Abstract: “A Seed of Economic Progress—A Valid Capital Investment”: The Corporate Transformation of Higher Education and American Manufacturing

Elizabeth Tandy Shermer


How public were the postwar, state-run higher-education institutions? Educators and liberal policymakers founded and expanded schools in pursuit of democratic social advancement but partnered with local and national business groups. Southern and Western economic dynamism was predicated on jobs via manufacturing investment. High-tech industrial relocation scouts considered an area's educational infrastructure of the utmost importance when they considered leaving the Northeast, which had well-established schools that served R&D needs and trained new hires. In states without strong universities or engineering programs, local business groups, high-tech firms, and elected officials funneled state and private monies into expanded or brand-new universities. North Carolina textile manufacturers worked with education experts and IBM executives to build the now-famous Research Triangle and develop surrounding universities. Such collaborations left institutions misshapen. Transforming Tempe Teacher's College into Arizona State University brought millions in private money to launch a top-tier engineering college but left the humanities and social sciences underdeveloped. Business proved focused on profit not opportunity, eroding the promise of privately supported public education. The San Diego Chamber of Commerce supported Clark Kerr when he built the University of California, San Diego, in the mid-1950s but stood behind Ronald Reagan in 1966, who planned to increase expenditures for science and engineering but reduce overall spending, raise fees, increase teaching loads, and limit academic freedom. Reagan signaled a shift in higher education politics that placed business on the side of decreased public funding, targeted private investment, and a distaste for tax-funded liberal arts, the hallmarks of current attacks on public higher education.