Externalism in American Universities

AT almost every great European seat of learning the observer feels that all its present sponsors are faithful children of the past. The softened forms of ancient buildings, the survival of use and ceremonial from an age long gone, — these and a multitude of other witnesses seem to tell of a mysterious spirit there awaiting and subduing all who come. A suppression and blending of private wills in fealty to a higher power seems but a fair copy of those outer patterns with which the universities of Europe have long stood face to face, — with captained soldiery, with the sway of pontiffs in the church, with kings and emperors.

Yet the European higher schools, in their own rule, are strangely free. The masters, the professors, have the chief voice in choosing those who are to join their body; and though it often reserves the right to intervene, the state regards with favor the autonomy of this band of men. And while there is no lack of rank and dignity, — of Heads of Colleges, Rectors, Chancellors, — the university is unconstrained in the presence of its visible lord, bringing, as he does, no thought of imposition, but standing forth rather as the representative and spokesman by free choice of those who are the learned guild. In many a European university the headship is conferred by the faculties, often for a single year, upon one of their own professors, who returns, at the close of his brief term, to his old estate, and some colleague takes his place. Often, as in some of the great British universities, the election to the most exalted station brings a splendid honor whose real power, however, has wholly passed away. Everywhere in the Old World, titles and robes and golden symbols, beautiful to the imagination as the illumined initials on some vellum page, meet one at the opening of the seals of knowledge. But the real dominion over the mind is recognized as coming no more from those initials than from the characters, untinctured, which form the body of the work.

In the New World all is changed. A citizen-like plainness has long marked the buildings, the dress, the customs, and is only now departing here and there. The surroundings would make one expectant that with us least of all would learning be overgoverned, — here in the land of loose bonds, of individual excess. For in no part of the world is there among the people as a whole more concern to avoid the danger of domination: the federal power is narrowed in by the reserved power of the states; few men are permitted to remain long in public office, lest they should learn too well to govern; the legal safeguards about the person charged with guilt are so absurdly effective that almost the only assurance one can have of life and liberty is to commit some fearful crime. Yet among a people so jealous of private rights, so patient of the inconveniences of weak and scattered powers and changing persons in political government, lest the individual should be oppressed, — among such a people, university government has assumed a form that we might have expected to see in a land accustomed to kings. European universities have a constitution that might have come from some American political theorist; American universities are as though founded and fostered in the bourne of aristocracy.

The government of American universities is essentially from without. A board of governors known by many names — “ trustees,” as at Johns Hopkins, “regents ” at the University of California, “the corporation” at Harvard, “ fellows ” at Yale, — belongs neither to those who study nor to those who teach, and is in consequence disjoined from the real life of the institution. Often their high character, their training, their devotion to the work, greatly reduces the disjunction, yet is the separation real. Even when some of their number are graduates of the university they govern, they are sons who have left the family hearth, and too often they are unequally yoked with unbelievers. For some of their fellow-members of the board may be there merely by reason of election to a remote political office, or by virtue, or vice, of great possessions, and neither of these successes, we have learned, does always insure the presence of wisdom for academic guidance. Yet even in those frequent cases where there is sympathy and understanding for the work, it remains a curious departure from our usual American ideas, as well as from the scholarly custom elsewhere, that we should have called into existence in affairs of learning a regnant body the life activities of whose members lie outside the realm they rule. And these men, besides administering the funds, choose the man who is the power of all powers in our academic world, the university president.

The American university president holds a place unique in the history of higher education. He is a ruler responsible to no one whom he governs, and he holds for an indefinite term the powers of academic life and death. Subject to the formal approval of the trustees, he selects new members of the faculty, promotes, dismisses them. To the faculty, it is true, there seems to be left the important power to define the requirements for admission to the university and to its degrees, and yet these activities are in a fundamental way directed by the president, since by his word comes growth to this department and atrophy to that. And while his sway is subject to a constitution, and he cannot quite justly be called an autocrat, nevertheless the charter brings to him, perhaps, less serious restrictions than those which often in the larger world bind men who bear the name of emperor.

There is thus a marvelous disparity between the rule of states and of their own academies, both here and elsewhere; nor is it easy to see why Europe and America should each be harboring what would seem properly to be sacred only to the other. Still it is possible, would one but look far enough, — to the colonial times of America, to the mediæval times of Europe, — to catch some glimpse of the causes which have brought about this strange condition.

The early American college had but few students and few instructors, a body compact and not unlike a family. Its students were younger than our undergraduates to-day, and the care of youth so tender in their years may easily have suggested patriarchal forms— forms that, we know, rise readily to monarchal. Moreover there was no growth side by side, as at Oxford and Cambridge, of several relatively independent colleges to check each other and to keep, as always in a federation, a certain jealous guard and division of their streugth. But with us a single college, modeled in many ways after the single English college, rather than after the university, expanded in its isolation until, with all its paternal spirit still unchanged, its size seemed to become a warrant for a more impressive name. It seems probable, moreover, that a strong influence to fix the early form came from the imitation of a type of government common in the colonies, where a small corporation, or “ company,” often resident in distant England, controlled its colony through a single local governor. For it can hardly be by chance that the old collegiate constitution under which we still live repeats so exactly the political model of the time — the academic trustees, or corporation, corresponding to the “ company,” while the president, appointed from without, would answer to the governor administering the colony in the company’s name. And long after the political forms became by hard struggle more democratic, and the small external corporation ceased to rule the colony (the governor being now chosen by the colonists themselves), the seats of learning, that cling so long to ancient ways, still kept in thoughtless piety the older rule.

Even where there has been some attempt to follow the European course and live as befits believers in democracy, the opposing current has proved too strong for the sturdiest hearts. Several of our universities began their life without long tenure and high power in the office of their president, but one by one their courage fails and they follow the custom of the land. The most notable of these conformists is the honored University of Virginia, that after nearly a century of loyalty to Jefferson’s democratic ideal has finally in these last days inaugurated its first president according to the usage of America. The polity that we might call monarchic is thus not only frequent in the new-world colleges, but it is stripping away the few lorn shreds of popular control which still remain among them. Chiefly at Yale of all the leading universities is there some vestige of real power remaining to the faculty. Yet, as by historic humor, she celebrated nearly two centuries ago the prime importance of the president, even in the official style of her corporation, “The President and Fellows of Yale College,” and in these later times has set forth anew his primacy in a golden glory of mace and massive chain.

As the American university has preserved almost unchanged the constitution of its younger days, so the European university has continued the form of government with which its life began. And there the controlling type of association was the mediæval guild. The universities at the beginning were but loose associations similar in many ways to modern trade-unions, — now a guild of masters or professors, and again a company of students. At Bologna, where was the best instance of a student corporation, the strange spectacle is presented of a great university governed by those receiving instruction, — students electing their own rectors, engaging their own teachers. At Paris, where the contrasting type of organization came to power, the University was ruled, not by its students but by its professors, and such was their strength and corporate spirit that they could, battling, win their freedom from the domination of the bishop’s chancellor. These two early and wonderful instances of academic order, the University of Paris and the University of Bologna, have shaped the polity of the universities of Europe, so impressing their own features upon their descendants that these are, even to this day, essentially what universities were in the Middle Ages, — free guilds of men professionally interested in the higher learning, with power to determine their own membership, elect their own officers, administer their own property.

But after history comes judgment and prophecy. And having tried to see the distant influences which have made the university government in America stand out so sharp against her political usage and opinion, what should be said as to the wisdom of such a contrast ? Were it not better if we instituted here the form of government under which have prospered the greatest universities of the world, — a form of government which might well with us have hope of fortune, familiar as we are with the mechanism of self-control ? There are many who would welcome such a change; many who feel that the presidency in our universities is like that oak in the Finnish tale, which sprang up late, and yet in the end shut out the light of day and must be felled, lest all other life should fail. And not alone the overshadowing presidency is regarded with distrust; many are doubtful also of the whole system of direction by an alien body of trustees.

It is not entirely clear that a change of these externals would of itself ennoble the spirit of our academies; and the spirit is the chief care, and can live true in bodies diverse in form. When Matthew Arnold named the English as having undue faith in machinery, he no less noted a trait of the American, who is so often confident of the efficacy of outward means. And our university reformers are possibly not untouched by this idea. Yet the truth is, that the body exhibits the mind even more than it controls it, and therefore there are changes on the face of our universities that would be grateful, not so much as sources from which would come some inner transformation, but rather as the legible record of such a hidden change already far advanced. In its turn the outward sign would minister inwardly, as a banner helps an army.

