Crisis and Opportunity: The Founding of the Association of American Colleges

From the Archives: This article is reprinted from Enhancing, Promoting, Extending Liberal Education: Association of American Colleges at Seventy-Five (Washington, DC: AAC, 1988)


Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of dispositions are forever forming associations. . . . At the head of any new undertaking . . . in the United States you are sure to find an association.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835

It should not surprise us that presidents of American colleges formed an association. What is cause for wonder is why it took them so long. By 1869, there were 563 colleges in this nation. Yet not until 1914 did a handful of presidents feel the need to band together and found the Association of American Colleges.

What led them to take action at that time? Hindsight makes it apparent that several developments in the last half of the nineteenth century foreshadowed a time of crisis for the traditional college, but until the early years of the twentieth century there had been no clear and present danger. By 1910, long-standing conflicts in American thought about higher education, abetted by the growing strength and popularity of new institutions and new approaches to science and learning, culminated in conditions and attitudes that seriously called into question the very raison d’être of the traditional American college.

About the time of the Civil War, deeply rooted American ideas on education that were basically inimical to the classical New England college began to gain influence. Somewhat paradoxically, the Jeffersonian principle that the state should nurture democratic leaders by providing free public higher education to those who could profit by it combined with the Jacksonian belief that colleges should be open to everyone and provide education that was primarily vocational and utilitarian. Together, these two ideas created a climate of opinion that responded favorably to new and far-reaching movements challenging American colleges.

The 1860s witnessed two landmark events that set in motion some of the most dynamic developments. The first was the Morrill Act of 1862, which provided incentives for every state to create a college “where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific or classical studies, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”1

These colleges soon became highly competitive models of higher education and began to attract a steadily rising number of students. Moreover, the architect of one of the most influential among them, Andrew D. White of Cornell University, viewed them as a replacement for the classical colleges, which he scornfully said were as “stagnant as a Spanish convent, and as self-satisfied as a Bourbon duchy.”

The second event, the election of Charles W. Eliot to the presidency of Harvard in 1869, brought about just as forceful an attack on the fundamental character of traditional colleges, because it led to the transformation of the prototype of all American colleges. Eliot’s leadership in justifying and applying the elective principle as the means for students to determine their programs undermined the classical curriculum and set the conditions for both the introduction of new fields of study and the fragmentation and multiplication of courses within all disciplines.

The resulting revolution in the curriculum had no more far-reaching repercussion than its influence on the rapid development of American universities. It provided justification for changing from a rigid prescribed system to a flexible one inspired by a commitment to free inquiry. Andrew White used it in developing Cornell as both a land-grant college and a university. James B. Angell introduced it at the University of Michigan. And it was fundamental to the planning of those powerful exemplars for all later universities—Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago. It was also compatible with other major contemporary influences on higher education: the advance of scientific studies, the cultivation of “scientific” methodologies in other branches of learning, the formulation and definition of new fields of knowledge induced by such new methodologies, and the mounting influence of the German universities that enshrined research leading to the discovery of new knowledge as the principal objective of higher education.

Onset of crisis

By the early twentieth century, signs of trouble loomed high and dark over traditional colleges. From the perspective provided by the new universities, the traditional college looked at best like a vestigial remain. As Frederick Rudolph succinctly says, “President Harper of Chicago, at the turn of the century, expected three out of four existing colleges to be reduced to the status of academies or modified into junior colleges. President Butler of Columbia was convinced that if the American college was to be saved, it would have to reduce its course of study to two or three years. David Starr Jordan of Stanford looked into his crystal ball in 1903 and decided that ‘as time goes on the college will disappear, in fact, if not in name. The best will become universities, the others will return to their places as academies.’”2

The exigencies of the time brought little comfort for the traditional college. From 1890 to 1910, the number of US institutions of higher education declined from 998 to 951 while total enrollment mounted from 156,756 to 355,213, an increase of more than 100 percent.3 In other words, even in the face of unprecedented demand for college education, the traditional college appeared to be losing out both to the new private universities and to public tax-supported institutions like land-grant colleges and state universities.

