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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 61/September 1902/University Control

By Professor J. J. STEVENSON,


THE pessimism with which some recent writers regard the university outlook in our country is, unfortunately, not wholly unreasonable. Yet the conditions, far though they be from the ideal, are not such as to make one despondent. The rapid development of our country has brought difficulties to colleges and universities as it did to business enterprises. The business world recognized the difficulties and overcame them at the cost of complete change in methods. Let the business common sense, which has made the United States preeminent in commerce, be applied to university matters and it will give us equal preeminence in education. It is necessary to recognize the conditions frankly, to cast aside injurious makeshifts and to adjust the methods to the new surroundings and the new demands. For the surroundings and the demands are new. Within the last thirty years, the relations between the teaching and the corporate boards have undergone a serious transformation; the relations of college professors to the community, as well as to their students, have been revolutionized; the manner and the matter of the professor's work in many departments bear no resemblance to those of thirty years ago. The extent and nature of these changes are known in but slight degree to those in the corporate boards of colleges and universities; the community is wholly ignorant of them. Let us understand them.

At the close of the Civil War, American colleges were comparatively small. Their trustees, for the most part, were alumni or professional men familiar with college work, as it then existed, and personally acquainted with the professors with whom they were in sympathy and for whose benefit they held their place. But, within a generation, the small colleges have become large, many of them have expanded into true universities with numerous departments, hundreds of instructors and thousands of students; while the financial interests, expanding more rapidly than the institutions, have attained a magnitude in some cases as great as that of New York's finances fifty years ago. No trustee in a large college to-day can know much of college work as such, can be acquainted with the faculties, can do much more than bear his share of the business responsibility. Vast sums of money needed for expansion, even for continued existence, are sought from men, who, having accumulated wealth, desire to leave the world better than they found it. Such men, in many cases, hesitate to entrust the disposition of their gifts wholly to others and each year finds them in increasing numbers upon corporate boards of colleges and universities—sometimes because they have contributed, sometimes because it is hoped that they will contribute.

These patrons, if not college graduates, labor under a disadvantage in that they are unacquainted with the nature of the work for which colleges have been founded; even if they be college graduates they are at an almost equal disadvantage, as absorption in business or professional pursuits has prevented them from keeping track of the changes which have come about since their graduation. As a rule, their new responsibility does not tend to create or to renew acquaintance with college work; the trustees' duties usually begin and end with labors on committees, so that naturally enough the business affairs with which they have to do become for them the all-important work of the institution. And this conception is strengthened by thoughtless assertions of men who ought to know better. Only recently this community was informed that the millionaires make the universities. With such flattery ringing in their ears, one is not surprised that some trustees forget the object for which the university exists and think of professors, when they think of them at all, as merely employees of the corporation, whose personality and opinions are as unimportant as those of a bank clerk.

Unacquainted with the faculty, unfamiliar with the extent and even character of the work done by individual professors, the trustees depend for knowledge of the educational affairs upon reports by the college or university president, for in rare instances only have faculties, as such, representatives in the board. Unfortunately, very few of our college presidents have taken a preliminary course to qualify them for the position. Indeed, it must be confessed that ability to superintend educational work has not been regarded in all cases as the essential prerequisite; in some cases that appears to have been thought less important than a supposed ability to collect money. But at the best no one man is able now to understand all the phases of university or even college work, as many college presidents already recognize; but were he able and willing, he has little opportunity to make his trustees comprehend them. Discussion of purely business matters occupies so much attention during board meetings that discussion of other matters must be deferred and the president's report is printed that it may be read at leisure. The best of presidents becomes weakened by the overwhelming importance of the financial side and comes to look upon increasing numbers as the sure proof of success. He soon finds himself between the upper millstone of the trustees and the nether millstone of the faculty, the former insisting upon numbers, the latter upon a high standard, so that in an honest effort to perform his duty, he is in danger of receiving censure from both.

The change in relations of the educational and corporate boards is due to a drifting apart of the two boards, leading to the loss of that sympathy, which was the bond, and to a reversal of the relative importance of the boards. Formerly trustees existed to care for the faculties; now many trustees evidently feel that the faculties are appendages to the board of trustees.

