Conceptualizing the Modern American Public University: Early Debates Over Utilitarianism, Autonomy, and Admissions by John Aubrey Douglass, CSHE 8.21 (July 2021)


In the discourse that swirled in the mid-1800s around the creation of new American public universities, three major and interrelated tensions became evident: the first related to the continued debate regarding the proper curricular balance between practical education and classical studies; the second focused on the appropriate autonomy of institutions intended to serve the public interest in a society often racked by sectarian and class conflict; and the third centered on the degree to which these public institutions should be selective in their admissions and representative of the state’s population. Reflecting the diversity of cultural and political differences of the states, a variety of organizational approaches could be found in mid-century America. However, by the 1870s, a distinct path did emerge, influenced by the passage of the Land-Grant College Act of 1862. The act forced states to more actively define the character of their state education systems and the purpose of their public universities. The origins and early development of a state university in Michigan offers an informative window into each of these tensions. The responses offered by Michigan significantly influenced the rise of the American public university, and the character of its social responsibilities.

Publication date: 
July 1, 2021
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)