Questions were being raised, moreover, as to whether all colleges really were colleges. Major graduate and professional schools did not consider all equal and had begun to classify colleges according to how well they had prepared their graduates to pursue post­graduate programs of study.4 In 1913, as an extension of this practice, the Association of American Universities, founded in 1900, assumed the task of accrediting American colleges and did so until regional accrediting agencies came into being.

Even before 1913, two newly established philanthropic foundations had highlighted the need for American educators to give serious attention to the issue of what constituted a college. In 1902, John D. Rockefeller set up the General Education Board. Besides making its grants contingent upon an institution’s raising a certain proportion of matching funds, it established standards that colleges needed to meet even to be eligible for consideration. In 1914, it justified its policy by stating, “The states have not generally shown themselves competent to deal with higher education on a nonpartisan, impersonal, and comprehensive basis. Rival religious bodies have invaded fields fully . . . occupied already; misguided individuals have founded a new college instead of strengthening an old one.”5

These efforts were reinforced by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which from its founding in 1906 focused attention on the quality of programs offered in higher education. Nowhere did it manifest concern more directly than in its plan to establish a system that would assure every American college professor a reasonable pension. It was an ambitious undertaking, and to make it manageable the Carnegie Foundation had to define what it meant by a college. It eliminated technical institutes, tax-supported universities and colleges, and denominational institutions, the latter two on the grounds that states and churches could well provide pensions for their faculties as they did for other professionals on their staffs. For the remaining institutions, Carnegie set specific standards based on admissions requirements; staffing; endowment; and, in curriculum, “a course of four full years in liberal arts and sciences.”6

The actual state of affairs can perhaps best be understood from the words of a concerned college president of those times: “There are in the United States about 1,000 institutions calling themselves universities or colleges. Many of these are trifling affairs with no serious claim to either title. . . . The lack of significance of the term College or University is shown by the fact that a number of ‘universities’ have been transferred to the list of secondary schools.”7

Robert L. Kelly summed up the situation in a memoir for the thirty-fifth anniversary of AAC: “More than a third of a century ago, the colleges of the United States were under fire from without. Many of them were [also] estranged one from the other, one group from another group; not a few colleges maintained a proud isolation. Many were weak in personal and material resources, doubtful and timid at heart, lacking definite objectives, limited by the comparatively low horizons of tradition. . . .”8

AAC’S early years

Facing such conditions, a small group of college presidents met at the invitation of the Council of Church Boards of Education in July 1914 in St. Paul, Minnesota, to consider what might “turn a dire threat into a challenge.” In line with proposals that originated with the Council’s Standing Committee on Relations with Other Bodies, they decided that the time had come to found an association of colleges—national in scope—and framed a tentative constitution for it. To enlist the support and membership of others and secure ratification of their plans, they joined the Council of Church Boards in issuing a call for representatives of other institutions to meet with them at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago in January 1915.9

Responding to their invitation, 150 college presidents convened in a joint session with the Council of Church Boards on Thursday, January 14, 1915. Robert Kelly, president of Earlham College and vice president of the Council of Church Boards of Education, had been the chief moving spirit as chair of the convening committee, and he presided. After this session, devoted to “The Moral and Religious Phases of Education,” the assembled college presidents met for two more days in which they adopted measures that endorsed the steps taken in St. Paul to found the Association of American Colleges and completed its formal organization.

On Friday, January 15, a Committee on Temporary Organization nominated a slate of officers headed by Kelly. All were duly elected. Later that day, the committee presented a draft constitution that was discussed and adopted by the assembled delegates. This document specified the official name of the organization to be “Association of American Colleges.” To be eligible for membership, institutions had to require fourteen Carnegie units for admission into the freshman class and the completion of 120 semester hours of coursework for graduation.10

The association’s purpose was “the consideration of questions relating to the promotion of higher education in all its forms, in the independent and denominational colleges in the United States . . . and the discussion and prosecution of such questions and plans as may tend to make more efficient the institutions included in the membership. . . .”11

