys­tem of edu­ca­tion to the present state of soci­ety, is felt every where; and the gov­ern­ments of Europe, where the neces­sity is far less urgent, are daily adopt­ing mea­sures to that effect. But that which with them is only an antic­i­pa­tion is already with us an impe­ri­ous neces­sity.”  Entrenched inter­ests – stu­dents, fac­ulty, admin­is­tra­tion, and denom­i­na­tions – at the exist­ing insti­tu­tions were not par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in the impo­si­tion of a new type of edu­ca­tional form, as the Conic Sec­tion Rebel­lion at Yale demon­strated. Speak­ing to the student’s abil­ity to under­mine aca­d­e­mic efforts, Pro­fes­sor Henry Vethake claimed, “The fact is, that the exist­ing state of things, which I am anx­ious to see altered, is the nec­es­sary result of the arrange­ment of the stu­dents into reg­u­larly orga­nized bod­ies, and of the dis­tri­b­u­tion among them of the usual dis­tinc­tions and hon­ors.” By break­ing up the class struc­ture, elim­i­nat­ing pre­scribed courses (and pos­si­bly degrees alto­gether), and eschew­ing humil­i­a­tion and pun­ish­ment, a new ori­en­ta­tion towards stu­dents could be cre­ated. Most impor­tant, how­ever, was sim­ply rais­ing the cal­iber of stu­dents. To do this would require a bet­ter sys­tem of lower schools and, as Lieut. Mahan (rep­re­sent­ing the West Point con­tin­gent at the con­fer­ence) argued, the train­ing of teach­ers in the new uni­ver­si­ties.

Part and parcel of the new enter­prise, how­ever, would be the pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of the fac­ulty. Dr. Fran­cis Lieber, a Ger­man born pro­fes­sor who emi­grated to the US for polit­i­cal rea­sons, made this point explic­itly: “Teach­ing in Ger­man uni­ver­si­ties, of which there are so many, forms a real pro­fes­sion, as that of the heal­ing art, or that of the­ol­ogy; the emu­la­tion there­fore is much greater, than in coun­tries where the Pro­fes­sors of uni­ver­si­ties form but a small body, not numer­ous enough for emu­la­tion.” Other speak­ers pointed out that Boards and low pay, in addi­tion to the rela­tion­ship to stu­dents, were deter­mi­na­tive in devel­op­ing the pro­fes­sion of fac­ulty mem­bers. At Yale, for instance, fac­ulty had no legal abil­ity to decide in any way who they would work with.

Pro­fes­sor Jared Sparks, who would later become Pres­i­dent of Har­vard, claimed that the fac­ulty alone should deter­mine the com­po­si­tion of the fac­ulty: “Such a body would be as capa­ble as any other, to say the least, of judg­ing in regard to the req­ui­site qual­i­fi­ca­tions of a can­di­date, and much more capa­ble of decid­ing whether his per­sonal qual­i­ties, traits of char­ac­ter, and habits of think­ing, would make him accept­able in their com­mu­nity. It seems evi­dent, there­fore, that some­thing is lost, and noth­ing gained by refer­ring this nom­i­na­tion to another body of men, who have no inter­ests in com­mon with the party chiefly con­cerned.” With a pro­fes­sional Pres­i­dent (a pro­fes­sor who, no longer teach­ing, was freed to focus on run­ning the affairs of the uni­ver­sity in the inter­est of the fac­ulty and clients), and a fac­ulty body that could deter­mine its own shape and needs, the pro­fes­so­ri­ate in the uni­ver­sity would take the lead and deter­mine for itself its own future.

