Researching the record

Assistant Professor Scott Gelber

A Wheaton College education professor has won a prestigious national fellowship to support research into the judicial oversight of colleges and universities during the last 150 years.

Scott Gelber, assistant professor of education, has been chosen as one of 20 scholars nationwide to be a 2013—2014 Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow.

The fellowship, which includes a $55,000 award, will support Gelber’s work in constructing an understanding of changing legal and public views on student access to higher education from legal rulings that date back to the 1860s.

Gelber said his preliminary findings indicate that “previous scholars have seriously underestimated early judicial oversight of college access” as it relates to admission, tuition and expulsions. Such insights are particularly relevant in light of recent court cases concerning the proper consideration of race, ethnicity and socioeconomic background on college admission decisions.

“Student-initiated lawsuits represent major venues for the expression of external demands upon American colleges and universities,” said Gelber, who noted that neither legal scholars nor educational historians have studied the legal rulings concerning higher education during this time period.

“Since students have sued all sorts of institutions, legal records also uncover debates that occurred beyond the elite coastal universities that have been the typical focus of historical scholarship on college access,” he said.

“Furthermore, these cases, combined with archival and secondary sources, can reveal the extent to which the law has shaped college access policies,” he said.

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 Revolt (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.

The Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship program is administered by the National Academy of Education, an honorary educational society, and it is funded by a grant from the Spencer Foundation. Now in its 27th year, the fellowship program has more than 700 alumni who include many of the strongest education researchers in the field today.