Carnegie Mellon University

Academic Labor in an Age of Change: Criticism of the U.S. University, 1890-1930

Author: Heather Steffen

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2015

The decades between 1890 and 1930 witnessed the emergence of the modern American university out of the college system and brought changes in how institutions were run, who was running them, and what was taught. The transition was not a smooth one, and the newborn university was rife with conflicts about its mission, organization, and labor and educational conditions. Early-twentieth-century faculty encountered struggles much like our own: a contingent, untenurable workforce; limited academic freedom; tense faculty-administration relations; encroaching corporate ties; and uneven professionalization. Previous scholars have examined these structural changes, but the ways professors, students, and lay stakeholders experienced them are a footnote in most studies. Drawing on a diverse archive of primary materials—critical studies by Upton Sinclair, Thorstein Veblen, and James McKeen Cattell; academic novels; essays in popular and scholarly magazines; pamphlets; lectures; biographies and autobiographies; statistical surveys; and budgets—this dissertation demonstrates that our foundational ideas about academic labor, the American university, and the production of knowledge were created, circulated, and naturalized in the early-twentieth century. I show that uneven professionalization, intense stratification, and disagreement about the status of academic labor presented the greatest obstacles to the emergent academic labor movement and university reform.

But in the face of these challenges, critics also created narratives of the university and conceptions of intellectual labor that continue to inspire movements for progress in higher education. Because university criticism flourishes today, the questions at the heart of this project are of enduring importance: What is the purpose of the American university? Can the utopian, democratic potential of higher education be salvaged from service to capitalism? How might we imagine academic labor and the scholar-teacher’s status in such a way that we build solidarity with fellow workers rather than undermine it? My project shows that twenty-first-century scholars are not the first to be confronted with seemingly-overwhelming challenges and that the conditions academic workers enjoyed at mid-century did not emerge organically. They had to be fought for and won, and they require continual defense.