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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 85/August 1914/The Small College and its Faculty

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 85‎ | August 1914


THIS president has been reading an article in the Popular Science Monthly for May entitled "The Small College and Its President"—hence these words.

Probably it is rarely the case, when a number of alumni, each more than fifty years of age, foregather and begin to talk over old times, that some one doesn't tell the story of the time he and others put a cow in the college chapel. These stories can not all be true—there haven't been cows enough. Probably they are more or less fictitious variants of some fundamental cow-myth which originated under those vague conditions commonly described as "mists of antiquity." In a similar way it may fairly be questioned whether the awful condition described in the article to which allusion has been made really exists in concrete form and precisely as set forth in any particular institution.

If there is a college such as is described in this May article it should certainly be abolished at once. It is a disgrace to the whole system of education in America. It is very difficult to believe that, because of their athletic prowess, athletes are given marks higher than they deserve. It is difficult to believe that the sons of wealthy patrons are unfairly marked in the professors' classbooks and on the registrar's records. Whatever trustees and faculties might think, no body of normal undergraduates would stand for any such treatment of that larger part of their number neither athletic nor rich.

But the object of this writing is to describe briefly another small college which is believed to be more nearly like the typical American small college. It is something less than one hundred years old. Its undergraduate body numbers perhaps less than three hundred. It is governed by a rather large board of trustees. All but two of them are college graduates, and most of them are graduates of the college over which they now preside. It includes clergymen, lawyers or judges, and business men—bankers, insurance men, manufacturers, merchants—in proportion as the numbers 10, 16 and 20. It is under no ecclesiastical control. The president of the college is ex-officio president of this board of trustees. His powers are nowhere stated or defined in the charter or statutes of the college. It takes a two-thirds vote of the trustees to dismiss him, and he is ex officio a member of various committees. He has two votes in the faculty if he cares to use them—one regularly and another in the case of a tie. To the faculty, which consists of all the permanent officers of instruction, is, by the statutes, "committed the government of the students." This term "government" is considered to include both the disciplinary and the instructional functions of the college officers.

The courses of study, prepared originally by the faculty, are prescribed by the supreme governing body and changes are from time to time made by the faculty under the authority of the trustees. Within ten years at least there has been no case in which the wishes of the faculty in these matters have been overruled by the trustees.

It is probably true that the president has a good deal of practical authority. It is based upon nothing except the feeling of the faculty that as the president is in a peculiarly responsible position both to the trustees and to the public, because his view is necessarily wider and more comprehensive than that of the professors through his relation to the public, because there are after all other considerations than those of any particular classroom which must affect the college policies—for these and other reasons his wishes are entitled to some weight. The president has no veto over the action of the faculty. For many years there was a provision giving him this authority. It was repealed at the request of an earlier president, and the present president refused to have it restored when some of the trustees were rather disposed to restore it.

As for the unhappy athletes in this small college it is unquestionably true that they get less consideration than anybody else. Any excuse asked by an athlete, or request for special consideration, any explanation of failure or misconduct offered by such a person is regarded with peculiar suspicion—almost enough to justify the statement in a very amusing book of college stories that "a college professor always hates a man who weighs over one hundred and seventy-five pounds."

Similarly, it is unthinkable that this faculty should modify a student's marks according to the social or financial prominence of his family. One of the most excruciating and most frequent tasks of the president is to write letters to his personal friends and to wealthy patrons of the college explaining that their sons have been dropped on account of deficiency in scholarship. It is not a pleasant job and the performance of it goes far to justify the somewhat larger salary which the president receives. Indeed, quite antithetically to the situation in the college described last May, it is the president who has to take most of the "knocks" arising from the actions of the governing body of the college, the faculty, whether or not he happens to be personally in sympathy with all that is done. Again and again has he found himself obliged to defend acts and policies with which he was by no means in accord.

At present there seems to be a good deal of unrest among college professors. It is a little difficult to see why; for, after all, the president and the professors alike are hired men engaged for a consideration to discharge fairly definite duties. It is difficult to see why a college professor should make so much more fuss about losing his position than is commonly made by an officer in a bank or an insurance company or a corporation or in the public service. The college professor is not necessarily an expert in education or in college administration as carried on in these later days. He is apt to be a specialist, knowing something, indeed, of many subjects and a great deal about some restricted range of intellectual activity. Often he is absolutely without qualification for formulating a course of study suitable for the average boy, for advising the average student as to the studies that are best for him, or for the construction of any educational policy whatever.

