Popular Science Monthly/Volume 84/May 1914/The Small College and its President



THE institution which must here be described merely as "our college" is one of a large class, of which it may be taken as a typical specimen. It is located in a thriving middle-western town of a little over thirty thousand population. It has a faculty of twenty, a student body numbering a little less than five hundred, a campus of ten acres in the heart of the town, seven good buildings, three of which have been built within the past ten years, endowed funds of over half a million dollars, and library and laboratory equipment fairly adequate to present needs. It enjoys what its trustees and some of its faculty regard as the high distinction of a place on the accepted list of the Carnegie Foundation. While in scholarship standards it may rank below some of the smaller colleges of our state, it is superior to others, and certainly does not fall below the average. There is of course the inevitable weak department, filled by an incumbent whose innocuous "Christian character" is his only recommendation. On the other hand, there are strong departments whose work commands outside recognition in the world of scholars, and whose class-room standards provoke wholesome respect on the part of students. Striking an average, it may be said without exaggeration that, measured by the ideals of its teachers, the college stands for a high grade of scholarship, while measured by the results achieved its standard is barely respectable. In fact, there is far too wide a gap between ideals and achievement, between profession and performance, and it shall be in part the purpose of the present article to trace some of the causes of this unfortunate discrepancy.

Many more or less obvious reasons suggest themselves. Insufficient equipment is frequently assigned as the cause of our shortcoming; yet this is a most inadequate excuse. While not all that it ought to be, the equipment of the college is not bad. Great scholars, both in the humanities and the sciences, have been trained on poorer material equipment than ours. Inbreeding may be suggested by the outsider who reads our catalogue and observes that seven teachers out of twenty were trained at the home college. This suggestion is not without weight, for in colleges as in human families inbreeding tends to accentuate the defects, yet a good majority of the faculty were trained in eastern universities, and the third who took their bachelor's degree here have had their courses at higher institutions, with a chance to absorb university methods and ideals. While inbreeding has been anything but a benefit to the college, it would be grossly unfair to hold it responsible for all our shortcomings.

The low salary paid is a more potent cause of failure, and more generally recognized—especially in faculty circles. Married professors are expected to live on salaries ranging from a thousand to fifteen hundred dollars, pay from twenty-five to thirty dollars a month house rent (for houses can not be had in our section of town for less), dress in such fashion as to be be able on occasion to meet the trustees and their friends socially, and contribute to the formal entertainment of the student body four or five times a year. Needless to say, after the satisfaction of these demands nothing remains for the purchase of books, for travel or for study at eastern or European universities. The professor and his family are fortunate if they get through a year without running deeply in debt, and the almost inevitable result of an illness in the family or other unforeseen catastrophe is the starting of a train of evils from which the unfortunate teacher escapes—if he escape at all— only by finding a better paid position in some larger institution. Most of our faculty are so harassed by financial worries that their efficiency as teachers is seriously impaired. Such a condition as this might seem explanation enough of our failure to secure the best results, yet, serious as it is, it is not the fundamental difficulty in our college. It is a symptom rather than a primary cause.

A few courageous professors might so far endanger their popularity as to suggest that the overemphasis placed on athletics has some relation to our failure in realizing our ideals, and in this they would not fall far short of the mark, yet after all the explanation is not entirely satisfying. The overemphasis placed on athletics is in the final analysis but a symptom. The disease from which the college suffers might exist were there no such thing as athletics, and it were unfair to make athletics alone the scapegoat.

The trouble that afflicts our college and other colleges of its class is one that can not be cured by the excision of this or that diseased part. The situation, indeed, does not lend itself kindly to the metaphors of surgery; would we describe it truly we must employ a spiritual metaphor, for it is a rebirth that our college needs, and only by a rebirth can it be saved. The root of the difficulty lies deep in its very constitution. If we would discover why the institution has more or less persistently and systematically fallen short of its recognized duty, and prostituted its own ideals, we must look for the ultimate cause in its fundamental organization.

