Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/June 1882/The Appointment of College Officers



THERE are to-day in the United States over four hundred institutions claiming the title of college or university. Some of them are really, a few confessedly, only high-schools or academies; and between these and the highest there is every diversity of grade. In them there are over four hundred "presidents," "principals," "chancellors," or whatever the heads of the institutions may be called, and some thousands of professors or teachers. This great body of men and women is continually changing; yearly there are deaths, removals, and resignations; yearly there are a multitude of new appointments. The purpose of this essay is to inquire how such appointments are made, and how they ought to be made; what considerations do govern, and what should govern, the selection of college officers.

At a casual glance it would seem as if little could be said upon the subject; of course appointments are made by regular boards of trustees, and of course each appointment is determined by the peculiar fitness of the successful candidate for the position he is to occupy. Such is the theory, but the application thereof may be exceedingly elastic. Strange standards of fitness are frequently adopted; and appointments to responsible positions are often made upon principles which would be recognized in no other kind of business except the trade of partisan politics. In political life an efficient officer may be displaced for mere party reasons, and supplanted by some one altogether his inferior. In the college world, slight shades of difference in theological belief are at times similarly potent.

The qualifications demanded of a college president are different in different places. In some institutions the head is purely an executive officer, with no teaching to do; in others he must fill a professor's chair also. On the one hand, a man of general scholarship, breadth of view, and executive ability is called for; on the other, special familiarity with some particular branch of learning must be added to the requirements. To find all these qualifications united in one individual is by no means easy. A man of one ability is easily found at any time; but men of many abilities, at once both versatile and thorough, are scarce. In any case, the college president, to be a successful manager, must have tact; he must have executive capacity and force; he must be business-like in his methods, he must command the confidence and respect of trustees, teachers, students, alumni, and of the community in which he lives; he must be a good judge of men; and he must have the training which only experience can give. Failing in any one of these qualifications he is liable to fail altogether, for the strength of the whole chain is but that of its weakest link. He must have public confidence, in order to attract public support; he must be in harmony with the faculty, or things will go at loose ends; if the students dis-trust him, discipline can not be maintained. When vacancies occur in the teaching force, he will have great influence in filling them; hence he must be familiar with scholarship in its various phases, and able to decide upon the relative merits of different candidates. Finally, he must be thoroughly acquainted with college routine, clear in his views concerning courses of study and methods of instruction, up in all matters relating to marks, examinations, discipline, and the like. He should have high ideals, and at the same time be neither a doctrinaire nor a dreamer.

The fact that most of the older American colleges were founded with religious ends in view has had much to do in determining the appointment of college presidents. Plainly, if the chief function of the schools is to train clergymen, they should be controlled by clergy-men; and so they have been controlled almost universally. If a Baptist college needs a president, some Baptist clergyman is chosen; a Presbyterian college puts a Presbyterian minister at its head, and so on. That this state of affairs has naturally come about no one can deny, but whether it is any longer a legitimate condition is questionable. The functions of the college are broader than they were a century ago; it no longer aims chiefly to feed the ministry, but seeks rather to send cultivated men and women into all walks of life. Hence, although a minister may be an efficient college president, he should not be appointed because he is a minister, but for other reasons distinctly. Just here an example may have value. A few years ago a popular clergy-man was elected president of a well-known college. Within a year his popularity was gone, and students, professors, and trustees were alike dissatisfied. The reason was simple. The new head was a clergyman only—not an educator. As head, being a man of energy, he meddled with things which he had not learned to understand, harassed the pupils, doubtless with the best of intentions, attempted to carry out impracticable measures, and made trouble generally. Fortunately, he was a man of some tact, and able to learn wisdom by experience, so that after a while order was restored, and at last he regained popularity and confidence. But he learned his new trade at the expense of the institution, which suffered during the period of his tutelage. Would it not have been better if he had begun as a tutor, then risen to the rank of professor, and finally been promoted to the presidency after he had shown his fitness? In brief, is it not safe to say in general terms that no man because of success in one profession should at once be intrusted with the highest place in another? The loftiest positions in any line, political, educational, or what not, should be earned by faithful service and proved capacity in the lower grades. There may be exceptional cases, but they are so rare as to count for nothing in establishing the general principle. Special knowledge, training, and experience are demanded of a college president just as much as of a bank cashier, an army officer, or the captain of a ship; and rules like those which govern the latter classes of appointments should hold good in the educational profession also.

