Popular Science Monthly/Volume 67/December 1905/The Status of American College Professors Once More

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ABOUT a year ago, the writer discussed some matters bearing upon the condition of college instructors in America. A restatement of some parts of that discussion is necessary, as events occurring during the interval have tended to divert attention from the more important issues.

An impression seems to prevail that the Carnegie foundation has rendered unnecessary further discussion of the salary question. But the provisions of that trust, perhaps intentionally, are such as to provoke further discussion, for the salary accorded to emeritus professors is to be in direct relation to that received prior to retirement. As the payments will be only to men of sixty-five years and upward, they will affect at best only a few years at the close of a long period of service, and in all probability, they will be of personal interest to a very small proportion of the whole number of college instructors.

The writer has been criticized for laying stress on the matter of salary and for thus introducing a mercenary feature which is degrading to the profession. But education is no longer in charge of ecclesiastics pledged to lifelong celibacy, and theoretically at least, to lifelong poverty. The notion that teachers should be indifferent to pecuniary matters is a survival, which still holds in the minds of some youthful students and occasionally gains control of a college trustee, but it has never found favor among tradesmen. While it is true that no man should become a college instructor merely to gain a livelihood, it is equally true that the matter of income should not be ignored, for in our day one is hardly to be commended for choosing a profession in which poverty or the observance of the strictest economy must be his lot through life—provided always that he is fit for anything else. And this is what makes the question of salary so important from the standpoint of the college. Statistics show that in the leading eastern institutions and in the leading state universities the average salary of professors is about 2,000 dollars; but this is the salary of a full professor and is the maximum which most men may hope to receive after years of service. Such being the case one must recognize the danger to which colleges are exposed especially on the side of pure science, which for educational purposes is the more important.

To the greater number of those who have become teachers of science in our colleges, the chief attraction has been the promise of leisure for study. But in the greater number of our institutions, that leisure has practically disappeared and young men recognize the fact. On the other hand, the applications of pure science have been multiplied; the chemist, physicist, geologist and biologist have become, each of them, the mainstay of industries not only requiring many millions of capital, but also contributing in equal proportion to the welfare of mankind. In each of these industries competition is so earnest that incessant investigation along lines of pure science is essential. There is here promised a greater reward of fame than the college instructor can hope for, while in addition there is a prospect of pecuniary reward for the wise and industrious man, compared with which the maximum college salary is a pittance. It is quite in accord with human nature that young men after completing graduate study, costly both in time and money, should think applied science, which promises both fame and money, preferable to college teaching, which promises in our day not very much of either.

It has been said that a change has passed over the minds of American college professors, that, whereas formerly they regarded investigation as the all-important and teaching as the unimportant part of their duties, they now regard themselves as chosen especially to teach. This is a somewhat belated discovery, for the American college professor has always been preeminently a teacher, to whom investigation has always been, as it were, a side-issue. But for a generation, owing to rapid expansion of curricula without corresponding increase in number of teachers, there has been an increasing neglect of investigation. For the most part, small colleges to-day are as well off for men and equipment as not a few of our larger institutions were fifty years ago, but their contributions to the sum of human knowledge, at least on the scientific side, are in no sense comparable with those made by college men of the earlier period. This reacts on the college, for men who are not investigators by nature and to some extent, at least, in practise can never be genuine teachers. They may be good disciplinarians, masters in the art of hearing recitations, adepts in compelling students to learn lessons, but as retailers of merely second-hand information they never can be makers of men.

Beyond all doubt there will always be an ample supply of candidates, whatever the salary may be, but ambitious young men will not take up a profession which threatens to dwarf them intellectually and socially; rather will they turn aside to business or to other professions in which great prizes await diligence and common sense. The sentimental grounds on which many chose college work no longer exist, since opportunities for service to others abound everywhere even for the busiest of men. Such opportunities were rare formerly and, for their sake, college work was chosen by many to whom pecuniary reward was, in comparison, a secondary matter. And this led in no small degree to the high esteem in which college professors were held, for the corporate boards were composed chiefly of professional men, who believed that they had chosen their work for similar reasons. But the boards of to-day are made up largely of men of affairs, strong men of the business world, who are apt to regard indifference to material success as evidence of native weakness.

While the matter of salary is important in its bearing on the future of American colleges, it is of less immediate importance than that of relations between the teaching and the corporate board. This is the vital matter.

Theoretically, the corporate board of to-day and the college president of to-day are the same as they were one hundred years ago; but in fact they are essentially different. The boards and presidents of the former days were so familiar with the conditions of their little schools and of the narrow curriculum that they were competent to take charge of them. To-day the curriculum is so broad that neither board nor president can be familiar with the needs of the several chairs even in institutions of moderate size, while in universities it is barely possible for them to have any personal knowledge whatever. Yet the teaching board is wholly subordinate to the corporate board. Such complete legal subordination was well enough as long as the chief purpose of colleges was to prepare men for the ministry and subordination may be well enough still in purely denominational colleges, whence it is fit and wise to eject summarily those 'courageous, independent thinkers' who would hold to their salaries while rejecting denominational tenets; but the university has outgrown the swaddling clothes of the semitheological college and the method of control should be adapted to the new conditions.

