Courtrooms and Classrooms: The Legal History of College Access, 1860-1960
Scott Gelber

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Wheaton College (Massachusetts)

Primary Discipline

This project challenges conventional assumptions about the legal history of “academic deference” by demonstrating that judicial oversight of college access was not only more common than previously indicated but also inextricably linked to subsequent expansions of student rights. Although American judges almost always ruled in favor of colleges in suits related to property, employment, and personal injury, courts frequently limited institutional authority when adjudicating admissions, tuition, and expulsion cases. Courts routinely entertained these challenges to academic autonomy during the nineteenth century, and only deferred consistently to college administrators during a brief period after colleges gained full-fledged status as “higher” institutions and before the legal campaigns of the civil rights movement. The first comprehensive study of the formative era of college access law, this project examines the competing rationales for higher education (the welfare of the public, the opportunity of the student, the expertise of the professor) that fueled or constrained academic deference. Secondarily, this project reveals how external phenomenon, especially institutional status and political movements, influenced the shifting jurisprudence of higher education. Finally, and more tentatively, the project explores the impact of litigation on actual college access policies. This book-length research project indicates that twenty-first century debates over college access law rest upon a history of contention rather than upon doctrinal bedrock. This finding contributes to a larger scholarly conversation about the extent to which American higher education operates (or should operate) independent of the courts and other political institutions. In particular, this project seeks to enrich recent commentary regarding the “privatization” of American higher education by demonstrating that the legal privileges granted to colleges were traditionally contingent on their perceived service to the public interest.
About Scott Gelber
Scott Gelber is an assistant professor of education and assistant professor of history (by courtesy) at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. His first book, The University and the People: Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Revolt (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), examines the surprising extent of Populist support for academic freedom, the liberal arts, and state appropriations during the late nineteenth century. Ultimately, The University and the People argues that the core principles of public higher education evolved out of a taut relationship between grassroots activism and professorial expertise. The book was supported by fellowships from the Spencer Foundation and the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History. In 2012, it won the Linda Eisenmann Prize of the History of Education Society. His current book project explores the legal history of college access. A former New York City public school teacher, Professor Gelber coordinates Wheaton’s secondary education program and offers courses in secondary school instructional methods as well as the history, politics, and philosophy of education. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Harvard University.

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