Ethan W. Ris, "Other People's Colleges: The Origins of American Higher Education Reform" (U Chicago Press, 2022)


For well over one hundred years, people have been attempting to make American colleges and universities more efficient and more accountable. Indeed, Ethan Ris argues in Other People's Colleges: The Origins of American Higher Education Reform (U Chicago Press, 2022), the reform impulse is baked into American higher education, the result of generations of elite reformers who have called for sweeping changes in the sector and raised existential questions about its sustainability. When that reform is beneficial, offering major rewards for minor changes, colleges and universities know how to assimilate it. When it is hostile, attacking autonomy or values, they know how to resist it. The result is a sector that has learned to accept top-down reform as part of its existence.

In the early twentieth century, the “academic engineers,” a cadre of elite, external reformers from foundations, businesses, and government, worked to reshape and reorganize the vast base of the higher education pyramid. Their reform efforts were largely directed at the lower tiers of higher education, but those efforts fell short, despite the wealth and power of their backers, leaving a legacy of successful resistance that affects every college and university in the United States. Today, another coalition of business leaders, philanthropists, and politicians is again demanding efficiency, accountability, and utility from American higher education. But, as Ris argues, top-down design is not destiny. Drawing on extensive and original archival research, Other People’s Colleges offers an account of higher education that sheds light on today’s reform agenda.

Joao Souto-Maior is PhD Student in Sociology of Education at the New York University.

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Joao Souto-Maior

Joao Souto-Maior is a postdoc at the New York University’s Institute of Human Development and Social Change.

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