But while the conditions in respect to the relations between educational and corporate boards have undergone a change, on the whole, decidedly for the worse, the conditions in respect to the professor's relations to the community and to his work have undergone a change no less radical, not indeed for the worse, but at a cost to himself so serious as to impair his usefulness and to threaten that of the institutions themselves. Here lies, in the opinion of many thoughtful men, the secret of deterioration observable in the output.

The common belief is that the college professor's teaching work is purely incidental, an easy method of obtaining a good living, that he may pursue his studies without anxiety respecting worldly matters. Whatever may have been the case in some prehistoric period, it is certain that in our day there is no calling in which the pecuniary compensation is so low, while the intellectual requirement is so high as in that of college professor. The average salary of college men in New York city is much less than the average salary of clergymen. The expansion, one may almost say the very existence, of American colleges is due to the consecrated devotion of those who give the instruction. Of the immense gifts made to American colleges, comparatively little goes toward increasing salaries of professors already at work; almost the whole goes to meet the insatiable demand for expansion.

Nor is the college instructor a man of 'abundant literary leisure, as many still suppose. College professors of a generation and a half ago were, for the most part, recluses—made so by the nature of the studies then included in the college curriculum. The hours of teaching were short, and beyond those the institution demanded little. There was abundant leisure and it was used well in study. But now, in many departments the hours are long, often covering in one way or another the whole day, while other requirements are severe. The college demands that the professors be encyclopedic in knowledge of the subjects covered by their chairs, no matter how broad these may be, that they contribute frequently to the journals, that they be prominent in social, scientific, political or religious affairs. How much of the literary leisure remains in some departments one may imagine—and the increasing requirements, all involving pecuniary expenditure, have come with decreasing salaries. For the most part, professors are no longer doctrinaires; the character of their work compels close contact with the world. Museums of applied chemistry, physics, biology and geology are notable features in all the larger universities and are not unknown in the smaller institutions. Social science and psychology no longer deal in merely à priori discussions; they deal with facts for which search is made everywhere.

But far more important is the change in the professor's relation to his work. And here reference may be made parenthetically to a matter of some importance. The college curriculum of forty years ago was, to say the least, elementary. A reasonably good graduate was fit to be tutor in any branch and a professional man, who had kept up his literary tastes was not thought to be presumptuous when he applied for any one of the chairs. The college president was usually professor of mental and moral science, because a clergyman of rather more than average ability was, of course, fitted for that chair. But in this day, special, prolonged preparation is required for any chair, be it philosophy, history or chemistry. The progress which this condition indicates has led to an unforeseen difficulty which is becoming a subject of anxiety. For a long period the college curriculum, framed on narrow lines, remained practically unchanged and the secondary schools, with small equipment, prepared pupils in a leisurely way. As a rule the preparation was good and the boys entered college practically on a level. Within twenty years our colleges have not only increased the entrance requirements for some parts of the old course, but they have introduced new courses, even new departments, each with special entrance requirements, often very high. In great part, the secondary schools, with their limited resources, have been unable to increase their staff so as to keep pace with increasing demands from the colleges, and the students from different schools, though nominally alike in sum of preparatory work, are no longer approximately on the same plane. The college instructor, who has to do with the earlier years, finds himself burdened not merely with the work legitimately belonging to him, but also with much of the preliminary training. This combination of preparatory drill and advanced work is perplexing.

It is very true that the burden of changed conditions in respect to college work is not felt equally in all departments. Professors in charge of some of the older chairs have an increased burden, in that the method of teaching differs, yet, taken as a whole, matters, in so far as undergraduate work is concerned, remain with them pretty much as they were thirty years ago. But the teaching of concrete subjects is so completely changed both in matter and manner that one must dwell somewhat in detail upon the conditions; the more so because they have come about so rapidly that even professors in other departments are unaware of their extent.

Science, for a long time, was an insignificant feature of the college curriculum; its treatment was more elementary than that of history. The professor had an immense field to cover—the whole of nature aside from man's achievements in a few directions—but, while he taught many subjects after a fashion, he studied only one. The stock of knowledge was very small and anything new to one observer was likely to be new to all others. Investigation was a simple matter; ingenuity, industry and keen discrimination made up most of the necessary equipment; so that there were few earnest teachers who failed to contribute frequently to the common stock. But, by their earnestness, these men worked their destruction as investigators; for while each had his chosen field of study, he still covered the whole area as teacher. Many of the discoveries made by these men were startling and were discusssed in a more or less inaccurate way by the newspapers. Students sought explanation from the professor who was supposed to know everything. The botanist was puzzled by questions respecting chemical physics or psychology; the physicist was worried by questions respecting alleged discoveries in biology or geology. Practical application of newly discovered principles followed quickly to add to the teacher's trials. There was no longer time for special investigations and all one's energies had to be devoted to a vain effort to keep pace with investigations in the several directions.

