History of AAC&U

Liberal Education, Inclusion, and Collaboration: A Century of Commitment*

When 150 college executives gathered in Chicago in 1915 to create the Association of American Colleges (AAC), they chose inclusiveness and interhelpfulness as twin themes to animate their organization. These concepts sensibly unified small colleges in the early twentieth century: universities were already in ascendance, viewing liberal education and religion—formerly the foundation for all collegiate education—as mere outposts best served by the small colleges.

Inclusiveness allowed many colleges that were feeling outside the growing circle of university influence to find their place within AAC. Interhelpfulness was the key, as these institutions struggled to define their purpose and reassert their importance in the changing landscape, and set standards for effective practice. As the first Executive Director, Robert L. Kelly, explained in his audit of the organization’s first two decades, AAC’s goals were “learning the truth about the colleges, telling the truth about the colleges, making better colleges.” The annual meeting became “the great rallying point for the college officers of the country,” consciously planned by AAC as its “leading implement of inspiration,” while the quarterly Bulletin expanded to a magazine that “has attempted to present a vital theory of liberal education[.]”

One part of ensuring the quality of colleges was attention to academic freedom and tenure, and this concern led AAC to enact interhelpfulness by collaborating with the American Association of University Professors. Ultimately, the two organizations crafted a landmark statement in 1940 that set the terms for modern approaches to faculty hiring and protections surrounding academic freedom.

AAC’s inclusiveness worked well when its diverse constituents explored the status of the professoriate or the importance of liberal education in the curriculum, but posed thorny issues when the organization’s stance against federal aid to public higher education put it at odds with many of its own members. From the beginning, AAC had opened its doors to colleges of arts and sciences within public universities. Yet in the 1960s, AAC prioritized its advocacy for the independent sector, its mixed membership notwithstanding, by establishing a formal relationship with the Federation of State Associations of Independent Colleges and Universities. The publicly supported members of AAC resented the expenditure of organizational funds, space, and time on lobbying activities that were at odds with their interests. After a 1976 report by a special AAC commission, the organization chose to withdraw from federal lobbying. AAC helped form the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities to take on that role.

The change brought financial challenges and some concern for the association’s viability; however, the crisis clarified for AAC that its focus on liberal education was indeed the dynamic force that would hold its diverse membership together. Ultimately, the decision allowed AAC to return to the dual commitments of inclusiveness and interhelpfulness. All schools with a commitment to liberal learning, regardless of their institutional type or source of support, could be included as active AAC participants—and the 1995 name change to AAC&U, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, solidified that commitment. As well, AAC&U began to articulate the need to address inequities in access and achievement for traditionally underserved students, an imperative that continues today. Collaboration and mutual support would continue to be crucial as the membership met new challenges to liberal education.

Through clarion-call reports such as Integrity in the College Curriculum, Greater Expectations, College Learning for a New Global Century, and A Crucible Moment and large-scale initiatives like American Commitments and LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise), AAC&U has maintained and intensified its role as a voice and a force for quality liberal education. The founders would doubtless extol the forcefully renewed engagement with liberal learning that continues to animate the association as it launches its second century.

Click here for a timeline of key events in the first century of AAC&U's history. 

A list of AAC&U's presidents from 1915-present is available here


* This is an abridgment of Linda Eisenmann’s “‘Making Better Colleges’: AAC’s Century of Change and Commitment,” which was commissioned to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and published in the winter 2015 issue of Liberal Education.