Liberal Education

"Making Better Colleges": AAC's Century of Change and Commitment

When 150 college executives gathered in Chicago in 1915 to create the Association of American Colleges (AAC),1 they chose inclusiveness and interhelpfulness as twin themes to animate their organization. These ideas made a sensible clarion call for small colleges in the early twentieth century: universities were in ascendance, growing in size and curriculum, privileging science and research, 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. Although most of the members were small private colleges with religious bases, the founding group also welcomed a municipal university, several polytechnic institutes, and a number of publicly supported schools. Interhelpfulness was the key, as these institutions struggled to define and reassert their importance in the changing landscape and to share ideas about effective practice.

The twin ideals have guided AAC throughout its history, even when more trendy educational notions took turns at popularity. This article examines four moments during AAC’s first hundred years, showing how the themes sometimes worked well in tandem, and at other times surfaced tension. The founding years saw both ideals serving members well, allowing the new organization to thrive. Within a few years, AAC’s inclusiveness had made it an appealing partner, leading to joint efforts with the American Association of University Professors in 1925 and again in 1940 to define academic freedom and tenure for the country’s faculty. Interhelpfulness dominated AAC’s agenda after World War II, when the federal role in higher education was poised to change; here, however, AAC began to find inclusiveness at odds with a single position on the desirability of federal aid. Although the organization managed those differences, the issue rose again during the 1970s when federal lobbying became key to success. At that point, the organization redefined inclusiveness as commitment to liberal education rather than institutional type. Thus, when the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities branched out from AAC in 1976, AAC rededicated itself to the principles of liberal education, eventually changing its own name to openly claim the universities that had long sought partnership around educational goals.

The founding years

Although the founding members of AAC claimed the new organization was not “an implement of defense,” they nonetheless acknowledged that, in the opening decades of the twentieth century, small colleges were “being attacked savagely enough.” Robert L. Kelly, the Earlham College president who became AAC’s first executive director (1915–37), identified those attackers at the second annual meeting in 1916:

The high school is becoming supremely conscious of itself and in places it would encroach upon the field of the college from below. The University in like manner would reach down from above and appropriate some of the territory of the college. . . . The tax-supported institutions would sap its vitality by demonstrating the complete ability of the state to educate all the children from the kindergarten to the Doctor’s degree and for the needlessness therefore of the independent foundations. A certain type of business man would point out the futility of college education as judged by the helpfulness of the college product. The vocational expert would storm the centres of American culture with a pitchfork and a monkey-wrench. And worse than all this, certain builders of educational systems would actually ignore the college and go on about their business as though the college did not exist.2

The early-twentieth century was a moment of increasing differentiation for higher education, and its diverse members began to form associations for support and impact. Only forty-three higher education groups were formed in the century between 1800 and 1900, yet seventy were created between just 1900 and 1919.3 Land-grant institutions, public universities, and large universities all had separate groups. When fourteen prominent associations banded together as a wartime emergency council in World War I, the American Council on Education (ACE) was created in 1918 to give order to their efforts.

With its principle of inclusiveness, AAC became the biggest of the higher education groups, counting 190 members in 1916. The core membership was a large group of religious institutions that for many years had gathered as the Christian Colleges Boards of Education (CCBE). In the nineteenth century, religion—specifically, Christianity—was part and parcel of collegiate education. Only with the rise of science and research did religious education become more a subject for collegiate study than an enlivening pedagogical force. Over time, small colleges and religious institutions continued to comfortably identify liberal education with religious education, while the universities increasingly distanced themselves.4 Thus, AAC’s early inclusiveness presumed comfort with religious education as an aspect of classical, liberal training; early on, a third of AAC’s annual meetings featured sessions on religion.5 Some larger schools teaching professional subjects joined AAC to foster liberal education in their undergraduate programs.

