Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Speech Communication

First Advisor

Kenneth S. Zagacki


This dissertation seeks to discover and analyze the divergent ways that higher education has been legitimated by American discourse in the twentieth century. Institutions of higher learning have been able to survive and flourish because they have been seen as essential to the health of a democracy, of a free-market economy, and of religious institutions. However, the explanations for such legitimacy have been diverse and varied. Bormann's fantasy theme analysis can account for the values and beliefs that form the institutional environments shaping and legitimating organizations such as colleges and universities. Fantasy themes expressed in popular discourse are expressions of the shared social reality of those who enact organizations. My dissertation study explores the ways that rhetorical visions of higher education have changed or persisted in the twentieth century, and it also considers whether positive public sentiments toward colleges and universities have been enhanced or undermined by these shared fantasies. Texts for analysis included the addresses, essays, and books of significant figures from a variety of areas including education, government, and business. The results reveal tension between individualistic and communal fantasy themes. One also recognizes competition for control of education, and such competition impinges on the independence of the academy. A college degree has been presented as useful for equipping individuals to be self-sufficient, financially prosperous, virtuous citizens. Conversely, colleges have also been valued for encouraging students to become servant leaders in a democracy, productive members of the business community, and benevolent members of a spiritual community. In recent discourse, however, the individualistic fantasy has dominated, and higher education has surrendered independence and power to government and industry. These findings are significant because educational rhetoric helps us to understand current beliefs and practices in higher education by tracing the historical development of these attitudes. The results also clarify the relationship between rhetoric and the environments within which organizations exist.