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  • The Instrumental University: Education in the Service of the National Agenda after World War II by Ethan Schrum
  • John L. Rury
The Instrumental University: Education in the Service of the National Agenda after World War II. By Ethan Schrum (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2019) 299 pp. $47.95 cloth $23.99 e-book

American universities changed profoundly during the twentieth century. For one thing, these institutions became more functionally pertinent—or instrumental—in their relationships with other social and political entities. Such is the argument that Shrum undertakes in his book, which examines a handful of leading universities since the 1920s.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, it seeks to identify institutions serving a national agenda following World War II, but much of the action precedes the war. Wisconsin made the commitment of university resources to public service famous in the early twentieth century, but Schrum suggests that other institutions acted similarly later, notably the University of California. Most of his account focuses on particular campuses and various individuals associated with them, starting with the striving Clark Kerr.

Taking a largely biographical approach to his topic, Schrum devotes an entire chapter to Kerr’s growth as an instrumentally oriented scholar and institutional leader. He eventually became famous both as a spokesman for the research multiversity and as a failed leader in the wake of the Berkeley free-speech movement. Training in the field of industrial relations led him and others to see potential roles that universities could play in addressing social and economic problems, although most failed to anticipate the significance of civil rights and social inequity as looming campus issues.

Kerr and like-minded academics found a warm reception at major foundations then seeking ways to influence social policy. The somewhat symbiotic relationship between research universities and these relatively new entities was an important facet of the time. It became manifest in the appearance of non-departmental research centers and institutes aimed at fostering interdisciplinary work on various social problems. The nature of the collaboration between researchers and foundations before World War II suggests that the instrumentalist university was grounded more in progressive notions of government regulation and efficiency than in a broader commitment to equality and democracy. Schrum’s discussion of this matter is an important contribution of the study.

The book’s biographical orientation is also evident in chapters focusing on Gaylord Hardwell, president of the University of Pennsylvania, Samuel P. Hayes, president of the University of Michigan, and Kerr, who partly engineered the founding of the University of California at Irvine. A focus on the postwar era clearly emerges in Schrum’s discussion of these settings. Much of it concerns efforts to enlist universities in international-development programs, particularly in emerging nations such as Pakistan. By the 1960s, however, this conception of a globally [End Page 168] instrumental university began to falter in the wake of increasingly complex developmental challenges that characterized the era.

Given its focus on the university in the so-called knowledge economy, the book devotes surprisingly little attention to the rapid growth of federal investment in scientific and medical research on campuses. After all, this development was arguably the most concrete expression of university commitment to serving a national agenda in the postwar era. External funding and support for fields such as urban planning, development economics, and industrial relations—the book’s major academic focal points—paled in comparison. Non-departmental centers and institutes have continued to proliferate, and the interest of non- governmental foundations in funding them has remained robust, but it is hardly clear that they represented a guiding impulse in higher education in the long run.

In the end, Schrum’s biographical approach appears to be ill-suited to testing the proposition that Kerr and his applied social-science cohort of university leaders represented a comprehensive “instrumentalist” viewpoint that reshaped American universities. Keeping track of this group in the book can be daunting; at times the narrative becomes enmeshed in a swirl of names and acronyms for organizations and the (mainly) men who led them. The final chapter addresses faculty resistance to externally funded initiatives that appeared to require institutional commitments to specific goals and outcomes. Issues...


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pp. 168-169
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