Ere we depart on this quest, however, let it be clearly understood that the personal ideals of the faculty with regard to scholarship are, for the most part, absolutely irreproachable. We know what sound scholarship is, and we honestly recognize the fact that we are not giving our students all that we ought to give them, though naturally we do not make the fact a subject for general conversation. Neither do we admit that the cause of this condition lies entirely within our own control. The ethical nature of the excuse that "a man must live" may be called in question, but no married man dare question the validity of the corollary that "a man's family must live," nor blame the teacher who, with wife and children dependent on him, places bread and butter ahead of ideals and starvation. On these stern conditions the teacher is often forced to countenance practises which he knows to be fundamentally wrong; and on the same stern conditions he is often forced to assume public responsibility for these same practises. If he protest, he is curtly told that teachers are not wanted who can not loyally support the institution and its policies, and is given the choice of upholding a policy which he knows to be harmful or of tendering his resignation. In short, while they are not allowed any appreciable share in determining the policies of the college, the faculty are forced to pose as the authors of these same policies, and criticism of any one of them is sufficient ground for a charge of "disloyalty" to the institution, and often a threat of dismissal from one's position. In all such matters, the teacher is not a free agent. He acts virtually under duress. The real responsibility for existing conditions must be sought elsewhere.

Above the faculty stands the board of trustees, a self-perpetuating body governing the college from without, sometimes with slight sympathy for the views of those within. The power of the board is absolute; its will is the supreme law of the college. For the most part it is made up of successful business men, few of whom are in agreement with the ideals of the faculty, many of whom indeed are incapable of understanding such ideals. They are keen, enterprising men, who have made money, who are proud of their business, intensely if blindly loyal to the town, and always ready to push its interests in season and out. They are proud of the fact that we have a college here. Its presence advertises us as a literate people, and it attracts new families to the town, thus "making business." While some of them have a rather hazy idea as to what college is for, they are very sure it is a fine thing, and they are willing to work for it, spend time and money for it, and use their utmost endeavors to advertise it effectively. Standards of scholarship are beyond their comprehension, but size appeals to them, for to them size and success are synonymous terms. They are ambitious for a big town and a big college. Whether the latter shall be a center of sound scholarship or merely a degree mill is a question that is not considered; indeed, the very meaning of such a problem is beyond the comprehension of most of them. Theirs is the narrowly commercial point of view, and they are constitutionally incapable of appreciating any problem that can not be expressed in commercial terms.

"M—— is to be asked to resign on account of inefficiency," declared a member of our board of trustees, in the hearing of a friend.

"But I had supposed M—— to be highly efficient," objected the friend. "He has certainly had fine training in his subject, and all who have heard him say that his teaching is splendidly clear and thorough."

"O yes," was the reply, "of course he can teach—we take that for granted—but as a booster the man is a flat failure. He never gets out and does a thing for the college—just keeps himself shut up in his laboratory all the time. For all the good he does he might just as well not be here."

Between the faculty, with its ideal of scholarship, and the trustees with their ideal of commercialism, stands the president of the college. Employed by the trustees as executive head of the institution, he has been given great power and broad discretion. In all matters touching the internal affairs of the college he is the confidential adviser of the board, and his advice is seldom disregarded. The board have placed in his hands the right of employing and discharging teachers at will, and without assigned cause. While certain powers are supposed to belong to the faculty, the president may not only veto, but may by executive order reverse its decisions, and in such cases his decision is final. It is true that cases of this sort may be appealed to the trustees, but it is an axiom of the trustees that, so long as they retain a president, he is to be supported in all that he does. As a practical proposition, therefore, in case of any disagreement between faculty and executive, the faculty enjoy only so much authority as the president may choose to allow them, and if he sees fit to overrule them completely they have no recourse. The president is in fact an autocrat, and the college policy is largely the reflection of his individual will.

It must not be supposed however that the board of trustees is a mere negative quantity, without opinions as to the conduct of the institution. The president's opinion is law, but the president's opinion is likely to be the reflection of the opinions of his more influential trustees. He is the creature of the trustees and depends upon them for his office. Were his views to take color unconsciously from those of any other man or body of men, one would expect that it would be the trustees whose opinions would determine his. His faculty have no means of asserting themselves, and are, accordingly, not in a position to command his respect. In the organization of the college they have been deprived of all real authority. They stand powerless before the president, as he would stand powerless before the trustees were there to be a conflict of authority between them. Naturally his views of college policy are modeled after those of the men who control him rather than those of the men and women who are so abjectly under his control. He comes quite naturally to attach too high a value to the commercialistic factor in the college problem, because that is the factor that appeals to his trustees. He discredits the views of his faculty whenever they conflict with the prevailing views of the trustees, even when such subjects as academic standards are concerned, in which it must be supposed that the faculty are experts and the trustees are not. There is, therefore, to-day a broad and ever-widening breach between president and faculty in our college. Socially the best of feeling exists. Officially there is a lack of understanding between the teaching and administrative ends of the institution.