Although the Council of Church Boards convened the group that founded AAC and for several years the annual meetings of both organizations were held at the same times and places with provision for at least one joint session, AAC was from the beginning composed of colleges and universities from all sectors of higher education, including the public or tax-supported.12 And even though the new association was sensitive to the religious concerns of denominational institutions, it was careful to distinguish between their special interests and its own. Thus the Executive Committee in March 1915 adopted a “Minute of Interpretation” to explain that an ambiguous action taken at the first annual meeting did not make a “Campaign in the Interest of Christian Education” an AAC program but only implied a “sympathetic attitude on the part of the Association.” To emphasize AAC’s nonsectarian policy, the executive committee then passed a motion on membership and activities stating that “‘inclusiveness and inter-helpfulness [sic] rather than exclusiveness’ be regarded and announced as the policy of the Association.”13 Thirty-five years later, Kelly summed up the significance of such beginnings: “Face to face, the Protestant Colleges, the Catholic Colleges, the independent colleges, and the tax-supported colleges . . . banded themselves together to attain peace through a policy of inclusiveness and interhelpfulness.”14

It took two or three years for AAC to develop the administrative structure that would serve it effectively. For three years, its officers—except for Secretary-Treasurer R. Watson Cooper, president of Upper Iowa University—were elected annually and served only one year. Its founding president, Robert L. Kelly, was elected to the Executive Committee after his tenure as president ended and thus was available to counsel his successors. When he left Earlham in 1917 to become executive secretary of the Council of Church Boards of Education, he apparently found that his position did not demand all his time and energy and, therefore, that he also could serve AAC without slighting either organization. In any event, when the Executive Committee decided to have a permanent officer, it recommended to the membership the establishment of the office of permanent executive secretary and the appointment of Kelly to it. This arrangement was approved at the 1918 annual meeting, and Kelly faithfully served AAC until his retirement in 1937.15

With the appointment of Kelly, AAC got a fixed home as well as a permanent chief executive officer. From 1918 to mid-1920, its headquarters were at 19 South La Salle Street in Chicago. In 1920, both the Council of Church Boards of Education and AAC moved to New York City, where they shared offices until 1935. In 1948, AAC moved its headquarters to 926 Jackson Place, NW, Washington, DC, in Lafayette Square. When the Executive Office of the President of the United States preempted that space in 1957, AAC bought the mansion at 1818 R Street, NW, from the estate of Senator Hiram Bingham and made its final move in 1958.16

Setting the course

The dual goals of AAC’s initial projects are still guides for its activities. The first is to assist members in efforts to upgrade and strengthen themselves as effective institutions of higher education; the second is to encourage and promote liberal education as the basis for sound undergraduate programs.

During AAC’s first three years, a session at each annual meeting was devoted to critiquing a study on “the efficient college.”17 At the same time the question of what constituted a proper and responsible financial report was being examined. Besides such major projects, annual meetings usually included at least one session on topics such as “The Best Manner in which an Executive of a College Can Employ Time” and “Cooperative Purchasing for Colleges.”

Gradually, however, more and more attention was given to the goals and purposes of colleges and to the curriculum by which they were to be attained. The second annual meeting had a session on “Relation of the College Course to Vocational Training.” The presidential address at the third annual meeting was “What a College Stands For,” and a major program at the 1918 annual meeting focused on “Prospects of Liberal Education in America after the War.” That AAC’s interest in the curriculum centered on liberal education became clear and distinct in 1923, when the ninth annual meeting voted to admit new members and amended the original motion to read “‘College of Liberal Arts of’ in the case of universities or other institutions having several departments [schools].”18

For the first several years, AAC operated largely through either ad hoc or standing committees but occasionally used commissions. By 1921, however, it adopted the policy, to which it adhered for nearly fifty-five years, of charging permanent commissions with issues and concerns and giving them the responsibility of deliberating on and making recommendations about both short- and long-range implications of such matters. In line with this policy, AAC then established eight commissions—on college architecture, organization of college curriculum, distribution of colleges, faculty and student scholarship, objectives and ideals, sabbatical leave, academic freedom, and publications.19 Over the next fifty-five years, this list would change in light of changing needs and circumstances. What never changed, however, was AAC’s dedication to liberal education and the strength and effectiveness of the institutions that provided it.