It is well understood that the corporate board as a rule is not composed of men familiar with educational matters. The rapidly increasing financial interests of colleges and universities necessitate the selection of men possessing thorough business ability. Examination of college catalogues shows that the boards are made up chiefly of men beyond middle age, eminent lawyers, prominent business men, with some clergymen and physicians, all of highest standing; all of these are busy men, whose prominence proves that for many years they have been engrossed in the work of their several callings so intensely as to be disqualified for some of the duties devolving upon college trustees; most of them are far removed in thought and occupation from educational work and few of them are in any degree familiar with the changes in scope and methods of college teaching. Nor, as has been said elsewhere, have they opportunity to acquire the necessary familiarity after assuming office, for business matters occupy most of the time at board meetings and matters affecting work by the teaching board are largely incidental. It would be strange if the trustee did not regard his board's responsibility as the more important.

The change for the worse in relations of the boards is due in no small degree to a change in character of the president's duties. That officer is no longer primarily a teacher; in many of the larger universities he does no teaching, is simply the executive officer; while in many of the smaller institutions he does little teaching because efforts to raise money occupy most of his attention. The chronic impecuniosity of most colleges prevents trustees, when seeking a president, from inquiring closely respecting a candidate's fitness to represent the educational side of the institution; money and more students are the crying needs. The appointee is usually a man of great expectations—on the board's part; he will find money, gather students, advertise the institution, awaken interest everywhere and convert indifferent alumni into hustling canvassers. But once appointed he is left practically to his own resources, to be praised by the board if he succeed, to be blamed if he fail—a rather uninviting post, whose holder deserves more sympathy than is contained in the libel that he has every grace except that of resignation. He has been appointed not to elevate the institution as an educational power, but to make of it a 'big thing.' One may not censure him severely for emphasizing what may be termed the noneducational side or for resorting at times to odd expedients for increasing the total of students and instructors; but the results have been disastrous, for thus it has come about that the vast majority of people and the vast majority of prospective students measure an institution not by the character of its instruction or by the fitness of its instructors, but by the mass of its buildings, by the number of students and by its prominence in the semi-professional athletics which so disgrace American colleges.

The president is practically the only source whence the trustees may obtain information respecting internal affairs of the institution, as, with rare exceptions, the faculties have no representatives on or before the corporate board. He is the responsible head, the only element known to the trustees; in the nature of the case, he formulates the business to be presented, so that, if he possess a fair degree of tact, the board merely carries out his wishes. If successful in securing money and students, he is liable to be human enough to forget that he has done this work as the professors have done theirs and to think of himself as creator with consequent right to control policy and to direct expenditure. Business presented to the trustees is not likely to be such as to encourage great inquisitiveness respecting details of internal affairs. And all this is thoroughly compatible with a strict sense of honor and with conscientious devotion to what he believes to be the best interests of the institution. But the result is unfortunate. The executive duties of his office render the president less and less fitted as the years go by to represent the purely educational side of the institution, yet every year strengthens his control of all the interests. This condition is not in accord with business common sense.

If the proper status of the faculties is to be restored, and if the proper standard of educational efficiency is to be regained, there must be a radical change in relations of the teaching and corporate boards. In church organizations, the religious interests are ordinarily in care of one board and the secular interests in care of another; but the former, being charged with the interests for which the church was organized, is superior to the latter, although this represents the corporate body before the law. A similar grouping and relation should exist in educational organizations. The trustees should not control in any degree the internal affairs of the college or university, their duty being to relieve the teaching board from the burden of caring for business matters and to represent the institution before the state. They should fill vacancies in their number, subject to veto by, say, two thirds vote of the full professors; but the faculties should have complete control of all matters relating to the actual work of the institution and they should make all appointments to the teaching staff, subject to merely pro forma confirmation by the trustees, as representing the corporate body, or to veto by them in case there are not funds to warrant the expenditure. The office of college president, as it now exists, should be abolished; each faculty in a university or the single faculty in a college should choose its own executive head, who should be simply primus inter pares and should be the mouthpiece of his faculty in conference with other faculties or with the trustees. In a university, the several executives would be a council to determine matters affecting the policy of the institution as a whole.

Some appear to dread such reconstruction as liable to bar all progress, for it has been said that, somewhere, the most important advances have been made in face of earnest opposition by professors. Possibly. But it may be that some steps, advances in the opinion of a president, might be retrogression in the opinion of an educator. The dread, however, is unnecessary in view of the fact that the remarkable elevation of standard in legal and medical education within the last twenty years is due wholly to the professors themselves and largely, in most cases, at their expense. This statement is equally true of schools of applied science and it is well understood that in colleges the professors constantly struggle for maintenance of high standards. More than this. Professors have been known to show themselves capable of attending to the business affairs of their institution; have been known indeed to take up the burden of business, after it had been abandoned by the corporate board, and so to care for teaching and business that in time both were returned in excellent condition to the control of the trustees. No doubt it is true that in some cases the faculty gathered under the present system may not be fully competent to undertake management such as has been suggested; but that is no reason for continuance of a system which can bring about such a condition. Serious errors are less likely to be made by those who know something about the requirements than by those who know very little or practically nothing about them. A not very skillful carpenter is a far better judge of carpentry than the ablest statesman can be. A faculty of not very high grade can judge better respecting the all-around fitness of a candidate than can a board composed of eminently successful bankers, lawyers and clergymen—better even than can a college president, who at one time was a typically good professor, but who by force of circumstances has been diverted from educational work to become a strong man of business.