In this way, sci­ence and the uni­ver­sity would deter­mine, to a large extent, the shape of eco­nomic, social, and polit­i­cal life. “Is it for­got­ten,” the Mass­a­chu­setts-born his­to­rian and states­man George Ban­croft asked, “that most of the bril­liant and influ­en­tial inven­tions of the last half cen­tury, are founded upon laws, sci­en­tif­i­cally estab­lished before the respec­tive inven­tions for prac­ti­cal life?” He con­tended that the­ory and sci­ence should deter­mine the com­mon life of the peo­ple, rather than fol­low­ing behind it. The pro­fes­sional uni­ver­sity, then, exists to set the stage for social and eco­nomic life; its spe­cial­ized sci­en­tists, in all the branches the uni­ver­sity, take the lead in devel­op­ing the knowl­edge that deter­mi­nes where the com­mon life of the peo­ple leads. The com­mon life of the nation – the pub­lic good – become syn­ony­mous with the com­mon life of pro­fes­sion­als.

The result­ing insti­tu­tion was plagued by con­tro­versy and in des­per­ate need of sup­port, but the prin­ci­ples it laid down were taken up by oth­ers in the after­math. We have here, then, a gath­er­ing attempt­ing to found a school based on the pro­fes­sional pref­er­ences of aca­d­e­mics – pro­fes­sors were putting in place an insti­tu­tion through which their pro­fes­sion could take form, and sup­port­ing them were busi­ness­men who saw that a pro­fes­sional fac­ulty alone could inves­ti­gate the nat­u­ral and social laws that would advance busi­ness and bring peace between the social classes. Find­ing enough clients for their ser­vices would prove to be the make-or-break issue: would there be the mate­rial means to sup­port them? Pro­fes­sion­als, after all, do not cre­ate the mate­rial means for their own repro­duc­tion, but depend for their sur­vival on a group inter­ested in their ser­vices. Of course, of the men whose thought and work founded the insti­tu­tion, nearly all were inde­pen­dently wealthy and could afford to endure the low pay until the uni­ver­sity took form. The early New York attempts at procur­ing funds from state and local cof­fers proved mostly unsuc­cess­ful. Tuition and increased enroll­ment were the pri­mary means by which they sought to fund their new ven­ture, but find­ing par­ents and stu­dents inter­ested in their vision was to prove dif­fi­cult. Plagued by slow enroll­ment from the begin­ning, they had to curb their ambi­tious plans.

Until the 1870s and the arrival of Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity, Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity, and the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, along with the slow reform of Har­vard (which was los­ing its tra­di­tional base to Yale and Prince­ton), exper­i­ments would con­tinue. The Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan helped develop high schools to feed their need for bet­ter qual­i­fied stu­dents; both the Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina and Columbia Uni­ver­sity sparked high-pro­file debates con­cern­ing the qual­i­fi­ca­tions to teach, and who gets to decide what those are; and at Brown Uni­ver­sity, a new cur­ricu­lum, based on stu­dent elec­tives, was being installed.

Brown, in fact, deserves an extra look. Part of the prob­lem was a flux in the pur­pose of the col­lege and the uni­ver­sity in the ante­bel­lum years. If the power of the mer­chant class, as the dom­i­nant class in the North­east and, by exten­sion, in the West, was being sub­sumed into the social rela­tions of indus­trial cap­i­tal­ism, train­ing young men for its ranks could no longer be of pri­mary impor­tance. Of course, this process is uneven and envelops var­i­ous regions asyn­chro­nously. For this rea­son, there remained much con­fu­sion over what exactly an insti­tu­tion of higher learn­ing was sup­posed to be. For a school cre­ated by pri­vate enti­ties, wrote Brown’s Pres­i­dent Way­land, the one who cre­ates it looks to the mar­ket to deter­mine what is in demand. Because the pub­lic does not lend its finan­cial sup­port, it can ask noth­ing of the insti­tute. A Pub­lic Col­lege, how­ever, is sup­ported by the pub­lic and it has a right to vis­i­to­rial pow­ers. “Boards of Trustees or Cor­po­ra­tions, are the agents to whom this power is com­mit­ted, and they are bound to exer­cise it accord­ing to the design for which they were appointed.”15 They grant pub­licly rec­og­nized degrees or cer­tifi­cates, and there­fore there must be some way to judge the value of these. At that time, this degree meant that a grad­u­ate was pro­fi­cient in those lit­er­ary and intel­lec­tual pur­suits prized by the mer­chant class. The dif­fer­ence between a pri­vate and pub­lic insti­tu­tion, then, lies in what is prized by the Pub­lic rather than what is prized by the mar­ket, a sect, or an indi­vid­ual phil­an­thropist.