Cooperation with other associations

From the first, AAC cooperated with other agencies in facing some of the pressures on higher education. In 1915, for instance, AAC joined with the Council of Church Boards to study “the efficient college.” At the same time, AAC also appointed a member-president to work with representatives of ten other associations as a joint committee on the classification and standardization of American colleges.20

At the request of the Association of American Universities, AAC’s 1918 annual meeting named a person to discuss with delegates from other associations how “better to organize the colleges and universities . . . for service to the government.”21 The upshot was the formation of an emergency council that worked so effectively to coordinate the activities and interests of the groups it represented that in 1919 it was established permanently as the American Council on Education. AAC was a charter member of that new coalition and had the right to elect three delegates to serve on it.22

A list of other joint efforts, not exhaustive but long enough to illustrate the breadth of AAC’s cooperation with other organizations, includes

  • consultations with the Association of American University Professors on issues of academic freedom and faculty tenure;
  • work with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching on possible revisions in the pension system funded by that body;
  • deliberations with the Committee on Education of the American Institute of Architects on the value of art and architecture as subjects to be introduced into the college curriculum;
  • membership in the National Conference Committee on Standards of Colleges and Secondary Schools.

Highlights of AAC’s contributions

To sketch AAC’s history would require a small book of several chapters. Reciting a few accomplishments, however, will exemplify its distinctive contributions to American higher education.

AAC’s early concern about academic freedom and faculty tenure as matters that affect the quality of a college led the organization to enter into a joint venture with the American Association of University Professors, founded in 1915, to endorse and promulgate the “Conference Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure” of 1925. Again and again since then, AAC and AAUP have joined in similar projects; in this way, AAC has taken the lead among institutionally based associations in developing and promulgating advisory statements to assist colleges and universities in evolving their faculty personnel policies. In 1940, representatives of AAC and AAUP, culminating six years of multilateral conferences, agreed upon a new and more comprehensive “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” that was endorsed and promulgated by the 1941 annual meeting. In 1979 and again in 1988, confronted by changed conditions because of new laws on mandatory retirement, the two associations revised their joint “1958 Statement of Principles on Academic Retirement and Insurance Programs.”23

Characteristic of AAC is its readiness to recognize and acknowledge that some activity for which it once may have sensed a need either might not be compatible with its long-term goals or might better be carried out by other agencies. In 1949, AAC established a Commission on Colleges and Industry to work with member institutions in developing strategies for colleges to use jointly in appealing to corporate donors for operating funds. Experience soon showed that while such activities were worthwhile, they could be seen as competing with those of member institutions and diverting the energy and talent of AAC officers from projects that were more compatible with the association’s mission.

About the same time, furthermore, it became apparent that a new specialized agency might well be more effective in coordinating the activities of state fundraising coalitions that were being created. As a consequence, in 1958 AAC joined with the emerging state associations of independent colleges to found the Independent College Funds of America, which for the last thirty years has been instrumental in raising general operating funds for independent colleges and universities from American business and industry.24

Similarly, in the 1960s and 1970s, AAC gradually assumed more and more responsibility to represent—lobby for—independent colleges and universities in Congress and among federal agencies. In 1970, after “numerous meetings,” AAC’s Board of Directors and the board of the Federation of State Associations of Independent Colleges and Universities agreed that the federation be reorganized as the National Council of Independent Colleges and Universities, with a membership inclusive of all private college members of AAC, and that an enlarged staff be housed at AAC’s headquarters and work “under the administrative supervision of the President of the Association.”25

This arrangement soon caused serious problems within AAC. Public, tax-supported members, who constituted at least one-sixth of the membership, questioned whether their dues were being used properly. To them, AAC was becoming too closely identified with an agency that many times had opposed their position on issues before Congress or federal agencies. AAC members in the independent sector were not fully satisfied either, because they did not believe their case was being presented to federal officials as effectively as it could be.

