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The University and the People

Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest

Scott M. Gelber

Publication Year: 2011

The University and the People chronicles the influence of Populism—a powerful agrarian movement—on public higher education in the late nineteenth century. Revisiting this pivotal era in the history of the American state university, Scott Gelber demonstrates that Populists expressed a surprising degree of enthusiasm for institutions of higher learning. More fundamentally, he argues that the mission of the state university, as we understand it today, evolved from a fractious but productive relationship between public demands and academic authority.
    Populists attacked a variety of elites—professionals, executives, scholars—and seemed to confirm academia’s fear of anti-intellectual public oversight. The movement’s vision of the state university highlighted deep tensions in American attitudes toward meritocracy and expertise. Yet Populists also promoted state-supported higher education, with the aims of educating the sons (and sometimes daughters) of ordinary citizens, blurring status distinctions, and promoting civic engagement. Accessibility, utilitarianism, and public service were the bywords of Populist journalists, legislators, trustees, and sympathetic professors. These “academic populists” encouraged state universities to reckon with egalitarian perspectives on admissions, financial aid, curricula, and research. And despite their critiques of college “ivory towers,” Populists supported the humanities and social sciences, tolerated a degree of ideological dissent, and lobbied for record-breaking appropriations for state institutions.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

List of Illustrations

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p. ix-ix

This book would not have been possible without the guidance of Julie Reuben, who has provided encouragement and constructive comments throughout this process. I have been blessed by her advising. I am also grateful . . .

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Introduction: Academic Populism

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pp. 3-17

In the fall of 1895, the University of Chicago sacked Edward Bemis, a controversial sociology professor who supported labor unions and public ownership of utilities. While editorializing about Bemis’s fate, . . .

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1. Preludes to Populism: Anti-Elitism and Higher Education, 1820–1885

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pp. 18-34

In 1877, the regents of the University of the State of New York warned that meddlesome politicians might pervert institutions of higher education. “Happy is the community,” concluded the regents, whose colleges . . .

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2. Scaling the Gilded Halls of the University: Populism and Campus Politics

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pp. 35-60

The Populist movement celebrated the virtue of citizens who hailed from outside of privileged circles. The Nebraska Independent, for instance, paid tribute to members of the hardscrabble “lower classes,” who . . .

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3. The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number: Populism and Academic Access

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pp. 61-82

In November 1897, Kansas State Agricultural College (KSAC) president Thomas E. Will received a letter from William Coleman, a thirty-three-year- old manufacturer of hosiery. Although Coleman had . . .

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4. Looking Forward: Populism and Economic Access

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pp. 83-100

During the late nineteenth century, the idea of mass higher education could seem like a distant fantasy. In his utopian novel Looking Backward (1887), Edward Bellamy imagined that it would take over . . .

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5. Producers and Parasites: The Populist Vision of College Curriculum

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pp. 101-125

In 1899, during the final throes of the Populist movement, Thorstein Veblen argued that wealthy Americans favored the traditional college curriculum because it epitomized the luxury of “wasted time.” According to . . .

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6. The Tastes of the Multitude: Populism, Expertise, and Academic Freedom

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pp. 126-146

In April 1897, when the fusionist governing board of Kansas State Agricultural College (KSAC) replaced several veteran professors, student editors at the University of Kansas (KU) “shudder[ed] at the spectacle . . .

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7. Watchdogs of the Treasury: Populism and Public Funding for Higher Education

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pp. 147-166

In 1887, President Samuel S. Laws of the University of Missouri learned of the demise of “Emperor,” the second largest elephant in captivity. Convinced that the circus elephant could become the centerpiece for . . .

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pp. 167-181

Kansas State Agricultural College (KSAC) never named a building in honor of Thomas E. Will—he is the only former KSAC president who has not been thus memorialized.1 In Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, and . . .


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pp. 183-252


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pp. 253-268

E-ISBN-13: 9780299284633
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299284640

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2011