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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 66/December 1904/The Status of American College Professors

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 66‎ | December 1904

THE STATUS OF AMERICAN COLLEGE PROFESSORS.
By Professor JOHN J. STEVENSON,

NEW YORK UNIVERSITY.

THREE months ago, the colleges and universities opened for the new year. In most instances, telegrams from the institutions were jubilant, announcing that the entering class is the largest in the history of the college, but some were apologetic, as one or another department showed decrease. Editors rejoiced in the 'era of education' pointing with pride to the four hundred and fifty colleges, more or less, with about 15,000 instructors and about ten times as many students and a total income for all purposes approaching $25,000,000. Unquestionably, there is much in this of which to be proud, but the broad statement, as given in the journals, fails to emphasize the fact that this great fabric of higher education owes its existence, in great measure, to the willingness of college professors to bear a great part of the cost. It is true that college professors have never received salaries such as to arouse envy in men of other professions, but, at one time, the calling offered great attractions to those who cared more for study than for money. Appointments were made for life or good behavior, the calling was honorable above all others, as in Germany of to-day, and there was that 'literary leisure' which could be devoted to investigation. Many imagine that there has been no change in these conditions; this error should be corrected.

The scope of instruction, especially on the scientific side, but measurably on all sides, has been widened and the hours have been scattered so as practically to cover the available day. The kind of knowledge required is very different from that of even thirty years ago, when students had hardly any source of information outside of the text-book and classroom and the courses were truly elementary. Immediate preparation required little time and the professor's close study was within a chosen field of investigation; but now he must read carefully the literature in all portions of the field covered by his chair merely to meet the exigencies of the classroom, for the elementary courses of little more than thirty years ago belong to the common stock of knowledge; popular magazines deal with discoveries in science and archeology, as though they belong to familiar discourse, and daily papers indulge in editorial discussions of subjects which, twenty-five years ago, were in the province of specialists alone. There remains for the college professor hardly a trace of 'literary leisure,' and even the university professor is apt to find the stress of outside duties connected with his work so exhausting that, during term time, any prolonged study beyond that which is necessary becomes irksome.

Two generations ago, college trustees kept themselves more or less in touch with the professors and made diligent effort to become familiar with details of the work. With vast expansion in resources and equal expansion in the curriculum, personal relations between professors and trustees practically ceased and the latter have no longer time, opportunity, or, in too many cases, inclination, to acquaint themselves with the nature or extent of the work done by individual professors. University faculties have rarely any direct representation in the board of trustees or before it, the common mouthpiece being the president, who, no matter how earnest and faithful he may be, is not, in the very nature of things, competent to understand all matters or to present them properly. In too many cases, the professors are not consulted even in the matter of appointments and the trustees place the responsibility for these upon the president, as though the institution were a country academy. Naturally enough, trustees have come to regard themselves as the institution and the professors as merely their employees, as, indeed, has been asserted. This has gone so far that in one institution, at least until a very recent period, all appointments were for the period of one year—a plan admirably adapted to secure adherence to the powers in control. For trustees having this conception of their powers and duties, the usefulness or worth of an instructor is not measured by his ability as teacher or investigator.

Certainly the attractions making the profession so inviting in former days no longer exist in such form as to be magnetic to ambitious young men.

It might be supposed that, on the whole, salaries have been increased so as to compensate in some degree for the losses; and the relation of income to number of instructors, as given in the opening paragraph, appears at first glance to confirm the supposition. But not so. Salaries, always small, have not been increased to keep pace with cost of living or even with other demands unknown two generations ago. On the contrary, taken as a whole, the salaries have decreased. The writer recognizes that salaried men are at a disadvantage in comparison with ordinary wage-earners, the advance of salaries being slow and the periods of rest usually long; but college men are at especial disadvantage owing to peculiar conditions, which have been intensified during recent years.

College income must come mainly from endowments or their equivalent. Students' fees, though not unimportant, pay but a small part of the cost. Little more than two generations ago, when college faculties were small, the course compulsory and free tuition almost unknown, fees were the chief source of income. With increase in number of students, old buildings became insufficient and new buildings were secured by sale of long time scholarships at low rates, the future being heavily mortgaged for the present. After the civil war, a vast army of students entered our colleges; the fees were increased somewhat in many cases, but not in proportion to the cost, and the system of free scholarships became an important feature almost everywhere. More buildings, more and attractive grounds, were acquired and in time a large share of the income went toward mere maintenance of the property. To make matters worse, the colleges soon suffered an actual loss of income, for owing to the decreasing rates of interest, the endowments, such as they were, became less and less productive, while, in addition, the broadening of the curriculum compelled greatly increased expenditure. Fifty years ago there were institutions doing excellent work for the times with only six or seven salaried men in the faculty, averaging one instructor in some cases to forty students, whereas to-day the multiplicity of courses requires an instructor to every ten or even less students.