The Professional Academic

By mid-cen­tury, this new cat­e­gory of pro­fes­sor – the aca­d­e­mic, the one inter­ested in the­o­ret­i­cal, not prac­ti­cal knowl­edge (a des­ig­na­tion that dates to 1886)16 – had the clout and move­ment to push for con­trol of insti­tu­tions within which they taught. As more stu­dents who did not have inde­pen­dent access to wealth took jobs teach­ing, the imper­a­tive to form an insti­tu­tion to bring aca­d­e­mic con­trol of research, a liv­ing wage, and pro­fes­sional modes of con­trol of labor increased. The elite within the field led the move­ment, though they responded to the demands of the emerg­ing pro­fes­sion – and helped shape those demands. Fur­ther, a crit­i­cal mass of aca­d­e­mics within exist­ing col­leges were forc­ing those col­leges to do what they could to accom­mo­date them and their demands while also forc­ing the profession’s lead­ers to seek wealthy allies to help them found new insti­tu­tions for the pur­pose of pro­fes­sional con­trol and advance­ment. They were work­ing both inter­nally and exter­nally to develop the insti­tu­tion they desired. In fits and starts, the form of the new insti­tu­tion took shape and the prac­tice of the pro­fes­so­ri­ate crys­tal­lized. Through research and exper­i­men­ta­tion, the aca­d­e­mic would develop knowl­edge, not merely trans­mit exist­ing knowl­edge. The import of the chalk­board (a West Point pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics used it first in 1801) allowed for the devel­op­ment of the mod­ern lec­ture, where new infor­ma­tion, not yet in books, would be dis­sem­i­nated to stu­dents; the sci­en­tific lab, pop­u­lar­ized by Jus­tus von Liebig’s chem­i­cal lab at the Uni­ver­sity of Giesing, was an ideal site for advanced sci­en­tific study; and the sem­i­nar, a favorite of the Lib­eral Arts and Human­i­ties, helped the pro­fes­sor, through small class sizes and the use of peer pres­sure to cow “mis­taken” inter­pre­ta­tions, steer stu­dents towards the proper meth­ods to deter­mine respectable deduc­tions. Through elec­tives, fac­ulty could begin to spe­cial­ize their teach­ing as well as research, while stu­dents could begin to spe­cial­ize their learn­ing in order to enter into fields that, with a rapidly indus­tri­al­iz­ing and com­plex econ­omy, required more knowl­edge.

With the wide­spread adop­tion of sec­ondary edu­ca­tion and the sub­se­quent rise in the aver­age age of col­lege stu­dents, fac­ulty could throw off the dis­ci­pli­nary func­tion of the pro­fes­so­ri­ate. By 1900, not only were unqual­i­fied stu­dents being rejected by research uni­ver­si­ties (and accepted, at a higher dol­lar cost, by old-style col­leges), but uni­ver­si­ties were mar­ket­ing them­selves in order to recruit the high school stu­dents they wanted (Stan­ford was a pio­neer, using a list of its faculty’s pub­li­ca­tions to demon­strate its schol­arly excel­lence). Fac­ulty could, for the first time, begin to deter­mine who would enter their own ranks, and fur­ther, the ranks of other pro­fes­sions. Through grades, which replaced the now cum­ber­some eval­u­a­tion processes that once dom­i­nated, fac­ulty attempted to rank stu­dents by merit. It would take until the 1950s, though, when advanced degrees became more nec­es­sary for pro­fes­sional employ­ment, for grades to dom­i­nate stu­dent life. Out­side of the Human­i­ties – the sci­en­tific suc­ces­sor to the Lib­eral Arts – aca­d­e­mics no longer had to con­cern them­selves with the plight of stu­dents.