Since the duties of a professor are more easily defined than those of a college president, the rules governing his appointment ought to be correspondingly simpler. In general he is to teach a single subject or groups of allied subjects, and should therefore be chosen for special knowledge of the branches indicated. If he is to fill the chair of Latin, he must necessarily be selected because of his scholarship in Latin; if he is to teach mathematics, he must be a mathematician; and so on. Furthermore, good character and efficiency are essential. It would seem as if there could be no doubt upon these points, as if no argument about them were possible; and yet, as a matter of fact, plain as they are, they are frequently ignored. Favoritism, nepotism, and sectarianism often outweigh all other considerations even in the college world; and men of no genuine scholarship secure appointments over candidates whose real credentials are vastly higher. The son of a college president may be appointed to teach some subject in which he has never been properly trained; an unsuccessful clergyman may be provided for by assignment to a professor's chair; and such things, far from being mere abstract possibilities, do actually occur. Still other absurdities are continually being perpetrated. The writer has known of a case in which a teacher was invited to take any chair he chose in a certain Western college; and of another instance in which an applicant for a professorship offered to accept any department that might be offered to him. Professors have been known to begin their own studies in the line of their professorships after they had been elected; and some years ago the trustees of one college passed a rule to the effect that any member of the faculty could be called upon to teach any subject, under penalty of dismissal if he refused. This ignorance puts a premium upon intellectual dishonesty. It needs no argument to show that all such cases result in inefficiency and superficiality; the colleges represented by them are shunned by competent men, they suffer in reputation, and at last they dwindle into mere local academies. Fortunately, the law of natural selection holds good among institutions as among animals, and in the long run only the fittest flourish and survive.

But all vices are not great vices, and small crimes against college morality are committed even by old and famous institutions. For example, a certain Professor of Natural History has been wittily de-scribed as "a good theologian, slightly tinctured with zoölogy"; his appointment having been secured by raising false issues of the ultra-sectarian kind. It is hardly necessary to add that the highly respect-able college in which he teaches is not recognized as a shining center of zoological research. In the same institution a teacher of mathematics was to be appointed; and an enthusiastic friend praised the mathematical ability of a leading candidate. "No matter about his mathematics," said one of the authorities, "we want to know if he is a man of good moral character." The remark was suggestive. Of course, moral character was essential, and to be scrupulously considered, but not above other qualifications equally important. Character and competency need both to be regarded; since a man may be a model of purity, and at the same time incapable of teaching even the alpha-bet. Candidates for professorships are often sharply catechised. "What church do you go to?" "What are your views upon such and such doctrines?" These questions are almost invariably asked. "Are you a professor of religion?" said a college trustee to a young candidate for a position. "No, sir, I am a professor of chemistry," was the reply, and rejection followed. Curiously enough, the college represented by this instance was not a sectarian school, but a State institution, founded upon the congressional land-grant of 1862. From such-like impertinent questions some of the ablest scholars in America have suffered. Pure character, unblemished reputation, high scholar-ship, and great achievements, are not sufficient for answers. Only a rigid conformity to certain dogmas can render the candidate's calling and election sure. Hypocrisy may succeed where real merit would avail but little.

Since a tutorship is the natural stepping-stone to a professorship, tutors should be chosen for qualifications essentially the same as those which are demanded of professors. There are now available a multitude of competent young men, who are ambitious to win professor-ships, and who, with that aim in view, have devoted years of laborious study to special preparation for special teaching. Some are chemists, who have pursued original investigations at Berlin, Leipsic, Bonn, Harvard, or Baltimore; others have studied philology, under the fore-most German masters; still others have become thorough biologists, students of history and philosophy, or mathematicians. From among these the ranks of tutors should be filled, and legitimate promotion, in due time, ought to follow.

At some colleges, Harvard for example, the policy above indicated is followed. If a tutor in Greek is needed, some young man who has distinguished himself in Greek is chosen; and, upon the hypothesis that he intends to make a life-work of classical study, he is given every advantage to distinguish himself still further. In some other institutions, however, a different plan is adopted. At Yale, for in-stance, tutors are often, if not always, appointed in a sort of general way, without particular reference to special studies, the subject to be taught by each being settled afterward. In consequence, a Yale tutor, whose real specialty is mathematics, may be obliged to teach only Latin; while another, whose bias is purely classical, may have to struggle with pupils in trigonometry. Doubtless these evils are greater in appearance than in reality; probably in most cases matters adjust themselves in a more rational way; still, in some instances, the mischief is really done. Such a state of affairs ought not to be even possible. It is sometimes urged, in extenuation, that every young man who has graduated creditably ought to be able to teach others what-*ever he has himself learned; and, in a measure, this is true. But a fellow may have studied mathematics only as a matter of routine, get-ting none of its real spirit, and putting no enthusiasm nor vigor into his work. Doubtless he can carry others through the same routine afterward, hearing recitations from a text-book, and recognizing such mistakes as may be made; but "teaching" of this kind is hardly worthy of the name. Every college teacher, whether professor or tutor, ought to feel the subject which he teaches; he should be able to rouse the interest of his pupils, to stimulate thought among them, to encourage the bright ones forward, and to remove difficulties from the paths of those who lag behind. Such work can be done only by special scholars, who have taken up their life-tasks as a labor of love, and who are brimful of earnestness and enthusiasm. With the lower college classes this scholarly vigor is especially needed. The pupils must be started aright at the very beginning, for, if their interest is not awakened then, there is great danger that it may continue sleeping always. But in no part of a college course should mere perfunctory instruction be tolerated. A man may be a teaching machine, and yet fall very far short of being a teacher.