Both sides, moreover, were fearful that in the face of rising challenges to liberal education such as declining enrollments in liberal arts courses and an increase in bachelor’s degrees in professional fields AAC needed to concentrate its resources on its basic mission. Acting at the sixty-second annual meeting in 1976 on recommendations of a blue-ribbon committee that had been working for more than a year, the association voted to divest itself of any connection with federal relations for solely private or independent institutions; to rededicate itself to its mission of being the “voice for liberal learning” in the United States; and, at considerable sacrifice in dues income for a year and with the possibility of a decline in membership thereafter, to assist in establishing the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.26

This decision at the time raised serious questions about whether AAC could remain a viable organization. Indeed, though it brought several years of grave financial stress that necessitated major restructuring of the operations of AAC, in the long run the decision has well served all of higher education by reinvigorating concern for and attention to the basic purposes for which colleges and universities exist.

Throughout this period of sturm und drang, AAC found and received, as it had from its earliest days, strong support from major philanthropic foundations. In particular, the Ford Foundation, the EXXON Education Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation showed confidence in the future of AAC and endorsed the value of its mission by making generous grants to support its projects, both old and new.

Noteworthy among the post-World War II programs that AAC had pioneered and succeeded in retaining during the years of stress and transition is the Project on the Status and Education of Women (PSEW). First among the programs of Washington-based associations aimed at overcoming gender stereotypes and discrimination based on sex, PSEW is no longer dependent solely on funding by foundations and is now incorporated fiscally in the basic operations of AAC.

The most telling sign that AAC continued to play a major role in American higher education after 1976 was the Project on Redefining the Meaning and Purpose of Baccalaureate Degrees. The project was begun in 1982 and financed by a major grant from the Pew Memorial Trust, with supplemental funding from the EXXON Education Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Johnson Foundation, and the Buhl Foundation. After three years of work, a select committee produced the influential report Integrity in the College Curriculum: A Report to the Academic Community. This was released at AAC’s annual meeting in 1985 and immediately became a best-seller that continues to influence academic planning and programs on campuses across the nation.

The center holds

In 1914, American colleges were besieged from without by intellectual and institutional developments that challenged their raison d’être and from within by self-doubts and fear. All came to bear on the issue of their mission in undergraduate education. In 1989, American colleges and universities continue to face critical problems. Although undergraduate programs and baccalaureate degrees are far more diverse than they were seventy-five years ago, the basic questions about the fundamental purposes of college education still remain. The Association of American Colleges came into being to provide a means for the besieged colleges to help themselves by taking counsel together about first things. The center holds. Despite the vicissitudes of time and circumstance, AAC still exists to keep colleges and universities at the end of the twentieth century mindful of first things. Its programs and projects are designed to help members incorporate liberal learning in all baccalaureate programs so that college students today, no matter what their field, can graduate with what Milton would call a “‘compleat’ and generous education”—one that fits them to perform duties both public and private and to live life to the full. n

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.

Notes

1. Quoted in Frederick Rudolph, The American University: A History (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 252.

2. Ibid., 443.

3. National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 1982 (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, 1982), 105.

4. In 1911 when the US Bureau of Education, following the practice of the leading universities, prepared a list of colleges classified in four groups—of which the highest was those whose graduates could earn a master’s degree in one year. A leak of this list before publication raised such a protest that President Taft suppressed it. See Frederick Rudolph, Curriculum: A History of the American Undergraduate Course of Study since 1636 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1978), 220–21.

5. Ibid., 224.

6. Ibid., 221–22.

7. Isaac Sharpless, The American College (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page, & Co., 1915), 175. Isaac Sharpless was president of Haverford College.

8. Robert L. Kelly to Kenneth I. Brown, November 16, 1948.

9. Ibid. Cf. Council of Church Boards of Education, Third Annual Report, 14–15. The members of the committee were Robert L. Kelly, chairman; R. Watson Cooper, president, Upper Iowa University; Hill M. Bell, president, Drake University; George R. Fellows, president, James Millikin University; John S. Nollen, president, Lake Forest College; H. D. Hoover, president, Carthage College; Thomas H. McMichael, president, Monmouth College; J. H. T. Main, president, Grinnell College; Rush Rhees, president, University of Rochester; F. W. Hinitt, president, Washington and Jefferson College.

10. A “Carnegie unit” was defined as a course that required five recitations a week throughout the high school year.

11. Minutes of the First Annual Meeting (Fayette, Iowa: AAC, 1915), 6–9. Although AAC received its constitution in 1915, it was not incorporated until 1938. In January of that year, the beginning of Guy Snavely’s second year as chief executive officer, he and the directors of AAC, namely, James L. McConaughy of Wesleyan University, John L. Seaton of Albion College, LeRoy E. Kimball of New York University, Remsen D. Bird of Occidental College, Mildred H. McAfee of Wellesley College, Edward V. Stanford of Villanova, and Raymond Walters of the University of Cincinnati, signed a petition to the Regents of the University of the State of New York for incorporation. It was granted on March 23, 1938. A matter of at least passing interest to some members is that James L. McConaughy is one of the few directors of AAC who later became the governor of a state—Connecticut.

12. The University of Chattanooga was among the original members; within a year, the Municipal University of Akron and the University of Cincinnati had joined. Minutes of the First Annual Meeting, 19; and Minutes of the Second Annual Meeting (Fayette, Iowa: AAC, 1916), 15–16. In the first ten years, representatives of Pennsylvania State College and the University of Michigan served as chairs of AAC commissions.

13. “Excerpts from Minutes of Executive Committee,” Minutes of the First Annual Meeting, 14.

14. Robert L. Kelly to Kenneth I. Brown November 16, 1948.

15. Minutes of the Fourth Annual Meeting (Chicago: AAC, 1918), 9. Kelly acted as executive secretary for both agencies for seventeen years. He left his position at the Church Board in 1935. His successors at AAC have been Guy E. Snavely (1937–54), for whom the title was changed to executive director in 1938; Theodore A. Distler (1954–65), who was the first permanent executive of the association to be called “president,” a title he received in 1964; Carter Davidson (1965), who died after only nine months in office; Richard Sullivan (1965–69); Frederic W. Ness (1969–78); Mark H. Curtis (1978–85); and the present incumbent, John W. Chandler (1985–).

16. Minutes of the Third Annual Meeting (Chicago: AAC, 1918); Bulletin (Chicago: AAC, 1920); Bulletin (Washington, DC: AAC, 1948); and Bulletin (Washington, DC: AAC, 1958).

17. Minutes of the First Annual Meeting, 112; Minutes of the Second Annual Meeting, 11–12; and Minutes of the Third Annual Meeting, 6.

18. Minutes of the Ninth Annual Meeting (New York: AAC, 1923), 12. This phrase was later interpreted by the Executive Committee to apply to institutions belonging to the Association of American Universities, the National Association of State Universities, the Association of Land Grant Colleges, and the Association of Urban Universities. In order to clear up confusion on this matter that had been allowed to develop inadvertently, the committee also recommended that this rule be applied to all “member-institutions having several departments [schools].” See Minutes of the Tenth Annual Meeting (New York: AAC, 1924), 8.

19. Minutes of the Seventh Annual Meeting (New York: AAC, 1921), 3–4 and 10–11.

20. Minutes of the First Annual Meeting, 11; Minutes of the Second Annual Meeting, 3.

21. Minutes of the Fourth Annual Meeting, 5–6 and 11.

22. Minutes of the Fifth Annual Meeting (Chicago: AAC, 1919), 6–8 and 10–12.

23. For another perspective on relations of AAUP and AAC, which were antagonistic until after the First World War, see Walter P. Metzger, Academic Freedom in the Age of the University (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), 206–16.

24. Bulletin XXXV (Washington, DC: AAC, 1949), 132–33; Bulletin XLV (Washington, DC: AAC, 1959), 83–4.

25. Bulletin LVII (Washington, DC: AAC, 1971), 34–5.

26. Bulletin LXII (Washington, DC: AAC, 1976), 320–24.


Mark H. Curtis was president of the Association of American Colleges from 1975 to 1985. This article is reprinted from Enhancing, Promoting, Extending Liberal Education: Association of American Colleges at Seventy-Five (Washington, DC: AAC, 1988).

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