Finally, with the power to select their peers, pres­i­dents, and divi­sion chairs, the fac­ulty had gone a long way in deter­min­ing the char­ac­ter of their labor. Boards and Regents would sur­vive to allo­cate bud­gets (what could an aca­d­e­mic pos­si­bly know about the pecu­niary world, after all?) but aca­d­e­mic deci­sion-mak­ing – what was to be taught, who was to teach, who was to be a stu­dent, what counted as knowl­edge, what counted as pro­fi­ciency with knowl­edge, etc – was now to lie with the fac­ulty.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Pro­fes­sions, by neces­sity, have to sell their ser­vices to clients; iden­ti­fy­ing clients and then estab­lish­ing rela­tions marked by pro­fes­sional auton­omy was a task that, was largely accom­plished in the early 20th cen­tury, even if it con­tin­ues in some guises today. Aca­d­e­mics tried the state, labor unions, cap­i­tal­ists, local towns, and other con­stituen­cies, with vary­ing results. Efforts like the Uni­ver­sity of Wisconsin’s “Wis­con­sin Idea,” where the uni­ver­sity was embed­ded into the fab­ric of the state through the writ­ing of leg­is­la­tion, per­form­ing sur­veys, and cer­ti­fy­ing pub­lic sec­tor posi­tions, was one effort. Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity – the mar­riage of the land-grant uni­ver­sity with the older lib­eral arts col­lege – was the result of fed­eral land-grant fund­ing, Ezra Cornell’s own vast wealth, and­mu­nic­i­pal bar­gain­ing – sev­eral cities bid to have the school, and Ovid, NY, also in the run­ning for that fed­eral land-grant money, was granted funds for an insane asy­lum instead. Grad­u­ally, cap­i­tal­ists, local and state gov­ern­ments, and stu­dents were found, and the uni­ver­si­ties found them­selves in busi­ness.

Next was the ques­tion of aca­d­e­mic free­dom and pro­fes­sional auton­omy. At Stan­ford, Chicago, and the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan, most famously, a few pro­fes­sors were fired or black­listed for pub­lic advo­cacy of social­ist, pop­ulist, or atavis­tic pol­icy. What was upset­ting in these cases, and what the defense of these pro­fes­sors revolved around, was not the con­tent of what they said, but rather the abil­ity of the pro­fes­so­ri­ate, and not those out­side their ranks, to sci­en­tif­i­cally adju­di­cate ideas. After all, if truth was to emerge, it would have to be in the free exchange of ideas, within a dis­ci­pli­nary asso­ci­a­tion whose mem­ber­ship required exten­sive pro­fes­sional edu­ca­tion – not through the arbi­trary exer­cise of auto­cratic con­trol. Such dis­plays of caprice only served to under­mine the power of con­sen­sus and sci­en­tific knowl­edge to defeat igno­rance and dem­a­goguery. For many, espe­cially the aca­d­e­mic elite, the uni­ver­sity was to provide some­thing of a blue­print for soci­ety: fac­ulty, hav­ing reached their posi­tion and author­ity through the mer­i­to­cratic rise in the pro­fes­sion, would offer pro­fes­sional opin­ions and, in debate with oth­ers who’d been admit­ted to their ranks, deter­mine a proper course of action based on what the evi­dence illu­mi­nated.