Now, having discussed the reasons governing college appointments, we may fitly consider the methods by which the appointments should be made. Suppose that there are several competent candidates for a given position; how shall one be selected, and by whom? Technically, there can be but one answer to this question, namely, that the trustees of the college must choose; but practically this answer does not fairly cover the case. The average board of trustees consists not of special scholars, but of men in active life—merchants, manufacturers, lawyers, doctors, and the like; with oftentimes a liberal sprinkling of clergymen thrown in. It may be that not one of them has any special knowledge of the branch to be taught by the proposed appointee, or any adequate means of judging independently as to the relative fitness of the candidates. In some instances, too, they meet but once a year, namely, at commencement time; and in such cases a decision must be reached in advance of the meeting. Clearly, then, they must act upon recommendations; and the practical question is, Whose recommendations shall carry the most weight?

To this question a great variety of answers are possible; as maybe shown by citing three common modes of procedure: First, an election may be carried by personal lobbying; the candidates and their friends seeking out individual trustees, and, by all sorts of arguments, relevant and irrelevant, securing pledges of support. This process is objectionable enough in politics, but it is tenfold worse in educational affairs. Secondly, the president of the college may decide between the candidates, and make a recommendation upon his own responsibility—a method which is perhaps the one most generally followed. Thirdly, the faculty as such may be officially consulted, and their nominee given the appointment. Ignoring the first plan as unworthy of consideration, let us examine carefully the other two.

The efficiency of the second mode of appointment naturally depends upon the character, tact, and temperament of the college presi-dent who attempts to carry it out; and it may lead either to good results or to mischief. A wise president, having an appointment to recommend, will scrupulously consider all the interested parties. Having ascertained all the essential facts concerning the available candidates, and being satisfied as to their antecedents and ability, he will consult with his associates upon the faculty, especially with those most interested in the appointment to be made, and in his final decision he will give due weight to their advice and wishes. Theoretically, this method is simple enough, but in its practical application it is often at-tended by serious difficulties. Sometimes a faculty is split into cliques, and then the president must either make an independent decision, or else take sides with one faction as against another. Such dilemmas are common, and bring great uneasiness to their victims. A new president may find an old faculty half buried in a rut from which it can be lifted only by fresh and vigorous men; he may be embarrassed by alumni, who expect appointments in preference to outsiders; there may be tutors who will growl and grumble if not promoted in accordance with their own notions as to their deserts. Whichever way he turns he is liable to create dissatisfaction and heart-burning; the unsuccessful candidates and their friends all abuse him for favoritism and incompetency; in short, all the worst features of personality may be introduced into a contest which above all others ought to be unaffected by personal considerations. Many a college war has sprung from conflicts over appointments; and only an exceptionally strong president can long hold out against the difficulties which such contests are apt to raise against him. With but few men is the method of personal appointments successful; with many it leads to in harmony and overthrow.

The third method of appointment, namely, upon recommendation from the faculty, seems to be the most satisfactory of all. Of course, it is not absolutely perfect, for it may give rise to dissensions; but, on the whole, it leads to better results than any other. The unsuccessful aspirants for position can not blame and harass one individual, as when the power of appointment is practically vested in the president alone, for the annoying responsibility is divided among several persons; neither can favoritism be urged as the reason for any particular choice. Furthermore, since any good faculty consists of a number of men actively engaged in scholarly work, its judgment as a body concerning the fitness of candidates is more likely to be accurate than the opinion either of a president or of a board of trustees who can not be expected to give more than superficial attention to the matter. The members of a faculty know of their own knowledge what standing a candidate -has as an educator, what work he has done, and what he is probably capable of doing; and this knowledge, which frequently involves long personal acquaintance with the aspirant, is worth much more than any information derived from mere formal letters of recommendation or from hearsay. Whoever is recommended by them will be a safe per-son to appoint, and will be likely to work in harmony with his col-leagues. They, on the one hand, calling a man to a vacant chair, will be gratified by his acceptance; while he, on the other side, will feel grateful to them for their consideration. It is well known that this method of appointment is in vogue at the Sheffield Scientific School; and it is said that no professor has been called to that institution except upon the unanimous recommendation of the faculty. The natural result is a harmonious and efficient body of teachers, and an exceptionally strong school.

Inasmuch as this third method of appointment presupposes a faculty already in existence, it can not of course apply to those schools which are in process of organization. In such cases it is best for the trustees to select a strong and competent man for president in whom they can have full confidence, and give him almost autocratic powers. Let him choose the first faculty, drawing about him such teachers as will work in unison with him and with each other; and then refer all subsequent appointments to that body. Of course, in no case should a board of trustees surrender its own authority, but the recommendations of a faculty should be ignored only for the most substantial of reasons. Between faculty and trustees there ought to be perfect concert of action; when either body distrusts the other, mischief is sure to happen. The method by which teachers are appointed should be a matter of usage and policy, not of prescribed rule; and the method above laid down seems to be the safest in the long run. A faculty can not maintain the highest efficiency unless it is thoroughly harmonious; any jar or friction in it leads to dissatisfactions which quickly spread to the students, and the result is disastrous to all the parties concerned.