Failure of the National University Idea

I recently guest lectured in a higher education course on institutional diversity and how the American system came to exhibit such an array of institutional types.  I noted that I thought the national university idea was one of the more important “non-events” in the history of higher education.  In many ways, the lack of a federal university is one of the most under appreciated concepts in our history.

In today’s post, I want to share an excerpt from my monograph, Understanding Institutional Diversity in American Higher Education.  In this section, I describe the history of the federal university idea and how it ultimately failed.

Prior to the spirited debate over the creation of a national university in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, a number of distinguished American leaders, philanthropists, and educators supported the establishment of a national institution to be located in the capital city. Although subtle changes occurred to the various proposals for the creation of a national university, several core elements existed.

Most proponents conceived a graduate university leaving undergraduate education to the existing colleges located throughout the country. Conducting scientific research was considered a principal function along with the selection of high-quality faculty across a number of disciplinary emphases. The proposals suggested locating the university in the new capital city in order to facilitate working with federal agencies. Furthermore, the national university would provide well-trained civil servants to staff the federal bureaucracy and encourage a unifying educational experience to bring the country together.

Prominent doctor and Revolutionary War leader Benjamin Rush made the first significant proposal for creating a federal university. He received a medical education from the University of Edinburgh, served as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a member of the Continental Congress, and following the war assisted with the founding of Dickinson College. As a leading patriot, Rush believed in the notion of American greatness and that “if its destiny was fully to be realized, the youth of the new nation would have to be taught republican duties and principles” (Madsen, 1966, p. 17).

In his ideas for education in the new country, Rush’s philosophy focused on the twin pillars of usefulness and patriotism. In the pursuit of these two goals, he advocated for education’s potential to “convert men into Republican machines” (Rush, 1947, p. 92) and even suggested after a period of time, to get the federal university operational, the requirement that all federal office- holders must graduate from the national university.

Rush served as a prominent early proponent of the national university idea; however, he was by no means alone among the founding fathers. At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison listed the creation of a national university as one of the nine specific powers to be granted to Congress. As the Convention came to a close, the establishment of a university was still not included in the Constitution draft.

Madison, along with Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, again sought to provide Congress with the authority to “establish a university which no preferences or distinction should be allowed on account of religion” (Hunt, 1903, p. 454). The vote failed with four states favoring the motion; six opposed; and one with its two delegates split. The majority not only voted against creating the institution, but many believed in the argument that specifically enumerating that Congress had the power to create a university was unnecessary and superfluous.

Many of the delegates were reluctant to put forward a document for ratification with an extensive list of enumerated congressional powers. The delegates sought to avoid creating this list, preferring instead the general welfare clause that gave Congress unspecified powers of legislation, which presumably included the creation of a university. With the significant opposition to ratification of the Constitution following the convention, the Bill of Rights was added including the 10th Amendment, which reserved all powers to the states not already allocated to the federal government.

By not specifically granting the power to create the federal university to Congress, strict constructionists argued for the first half of the 19th century that Congress had no role in postsecondary policymaking. Even James Madison later in his life argued that the creation of a national university would be possible only through constitutional amendment (Madsen, 1966).

Despite the failure of the national university idea during the debates of the Constitutional Convention, the first four presidents of the United States all advocated for its creation. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all believed in the necessity of a federal institution to provide research instruction to benefit the federal government. A general uneasiness along with the practical consideration of continuing to send a significant number of the nation’s youth abroad to Europe to attend higher education existed during this time.

Perhaps most significantly, proponents viewed a federal university as a vehicle for deterring sectionalism and promoting national unity. In his last message to Congress, President Washington made his strongest appeal for the creation of a national university to diminish the increased sectionalism that would ultimately drive the country toward civil war:

Our Country, much to its honor, contains many Seminaries of learn- ing highly respectable and useful; but the funds upon which they rest, are too narrow, to command the ablest Professors, in the different departments of liberal knowledge, for the Institution contemplated, though they would be excellent auxiliaries. Amongst the motives to such an Institution, the assimilation of the principles, opinions, and manners of our Country men, but the common education of a portion of our Youth from every quarter, well deserves attention. The more homogenous our Citizens can be made in these particulars, the greater will be our prospect of permanent Union; and a primary object of such a National Institution should be the education of our Youth in the science of Government. (Washington, 1796)

In the end, Washington and the other proponents of the national university were unable to find sufficient backing for the idea.

A vote in the U.S. House of Representatives proved the closest the federal university idea would come to fruition (Thelin, 2004). Each of the various proposals to create this institution faced three primary obstacles even among the ardent advocates. These issues centered on the primary mission of the institution, the source of financial support, and the governance and control of the institution (Madsen, 1966). The lack of consensus around these issues was sufficient to result in the failure of the idea in both Congress and the national consciousness.

One may question the significance of discussing an idea that, despite prominent supporters, never came particularly close to implementation. However, a comparison to other countries demonstrates the significance of the American system not possessing a strong federal university. The absence of a federal university encouraged institution building and developed a higher level of institutional diversity within American higher education. Additionally, the limited role and involvement of the federal government enabled institutions to follow more heterogeneous paths.