Increasing outgo without corresponding income must be at somebody's expense, and, in this case, that somebody is the college instructor. Not that in every case the salary of a professor has been reduced in order to pay the cost of dividing his chair, so that the college may receive twice as much work for the same money—though this is not unknown—but that a newly appointed man in many cases receives less salary than his predecessor. It is by no means rare for a college, on the retirement of a professor, to divide the chair, employing young men at salaries which, combined, amount to little more than the single salary fixed many years before. Even so, not a few of our colleges have alarming deficits at the end of each year.

No doubt this arouses astonishment and some may be disposed to ask, in view of the immense gifts for educational work made during the last twenty-five years, if such a condition of things does not prove incompetence in the business management of colleges. Not at all; the error is not in that. The financial management, in most instances, is beyond criticism, more, it deserves the highest praise, and in many institutions the trustees are not merely competent, they are devoted and conscientious, dealing with college business as with their own. As the most caustic reflections upon college management usually come from alumni, the writer may be pardoned for a slight digression.

Alumni who contribute a few dollars a year toward the support of alma mater's glee or athletic clubs are apt to take their display of affection altogether too seriously. They seem to feel convinced that by attending the college and by securing a degree, whether deserved or not, they have placed their college under such material obligation that they should have a large voice in its control. This notion, which would be grotesque were its effects not so serious, is due perhaps to the constant hunt for students and to the prevalent opinion that the success of a college is measured by the number in attendance. But the college is under no obligation whatever to the alumnus; its obligations were all discharged when he graduated; on the other hand, the student's pecuniary obligation increases each year, reaching its maximum at his graduation. This matter can not be presented too frequently or too emphatically.

An excellent man of large means once informed the writer that he would never send his grandson to a college in which tuition is free, a?, he always paid for what he received. He was taken aback when told that, although paying a large sum for his grandson's tuition, he was still an object of charity to the extent of several hundred dollars a year, the cost per student at that institution being, as the writer knew, four times the fee. It is probable that in no college to-day is the cost less than three times the fee, and in those with small fees the cost is proportionately very much greater. Before giving voice to a demand for a share in control of college affairs, the alumnus will do well to discharge the debt of $1,000 to $1,500 which he owes to 'dear old alma mater.' Were alumni to do this, the pangs of poverty would be less severe in many of our colleges.

Returning from this digression. It is very true that immense sums have been given to colleges and universities during the last thirty years and that such giving is likely to continue. Much of the money thus contributed was for the founding of new institutions, too often with inadequate equipment, thus making the condition worse by adding to the number of struggling colleges; much was given for the erection of buildings, most of them needed, but not in all cases useful in proportion to the cost and, until recently, not always endowed; much has been bestowed upon the endowment of scholarships; not a little has gone toward the founding of fellowships for the encouragement of graduate study; some large sums have been given for the advancement of outdoor athletics and intercollegiate contests; and in many cases funds have been provided for the employment of instructors in new branches. But unconditional gifts of money have made up only a small part of the whole, and even where these have been given, those in charge of affairs have rarely seen fit to strengthen the institution by increasing salaries, preferring rather to 'expand' by creating new chairs to be filled by young men at, to speak within limits, modest salaries. In all probability, there are institutions with a net endowment not so great as it was thirty years ago, though showing a great increase in number of students and instructors as well as in property. The average salary is much less and the president's energies are devoted to raising money to meet the annual deficit. So it has come about that the college president of our day has duties very different from those of thirty years ago. The loss of the old-time president has been a disaster and the good of our colleges requires that he be brought back. There should be an officer at the head of the business affairs and another at the head of the educational affairs. Our universities will not do their work as it should be done so long as the two offices are held by one man.

Some excellent people who have no money, and others who have money but do not give, are quick to censure those who donate buildings instead of funds. College men, being especially affected, are apt to repine much after the fashion of a good professor, who, in speaking of a generous benefactor, said, 'We asked him for bread and he gave us a stone.' But the criticism is unjust. Donors are said to be selfish, seeking only to perpetuate their names. Even so, they have done only what every man ought to do and they have chosen a praiseworthy method; they will be remembered as doers of good. It must not be forgotten that the steady stream of buildings had its origin in the most pressing need of our colleges. At the close of the civil war, colleges had their faculties and the professors were receiving fairly good salaries; but there were not buildings in which to accommodate the rapidly increasing number of students and every effort was devoted to supplying this crippling deficiency. When, later on, it became necessary to add to the staff of instructors, the older professors gladly consented to the lessening salaries, expecting soon to have the conditions restored, but never suspecting that by enduring hardness for the sake of their institutions they were making a standard for the future.