Interhelpfulness was a serious commitment for the organization. As Executive Director Kelly explained, AAC’s goals were “learning the truth about the colleges, telling the truth about the colleges, making better colleges.”6 To do so, AAC organized via committees and commissions (the latter featuring larger topics and longer lives) and conducted surveys, summarized significant legislation, advised about collective purchasing, reviewed curricular approaches, explored faculty sabbaticals and hiring, examined campus athletics, and advised the government on classification systems. In early meetings, AAC discussed “the efficient college,” outlining the curriculum, faculty, student body, budget, plant, equipment, and endowment necessary to support colleges at the minimum, the average, and—ideally—the efficient levels.7

All these efforts guided the small colleges at a time when mutual support was vital and information was necessary. The annual meeting intentionally became “the great rallying point for the college officers of the country,” consciously planned by AAC as its “leading implement of inspiration.”8 The quarterly Bulletin expanded from an early focus on organizational reporting to a generalist’s magazine on college issues that “has attempted to present a vital theory of liberal education both in its editorial policy and general contents.”9

Although inclusiveness was somewhat strained by the presence of nonreligious and larger schools, and interhelpfulness was affected by those differences, AAC’s early years nevertheless provided real sustenance to college leaders who otherwise were seeing their institutions dwarfed by growing neighbors.

A desirable partner

One place where all institutions shared the need for interhelpfulness was in managing faculty, from initial appointments and long-term contracts to shared governance and disciplinary actions. In the early-twentieth century, faculty found little consistency or security in either the length of appointments or the conditions under which they could be terminated. Even by the 1930s, many full professors rarely had contracts beyond one year, and few schools included a faculty role in dismissal procedures.10 The protections of tenure did not yet widely exist, and in a national context that saw periodic challenges of war, communism, labor unrest, and strident nationalism, professors could find their scholarly writing, classroom teaching, and extramural speech questioned.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) was founded in 1915, the same year that AAC colleges banded together. Whereas AAC had an institutional perspective, the AAUP took the professorship as its focus, aiming to assert and support working conditions that would allow faculty members freedom to pursue their work while retaining the flexibility of citizens to hold opinions. The AAUP was created in the wake of several cases where faculty members were dismissed over disagreements with their institutions, trustees, or the public.11

Increasingly, the AAUP was asked to support individual professors under duress, and quickly found itself overburdened with requests to investigate cases—a task not part of its original intent. Rather, the group had sought to establish principles of academic freedom and tenure, laying out its first statement in 1915. Recognizing the need for further refinement, the AAUP began to look for partners to help craft principles with wider acceptability.

ACE assumed the role of matchmaker, urging its members to partner with the AAUP on a revised statement of principles. Most higher education associations had already created committees to consider academic freedom and tenure from their particular perspectives; AAC created such a standing committee as early as its second meeting, although the committee worked only sporadically over the next several years. Since AAC members were represented by college presidents, it naturally took an institutional perspective on the professoriate, particularly seeking clarity on hiring, termination, and governance.

Perhaps surprisingly, AAC emerged as a leader in the relationship with the AAUP. As its membership expanded to include the liberal arts components of larger schools, AAC had recognized the need to consider academic freedom across a range of settings. In 1922, AAC had advanced its own statement of principles, which closely resembled that of the AAUP. The biggest differences were AAC’s enhanced flexibility for institutional religious interests and less flexibility for utterances in classroom teaching than in research.12

When ACE brought seven institutional associations together with the AAUP in 1925, the work resulted in a statement that, in many ways, laid the groundwork for the 1940 Statement of Principles that still organizes most institutions’ approaches to faculty appointments, tenure, and academic freedom.13 Even though, of the groups present, only AAC adopted the joint 1925 statement, the stage nevertheless was set for a subsequent round of discussions with the AAUP.

The 1930s were marked by widespread anticommunist activity, challenges to individual teachers, and the introduction of loyalty oaths, all prompting new interest in clarifying academic appointments. Simultaneously, new educational unions—notably, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Education Association—began to challenge the AAUP’s relationship with colleges and universities, pushing the AAUP to define itself as the higher education leader.

This era also demonstrated that earlier statements on academic freedom and appointments had not solidified colleges’ approaches. AAC’s presidents were ready to try the relationship with the AAUP again. Although the partnership was not consistently smooth, AAC had demonstrated a disposition to consider professorial concerns, while the AAUP had shown willingness to work with administrators. Working together, AAC pushed for certain considerations, notably: recognizing professors’ specialties as places where they should focus their speech; allowing extramural utterances, even while recognizing that professors have special obligations as citizens; allowing a faculty role in investigations of colleagues; and agreeing on a seven-year probationary period for hires. Ultimately, the two organizations crafted a statement in 1940 that set the terms for modern approaches to faculty hiring and protections surrounding academic freedom.14

AAC and the AAUP were the first to endorse the 1940 Statement, which little by little was adopted by many of the other organizations. The size and scope of AAC membership made it a strong and efficacious partner for the AAUP and a leader among the institutional groups. The need for interhelpfulness among its varied members had galvanized AAC’s efforts, while its commitment to inclusiveness had prompted the AAUP to seek its partnership.

Inclusiveness challenged

While AAC’s inclusiveness continued to grow over the decades, the post-World War II expansion of federal interest in higher education posed a challenge to the variegated group it had become. Since its beginning, AAC’s focus on liberal education drew diverse members beyond the original target group of small, private, religiously oriented colleges. For example, Massachusetts’s 1947 AAC membership included six small private colleges, six religious institutions, five nonsectarian women’s colleges, but also four private universities, two scientific institutes, and the state’s public flagship. Of the forty-eight states with members in AAC that year, forty included their flagship public institution.15 Such variety worked well when the institutions explored the importance of liberal education in curricula, but posed new issues when postwar higher education began to change.

Even in wartime, prescient educators began to consider the expanding federal role.16 Guy Snavely, AAC’s second executive director (1937–54), worried about federal aid as early as 1942. Formerly president of Birmingham Southern College and an active leader in Methodist education, Snavely worried that “Government control will follow Government support”; again in 1943, he argued that any support from the federal government should be temporary, related only to wartime necessity.17 Snavely fretted most that America’s dual system of higher education—public and private—was threatened by increasing government subsidy to the publics.

As the nation emerged from war, it became clear that some federal connections to higher education would remain, particularly support for science and military-related research. Similarly, the GI Bill brought federal support through individual students, transforming most American campuses; as an organization, AAC was more comfortable with such indirect aid. In one presentation, Snavely warned church-related colleges about federal support: “It is axiomatic that such assistance will involve a certain amount of Federal control. Down that path inevitably lies a totalitarian type of education and of government.”18 And again in 1950: “Regulation of schools and colleges has ever been concomitant with dictatorships.”19

Yet not all AAC members were private institutions, and the differences among them came to a head when Truman’s President’s Commission on Higher Education (PCHE) published its landmark report, Higher Education for American Democracy.20 These six volumes represented the first time a federal, let alone presidential, group had focused on higher education’s meaning and role in American life. The report raised several challenging ideas—some of which, like the growth of community colleges, came to pass, and others, like providing free public education through grade fourteen, were harder to realize. But PCHE’s heavy emphasis on supporting public institutions posed the biggest concern for AAC.

In PCHE’s urgency to expand higher education, private institutions seemed relegated to secondary status, and the small schools making up most of AAC’s membership felt further sidelined. To make matters worse, PCHE seemed to devalue both liberal education and religious education as, respectively, “aristocratic” and unnecessary.21

In the two years following PCHE’s report, the AAC meeting and Bulletin bristled with negative commentary.22 Five primary concerns emerged. First was the danger of federal aid itself, addressed by Snavely and echoed by AAC member presidents. Second was PCHE’s apparent “misconceptions” about liberal education and its value. Its eagerness to shift all higher education to the service of democracy, AAC members argued, was “unrealistic” and “betray[ed] a basic confusion upon what constitutes general and what liberal education.”23 The third concern related to selective admission, long a hallmark of small colleges. The president of Coe College cited MIT President Karl Compton’s view that “the political tendency is always toward equality of distribution,” arguing that the whole educational system would tip toward the mediocre without the small colleges serving as “counteracting agencies” that preserved standards.24

A fourth issue began to lay bare real differences within AAC. PCHE had urged public education to become “equally accessible to all, without regard to race, creed, sex, or national origin,”25 and suggested that federal legislation should limit financial support for institutions that discriminated based on race. Published seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, PCHE’s report was far ahead of judicial and social acceptance for using legislation to ensure equality. This issue prompted considerable debate at AAC’s 1948 meeting, resulting in two dissents from the president of Howard University, who urged his colleagues to be bolder in accepting the presidential commission’s broad-minded stance on discrimination. Although AAC was more progressive than most higher education associations in its welcome to historically black colleges,26 this push for federal legislation was further than many members were prepared to go.

The final concern surfaced another longstanding difference among members: commitment to religion and support for schools that practiced it. From its CCBE origins, AAC had always fostered discussion of religious education, seeing it as thoroughly compatible with liberal education. Several AAC members resented PCHE’s apparent dismissal of the importance of religion in education. Yet AAC’s own Commission on Christian Higher Education urged a more reasoned view, saying “the Report can be seen not as threat but as challenge to the churches and their colleges.” AAC schools should not oppose “the extension of educational opportunity” simply because they were not slated for public funds; rather, they should focus on “not competition but supplementation, coordination and cooperation,” putting energy into the small segment of education where they excelled.27

AAC’s organizational stance against certain PCHE recommendations—especially the role of federal aid—put it at odds with many of its own members who had already benefitted from federal largesse, and stood to gain in the future. The commitment to inclusiveness that had been so appealing to the AAUP partnership and that consistently found AAC active in Washington policy discussions was now challenging the twinned commitment to interhelpfulness: not everyone was helped by the same policies.

The commitments resolved

Much changed between higher education and the federal government over succeeding decades. As Snavely and others predicted, federal aid expanded not only through students—the GI Bill was succeeded by numerous federal programs—but also through the Higher Education Act of 1965 and other expansive efforts. Higher education associations recognized the increasing need for close attention to Washington policy and practice, and for lobbying on their own behalf.

Most of the organizations had a clear focus for their lobbying, but the challenges that inclusiveness had raised for AAC after World War II continued to confuse its clarity. Even with its large group of public institutions (about one-sixth of the membership),28 AAC continued to be conservative on federal aid.29 A meeting of more than a hundred representatives from independent colleges and organizations in 1967 to discuss the lack of a group dedicated to their concerns highlighted the issue.

As the 1960s progressed, AAC enacted its interest in advocating for the independent sector, mixed membership notwithstanding. It established a formal relationship with the Federation of State Associations of Independent Colleges and Universities (FSAICU), providing office space, staff, and funding at its Washington headquarters. Within several years—in a pattern reminiscent of AAC’s own gradual growth in and separation from CCBE—FSAICU reorganized into the National Council of Independent Colleges and Universities, still housed at AAC, under its president’s supervision, and serving all the private institutions belonging to AAC.30

At this point, the publicly-supported members of AAC voiced resentment with expending organizational funds, space, and time on a program so clearly at odds with their interests. AAC created a special commission to examine the issue, and its 1976 report clarified the decision point: AAC could either oust the independent college lobby or risk losing its public members. The decision was for the former, and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) was created as a separate organization, no longer affiliated with AAC.

The creation of NAICU clarified for AAC that its original focus on liberal education was the glue holding its membership together. AAC needed a few years to reach equanimity on this point, since the change brought both financial challenges and a crisis of confidence in AAC’s future. One long-time member recalled that many private institutions left AAC in favor of NAICU, prompting remaining members to speculate on whether AAC had a viable future.31

Ultimately, the decision allowed AAC to recommit to liberal education and return to the dual commitments of inclusiveness and interhelpfulness. Inclusion was now real: all schools with a commitment to liberal learning, regardless of their source of support, could be active AAC participants. And interhelpfulness would play out by addressing challenges to liberal education in an increasingly professionalized higher education system, regardless of the implications of federal decisions.

The themes sustained

In 1995, when AAC changed its name to AAC&U—the Association of Colleges and Universities—the shift recognized that larger institutions were an active, vital part of the organization. The change was more than corrective nomenclature, however. Large institutions—both public and private—had supported the organization from its beginning, as part of an ongoing inquiry into how higher education could sustain the values and impact of liberal learning through constant cycles of change. In 1915, it is unlikely that the organization’s founders could have foreseen the specific challenges to its goals, but they would doubtless extol the renewed engagement with liberal learning that continues to animate the association after a century of effort.


1. Because AAC&U did not add “universities” to its name until 1995, this article refers throughout to the original name, Association of American Colleges.

2. Robert L. Kelly, “The Sphere and Possibilities of the Association,” Association of American Colleges Bulletin 2, no. 3 (1916): 23.

3. Harland G. Bloland, Higher Education Associations in a Decentralized Education System (Berkeley, CA: Center for Research and Development in Higher Education, 1969), 52.

4. This shift is explored in Julie A. Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

5. Robert L. Kelly, “An Audit of Experience: A Review of the Program, Policies, and Precedents Developed During the History of the Association of American Colleges, 1915–1937” (unpublished report, AAC Archives, 1937), 9.

6. Ibid., 32.

7. See, as a specific example, Calvin H. French, “The Efficient College,” AAC Bulletin 2, no. 3 (1916): 60–85.

8. Kelly, “Audit of Experience,” 41.

9. Ibid., 38.

10. A 1932 AAUP survey found this information. See Timothy Reese Cain, Establishing Academic Freedom: Politics, Principles, and the Development of Core Values (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 158.

11. The most notable of these cases was the dismissal of Edward Ross by Stanford University, whose benefactor Mrs. Leland Stanford objected to his views on immigrant labor. But others, such as Willard Fisher from Wesleyan, John Mecklin from Lafayette, and Scott Nearing from the University of Pennsylvania, typify the issues and their results. See chapter 1 in Cain, Establishing Academic Freedom.

12. Cain, Establishing Academic Freedom, 86–7.

13. AAC’s positions, which “were at once taken as a basis for discussion,” are outlined in “Report of the Commission on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” AAC Bulletin 11, no. 3 (1925): 179–82; quotation from p. 180.

14. The story of the joint work toward the 1940 Statement, as well as its subsequent adoption by others, is in Cain, Establishing Academic Freedom, 163–69. AAC’s early efforts with the AAUP are briefly addressed by AAC’s second Executive Director, Guy E. Snavely, in The Search for Excellence: Memoirs of a College Administrator (New York: Vantage Press, 1964), p. 127 and chapter 12.

15. “Members of the Association of American Colleges,” AAC Bulletin 33, no. 1 (1947): 263–79. Of the eight where the flagship was not a member, three included a smaller public institution from that state.

16. AAC began a Commission on Colleges and Post-War Problems in 1942.

17. Snavely, The Search for Excellence, 178; AAC Bulletin 29, no. 1 (1943): 85–6. Even in his 1964 memoir, Snavely remained focused on government control. His final chapter on “Higher Education Philosophy” traces his views on federal aid from 1939 to 1954.

18. Snavely, “The Church-Related College in the Atomic Age,” AAC Bulletin 33, no. 4 (1947): 689.

19. Snavely, The Search for Excellence, 187.

20. President’s Commission on Higher Education, Higher Education for American Democracy, 6 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947).

21. Two consecutive reports from AAC’s Commission on Liberal Education cite the “aristocratic” concern: see reports by Gordon Keith Chalmers, AAC Bulletin 34, no. 1 (1948): 144; and AAC Bulletin 35, no. 1 (1949): 162.

22. One historian of the higher education associations calls AAC’s treatment of the PCHE report a “mauling.” See Hugh Hawkins, Banding Together: The Rise of National Associations in American Higher Education, 1887–1950 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 174.

23. Chalmers, “Report of Commission on Liberal Education,” AAC Bulletin 34, no. 1 (1948): 144–45.

24. Byron S. Hollinshead, “Colleges of Freedom,” AAC Bulletin 35, no. 1 (1949): 68, 62.

25. President’s Commission on Higher Education, Higher Education for American Democracy, vol. 1, Establishing the Goals (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947), 38.

26. Hawkins notes that, besides ACE, AAC was the only institutional association to include historically black colleges and universities among its membership, and that it was “special because of its inclusiveness.” He credits the 1948 debate as marking “an end to the AAC’s long indifference to racial exclusion in education.” Hawkins, Banding Together, 206, 182.

27. Goodrich C. White, “The Church-Related Colleges and the Report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education,” [submitted to the Commission on Christian Higher Education for publication in the Bulletin] AAC Bulletin 34, no. 4 (1948): 456, 460.

28. The membership estimate comes from Mark H. Curtis, Enhancing, Promoting, Extending Liberal Education: The Association of American Colleges at Seventy-Five (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges, 1985), 13.

29. AAC is called “conservative” by Harland G. Bloland in Associations in Action: The Washington, DC, Higher Education Community (Washington, DC: ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports, 1985), 64.

30. For AAC’s role in the creation of NAICU, see Curtis, Enhancing, 13–14; Bloland, Associations in Action, 63–7.

31. Personal communication with Jerry G. Gaff, AAC&U senior scholar, June 25, 2014. Gaff will explore the creation of NAICU within a consideration of faculty roles in AAC&U’s history in a forthcoming article for this centennial series.

Linda Eisenmann is professor of education, professor of history, and provost at Wheaton College (Massachusetts).

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