The fact that the president is not himself a teacher tends to widen this breach between his faculty and himself. However much pressure might be brought to bear upon an executive by a commercialistic board, it is hard to believe that any man who had himself occupied a chair of instruction could, as president, forget to take account of the dangers that beset the scholastic ideals of the college at every turn. Nobody who has not served for some years as a college teacher can have any adequate realization of these dangers. Only the teacher knows the strength of the pressure that is brought to bear day after day, month after month, and year after year, for the scaling down of the passing standard, the destruction of effective discipline, the currying of favor by the introduction of "snap" courses, and the virtual abrogation of all rules in favor of successful athletes. Athletics indeed is the most frequent excuse urged in extenuation of the breaking down of an effective standard of work, and the statement that a boy is "representing the college" is apparently regarded by president, trustees and public at large as ample warrant for excusing him from any decent pretence of work and presenting him with an A or B grade merely as a compliment to his prowess as college "representative." Athletics is not the only occasion, however, for the manifestation of this spirit, and more than one professor has found himself in serious difficulty because of his failure to show a delicate sense of diplomacy in discriminating among the students who have failed in his department. Those who have trained themselves to see these things from the angle of the business office understand that such matters must be settled with due regard for the commercial rating of the student's family. "The boy's people are wealthy, and have always been friendly to the college" is regarded as valid excuse for undue leniency on such occasions. Against such insidiously demoralizing influences as these the more conscientious and discerning of the faculty struggle as best they can, and the fruit of their effort is seen in the fact that during the past half decade there has been a stiffening of class-room standards throughout the college. Yet the condition is still far from what it ought to be, and it is no exaggeration to say that such improvement as has come has been brought about in spite of the president and not because of him. While acutely anxious to safeguard our popularity he has apparently been unaware of the fact that standards of college work also need safeguarding, and that to this end eternal vigilance is necessary. Had he ever been a college teacher, it would have been impossible for him to overlook this very obvious fact. It is to his ignorance of the college, as seen from the teacher's side, that we must attribute his failure in this respect. Before becoming a college president he was a minister, as were the presidents of most of the colleges of our state. Out of our thirty-one small colleges only nine have chosen laymen to the presidency.

Most of these colleges are, of course, still under denominational control, and while such is not the case with our college, tradition demands that a clergyman fill the presidential chair. This tradition is doubtless a survival from the days when ours also was a strictly denominational college. We still have a large clientéle in the state who cherish the fear that the choosing of a layman for the presidency would be the last step in the secularization, and therefore the demoralization of the college, that it would thenceforth lose its character as a Christian college and would become "Godless" in its tendencies. Just how sectarianism contributes to the development of Christian character is not explained, nor is it made satisfactorily clear in what way a wise and well-trained teacher would fall short as an executive. Sooner or later this ministerial tradition must be dispensed with, for we must eventually realize that the only truly competent executive is the one who has "been through the mill" and has risen to the presidency from the ranks of college teachers; nor will the character of the college as a Christian institution suffer in the least by the appointment of such a man. Bather is it likely that our Christianity may take on a somewhat deeper tone, and find its vent in somewhat more practical manifestations. There may come to be less preaching and more performance, less self-conscious talk about the state of one's soul, and at the same time less cheating in examinations; for present experience indicates that religion of the current type and dishonesty of a conventional sort are not at all incompatible. Our inherited brand of Christianity is sincere but narrow, issuing at best in a personal righteousness that fails to take account of the broader social responsibilities confronting the present age. It is to be hoped that our college will ere long cast aside its theological leading strings and grow into something broader and better than its present pseudo-sectarianism.