The new aca­d­e­mic asso­ci­a­tions cre­ated by fac­ulty to sort out their method­ol­ogy and purview – such as the Amer­i­can His­tor­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion, the Mod­ern Lan­guage Asso­ci­a­tion, and the Amer­i­can Soci­o­log­i­cal Soci­ety – worked to provide the frame­work for the self-orga­nized and self-per­pet­u­at­ing dis­ci­plines.17 The Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion of Uni­ver­sity Pro­fes­sors (AAUP) engaged mem­ber­ship over the fight for aca­d­e­mic free­dom and other issues. The National Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion and the Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ties grew to assist uni­ver­sity pres­i­dents and the grow­ing admin­is­tra­tive layer in the task of stan­dard­iz­ing uni­ver­sity prac­tice and expec­ta­tions.

There has always been an elite hid­ing in the self-orga­nized pro­fes­sions. Serv­ing Power, the work of Sheila Slaugh­ter and Edward Silva, is an exten­sive explo­ration of how aca­d­e­mic lead­ers set agen­das for jour­nals and con­fer­ences, worked out insti­tu­tional rela­tion­ships, and con­sol­i­dated the power of the fac­ulty. From the start, they were self-sup­ported, able to become aca­d­e­mics when there was very lit­tle finan­cial com­pen­sa­tion. It was these men who devel­oped the the­ory and argued the prac­tices of the pro­fes­so­ri­ate. In the process, they were also more likely to become pres­i­dents, to become the aca­d­e­mic man­agers. In this posi­tion, their first loy­alty, as Freidson’s soci­ol­ogy of pro­fes­sion­als reminds us, is to the insti­tu­tion, and to the pro­fes­sion sec­ond. Of course, no lead­er­ship could ever con­tain the oper­a­tions of a vast and diver­gent fac­ulty, which is never as qui­es­cent as its detrac­tors insist, nor as heroic as their allies insist. Of cru­cial impor­tance, though, was that they too were aca­d­e­mics and were com­mit­ted to that ide­ol­ogy – hav­ing helped to develop and make it pos­si­ble. The social­ist and con­ser­v­a­tive rad­i­cals in their ranks, always a minor­ity, were use­ful in push­ing the bound­aries of accept­able pro­fes­sional prac­tice (and they rarely had more than a small per­cent­age of sup­port from fel­low aca­d­e­mics), and gave legit­i­ma­tion to processes now enscon­ced in uni­ver­sity prac­tice.

Towards the end of the 19th cen­tury, pro­fes­sion­als would finally find in state leg­is­la­tures and indus­trial cap­i­tal­ists the means to pros­per. That sup­port, how­ever, would have to wait until the rise of the cor­po­ra­tion, the social form cap­i­tal takes to man­age large com­bi­na­tions of cap­i­tal and labor. Even then, it would take years of effort to prove to cap­i­tal­ists and the state that this form of labor and prop­erty had both a use and exchange value. The tycoon cap­i­tal­ists who first orga­nized monop­o­lies laid the ground­work for the use of this pro­fes­sion, but the cor­po­ra­tion would take it to new heights. Thus, it is the self-orga­ni­za­tion of these men – and the need for sup­port to con­tinue this orga­ni­za­tion – that made pos­si­ble the advent of the uni­ver­sity. The uni­ver­sity is the prin­ci­pal sup­port to a type of labor pro­tec­tion that, for a cen­tury,  offered a way out of man­ual labor, towards a mid­dle class between cap­i­tal­ists and the work­ing class. Its inter­ests, to a large degree, became syn­ony­mous with “the pub­lic good,” though this good has always been planted in the soil of cap­i­tal­ist class con­flict.

The Research University Today

But the work­ing class can­not sim­ply lay hold on the ready made State machin­ery and wield it for their own pur­pose. The polit­i­cal instru­ment of their enslave­ment can­not serve as the polit­i­cal instru­ment of their eman­ci­pa­tion. —Marx, Sec­ond Draft of the Civil War in France.