The changes that seem seriously worth attempting — not suddenly, but after the manner of Fabians, glad to bide their time — would bring us to a middle way between the present course of America and that of Europe. The board of trustees one need not wish utterly to abolish, although here and there the manner of their selection might be improved. For, all in all, the American is perhaps right in placing the care for the general plan of income and expense in the hands of an external body of men trained in the management of funds. But the action of the trustees might well stop at narrower limits than those to which at present they often go. In appointing new members of the faculty, they should perhaps best confine themselves to granting a stated annuity for a particular academic office. The man to fill this office should properly be selected by the faculty itself. And the faculty alone should normally have the power to dismiss its own members. But still more important and beneficial for our present needs would it be to have the professors rather than the trustees elect the university president and determine the powers which he should wield. The office of president would thus remain, but he who occupied it would be the representative directly of the faculty, and he could be efficient only so long as he retained their confidence. In such a plan the president need be no puppet of the professors, any more than at present he is a puppet of the trustees. He would best be a wise leader, yet going all the while only where he could lead and not compel, — lead not a majority merely, but the body as a whole. One can readily imagine the delays and even abuses to which such a system might give rise, especially during the years required for the self-training of the faculty to its new responsibilities. But such evils would hardly exceed the worst that comes from the present system, and in the end the movements of the university would tend more and more to spring from inner harmony and conviction; a university that would stand at the front, not in numbers but in worth, would have to bring itself to harmony, would have to become convinced. In a few of our best American universities the president even now is in a hidden way the representative of the faculty: they believe in him; he feels it necessary to have the support of those who are so vital to the institution, those who devote their lives to teaching and research. It would do no harm in these universities — where such a spirit now is wanting, it would doubtless be of infinite good — if provision were made in the very constitution that the president regard the faculty as men from whom must come real guidance; as men who must if necessary be forced, even against their present will, to be more and more answerable for the ideas that dominate their seat.

While a change of government might thus assist us, it is not our chief necessity. We need what is of greater value and far more difficult to obtain. There is called for, both in the public mind and in the universities themselves, a refinement of the measure of academic progress. An evil spirit afflicts us, whose spell might be broken if, following the custom of primitive men, we turned stoutly upon it and called aloud its secret name. For to externalism, in the end, we must attribute the prominence of the president, the dependence of our universities upon him. This condition of ours comes not so much from a want of democratic spirit, if by this we mean an easy intercourse, a bonhomie, of college men, a hatred of snobs and vanity, a desire for public service. It comes rather from a passion in our people for visible accomplishment, a love of dimensions, an admiration for alert administration, for forceful public utterance.

In politics we have in some measure been influenced by the thought that weakness in government is not wholly unjustified if thereby the individual is encouraged to be strong. Although our public affairs indicate a certain loss of enthusiasm for individual initiative and freedom, nevertheless our thought of government has long been molded by an educational ideal. Our universities, strange to say, have been swayed more by political motives, — by the feeling which works for compactness, for energy at a focal point. Rather than render some slight sacrifice for the sake of spontaneity and inner strength, our universities feel that they must first of all have the power of rapid adjustment to a changing situation, the power to strike while the iron is hot, the power to go forth, also, in a direct and personal way to get help as well as give it. And all this means administration centred in a man free to act. In the ship of state we have been willing to consult the passengers and crew at each change of the vessel’s course; in trying to make the port of knowledge, however, we are strong for authority and discipline. Yet we may well doubt whether our university methods have been quite as manly, quite as farsighted, as our statecraft. Our colleges could now afford to be less worldlywise, to be less ready to move toward small ends and more steadily attentive to the great aims of education, to be less fascinated by quantity, to have less eye and more vision.

The American university is wonderfully enheartened by outward prosperity and outward growth. In a recent letter of resignation of the aged president of one of our more conservative colleges — a college so conservative that it has never assumed the title “university”—there is a tone of satisfaction almost exultant, because the freshman class had increased during his administration ten-fold in number, and the college buildings had enlarged by equal bounds. If success is to be measured merely, or even mainly, by changes of this kind, there is need of strong officering. The strong officering, the emphasis on officering, brings in its turn an undue attention to things that can be expressed in statistics and to the eye.

There can be little question but that the president’s prominence and the general system of external government add one more to the many motives toward academic inflation. I would say nothing that even seems to be unappreciative of the character of our presidents, many of whom are among the truly honorable men of the nation. Yet in any group so large there are characters that are not quite crag-like, and to these comes at times the temptation to justify their prominence by results that can be shown. A reputation for resourcefulness must be made or maintained, bringing an inner prompting to hurry and harry the college with “original” ideas. On view by day and by night in the public place, and having attributed to him many of the natural ups and downs for which he is nowise answerable, any man whose foundations do not go down to rock is liable to be shaken. He becomes restless and moves by popular favor, or opposition, so that steadiness and sound growth in the university are in great peril.