Undoubtedly one of the worst effects of our president's failure to recognize scholarship as our goal is its demoralizing effect on members of the faculty. Left to themselves, there is no doubt that our teachers would pursue scholarship as the end and aim of their professional efforts. But as things stand at present, those who engage in this lofty pursuit are neither encouraged nor appreciated. Our president wants "rustlers"—men who are ready at a day's notice to leave their classes and go out on a financial campaign or a student canvass, men who are continually in the lime-light, attending committee meetings, speaking to student gatherings, devising changes in the man-millinery which is the outward and visible sign of our high calling, addressing questionnaires to the rest of the faculty on all sorts of unimportant topics, tacking up notices in the halls, rushing officiously from place to place, and making themselves generally as conspicuous as possible. Our president is a fanatic on the subject of "efficiency," by which term he means merely "activity." He has not yet discovered that much of this activity is about as fruitful as the activity of a kitten chasing its tail. His ideal—copied from that of his trustees—is commercial and material. Fruitful or not, the activity must be outward and evident, lending itself readily to advertising purposes; and for quiet unremitting intellectual labor, issuing in broader learning, deeper culture and better teaching, he has scant appreciation. What wonder that more than one teacher has become a mere promoter, letting his department deteriorate most woefully while he assists in the "broader" task of "running the college." Such is the sure road to presidential favor. Were our president himself a college teacher, viewing matters from the teacher's angle, this condition could not exist; but he is a promoter, employed by a group of promoters to advertise this educational undertaking of ours, and he sees the college from the promoter's viewpoint.

Yet even supposing the college headed by an experienced professor, with breadth enough to appreciate the needs of all the various departments, financial ability enough to make a good business manager, and courage enough to fight if necessary for the integrity of collegiate standards; could it under such conditions run smoothly and effectively? Probably not! Probably the man does not live who could fully satisfy the conflicting demands of faculty, trustees, student body and general public. It is time indeed that the student body and general public were left out of account in the consideration of this problem. Current opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, the college that will abandon the policy of inflation will be content with a small student body strictly selected from the available output of the high schools, and will make no effort to harvest as large a crop of freshman as possible, will soon have more students knocking at its doors than it can possibly accommodate. The annual scramble for students is a most undignified performance. It gives the public a false impression of the college, and leaves in the mind of the freshman a most exaggerated idea of his own indispensability in the educational scheme of things. Our college, like others, has cheapened itself in this respect. It is time that it learned its own worth, and realized that it is to be sought rather than to seek. But, leaving student body and public out of account, it may be asked whether our model college president could satisfy at the same time the ideals of the faculty and the ambitions of the trustees. Probably not. It was said at the outset that the disease from which our college suffers is constitutional, and that what it needs is a rebirth, that is to say, a reorganization along radically new lines. To vary the figure, let us say that the old educational machinery was awkward and poorly constructed in the first place, it never worked well, and with the changing demands of the times it works more and more poorly. We in America, inventive enough along mechanical lines, have been strangely uninventive in the organization of our educational institutions. Early in our history there grew up a form of college organization, adequate enough for its day, but fraught with potentialities of serious danger for the future. The president, in that early time, although usually a clergyman, was a teacher also, and met classes like the rest of the faculty. His was not then a position of great power. He was primus inter pares—the senior member of the faculty and the presiding officer in its meetings—not the Czar that he has since become. The American college was poor in those days, and its scanty funds were held in trust by a body of men who, that they might be impersonal and disinterested, were chosen from outside the college. As the college grew in wealth this group of trustees grew in importance, and gradually assumed not simply the investment of college funds, but the actual management of the college itself. Needing a representative within the college, they naturally chose the president, conferring on him autocratic authority, and correspondingly curtailing the power of the faculty. Thus grew up, gradually, a makeshift system of college government that could hardly be worse. The wonder is not that it works so poorly; the wonder is that it works at all; yet for many generations this system has been reduplicated all over the United States with scarcely a thought of the possibility of an improvement. Our college is merely one of the many that have copied this viciously undemocratic model, incorporating its worst features into their charters.

Trustees, president and faculty alike suffer from this bad condition of things. The faculty, being debarred from the exercise of their natural functions, become firebrands of discontent, or relapse in fatalistic apathy, or become parasitic sycophants fawning on president and trustees for such crumbs of favor as may now and then be thrown in their direction. In general they feel keenly that something is amiss, but fail to analyze the situation and locate the trouble. Yet the situation is not difficult of analysis. The key to it lies in the fact that the college is governed by men who lack the technical experience necessary to govern it well, and the faculty, who possess this technical experience, are barred from any effective share in its management.