The danger of this condition was recognized early in some of the older and wealthier institutions, so that in them, as in some of the newly organized and well-endowed universities, the fact was accepted that the several sciences were soon to be independent professions, and the departments of chemistry, physics, biology, psychology, geology, paleontology and mineralogy became practically schools, each with its own staff of professors and assistants.

But in too many of our colleges the danger was not recognized at an early period and in too many it is still unrecognized. Only a few of our institutions have more than four chairs in natural science, many have only two, and far too many are still in the sub-high school stage of only one. Yet the catalogues of such institutions offer a long series of courses, graduate as well as undergraduate, in several departments. A rather prominent college trustee not long ago informed the writer that a professorship of psychology or physics or geology is hardly equal in extent to one of Latin or pure mathematics. Yet any one of the chairs first named covers a group of subjects as unrelated as those embraced by the old-time chair of 'mental and moral science, history and belles lettres.' It is broader in scope than that other chair of 'ancient and modern languages' which existed in many colleges thirty-three years ago. A professor who teaches three branches of chemistry, physics or geology in three successive hours deals with three wholly different matters, three distinctly unrelated lines of investigation, requiring independent methods of preparation and each demanding as much knowledge as does the whole work of a professor holding a chair of languages. But, aside from this class-room labor, the teacher of science in the average institution must prepare demonstrative lectures, must keep apparatus in proper condition, must procure and care for museum material, must spend time with classes in field demonstration, while, in addition, he has the never-ending grind required to keep him in touch with the growth of knowledge respecting subjects embraced in his department. These are burdens from which professors in the older courses are happily free.

It is true that the science teacher in most of our colleges has only himself to blame for the severity of his burden. Determination to give to his students what he believes due to them has led him to make exertions which were not required but which, once begun, came to be regarded as part of his duties. Had he not manufactured apparatus and begged money with which to procure more, he would have had little for which to care; had he not expended ingenuity in preparing elaborate experiments with limited advantages, he would have had no occasion for greater expenditure; had he not expended his money and his vacations in procuring museum material and his energy in pestering acquaintances for generous donations of such material, he would have little labor in connection with a museum; had he not insisted upon the introduction of laboratory teaching no one else would have insisted upon it. But having a clear conception of duty, he has sacrificed himself deliberately. The great expansion of the scientific departments of American colleges is due to the exertions of the teachers of science; and they in many instances have received neither gratitude nor any other acknowledgment.

And yet not without reward, for the influence of the science teacher has gone out far beyond the college limits. The great discoveries, up to within a few years, were made by college professors, and these, applied by inventors, have changed the face of the civilized globe, while those to whom the world is indebted for its comforts are unknown even by name. Their work has spread intelligence and revolutionized educational methods. Children in the upper classes of grammar schools know more respecting the earth and the relations of nations than did the college graduate of forty years ago. The high school teaching of science is far in advance of ordinary college teaching as it was twenty-five years ago, and in some respects fully equal if not superior to that in a large proportion of American colleges to-day. One is guilty of no exaggeration in saying that high school graduates know as much of chemistry, physics, biology and geology, when they enter the freshman class, as is offered in many colleges, for in those schools the subjects are not taught superficially. This fact cannot be stated too emphatically and it should be forced upon the attention of those in control of college affairs. With the broadening in science teaching there has come a similar broadening in other studies. Full of the self-sufficiency encouraged by the older system of education, the college graduate who has reached middle life does not recognize that the ordinary man and woman are intelligent, well-informed and, in some respects, as well drilled intellectually as he. The proof is at hand. The lightest of our monthly magazines finds a demand for articles upon mining, sociology, electrical inventions, applied chemistry, bridge building, of a type which would have been about as intelligible as Choctaw to the community forty years ago; newspapers publish detailed descriptions of apparatus for wireless telegraphy, discuss problems in psychology, the mechanics of flying machines and pay generously for elaborate articles upon earthquakes and volcanoes; even the children talk glibly about ohms, volts and amperes as they play with electric toys. The high school is, so to speak, 'abroad in the land'; its bell tolls the knell for colleges which persist in the old method of specializing to the last degree in subjects which concern chiefly the intellectual side of man—an intellect regarded by most defenders of that method as debased by sin—while compressing within narrow limits those studies which concern the direct work of the Creator himself.