What hap­pens to these pro­fes­sion­als in the late 20th cen­tury? Briefly, by the 1970s, as the divi­sion of labor within the uni­ver­sity ampli­fied, diver­si­fied, and strat­i­fied fol­low­ing the unprece­dented expan­sion of the uni­ver­sity sys­tem in the US fol­low­ing World War II, new imper­a­tives pre­sented them­selves to the fac­ulty. From the New Left, Stu­dent Power assaulted the author­ity of the uni­ver­sity (and was brought to heel by mas­sive gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance and repres­sion); from the Right, cap­i­tal­ist retrench­ment (sup­ported by neolib­eral ide­o­logues and a national tax revolt) and inten­si­fied attempts to mon­e­tize uni­ver­sity rela­tions. The inau­gu­ra­tion of new aca­d­e­mic sub­jects (com­puter sci­ence, black stud­ies, women’s stud­ies, queer stud­ies) and new com­bi­na­tions of knowl­edge (inter-, post- and anti-dis­ci­pli­nary stud­ies) rep­re­sented an insur­rec­tion within the insti­tu­tion. They were all intensely polit­i­cal and rep­re­sented the pos­si­bil­ity for the uni­ver­sity to rein­vent itself.

Which it did. By arro­gat­ing more power to the top lay­ers of aca­d­e­mic admin­is­tra­tive elite, some in the aca­d­e­mic pro­fes­sion saw the pos­si­bil­ity of imbri­cat­ing them­selves into the same social class as cap­i­tal­ists, rather than sim­ply serv­ing them. Fed­eral, state, and local laws changed to make stu­dents into con­sumers; courts ruled that pub­lic, non-profit uni­ver­si­ties could patent and own intel­lec­tual prop­erty; a new type of cap­i­tal, ven­ture cap­i­tal, was devel­oped to accel­er­ate the trans­mis­sion of research into prod­ucts; and a sub-class of fac­ulty, the adjunct, was for­mu­lated to teach the dregs of the expand­ing uni­ver­sity sys­tem – those com­pos­ing the mas­sive under­grad­u­ate base, forced into higher edu­ca­tion as a col­lege degree became a de facto require­ment for admis­sion into any of the pro­fes­sions, and many other occu­pa­tions. Grad­u­ate stu­dents and adjuncts took on the bulk of the teach­ing, free­ing star fac­ulty from the respon­si­bil­ity of lec­tur­ing to dullards for whom their words would be prover­bial pearls before swine.

Because so much of pro­fes­sional labor – and now, impor­tantly, so many work­ers – pass through, or wish to pass through, the uni­ver­sity, the ide­ol­ogy of higher edu­ca­tion struc­tures how many of us under­stand work and who is sup­posed to con­trol that work. The strug­gle for higher edu­ca­tion today must be seen in at least two lenses. First, the strug­gle of labor involved in main­tain­ing the uni­ver­sity: aca­d­e­mic labor, and what is ter­med “sup­port staff”: groundskeep­ers, din­ing hall work­ers, admis­sions clerks – the hun­dreds of thou­sands of labor­ers whose exploita­tion the uni­ver­sity relies on today. Sec­ond, the urgent need to cre­ate new types of edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions, which will likely be less focused on abstract knowl­edge and the­ory.

Since higher edu­ca­tion in its cur­rent form is under attack, it is easy to fall back on old tropes about the sanc­tity of knowl­edge, education’s use for soci­ety, and other aspects of pro­fes­sional ide­ol­ogy. In real­ity, the uni­ver­sity was an insti­tu­tion cre­ated for the con­trol of a new type of pro­fes­sional labor, and it meant, for many, the oppor­tu­nity to con­trol the con­di­tions under which they worked. This is still appeal­ing to many who enter grad­u­ate school, though they quickly find that it is now more myth than real­ity. A defense of the uni­ver­sity should then instead be a defense of the pos­si­bil­ity of uni­ver­sity work­ers – tenured, tenure-track, adjunct, grad­u­ate, and sup­port staff – to deter­mine their own work. Work­ers’ inquiry into uni­ver­sity labor is a first step towards devel­op­ing a form of resis­tance capa­ble of unit­ing this dis­parate group. At present, it is rare to see much in the way of sol­i­dar­ity between sec­tions of this dif­fer­en­ti­ated, much less a sus­tained social move­ment. I sus­pect that this is because allow­ing adjuncts and sup­port staff to con­trol the con­di­tions of their own labor would inter­fere with the abil­ity of tenured and star fac­ulty to pur­sue their own ambi­tions.18 This means that for a work­ing-class move­ment to take hold within the uni­ver­sity, the ide­ol­ogy and false pro­tec­tions of pro­fes­sion­al­ism must be thrown off.