The fact that A is one of the highest living authorities on clam shells needs to be supplemented by other facts before this man can expect much importance to be given to his views on the training of youth or concerning the apportionment of funds among a dozen or fifteen different departments. In most faculties, however, there are men not disqualified by personal disposition or training for work other than that in their own specialty. It is the policy of our faculty to utilize the qualifications of these men by distributing them as chairmen of active committees to which are referred questions of discipline, choice of electives, and similar important matters.

Probably we might do well to think twice about the importance to the professor or to the college of much of that which is called research work. A man can not teach well if he stops learning. Undoubtedly it is much pleasanter to work in the library or in the laboratory, and much pleasanter to work in one's own study, than it is to try to convey information to a body of rather careless young men who would prefer not to be instructed. But, after all, in the small college at least, the instruction of youth is the principal object of the professor's connection with the institution. There are not many professors whose research work is of any value whatever except to themselves. Those who are competent to enlarge the boundaries of human knowledge constitute a different class and are few in number. Such should have every opportunity and every facility. Generally these men are such wretchedly poor teachers that they have no place in the college faculty. Their service to mankind must be rendered elsewhere and under different conditions. Of course the college professor must have opportunity and time for continuous self-improvement, but he mustn't be allowed to forget that his job is that of a teacher.

It is questionable also whether the faculty should have too much to say about its own membership. In our college, the president, when an appointment is to be made, confers freely and with entire candor with the professors whose work is most like that which is to be done by the new incumbent, and some decision is generally arrived at by a sort of mutual understanding arising without formal rules. Nevertheless it has happened again and again that appointments must be made under conditions absolutely precluding any considerable conference with members of the faculty. It is probably true that professors have means of finding out things about candidates from other institutions which lie beyond the range of the president's powers of investigation; but there is one difficulty about the circumstances brought to light by professors investigating each other. A good deal of the information thus collected is not true. It is based upon personal jealousies, pique, personal likes and dislikes—all of which give a certain pleasant tang to life in the college faculty but which are very misleading when allowed to count for much in judging the man who is leaving one faculty for another.

We are hearing a good deal just now of that freedom of thought and of the expression of it which ought to be enjoyed by college professors. Evidently college professors must be allowed to think without restraint within very broad limits. The expression of their thoughts should not be criticized or at least should not be used as a reason for dismissal from college because some trustee happens to disagree with them. Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that even college professors sometimes talk very foolishly, and if a professor or a president makes himself and the institution which he represents ridiculous there would seem no very great injustice in suppressing him. Isn't it a possibility that college men are all too thin-skinned, too sensitive, too jealous of each other, too considerate of the persons whom they think themselves to be.

Various recent developments seem to indicate a regrettable tendency on the part of college professors toward something like class feeling; toward the notion that they are somehow different from other people. It will be a great misfortune if this idea is allowed to prevail, if it is allowed to become permanent. When we forget that everybody is pretty much like everybody else, when any persons employed in a particular fashion get to think that they are otherwise than just folks, there is trouble brewing. This president feels pretty sure that the average college professor is too sensible to allow himself to be betrayed for long into such an untenable position.

Within the last ten years there have been in this small college of ours thirty-seven men who have held permanent appointments as well as a good many who have taken a small amount of work in emergencies or who have been here temporarily while professors have been away on leave of absence. Of these thirty-seven twenty are now in the faculty. Of the seventeen who have left three were dismissed either for inefficiency in teaching or for the exhibition of grave defects of character. In each case there was substantial unanimity on the part of trustees and faculty. Two of the seventeen have retired on their pensions. One withdrew on account of a breakdown in his health, eleven resigned, to our great regret, to accept considerably more lucrative positions elsewhere. We rejoiced in this evidence of their distinction and tried to fill their places with men equally good. Some of these we shall probably lose by and by in the same way.

On the whole, isn't this a pretty good small college? There have been evidences of weakness in discipline in years past, due in each case to the mistaken leniency of the faculty. This has never been due to outside pressure. One can't help wondering whether this small college which was discussed last May is not suffering more from morbid and unfounded fears on the part of the professors than from any real danger of autocratic action by president or trustees.