The president makes a sincere effort to make a fair and equitable adjustment of the budget to the needs of the departments, but he fails, and that for a number of reasons. In the first place, he lacks the technical knowledge necessary to an understanding of the needs of the departments. In the second place, he is under the influence of the trustees with their passion for expansion and inflation; and he is continually trying to make a big showing by putting the funds that should go to the strengthening of existing departments into the creation of new ones, or into advertising. Thus the older departments are deprived of needed equipment (the students of course being the ultimate sufferers) and salaries are kept below-the efficiency level. In the third place he fails because he enjoys too large a measure of irresponsible power. It is the fashion nowadays to compare the college to an industrial plant, and the president to a factory superintendent. But there is this difference: The superintendent of the plow factory in our town can make a plow. He knows the details of construction in every department of his factory, has actually done the work himself, and can do it to-day if necessary better than any of his men. On the other hand, the college president knows far less about any given subject than does the professor who is set to teach that subject. He has no first-hand knowledge of the needs of any department. The factory superintendent is an expert directing the efforts of those less skilled than himself. The college president is a tyro directing a body of experts. His very ignorance makes it unsafe to place the power of official life and death in his hands.

As for the trustees, there can be no doubt that they are earnestly loyal to the college and devoted to its interests, and their own careers attest them good business men; yet the business management of our college is notoriously poor. College property that might have been made to return an excellent rental has been allowed to lie unproductive for years, and finally sold off bit by bit to pay running expenses; debt has been recklessly incurred; and there has never been any settled or consistent financial policy. The board, indeed, is too big a body to work well. It consists of twenty-four members when five would be a much more effective body. But the principal difficulty lies in the fact that the time of board meetings is taken up in the consideration of a multitude of problems all of which belong by right to the province of the faculty, and too little attention is given to the matter of finance. Briefly stated, our board fails because it does not concentrate its time and energy exclusively on the one thing for which it exists, namely, the providing of ways and means.

It is easier to criticize an existing system than to work out the details of a new and better one; yet the diagnosis just given suggests the remedy. The number of trustees should be reduced to five or six—of whom the president of the college might well be one ex officio—and their activities should be limited strictly to the investment of college funds, the raising of new funds, and the collection of rents and interest. After setting aside enough of the latter to meet overhead charges in the way of repairs, care of buildings and grounds, etc., they should place the balance with the college treasurer to be paid over to the various departments in accordance with a budget to be worked out by the faculty. The president should be the chairman of the faculty and its public representative, and should have a veto on all acts of the faculty—a veto which the faculty might override by a two thirds vote. The faculty should have complete and absolute jurisdiction over all the internal affairs of the college, and over the budget, subject only to the veto of the president; they should elect all teachers, subject to the approval of the president, and should when occasion demands elect the president, subject to the approval of the trustees. Finally, no member of the teaching force should be liable to discharge except after the filing of formal charges of impeachment, and a trial before the entire faculty, and the concurrence of the president and two thirds of the faculty in sustaining the charges alleged. Some such system as this, arranged to place every responsibility on the shoulders of those best equipped to meet it, and safeguarding against the misuse of power by an adequate system of checks and balances, would eliminate most of the evils incident to the present system of American college organization.

It may be objected that the budget would be a fruitful source of faculty discord. Some discord might, indeed, exist, but it is a fair question whether discord is not preferable to intrigue. Were it not better for a professor to go into faculty meeting and fight for the weal of his department openly, than to enter a private office and lobby for it secretly. In colleges, as in politics, publicity is a strong incentive to decency. The present system is one of secrecy, intrigue and deceit. The president, who holds the key to the situation, lacks the necessary special knowledge of the departments and their needs, and the securing of funds by the various professors becomes largely a competitive test in the matter of sycophancy. It were better to have all such matters threshed out in open meeting, with the data in question before the faculty. In the end its decisions would be fair and just. Here, as elsewhere, the principle of democracy will work if given half a chance.

Finally, to the charge that the proposition here offered is too radical, let us make answer by advising all doubters to study carefully the organization of the colleges of Oxford and the universities of Germany.

When one college shall have adopted the plan here suggested of transferring to the faculty the functions that are rightfully and naturally theirs, and limiting both trustees and president to their natural functions, a new and brighter era will have begun in the history of American education. The standard of collegiate instruction will at once rise many degrees, the college teacher will become a more useful member of society, as will also the college president, harmony instead of discord will reign among the three branches of the college government, and all three will be in a position to make a united and effective attack on the educational problems that are calling for solution. For when one institution shall have changed, others will soon follow, and in time our entire college system will re-form itself in accordance with the dictates of true wisdom, and along the lines of true democracy.