Defense of uni­ver­sity labor con­di­tions presents a fur­ther prob­lem: the pro­fes­sional rela­tion­ship involves clients and those who can­not become clients. In one sense, the clients of the uni­ver­sity are Sil­i­con Val­ley, the NSA, Boe­ing, Mon­santo, and the like. How­ever, the client is also the stu­dent, her fam­ily, and her com­mu­nity. The strug­gle over edu­ca­tion is not sim­ply the strug­gle over the labor of those in the uni­ver­sity itself, but also the nar­row­ing of occu­pa­tional and edu­ca­tional choices avail­able to prospec­tive stu­dents. To move beyond the model of soci­ety cre­ated and fos­tered by the uni­ver­sity requires the devel­op­ment of col­lec­tive forms of edu­ca­tion beyond cap­i­tal­ist social rela­tions. Pro­fes­sion­als who deter­mi­nes their labor within the bound­aries set by cap­i­tal­ism can­not be mod­els of anti-cap­i­tal­ist prac­tice, because the pro­fes­sional can only exist in a world char­ac­ter­ized by class con­flict between cap­i­tal and labor. As revolt, riot and street orga­niz­ing explode all over the world, anti-cap­i­tal­ist move­ments must seek to under­stand that revolt demands the inven­tion of new edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions, rather than a futile attempt to reform the old – new forms of edu­ca­tion that allow stu­dents, neigh­bor­hoods, and col­lec­tives to phys­i­cally inter­vene in hous­ing crises, in food crises, in neigh­bor­hood sol­i­dar­ity move­ments, and to bring these con­flicts into sharp relief.

  1. Ter­ence J. John­son, Pro­fes­sions and Power (Hong Kong: The MacMil­lan Press LTD, 1972), 45. Images from Alma Darst Mur­ray Bevis, Diets and Riots (Boston: Mar­shall Jones Co, 1936). 

  2. Eliot Frei­d­son, Pro­fes­sional Pow­ers: A Study of the Insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of For­mal Knowl­edge (Chicago: The Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1986), 140. 

  3. Ser­gio Bologna, “Class Com­po­si­tion and the The­ory of the Party at the Ori­gins of the Work­ers’ Coun­cil Move­ment,”, (July 23, 2005), accessed Sep­tem­ber 24, 2013. 

  4. Given these func­tions, it should not be sur­pris­ing that blacks and indige­nous peo­ples were excluded from higher edu­ca­tion, until white soci­ety had a need to attend to such pop­u­la­tions. 

  5. That they catered to sev­eral social classes did not, how­ever, mean that all classes attended in equal num­bers. 

  6. Quoted in Kathryn McDon­ald Moore, “Free­dom and Con­straint in 18th Cen­tury Har­vard,” Jour­nal of Higher Edu­ca­tion 47 (1976): 109. 