But now, in most of our colleges, additional buildings are not the urgent need; the time has come to impress upon the community the necessity for endowments, that qualified instructors may be obtained so as to utilize properly the buildings and equipment already provided so generously. Buildings are necessary, but they do not make the college, no matter how complete their equipment may be. The college is not here to cultivate public taste in architecture or even to restore the Grecian games; primarily, its purpose is to train men for life's struggle; secondarily, to advance the world's welfare by investigation. Without a thoroughly efficient staff of instructors, the college is a farce, no matter how magnificent its plant may be, how numerous the students or the victories in athletic contests. The prolonged effort to obtain buildings has obscured this fact, and now, with increased cost of maintaining grounds and buildings, with increased and increasing number of instructors to satisfy incessant demands for new courses—which those in authority have not the moral courage to deny—with constantly increasing numbers of students and with practically no compensating increase of income from endowments, the ability of colleges to pay salaries deserving of the name has disappeared. Nowhere in the United States are there salaries which mean more than a very modest living. It is true that a few salaries in the larger cities are such as to appear enormous to those living in small villages; but even those are larger only arithmetically, not in purchasing power; while they are far more than counterbalanced by the great number of small salaries in the same institutions. These 'large salaries' in themselves are not such as to be inviting to strong men; they are inviting, however, because with them there is offered also some of that 'literary leisure' which is so much desired by the student.

As the result, college chairs are filled in great part by men who, at the most, are but partially dependent on their salaries. In a sense, this was always true. When the hours of teaching were less scattered and the requirements less severe, college men in cities often supplemented their salaries through congenial work outside; while in country colleges, where an almost prerequisite qualification for several of the chairs was ordination to the christian ministry, professors added to their income by preaching. But those conditions no longer obtain, and in some institutions a professor, even if he have the opportunity, may not undertake any outside work without special permission—a perfectly proper regulation. In any event, except in rare instances, no opportunity remains for a professor to engage in outside work during the college year unless he devote only a part of the time to college work, for, as already said, practically the whole business day is demanded. To live in comfort, to retain the respect of the community, one must depend largely on means already acquired.

That this condition, or, rather, combination of conditions, will have a prejudicial effect on the personnel of the profession is not open to doubt; and additional danger lurks in the system of fellowships, which is nothing other than that of hiring young men to pursue graduate studies. Even now, though the system is, so to speak, in its infancy, graduates judge of universities not so much by the standing of the professors or by the grade of instruction offered, as by the value of the fellowships. Students about to graduate have been known to ask their professors what inducement the college offers them to remain—more than that, have been candidates for appointment at more than one institution. Evidently the time approaches when prospective candidates for the doctorate will scan university catalogues as prospective students of theology are said to scan seminary catalogues, to discover which has the longest list of highly productive scholarships.

Formerly a graduate desiring to become a professor usually received appointment at once as a tutor and eventually worked up into some professorship. That was when the courses were all somewhat elementary in character; but now special preparation for a particular chair is demanded. The graduate spends at least three years in study as a specialist, very frequently including a year or more at some European university. On the scientific side, at least, this work is severe, leaving no time for other occupation except at the cost of a dangerous expenditure of energy. Preparation for college teaching is more exacting than that for any other profession, medicine not excepted.

The prospect of spending seven years in preparation, of working afterwards as an assistant for several years at a salary of $700 or $800, for several years more at a small advance, and of attaining by middle age a salary not much greater than the wages of a switchman in an eastern railway yard, with at the end little hope of a pension is by no means alluring to a man unwilling to remain celibate throughout life. Thoughtful young men in the higher classes of our colleges recognize this condition and recognize also that the compensating privileges of social standing and leisure for research have been reduced to the minimum. This feeling respecting the status of American professors is so widespread that, unless the conditions are modified quickly, the next generation will see a notable change in type of professors; some will be teachers because unwilling to be anything else; some will be men of independent means desiring a not too burdensome occupation; but a large proportion will consist of men carried along on scholarships and fellowships into a profession for which they have neither fitness nor inclination—perfunctory teachers, lamenting their fate in being compelled to 'waste themselves on a parcel of boys.'

To prescribe a remedy is not difficult; to bring the patient into receptive mood is apt to be difficult. The writer suggests a remedy; the administering must be left to others.

The first step should be elimination of mimic universities and restoration of the college with a fixed curriculum, intended to develop the man and to lay foundation for a broad education. By thus removing odds and ends of elective courses and attempts at types of work belonging altogether to graduate study, relief will be given from much which is of doubtful utility to the undergraduate, and the professors will regain that leisure, which for so many years was utilized to the advantage of the whole community.

The second step should be complete readjustment of the relation between the corporate and educational boards. Times have changed and with them the conditions also, but the powers and duties of the corporate board have remained unchanged. Trustees are chosen in view of their fitness to manage the financial affairs, very rarely with reference to their familiarity with educational matters; yet their board has, as of old, the power to appoint professors and even to create new chairs, thus controlling not only the selection of the faculty but also the curriculum, matters with which, in the very nature of the case, they cannot deal intelligently—as a board. The teaching board should have the sole right to name candidates for appointment, to determine all matters concerning the curriculum and the corporate board should be called upon to confirm the action, pro forma, whenever a business contract is involved. Details respecting methods of procedure do not concern us here; what is contended for is a proper assignment of powers and duties to accord with the conditions of to-day as contrasted with those of two generations ago, when most of the great institutions of to-day were little better than are the eastern High Schools. This adjustment would give to the teaching staff its proper standing and the trustees would be guardians of the material interests.

Perhaps this second step should be regarded as the first. It certainly would change in some respects the estimate which some boards entertain regarding the relative importance of trustees and professors. In many colleges, professors have given their services at small salaries, far less than they could have obtained in other directions, have refused calls at higher salaries to other colleges, in not a few instances have reduced their salaries voluntarily and served the college for a pittance, simply to preserve it from destruction. All this they did deliberately, hoping that in the end their college would be placed upon a sound basis and depending upon the good sense of the trustees for proper recognition in due season. Such contributions should be accepted as so much money given annually to preserve the college and the contributors should receive at least as much credit as do such trustees as pay something in actual cash. That this is not the case is well known. When money is received by a college, the trustees should not hasten simply to relieve themselves from their subscriptions, they should share the relief with the professors; and if, at length, sufficient money should come to relieve the actual pecuniary stress and to leave a surplus, common honesty requires that that surplus be devoted toward finally relieving the professors. That done, the time will have come to consider the question of expanding the curriculum and of appointing new instructors. That this is not the view held by trustees of our day is a familiar fact. And yet the condition does not justify any reflection upon the honor of the trustees; it is due solely to the fact that they know little about the professors as men or as workers,—to the constantly widening gulf separating the corporate and educational boards.

In any event, this second step, if taken, would go far toward restoring the profession to its former honorable standing and would go far also toward making possible the third step, which is consolidation.

There are too many academies calling themselves 'college' or even 'university,' with high grade curriculum and low grade requirements, with long lists of pupils in preparatory classes of one sort or another and very short lists of students in so-called college classes. Many of these have no apology for existence aside from the fact that otherwise the religious denomination, which they represent, would have no educational institution in the region. There are in proximity too many feeble colleges, with few college students, with insufficient equipment, with practically no endowment and with makeshift instructors. If a judicious consolidation could be brought about, if the academy portions could be gathered into a strong academy and the college portions into a strong college, with the academy as its feeder, if higher institutions under similar relations of space could be brought together so as to make a thoroughly equipped college and a thoroughly equipped university, the vast sums now expended on mere maintenance of property could be applied directly to educational work and a long advance would be made toward paying salaries which, with the regained leisure and the regained honor, would make college teaching once more attractive to men of the highest type.

The writer has been told that these propositions are fair and reasonable, that they are merely what common sense demands, but that they are chimerical. One correspondent asserts that they are good but that the world can not go backward. This last is very true, but the truism has no bearing upon the question. If one have strayed from the road in blind trails, he can hardly be reproached for retracing his steps to the parting of the ways, that, taught wisdom by his error, he may advance anew and along the right path.

That the suggestions are chimerical, the writer can not concede; that they involve serious difficulties, he not only concedes but also asserts. The obstacles to be overcome before the second can be realized are comparatively insignificant. If it be a common sense proposition, it will need only proper presentation to secure its acceptance by the business men on the corporate boards and, as far as they are concerned, the adjustment could be effected very rapidly. But obstacles of no mean sort will be encountered in an effort to realize the first and third, most serious of which are those arising from denominational prejudice or jealousy. Almost as serious are those due to individual prejudice or obstinacy. Trustees and teachers are unwilling to acknowledge that their college has no good reason for separate existence, though they know and the community knows that they know the fact. Alumni, whose only manifestation of interest in the college has been an occasional visit to a summer re-union, are apt to display a sudden and emphatic love for Alma Mater when consolidation is suggested, putting forth energy enough against consolidation to place the college on a good footing, if properly directed. The writer recognizes all of these difficulties, but is convinced that they will be overcome if only full discussion of the matter can be had, so as to bring it fairly to the attention of those on whose gifts the American college depends for development.