This paper aims to examine the beginnings of the university extension movement in America and to place it in its proper setting in the history of university adult education.
Inquiring into the way of how English university extension was accepted by American universities in the late 19th Century, the university extension movement in the 1890's was woven from three threads which run lengthwise. The first of them began when Herbert B. Adams appeared at the convention of the American Library Association at Thousand Islands, New York in 1887, to deliver a speech on "Seminary Libraries and University Extension". Adams persuaded librarians to initiate the extension work in public libraries and led Melvil Dewey to plan a university extension scheme in the University of the State of New York.
The second thread begun at Chautauqua Institution. This institution was founded for the purpose of training Sunday school teachers and by the 1880's had developed the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle as the first integrated core program of adult education on a national scale. In 1886, John H. Vincent after visiting England and being deeply impressed with its adult education was determined to add university extension to his Summer programs. Although it did not work out successfully, this attempt inspired young and vigourous scholars, including William R. Harper and Richard T. Ely, who were connected with educational services in Chautauqua. The advancement of university extension in the Universities of Chicago and Wisconsin was attributed to the very creativeness and evangelistic efforts of the persons connected with Chautauqua Institution.
But on the whole, university authorities were skeptical about university extension. Even if they appreciated the unknown, university staff preferred organizing voluntary societies outside in order to set up extension courses. According to the reports presented to the national conference held in 1891, it was shown that there were no less than 16 societies of this kind in the United States. Among them, the first one established was the American Society for the Extension of University Teaching by provost William Pepper of the University of Pennsylvania and his associates. Through its monthly periodical and other successful accomplishments, this Society had become the most widely known of the experiments in university extension attempted during the 1890's.
Especially for extension societies, it was essential to derive resources from neighboring universities. For example, in the London Society for the Extension of University Teaching in England, a Universities' Joint Board had been formed. It had charge of nominating lecturers and examiners, and thus gave university status to the work of the society. Besides, the existence of this Board had further secured for the London Society the advantage of a wide choice of lecturers. American societies failed to establish close a relationship with universities as did their English counterparts like the London Society. It was the lack of control which caused the offerings of American societies to turn downwards to popular lectures. The same rule seemed to apply to the case of the University of Wisconsin. On the other hand, another rule seemed to apply for the Universities of Chicago and the State of New York. Harper and Dewey had enthusiastically proposed that university extension should be an integral part of university function. But both of them endured severe criticisms expressed by traditionalists on and off campus. Some opposed outright that university extension would enter into direct competition with university education. Others looked down upon university extension as being detrimental to "university prestige" or "university dignity". Those criticisms, in a sense, stigmatized university extension as a "necessary evil". The results were as follows: In the University of Chicago, everything did not go as Harper had originally planned. In New York, Dewey's ideal would never be brought to realization.