"Responsiveness" in American Higher Education: The Evolution of Institutional Governance Structures

By Jonathan W. Stoessel
2016, Vol. 8 No. 02 | pg. 2/2 |

History of Curricular Responsiveness

Curricular changes in the American context were marked by deliberation and constant debate among educational leaders (Snow, 1907). This is not to say that systemic responsiveness is not met with opposition. However, given the relatively contemporary nature of systemic changes, curricular adjustments challenged more well established educational traditions. Preparing leaders with good Christian values became the driving force behind the construction of the college curriculum as a response to the external demands of prominent Protestant officials (Veysey, 1965). Accordingly, institutions developed mission, curriculum, and rules/regulations to integrate ministerial education into the Arts & Sciences framework (Brubacher, 1997).

At the same time, college students were still seen as immature both physically and mentally. Prescribing a fixed curriculum was one prong of the attack; however the tenets of mental discipline also signify a response inside institutions to the views of the Colonial elite. To perpetuate prosperity and transfer traditions of European colleges, the colonial version would seek to ensure curriculum revered classic subjects such as logic, rhetoric and arithmetic (Lucas, 2006). European institutions at the time had an established cash of intellectual elite, and the American model would have to respond to demand for the same in the colonies. Colonial curricular responsiveness aimed to respect religious demands and traditional ideas of higher education, by preserving the “social contract” transplanted from Europe. While the students were the ultimate recipients of curricular responsiveness, in this case the “social contract” between colleges and society was a much deeper bond.

Following the American Revolution, antebellum institutions began to question why mission and curriculum were based on European elitist traditions that had repulsed the founders of the new nation. As the nation expanded westward, the need for engineers, architects, surveyors, and farmers far outstretched the need for “good Christian leaders” (Veysey, 1965). When vocational demands from outside the walls of the college threatened to re-shape the traditional colonial curriculum, proponents of “mental discipline” came to its defense.

The Yale Report of 1828 issued by Jeremiah Day defended the traditional curriculum, and its ability to refine the soul’s faculties and train the attention span (Lucas, 2006). Day invoked the power of universities to use responsiveness to protect not only current, but future interests of its primary stakeholders. Francis Wayland of Brown moved the needle in a positive direction, noting that responsiveness to vocational needs was necessary to begin expanding the borders of the new country (Snow, 1907). Curricular responsiveness increased when the channels between the interior of institutions and society began to open up, thereby increasing the strength of the “social contract” between institutions and the broader society.

Curricular response at this time, invested in new institutional models, did not stop at vocational concerns. The “social contract” was extended to previously marginalized groups (i.e. woman/blacks) in order to establish new colleges that served their specific educational needs. Endeavors of this magnitude were needed in order to fill a void left by old institutions that were not so quick to respond. Woman were given the opportunity to exit their “natural sphere” at degree granting female institutions such as Mt. Holyoke and Bryn Mawr in the mid-19th century, and eventually were educated side by side with men beginning with the University of Iowa in 1855.

These models illustrate curricular responsiveness by their ability to assess the ability of women to use education to bring positive changes to society. New models were also created to increase educational opportunities for blacks at the same time. Founders of black colleges during reconstruction initially responded by developing curricula that were to be equal to white institutions in quality and quantity (Lucas, 2006). The nature and purpose of black higher education would be highly disputed between appeasement/utility (Washington, 1903) and raising up a well-educated group of black leaders (Du Bois, 1903). It could be suggested that black institutions could be affixed into both curricular and system responsiveness. However, in most instances, Black institutions developed a curriculum specifically tuned to the needs of its students attempting to gain economic and social equality (Lucas, 2006). This type of responsiveness, although it enraged W.E.B. Du Bois, illustrates the way external demands will linked to internal changes at all levels of higher education.

Contemporary colleges and universities in the United States have had to become exponentially focused on that very same group of stakeholders, in addition to new types of diversity. The movement toward “universal” access has dictated that students from different ethnic, social, and educational backgrounds be granted admittance to institutions of higher education (Trow, 2005). Tones, Fraser, Elder and White (2009) assessed the amount of services provided for adult Latino and Black students, illustrating an entirely new level of curricular responsiveness that builds from the systemic changes outlined above. Studies such as Rendon (2001) have contributed a significant amount of time to understanding what strategies would benefit minorities in an effort to decrease departure rates and increase persistence.

As a result, colleges and universities have initiated programs that would be able to properly educate students on diversity by including it in required core curriculum (Gurin, 2002). The degree of focus therefore increases as stakeholders in higher education become increasingly diverse, resulting in a consumer driven curricular response (Green, 1973). Higher education institutions then respond by initiating classroom based diversity initiatives to meet the demand of new student populations. Another example of such curricular changes resides in the contemporary proliferation of adult students. As bachelors and master’s degree attainment becomes a more popular requirement for access to higher paying jobs, the demand to respond to these students needs increases. Special curricular services, such as hybrid and online courses have been developed to meet untraditional student demands (Plageman, 2011). Additional programs offered such as: accelerated or remedial classes, distance learning, and professional programs, also infuse the definition of curricular responsiveness that notes institutional innovation to meet student needs, and adhere to the “social contract.”


Assessing the scope of Johnstone’s claim that responsiveness is a hallmark characteristic of American higher education requires respect to its historical development, from colonial to contemporary periods. Incremental shifts in governance, mission, and curriculum significantly transformed the definition of responsiveness into something more complex. System responsiveness looked to reshaping the internal framework of higher education from the standpoint of governance, academic freedom and equality/quality. Curricular responsiveness invested in more student focused, modular changes dictated by religious, pedagogical and demographic shifts. These shifts increased in pace and intensity over time, eventually leading to curricular responses vested in developing new types of institutions such as Cornell, along with new methods of instruction promoting distance learning in contemporary settings. Systemic and curricular responsiveness respect a “social contract,” committed to the needs of diverse stakeholders inside and outside the institution of higher education.

Expanding upon this history and looking toward the future of American higher education, the “responsiveness” that Johnstone (2003) emphasizes could have international implications. First, as international institutions of higher education begin progress, albeit slowly, toward “universal” access, the success of these models will have to respond to economic, industrial, and social needs to ensure quality and future success. Secondly, international colleges and universities will have to use the success of American higher education to respond as an exemplar for their own system and curricular consciousness. Finally, strong consideration must be given to implementing access programs as a response to historically based hierarchies that still persist through the existence of educational ministries. System and curricular considerations must work together in order to achieve this goal effectively. What Johnstone identified as a characteristic that distinguishes American higher education, may in fact eventually lead to more homogeneous versions of college and university responsiveness on the international level as paradigms continue to shift. Perhaps over time, international constituencies will become responsive to the features which have distinguished American higher education throughout its history.


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