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Courtrooms and Classrooms

, 264 pages
December 2015



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Courtrooms and Classrooms

A Legal History of College Access, 1860−1960


Conventional wisdom holds that American courts historically deferred to institutions of higher learning in most matters involving student conduct and access. Historian Scott M. Gelber upends this theory, arguing that colleges and universities never really enjoyed an overriding judicial privilege.

Focusing on admissions, expulsion, and tuition litigation, Courtrooms and Classrooms reveals that judicial scrutiny of college access was especially robust during the nineteenth century, when colleges struggled to differentiate themselves from common schools that were expected to educate virtually all students. During the early twentieth century, judges deferred more consistently to academia as college enrollment surged, faculty engaged more closely with the state, and legal scholars promoted widespread respect for administrative expertise. Beginning in the 1930s, civil rights activism encouraged courts to examine college access policies with renewed vigor.

Gelber explores how external phenomena—especially institutional status and political movements—influenced the shifting jurisprudence of higher education over time. He also chronicles the impact of litigation on college access policies, including the rise of selectivity and institutional differentiation, the decline of de jure segregation, the spread of contractual understandings of enrollment, and the triumph of vocational emphases.

Scott M. Gelber is an associate professor of education and (by courtesy) history at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. He is the author of The University and the People: Envisioning American Higher Education in an Era of Populist Protest.

"Written in a rigorous yet accessible manner, Courtrooms and Classrooms is an excellent addition to any class about American educational policy or its history...highly recommended."

"... this book should be read widely... this work contributes to larger efforts to dislodge the mid-twentieth century as the perceived norm of higher education in the United States."

"Gelber has successfully debunked a long-held misconception with careful research and a well-reasoned argument and thus makes a noteworthy contribution to the historical literature."

"... Gelber’s thorough, careful dive into cases demonstrates that they are a rich, underutilized vantage point from which to examine old questions and raise new queries about the history of higher education."

"Run, don't walk, to read Scott Gelber's book. He writes very well and is a careful and conscientious scholar. This is an interesting—often fascinating—tale that contains ample textual support."

"A stunningly original book. Nothing like this has been written in the history of higher education. Succinct and lucid, Courtrooms and Classrooms combines legal literature and arguments with materials that bring to life the historical contexts of legal cases."

"Scott Gelber’s new book provides a fresh analysis to confirm that history does matter when it comes to understanding higher education. Nowhere is this more so than in the complex story of classrooms and courtrooms. The issues and arguments—and decisions—on college access in the century from 1860 to 1960 have some surprising roots and remain central to the drama of who goes to college—and where—in American history. Here is yet another excellent scholarly work from an outstanding historian of higher education."

"Scott Gelber reminds us that the American system of higher education, which took the world by storm in the 20th century, came from humble roots in the previous century, when a college was like the neighborhood schoolhouse and courts were willing to guarantee students access to what was considered merely a public utility."

"Courtrooms and Classrooms considers dozens of court decisions in their historical context to demonstrate the fluidity of the principle of academic deference."

"... Gelber’s nuanced arguments and engagements with an underutilized source base offer important considerations for legal scholars and historians of higher education."

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