IN MARCH 1996, as part of Princeton's 250th Anniversary Celebration, Princeton University hosted a several-day conference on higher education in the United States. The conference focused on new works of scholarship and consisted of separate sessions that addressed widely varying subjects, ranging from assessment of the current status of the humanities to analysis of the financing of higher education, and from the challenge cultural diversity poses to contemporary colleges and universities to the impact of intercollegiate athletics on students. Among the sessions, one was dedicated to religion and higher education in American colleges and universities.
The session on religion addressed a historical topic rather than a transparently current issue, namely, the changing relationship of religion and American colleges and universities at their core—more specifically, knowledge was reorganized, roughly between the Civil War and World War I. This topic concerned the shape of academic endeavors that came to play such a large role in twentieth-century higher education. Changes in “higher education” in the course of that half century proved to be immensely important, indelibly transforming old institutions and fostering the growth of new ones. The Morrill Act (1862) stimulated the founding and development of America's great land-grant institutions, oriented toward greater access to higher education, professional training, and increasingly technical subjects. New concepts of the research university, appropriated from Germany, but with quite uniquely American characteristics, led to new-modeled institutions in both public and private higher education and caused or influenced the remodeling of existing ones (like the colonial colleges). Faculty members became increasingly specialized in their scholarship and oriented toward research over and beyond the teaching that had been their central activity. Disciplinary boundaries developed and were increasingly defined with reference to external professional societies. Faculty members' loyalties began their shift away from institutions and toward these disciplines, a transition that has accelerated through the twentieth century. So there is no sense in which colleges—let alone the increasing number of universities—“held constant” between the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of World War I. And there is no sense in which religious activities and interests within them were unaffected by these changes. But the chief direct effect upon religion was its changed relationship to the scholarly and teaching missions of college and university faculties.