In the popular imagination, colleges and universities enjoyed unquestioned authority in deciding access to education and student discipline before the social upheaval of the second half of the 20th century.
In reality, that power has always been a source of controversy. A new book by Wheaton College Associate Professor of Education Scott Gelber, Courtrooms and Classrooms: A legal history of college access from 1860 to 1960, reveals that admission decisions and student expulsions have been a consistent subject for lawsuits and legal opinions.
Inside Higher Ed, a national digital publication covering higher education, recently spotlighted Professor Gelber’s book, which was published in December by the Johns Hopkins University Press. The education professor, who also holds a courtesy appointment as a member of the history faculty at Wheaton, received a grant from the National Academy of Education to support his research for the book.
Inside Higher Ed's editor and co-founder Scott Jaschik asked whether we might be entering a period in which courts will intensify their scrutiny of college’s decisions. Professor Gelber’s answer may be reassuring for college faculty members, who are responsible for designing curriculum.
There may be some intensification of judicial oversight, but the overall pattern seems to have remained consistent for a few decades—judges are comfortable challenging colleges on procedural matters (how sexual assault cases are adjudicated or whether preferential admissions policies are too mechanical) but they remain fairly deferential when it comes to substantive academic matters.
A former New York City high school teacher, Gelber studies the external public pressures that have influenced the development of American institutions of higher education. His first book, The University and the People: Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest (University of Wisconsin Press, 2011), revised the conventional account of Populist critics of state universities during the late 19th century. The book arose from Gelber’s Ph.D. dissertation, which won the History of Education Society’s Claude Eggertsen Dissertation Prize.