This advance adds to the burden of the science teacher. The 'elements' of a science in college often covers, or should cover, an area almost as extensive as that of the whole science thirty-five years ago. It has become difficult for science teachers to be investigators. The hours devoted by others to relaxation are required by them for study; their summer vacations are employed largely in the effort to catch up with the progress in their branch or branches. It is remarkable that so much work and so much good work is done by them in the way of original research, largely, it is true, in hours which should be given to rest. But, in too many instances, the opportunity for thorough work is lacking even where there may be time. Instead of scores, there are now hundreds of investigators in every branch of research, many belonging to government organizations, many employed by great corporations that their discoveries may be utilized, and some connected with universities which do not overwork them; publications are scattered through hundreds of journals and the literature on any subject has become appalling, so that the task of consulting it is of itself almost enough to deter any but a man of means and leisure from undertaking systematic investigation. Libraries, museums and costly apparatus are essential now, where, half a century ago, little was required aside from will and mental ability.

Especial emphasis has been laid upon the burden of the scientific side, because the writer is more familiar with its changes during the last thirty-five years; but the condition is serious enough for incumbents of many chairs not scientific. Men in most of the American colleges and universities are badly handicapped by routine work; not that too many hours are spent in actual teaching, but as a rule the teaching covers too many things, while too much is expected or required outside of purely college duties. The condition is unfortunate for the world, which no longer reaps the fruit of college men's work as investigators; but it is many times more unfortunate for the student. To be a thorough educator, the college instructor must possess the instinct and the experience of an investigator, otherwise he cannot train men to think. The present method of utilizing professors tends to convert them into superficial purveyors of second-hand knowledge; it must lead to decay in our educational system which has owed its virility to professors who were independent thinkers because they were thorough investigators.

The condition is serious, so serious as to inspire hope for the future. Many suggestions have been presented, most of them good but almost all of them premature. Changes more radical than any yet proposed must be made before those suggestions can be considered.

American colleges have still to contend with two fundamental difficulties—poverty and an ancient method of control.

A college professor can hardly administer the remedy for poverty, but he may suggest what is on the surface. There are too many colleges which ought to be merely academies, too many which should be high schools, too many so-called universities which ought to be modest colleges, and there are enough of true universities to supply the country 's need for a long time. Unquestionably, coalition in some cases and consolidation in others would go far toward relieving the stress; but consideration of even this matter is premature, for a radical change in the method of control must be brought about before either coalition or consolidation can become possible.

Originally, in most of our institutions, the college was the only school under control of the degree-granting corporation and the professional schools which grew up around it had but a nominal connection, managing their own affairs, both educational and financial. But the college is no longer the all-important portion of our universities; professional, technical and scientific schools, some of them in part replacing the college, predominate and all are actually, as well as nominally, under one corporate control. The college itself is not the school of thirty-five years ago; the whole system of training has been changed, and there is offered not a narrow but a broad education. Yet one finds in control' of the vast institution the same president as in the olden time, with powers like those of an academy principal and often with the same sense of personal ownership; the same board of trustees, with authority and privileges as in the days when the college was the whole and itself little better than an academy. In other words, we are controlling the great university with its thousands of students in many schools, with its many groups offering hundreds of courses, after the fashion which prevailed when there was but one group of courses, arranged expressly with reference to the needs of those looking forward to the clerical profession. The method is not adapted to the conditions; as well try to manage the New York Central of to-day by the railroad methods of forty years ago.

The time has come for a complete reorganization of the system; the educational work and the business management must be under separate boards, and the boundaries of the provinces should be definite.