A university works best when its work is quiet and deep; and all its forms and organization should express and strengthen this idea. Its first duty is to offer men knowledge and the power of judgment. And yet so closely are the springs of life united that knowledge and judgment are always found close to the love of moderation and order. The line between science and art can be seen only when one does not look directly at it, disappearing before our closer gaze. For science is but the art of seeing the world as it is, — temperate, law-bound. The university therefore hinders the cause of intelligence unless in its own conduct it is patient and steadfast; unless it shows itself the one institution above all others that can train itself and train its sons to be serene and moderate, out of very loyalty to the changeless good. The true university is, in its action, neither feverish nor slothful. Having in its keeping the great ideas that guide all progress, it is at its best neither in shifty efforts at advance nor in listless contemplation of the good ; so that the strongest universities have ever been ready to give their own kind of support to living ideas, while disinclined to rush forth at every cry of “ Lo, here! ” or “ Lo, there!” Certainly no place where intelligence really exists will lose its excuse for being if it fails to increase in size. The American reverence for quantity is a great hindrance to our universities in pursuing their proper end. We need a prophet crying, “Woe unto all things that are big!” We need this cry for our universities no less than for our insurance, our railways, and our sale of oil.

Moreover, the externalism in the universities, whereof the elevation of the presidency is but one sign, takes responsibility from its rightful place. We make central the administrative office, as in some great commercial undertaking, instead of the office of teacher and truthseeker, the office of student. Yet here is the locus of success and failure. No one would claim that the professors are a worthier group of men than our college presidents; it is not a question of personal rights or jealousy of honors. It is a question of right or wrong to the cause; and the universities themselves, knowing what is in their charge, should be the last to typify in their own structure the thought that discovering truth and imparting the vital principle whereby others may discover it are of a dignity less than that of organizing and management. And yet, much more than in the great universities of Europe, we exalt administrative ability above scientific insight. We bestow the praise for success, the blame for failure, more upon the administration and less upon our professors and our students, who are rightly answerable for the university’s achievement. Our undergraduates are a painfully dependent class, overtaught and undertrained, accustomed to incessant drill and supervision, themselves the victims and encouragers of this policy. The professors likewise are not without fault. They look wistfully at the activities of other callings, and show in this that they have no full sense of the dignity of facing square toward truth and belonging to its council. Only a short time ago a college teacher spoke seriously in public of the banker, the lawyer, and even of the burglar, as being in touch with life in a truer sense than is the university professor. And the professors’ frequent reference to the poor rewards and all the outward hardships of their work indicates some little envy of the goods of life which come to the merchant, the lawyer, and the physician. Yet there is no lot on earth that offers greater rewards and greater opportunities. And when an individual has grievances, the blame is often placed primarily on the president, since the form of organization encourages the professors to place the responsibility anywhere but on themselves. It would be more fitting if their constitution gave no excuse, but constantly invited each to perceive that with himself it rested whether he would succeed or fail. Externalism is thus no purely Philistine failing, nor a failing only of the president and trustees. Students and professors are alike infected with it; they too are looking outward for their succor.

It is but natural where organization is so important and the office of administration is magnified, that the presidency should fast lose its connection with active and advancing scholarship. There is so much governing to be done — because in our universities we trust so much to government — that in but few places can a president continue a scholar’s life. So the old type of leader, learned and temperate, fast yields to the new type, — selfconfident, incisive, Rooseveltian. And with the coming of the new type, there seems to be an increasing stress upon rapid accomplishment, upon “doing things,” with grave risk that our places of learning will preserve a less clear vision of what is catholic and enduring.

The constitution of our universities is an appearance of their indwelling mind, and therefore is of moment for their future. It is difficult to foretell whether the American will continue forever the government that was well enough for a boys’ academy in colonial times. The desire is unquestionably awakened in us to have universities that can stand with the greatest of the world; and the desire will in the end, I believe, lead us more and more to distrust external rule. Our present forms have served our nonage; the days of our ignorance have been winked at, but now we are commanded everywhere to repent. We shall hardly reproduce in haste the European models, with all their clear advertisement that they are scholars’ commonwealths, are municipalities of science; and yet it cannot be thought that we shall continue forever and without regret upon our present course. We shall in the end place less reliance upon commercial methods in discovering and bringing into harmony the choicest minds; the university will perceive that it must become for them a hospitable place, showing in its very laws and customs that it is a union of gifted persons sanely working together to increase the store of intelligence among men. It will feel that it must bestow on all who come within its walls the keys and freedom of a great city.