Monday, July 29, 2019

Ethan Schrum's "The Instrumental University"

Ethan Schrum is Associate Professor of History at Azusa Pacific University, and an Associate Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Instrumental University: Education in Service of the National Agenda after World War II, and reported the following:
Page 99 is about the search that led to the appointment of G. Holmes Perkins as dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts (today known as the Stuart Weitzman School of Design) in 1951. Penn president Harold Stassen created a search committee mostly of professionals from outside the university, including Ralph Walker, president of the American Institute of Architects. Chaired by Penn alum James Kellum Smith of the celebrated architecture firm McKim, Mead, and White, the committee gave Stassen three finalists. Stassen selected Perkins, who was chair of Harvard’s Department of Regional Planning and editor of the Journal of the American Institute of Planners. At Harvard, he had collaborated with famed German émigré Walter Gropius, a pioneer of modernist architecture. Previously, Perkins had worked for the federal government as part of the National Housing Agency and Housing and Home Finance Agency. Perkins accepted the deanship only on the condition that Penn create a city planning program, which led to the establishment of the Department of Land and City Planning (today known as the Department of City and Regional Planning).

The Instrumental University explains how elite research universities reconceived their missions after World War II, reconfiguring themselves in order to stimulate economic growth and solve social problems. The search that produced G. Holmes Perkins’s deanship is not central to this explanation, but the description of the search on page 99 illustrates key points about the book’s message and craftsmanship. Readers opening The Instrumental University to page 99 thus would not immediately grasp the book’s main theme, but the material on page 99 would lead them there. Because the account on page 99 is drawn largely from Stassen’s correspondence, the page exemplifies the craftsmanship of the book, which is based on detailed research in university archives, particularly in the papers of presidents of key institutions.

Penn’s hiring of Perkins as Fine Arts dean is important to the larger story of postwar research universities because it led to perhaps the most influential institutionalization of city planning, a young academic field that exercised outsize influence on those universities. Under Perkins’ deanship, Penn’s city planning program quickly became the country’s largest and most prestigious, attracting celebrated faculty such as Robert Mitchell, William Wheaton, and Martin Meyerson (who would later become Penn’s president). They contributed to the physical transformation of Penn’s campus and its relationship to its Philadelphia surroundings. This transformation included the creation of the West Philadelphia Corporation and the University City Science Center, which embodied new modes of American universities’ relationship with the larger society.

Perkins remained dean for 20 years and exemplified the ethos of the instrumental university in several aspects of his work: his career illustrated the widespread cross-currents between institutions of the New Deal state and universities; he created an organized research unit, the Institute for Urban Studies, intended to promote economic development and tackle social problems such as housing; he solicited patronage for the Institute from government and industry; and he participated in the widespread project of overseas institution building by helping to create the Middle East Technical University of Architecture and City Planning in Turkey. Consequently, page 99, by introducing Perkins, begins to lead the reader to an understanding of some key features of the postwar research university and its role in American life.
Learn more about The Instrumental University at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue