Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/March 1876/Our Great American University

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 8 March 1876  (1876) 
Our Great American University


ABOUT five years ago we decided to found a new college. At that time our denomination had but seven in the State, not one of them first class, all beggarly, and the nearest fifty miles away. Brother A——— alone demurred to the project, but, as he was more noted for mere abstract scholarship than for practical attainments, his objections were easily set aside. He thought it would be very unwise to establish another institution of learning, on the ground that the prevalent division of forces tended to lower educational standards; and he held that we ought rather to concentrate our energies upon schools already in existence and struggling to get along. We, on the other hand, urged the desirability of multiplying means of education. If one college is a good thing, surely two must be twice as good, and so on, indefinitely. Why, then, should we not have a college of our own, and train up our young men at home, instead of sending them away to institutions established in distant places for the gratification of wretched local pride? Besides, the nearest university to us was that hot-bed of infidelity founded by the State, and there was great danger lest our youth should go there and become corrupted. Such a catastrophe must be prevented at all hazards.

But one argument influenced us above all others, and was, in fact, unanswerable: we had in our midst a very prominent man, the Hon. Magnus Virtue, who, after accumulating a large fortune in the management of a distillery, had lately retired from business, and joined my church. Out of the goodness of his heart, and encouraged by my exhortations, he decided to become a public benefactor, and accordingly offered us $20,000 for the foundation of a great college to be called by his ever-to-be-revered name. Here, then, was an opportunity which we ought not to neglect. Twenty thousand dollars was a most munificent gift, and would found an institution better endowed at the start than any of our near rivals, except perhaps the political abomination already mentioned. Twenty thousand dollars meant a fine building; and surely students' fees would suffice for the expenses of running. As for libraries, apparatus, etc., we could easily rely upon donations and bequests which would, of course, come pouring in upon us as soon as we were well established.

So we organized a board of trustees, procured a charter, and set to work under the title of "Virtue University." This, we thought, had a grander sound than "Virtue College," and we well knew how much the public is influenced by names. Shakespeare's absurd statement about the odor of a rose is contradicted by universal experience.

The first great task before us was, plainly, the erection of a building; and this involved the choice of a site. Here we were very fortunate. One of my parishioners, a noted real-estate broker, happened to own a worn-out farm some two miles from town, and was anxious to bring it into market. He was a man who clearly recognized the duty of casting his bread upon the waters whenever a fair prospect of speedy return with interest was discernible; and so he presented us with five acres of said land, situated on the top of a steep bluff a quarter of a mile from the nearest road. The gift, of course, advertised the rest of his estate, which he at once cut up into building-lots, and sold at a handsome profit. He got his money, and we got our site, so both were satisfied. Far be it from me to impugn or even to suspect his motives. Of course, our building was begun without delay.

Meanwhile we went vigorously to work manipulating the newspapers, both secular and religious. Every week we caused some item to appear concerning the progress and prospects of "Our Great American University." Rumors of expected bequests, and speculations about the Faculty were continually finding their way into print. Our university was to be a model to all other institutions. Although controlled by our denomination, it was to have no sectarian bias; its policy should be conservatively liberal; morally, intellectually, and æsthetically, it might be regarded as the culmination of our American school-system. Men of national reputation and the greatest ability were to fill professors' chairs; thorough instruction could be expected in every department; languages, literatures, sciences, philosophy, and art, would occupy the time of the students who were sure to flock in from all parts of the country. We hoped to eclipse all the colleges of America, and even to rival the greatest universities of the Old World. Statements like these, capable as they were of great latitude in interpretation, served the double purpose of interesting the general public, and of keeping up our own enthusiasm.

At last our building was finished—a splendid brick structure with a French roof, a tower, and a belfry. Even a New York architect, who visited our town, expressed his wonderment and surprise at it. Of course we were proud of our work, but that pride was lessened when we discovered that the $20,000 was all expended. The building had absorbed it completely, and half as much again; so here we were, at the end of our tether, with a fine pile of brick-and-mortar, no money, and a very handsome debt. What was to be done? Our trustees met, and, since most of them were clergymen, this question was promptly answered. We must appeal to the public. We did so—begged vigorously on week-days, took up a collection on Sundays, and, in the course of a month, managed to raise about $3,000. This went to the builder, who, for the rest of his claim, generously accepted a mortgage bearing eight per cent. interest.

This unfortunate matter rather cast a damper upon our spirits, but still we were determined to go along. Here was a debt upon which interest must be paid, and how could we pay it except by opening the university and deriving some income from students? We expected 500 students at $50 per annum each, making $25,000 a year to begin with, exclusive of gifts and bequests. We could allow $2,000 a year for interest and sinking-fund, $8,000 for incidental expenses, and all the rest might go to pay instructors. Seven professors, at $1,800 apiece, with a president at $2,500, would give us indeed a strong Faculty. So we went bravely ahead on the strength of these calculations. Adversity only seemed to make our anticipations more glowing than ever. Such is the power of faith.

All this time Brother A——, who had, unfortunately, become a member of the board, was a thorn in our flesh, and a stumbling-block in our path. Not a step was taken without opposition from him; indeed, he seemed to consider himself a monitor over all our official actions. The conceit of these scholars is amazing! He opposed the erection of our building as an extravagance, urging that a university needed brains more than mere brick-and-mortar. When we decided to get brains, he again annoyed us, saying that we ought not to employ professors until we were sure of our ability to pay them. Such inconsistencies were naturally self-destructive; so we listened politely to his wild and extravagant ideas, then quietly ignored whatever he said, and did as we had previously determined. Other colleges had fine buildings, contracted debts, and worked on the sure foundations of faith, hope, and (to be received) charity. We would follow the common example, and succeed. To this Brother A—— added that other colleges sometimes failed, and so might ours; but I, for one, could not understand the relevancy of the remark.

So the board agreed, with but one dissenting voice, to appoint a Faculty. The next step led to squabbles. Every member had some protégé to provide for; each one desired that certain chairs should be established and others omitted—no two could agree altogether. First, of course, we decided to choose a president, for a college without a president would be like a house without a roof. We would, therefore, appoint a president, and then let him advise us what to do next; although taking his advice might be quite another matter. As was to be expected. Brother A—— again interfered, saying that a president would be a useless expense; that he would merely draw the highest salary and do the least work of any member of the Faculty. To sustain his arguments he called our attention to the fact that the German universities have no presidents, whereupon I jocosely remarked that "they could afford no precedent for us." With their infidel tendencies they are indeed bad exemplars, and it would be a great pity if any free American institution should ever copy after them.

After a long and tedious discussion we at last fixed our choice upon a prominent Eastern clergyman, and offered him the splendid salary of $2,500 dollars a year. His parish, however, paid him $6,000, and so he gratefully declined our proposition. Several other ventures resulted in the same way, and thus three months passed with nothing accomplished. Finally, the lightning struck in a most unexpected quarter, and I, the humble writer of these pages, was really chosen President of Virtue University. This choice was opposed by Brother A—— with more than his usual bitterness; why, I never could quite understand. He disclaimed all personal feeling in the matter, professed great esteem for me, and all that sort of thing, but thought I was hardly qualified for the place. He pointed out that I had had no experience in educational affairs; that I was a graduate, not of a college, but only of a theological seminary; and stoutly maintained that we ought to choose either a thoroughly-trained educator or nobody at all. Now, it was well known that I had successfully, not to say brilliantly, served several terms upon the school committee; and also that I had once been chaplain of a small college in the northern part of the State. These facts, coupled with the shrewd suspicion that Brother A—— would like the appointment for himself, gave me the election. I at once entered upon my duties, and began to draw salary. This was in May, and the university was to open in September. Meanwhile, I was to raise money; so, after first giving my views concerning the Faculty, I started for New York, begging. In two months I contrived to secure $1,500 over my expenses, and then returned in only a very moderate state of jubilation. Why is it that rich men care so little for the cause of education?

At last the composition of our Faculty was determined, as follows: I, as president, was to teach mental and moral philosophy, logic, and finance. Brother A—— ironically suggested that perhaps I had better undertake five or six other branches in addition to these, but I did not feel like being overworked. For professors we were to have one of Latin, a second of Greek, a third of mathematics, a fourth of history, a fifth of English literature and rhetoric, a sixth of modern languages, and a seventh of chemistry and natural philosophy. As was to have been expected, Brother A—— bothered us again, urging that, as long as we were determined to appoint professors, we ought to do fuller justice to the sciences. But these are comparatively unimportant, as well as rather unsafe, branches of knowledge (if, indeed, they can be called true knowledge at all), and therefore we adhered to the scheme given above. We did, however, draw up a long plan of studies, including every prominent subject we ever heard of, and in it relegated astronomy, botany, natural history, and geology to the senior year of the college course. They could be taught at the proper time without special professors. This plan or programme we constructed in the most thorough manner, arranging hours for each professor, fixing text-books, and stating in which rooms given recitations should be heard. One of our members—it is easy to guess who—broached the subject of elective studies, but the rest of us discountenanced all such experiments. We felt able to arrange a better course of studies than any student could devise, and held firmly to the idea that what was best for one was best for all. With the needs of students after graduation we had nothing to do. As for textbooks, not a new one appeared on our list; we chose only such as were old and well tried; that on chemistry, for instance, was the same which I had studied in the Sleepyville High-School thirty years before. When our professors arrived they annoyed us a good deal about changing, but we firmly adhered to our early decisions. The scheme of hours, however, we did have to rearrange, for in practice it would not work. We had planned it in such a way that sometimes one professor would have to hear two different classes in different rooms at once; and in other instances the students were required to be similarly ubiquitous.

I have already mentioned the fact that the election of professors was attended by much dissension in our board. This began, as usual, with Brother A——, whose notions were always of the most unpractical kind. He wanted us to employ specialists; men who understood thoroughly the branches they professed to teach, and who would be independent of text-books. According to his extravagant ideas, every department of knowledge is in rapid growth, and only a man who devotes himself assiduously to one study is able to teach that study in accordance with the requirements of modern times. Such nonsense as this we repudiated. Anybody of ordinary education and intelligence ought to be able to teach any subject by simply taking a textbook and keeping a lesson or two ahead of the class. As for "advanced knowledge," the "requirements of modern times," and all that sort of thing, we distrusted it totally; under such disguises, specious and pleasing, dangerous ideas would be sure to creep in and sap the foundations of our university. We must have nothing rash nor novel in our institution; only well-tried and approved knowledge should be taught by the professors. These must be, first, men of trained moral character and good denominational standing; mere familiarity with this, that, or the other study, should be a purely secondary matter.

At last, after much ill-feeling all round, our professors were appointed. Four of them were esteemed clergymen of our denomination, who, having failed at preaching, were glad to find some occupation. Thus, in divers ways, does a great university benefit the human race. Another member of the Faculty was a recent graduate of our leading theological seminary, who accepted a chair until he could find a pulpit; two others were lay brethren. We had our greatest difficulty in selecting a professor of chemistry. Several gentlemen applied, were discussed, and rejected, before we made our final choice. One, the special protégé of Brother A——, had just returned from Germany, where for three years he had been studying at Heidelberg under a certain Prof. Bunsen, who was reputed to be a very great man, but of whom we had never before heard. This young man brought strong recommendations, but appeared to be dangerous; so, as he was not a member of our sect, we rejected him. Another we were about to elect, when we discovered that he was a Darwinian and a reader of Tyndall; so he could not by any means be chosen. At last we found an apparently harmless young gentleman who had just graduated from an Eastern scientific school, and him we made our professor. Now a notable event happened. Brother A—— made a suggestion which was actually followed; namely, that we should buy some apparatus and chemicals. We at once voted to spend three hundred dollars (recently begged) for fitting up a laboratory, and appointed a committee to look after the matter. At the next meeting of the board they reported the purchase of an air-pump, an electrical machine, some acids, a little phosphorus, a large gas-bag, and several retorts. These being the appliances most frequently mentioned in general literature, they were undoubtedly the proper things to have; and we considered the professor lucky in having them. Brother A—— was, of course, dissatisfied with the whole proceeding. He thought that the money should have been placed at the disposal of our professor, who knew best how to expend it; and he also grumbled because our committee had not bought something called a spectroscope. Such an instrument was never heard of in my days, so I suspected it of some occult connection with spiritualism, and expressed myself accordingly. What has science to do with spectres? The instrument was never bought.

Before the university opened, all the moneys collected during my Eastern trip, together with minor sums contributed at home, were expended. All sorts of unforeseen expenses kept rising before us. There was furniture to buy, of course, and maps, and stationery, and books. Indeed, a library was indispensable, so we voted to invest a thousand dollars in books, and placed this sum in the hands of a committee, of which I was chairman. I think few committees could have done better than we did. Many valuable works we obtained very cheaply from a second-hand dealer in New York; scarcely a new book was purchased. We were especially careful not to get any thing which might prove injurious to our young men; not a volume of Darwin, Tyndall, or Spencer (except the "Faery Queene"), has to this day found its way upon our shelves. No, indeed! we bought good editions of the old pagan authors, and the works of the early fathers, and full sets of the sermons published by the leading lights in our own denomination. We had also a few histories, some of the poets, and two or three worn-out schoolbooks upon chemistry and natural philosophy. I doubt whether any college in the world could show a more respectable and less dangerous library than the one which we collected.

At length all was ready for opening. Our professors were on hand, our building furnished, our money spent. Now for the rush of students eager to partake of the intellectual feast so cheaply offered to them. We had all been very busy drumming up recruits, and confidently expected a large class; but only thirty appeared. Out of these, twelve were studying for the ministry, and expected tuition free. Only eighteen paying students, yielding us an income of $900 a year; and this when we had calculated upon $25,000! Why, it would pay little more than the interest on our debt, to say nothing of professors' salaries. In this terrible emergency, the Hon. Magnus Virtue again became our benefactor. I myself went boldly to him, and told how we were situated. Said I: "The university bears your name; if it fails, your reputation will suffer; 'he that giveth to the poor lendeth to the Lord.'" He grumbled a good deal at what he called our "wretched mismanagement," and especially at our extravagance in the matter of teachers' wages. "Why should we pay a professor nearly $2,000 a year, when he had always been able to get plenty of clerks to work in his office for $600?" "Finally, after much argument, he gave us $10,000, unaccompanied by his blessing. This relieved our embarrassments for the time being, and we went along quite swimmingly for the rest of the year.

I wonder if there was ever a college whose professors and trustees did not occasionally disagree? We certainly had now and then a squabble to vary the monotony of our labors, and were obliged in the board more than once to reverse decisions of the Faculty. But our chief difficulty was with the chemist, whose ideas upon some subjects were, to say the least, extravagant. To begin with: he wanted more apparatus, said he could do nothing with the "meagre" supply we had given him, and spoke rather disrespectfully of the committee which bought it; he actually referred to certain trustees as "idiots" (perhaps meaning Brother A——), which may have been true, but was unquestionably uncivil. It was in vain that I tried to convince the young man of his unreason; I urged my superior age and experience, and finally was obliged to crush him by saying, in my most polite and dignified manner, that I had probably studied chemistry before he was born, and that my teacher had succeeded brilliantly with no apparatus at all He also bothered us for more books; so we gave him twenty-five dollars to buy them with, and thus silenced him for a while. That money he actually spent for works in foreign languages which neither I nor any student could read. Such is a result of trusting to the judgment of a professor. In the spring our chemist again broke out in the most absurd manner. It so chanced that some of our students had entered in advanced classes, a circumstance for which we failed to provide beforehand, and upon the list of studies framed by us they found certain branches which they wished to pursue. Among these were the treacherous and valueless natural sciences, for which we had no professors. It was at once found necessary that these things should be taught: and who was to teach them but the Professor of Chemistry and Natural Philosophy? We intimated to that gentleman that such work devolved upon him, and he objected most irrationally. He claimed that his business was to teach chemistry and physics (as he called natural philosophy, though what that branch has to do with medicine I never could see), and refused to undertake any thing else. How unreasonable! We only asked him to hear a few extra recitations in astronomy, natural history, physiology, botany, and geology, and he must needs object! He said that he was a chemist, and knew nothing of these other sciences; that each of them was the life-work of a specialist; and that no man living was competent to undertake even the tenth part of such a task. As we knew perfectly well that twenty other colleges in the State employed men who did precisely what he said no man could do, we insisted; and the upshot was that he resigned. Then the trustees passed an ordinance to the effect that any professor in the university could be called upon to teach any branch, upon penalty of dismissal if he refused. We were determined that our teachers should be men of broad general culture, and not mere narrow specialists. Of coarse, every one of them had studied a variety of branches at school or college, and surely any man ought to be able to teach any thing which he himself had ever learned. Brother A—— objected to our entire proceeding, but we paid no attention to him. Still, his remarks about "smatterers" and "educational fraud" could not but be somewhat offensive.

In the course of the year our university received a few minor gifts, and at commencement we found ourselves with the debt not very much increased. Our teachers were nearly paid, but the treasury was again empty. Two students graduated; and for them we had grand public exercises, which closed with an appeal to the people for support. This meant money, and brought in about $500. Upon such driblets our institution was obliged to run. We must evidently retrench, and we did so by reducing the number of professors and cutting down salaries. My own salary was untouched, however; but then, instruction in rhetoric and English literature was added to my former duties. The professors were to receive $1,000 per annum each, instead of the $1,800 paid hitherto, and were to be only three in number. These three were of course selected from among the unfortunate ex-clergymen who served in our original Faculty. One was to teach ancient languages and history; another modern languages and history; the third gave instruction in mathematics, political economy, and Oriental tongues. The latter item we thought would look well in our catalogue, and, as the professor had learned Turkish and Arabic when a missionary during his youth, we put it in. To be sure, he had about forgotten both languages, but, as he was never actually called upon to teach them, that made little difference. As for the "natural sciences," we decided to pass them around. For instance: I would teach chemistry the first year; then the professor of mathematics was to take it; and so on in order through the Faculty until it came my turn again. Thus we avoided the confusion and annoyance due to the presence of a scientific specialist upon our working staff.!Now and then, of course, trifling difficulties arose in consequence of our unfamiliarity with the minor details of science. For example: our classical professor undertook to teach botany the other day, and attempted to show his students how a flower might be analyzed. He selected a buttercup for purpose of illustration, went through his analysis, as he thought, according to the book, and made the flower out to be a water-lily. His students would have lost confidence in him had he not dexterously attributed his error to misprints in the botany! But what are such trivial matters in comparison with the great essentials of education?

This reorganization of the Faculty meant the reorganization of the entire university, and two entirely new features were introduced into it. We established a preparatory department under a lady teacher, and we voted to admit female students to all of our classes. The latter measure was adopted rather hesitatingly, having been in a sense forced upon us by stress of circumstances. We must have students at any rate, and if we could not get young men we would take young ladies. The impropriety of thus mingling the sexes was evident to all except Brother A——, who alone really favored the step taken; and the uselessness of higher education to women was also obvious. How can women apply Latin and Greek to their household duties, I should like to know? What business have they with mathematics? My own wife never learned these things, and she has been certainly none the worse wife to me. But, notwithstanding my apprehensions, the dangerous move was made, and in consequence 1 have had tribulation ever since. Not that any scandal has resulted; not that any wrong has been done; our troubles come from a totally different source. These pestilent girls are teasing us to teach them all sorts of out-of-the-way things: one wants to learn the calculus, of which our mathematical professor is ignorant; another asks for a laboratory course in chemistry such as we are unable to give, and so on. Unhappy for us was the day that we permitted our thirteen young women to enter the university. They tell tales about us outside, and thus injure our reputation. We cannot get rid of them, and what are we to do?

But troubles like these were trifling in comparison with our anxiety upon pecuniary matters. Counting in our new preparatory department we had a few more students than before, but not enough to yield us the income we needed. The money-question, then, kept staring us in the face, and no measure we could devise ever quieted it more than just temporarily. One move was taken at commencement-time—a move due to my remarkable executive genius—which seemed to tide us over several months of our trials. We gave the degree of LL. D. to every millionaire in our county, and made a number of our popular clergymen doctors of divinity. The millionaires took the bait readily, and all save one gave us handsome sums, varying from $500 to $2,000. The single exception was a retired coal-dealer, who refused to accept the proffered degree, saying that he knew nothing about laws and did not want to doctor them. Shortly afterward he gave 150,000 to a distant college, which was already rich, and claimed to be undenominational. As for the new D. D.'s, they all exerted themselves in our behalf, and raised for us a considerable sum of ready money. All told, these honorary degrees brought us in nearly $6,000, which, together with our student-fees, was all we had to sustain our university through its second college-year.

We are now just entering upon our third season of actual collegiate work, and troubles accumulate over us. Our money is gone, our students are deserting to other institutions, and, if we had not faith in our grand enterprise the future would seem dark indeed. Some of the trustees advocate closing temporarily. Brother A—— has withdrawn from the board; Mr. Virtue refuses to do any thing more for us; our creditors are proving to be most inveterate duns, and no way seems to be open for going on. Still, we must go on; inaction would be fatal. Some rich friend ought to endow us liberally—a great university like ours cannot be permitted to die. In our two opening years we have done as much work as did either Yale or Harvard in the corresponding periods of their youth; why should we not rise as they have risen? We appeal to the public at large for support—to all friends of true education, of high culture, of moral civilization. Let it not be said in despotic Europe that Americans cared so little for intellectual advancement that they allowed their most promising university to fail. Let the rich give us money liberally for the glory of the denomination which we represent; others who cannot give should send us their sons and daughters to be educated in the true principles of life and the faith of the early fathers. No matter how dark the present may appear, the future is bright before us; great success must eventually attend our labors; unborn generations will one day look back and say, "Our ancestors sustained that university in its hour of trial, and have transmitted to us the inheritance of its greatness." Statesmen, poets, and chieftains, shall hail our university as their alma mater and contribute gladly to its glory and its support.

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