  7. Moore, “Free­dom and Con­straint,” 109. 

  8. Moore, “Free­dom and Con­straint,” 110. 

  9. Princeton’s Great Rebel­lion of 1807 illus­trates both the dam­age done to the col­leges and the types of stu­dent who was at the fore­front of the action. In that April, a great num­ber of stu­dents rioted, shut­ter­ing Princeton’s doors for a decade. One of the ring­lead­ers, Abel P. Upshur, would go on to become the US Sec­re­tary of State. Upshur, like many of the riot­ers, was Vir­ginian from a wealthy plan­ta­tion fam­ily. He was brought before the Board as one of those who led stu­dents to, “resist the author­ity of the Col­lege, and he per­sisted in adher­ing to the prin­ci­ples of the com­bi­na­tion.” All the stu­dents were expelled, though most trans­ferred to William & Mary or Yale. At William & Mary, one of the Prince­ton riot­ers, Andrew Hunter Holmes, helped incite another riot and was again expelled. (Holmes’ broth­ers all achieved a level of fame: his old­est brother was a mem­ber of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and later gov­er­nor of Mis­sis­sippi and would later become the sen­a­tor of Mis­sis­sippi; Hugh Holmes was a judge in the gen­eral court of Vir­ginia. When he died in bat­tle, he was a major in the army and the Vir­ginia Leg­is­la­ture awarded his rel­a­tives a gold sword in his mem­ory. Holmes’ sis­ters mar­ried promi­nent men and their sons pop­u­lated leg­is­la­tures, judges benches, and the upper ranks of the mil­i­tary.) The dis­ci­pli­nary action of the col­leges seems to have largely been a mirage, as there was effec­tively no curb on those stu­dents who brought in tuition. When they were dealt with, they could eas­ily trans­fer to another school: first, the schools offi­cial the­o­log­i­cal posi­tion claimed that God could trans­form these stu­dents if they would only sub­mit them­selves to author­ity; sec­ond, because no records existed; and third, because the tuition they brought was great enough to over­come what­ever ret­i­cence might have stopped them. 

  10. Henry David­son Shel­don. Stu­dent Life and Cus­toms (New York: D. Apple­ton and Com­pany, 1901), 299. 

  11. Roger Geiger, “Ten Gen­er­a­tions of Higher Edu­ca­tion,” in Amer­i­can Higher Edu­ca­tion in the Twenty-First Cen­tury: Social, Polit­i­cal, and Eco­nomic Chal­lenges, ed. Philip G. Alt­bach et al. (Bal­ti­more: The Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity Press, 1999), 45. 

  12. Thomas Jef­fer­son, “Jef­fer­son on the Vir­ginia Legislature’s Atti­tude toward a Uni­ver­sity, 1821” in Amer­i­can Higher Edu­ca­tion: A Doc­u­men­tary His­tory Vol I, ed. Richard Hof­s­tadter and Wilson Smith, (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1961), 224. 

  13. “Report of the Rock­fish Gap Com­mis­sion on the Pro­posed Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia, 1818,” in Amer­i­can Higher Edu­ca­tion, 194. 

  14. Jen­nings L Wag­oner, “Honor and Dis­honor at Mr. Jefferson’s Uni­ver­sity: The Ante­bel­lum Years,” His­tory of Higher Edu­ca­tion Quar­terly 26 (1986): 165. 

  15. Fran­cis Way­land, “Thoughts on the Present Col­le­giate Sys­tem, 1842,” in Amer­i­can Higher Edu­ca­tion: A Doc­u­men­tary His­tory Vol I, ed. Richard Hof­strader and Wilson Smith. (Chicago: Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, 1961), 335. 

  16. The Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary has sev­eral des­ig­na­tions for “Aca­d­e­mic,” but the above usage defin­i­tively took hold by the late 19th cen­tury. An adjec­ti­val usage also exists, dat­ing to the early 19th cen­tury, but its applic­a­bil­ity is unclear, since its usage appears to be deroga­tory, and not speci­fic to uni­ver­sity research. 

  17. In the Human­i­ties and Social Sci­ences, they emerged from the break-up of polit­i­cal econ­omy; in the Sci­ences, from the dis­so­lu­tion of nat­u­ral phi­los­o­phy. 

  18. Of course, there are won­der­ful exam­ples of tenured fac­ulty orga­niz­ing for just such a move­ment, but they are a minor­ity today. 

Author of the article

has written for Reclamations Journal, and is a member of University Research Group Experiment (URGE). He is also a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz.