The Research University as an Instrument of Civil Society in Twentieth Century America

Ethan Schrum, Azusa Pacific University

Over the course of the twentieth century, the notion that the elite American research university should be an instrument for promoting economic development and solving social problems increasingly shaped the behavior of this genre of institutions, leading to what I call “the instrumental university.” As Clark Kerr observed in his classic analysis of these institutions, The Uses of the University (1963), various entities attempted to use the university toward their own ends. This paper examines ways that civil society organizations engaged in this practice, attempting to use the American research university to advance their agendas in the twentieth century. In this process, universities came to participate in an associational mode of governance in the United States. The story begins in the Progressive Era, when associational movements in city planning and government research pressed universities to develop curricula and research programs in those areas. City planning was an area of heavy efforts by civil society organizations to influence universities. I examine these efforts through case studies. The Committee on a Regional Plan of New York and its Environs, launched in the 1920s, influenced the creation of Harvard’s School of City Planning in 1929. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, Philadelphia experienced a surge of civic activity promoting city planning, with organizations such as the Greater Philadelphia Movement encouraging the University of Pennsylvania to orient its activities toward serving the local community. As largely instrumental disciplines such as city planning gained size and prestige, they contributed to changing the tenor of elite research universities.

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 Presented in Session 242. Interrogating the Intersections between Higher Education and Civil Society