The faculties, each for itself, should control appointments of professors and instructors; should determine all matters concerning curricula; should decide questions as to expansion or contraction of work; should have the final word respecting internal arrangement of buildings—in short should be the supreme authority in all matters directly affecting the educational work. Matters affecting the work of the university as a whole should be referred to a council composed of representatives from all of the faculties whose determination should be final. In very many institutions most of these powers are still vested in the board of trustees, which means simply that in these matters the whole control is in the hands of one or two members; since no board of trustees can possibly be competent to decide respecting qualifications of candidates for professorships or upon changes in curricula, decisions respecting these matters are most likely to be rendered in deference to the opinion of some trustee or officer who is suppposed by the rest to know something about them. In other words, the individual trustees have transferred their powers while nominally retaining them.

The presiding officer of the council, the educational head of the university, should be one who has studied the educational problem from all sides; not necessarily a great scholar in any one department, but a broad scholar, possessing tact and executive force. Such men are not rare, though one may be pardoned for regretting that so many have chosen other professions in preference to that of college president. The faculties should select this officer.

The trustees should have charge of the financial interests of the institution. In some of our universities, those interests exceed those of some western states; even in less pretentious institutions they are very large. They are sufficient everywhere to require not merely close attention but an amount of business skill and shrewd foresight beyond that demanded by ordinary business of equal extent. The trustees cannot be the architects or the builders; but their work, if confined to its proper province, would be so important that unless it were well performed, that of architects and builders would be imperfect. They should plan liberal things for the work, but should not leave the execution, as now, chiefly to one man. Under such conditions the bond between the boards would be close, for in frequent conferences each would become familiar with the general conditions and needs of the other, so that they would work, not merely in harmony, but also with the view to mutual helpfulness.

The writer has been informed that this plan is impracticable; that it has in itself the seeds of destruction; the faculties would be self-perpetuating bodies; conservatism would be crystallized; it is hard enough now to get rid of incompetent or antiquated professors, it would be impossible then; available funds would be applied to salaries and not to development; jealousies would paralyze the work; et cetera to the end of a list which does credit to its author 's power of imagination.

An answer in part would be Tu quoque, for certainly trustees are usually self-perpetuating bodies and it is equally certain that crystallization of conservatism in trustee boards has not been the least of the difficulties with which energetic faculties have had to contend. It is quite possible that salaries might be increased, or that an effort would be made to increase them so that a college instructor could live in modest comfort upon his salary. But there is no need of trustee supervision to prevent selfish grasping of funds. Chairs have been divided, new courses established, new methods introduced, the grade of instruction elevated—all upon the initiative of the faculties, and this in face of the fact that such expansion means decreasing salaries.

With educational matters under control of the faculties more attention would be paid to the qualifications of candidates for appointments than to the qualifications of their supporters; there would be fewer instructors of the type which some regard as burdensome; a college professorship would not be a haven of rest in which a failure might be anchored by his friends; expansion at the expense of efficiency would cease; there would be an end to extreme specialization in narrow groups but a wiser specialization in studies of a different type. No doubt mistakes, and many of them, would be made, as college professors are like other men; but the faculties are less likely to err in their management than are those who know very little about educational affairs.

It has been suggested that strong men would not serve as trustees; but the suggested conditions would change the actual conditions very little so far as most of the trustees are concerned. It is altogether probable that able men would be much readier to serve than they are now. A man who would not entrust any part of his business to a college professor simply because he does not understand it, can hardly hold college work in high esteem when he finds that, though almost wholly uninformed respecting it, he is thought competent to select the managers and to direct the method. It is not surprising that some of our modern trustees entertain little respect for college professors; the only wonder is that so many of them entertain any respect whatever. Under the proposed method, however, the trustee would be no longer a mere name, he would hold office with definite duties and definite responsibilities, whose nature he would understand. He could not fail to become familiar with some portion of the institution's work, for conference would bring every trustee into contact with representatives of the faculties. His personal interest in one department or another would be apt to take practical shape.

As business principles would prevail in the management, funds for endowments could be obtained with less difficulty because there would be less dread of waste through bad investment. Patrons would be more ready to found departments, equipped with men, materials and buildings, seeing in them more enduring monuments than mere memorials of stone.

The writer has been a college professor for thirty-three years. Familiar with the changes for good and ill to which this article refers, he has felt compelled to write without reserve and it may be with some emphasis, that the conditions may be brought sharply before those who really control the future of American colleges and universities. He appeals to that business common sense which characterizes the great majority of college trustees. American colleges and universities have outgrown their swaddling clothes; no amount of patching can make them fit; the new garments must be of different cut and of different material.