Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/March 1911/The Case of the College Professor

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1579516Popular Science Monthly Volume 78 March 1911 — The Case of the College Professor1911Warner Fite


By Professor WARNER FITE


ONE of the recognized subjects for public commiseration at the present time is the college professor's salary. Once in so often some disgusted member of the profession writes a letter of protest to his favorite weekly journal and starts a new wave of sympathy. Yet 80 far it has occurred to none of the complainants to propose, as a serious measure, the policies by which other men have bettered their condition—for example, the policy of organized self-assertion expressed in the trade-union. In the eyes of the profession the bare suggestion is vulgar. The aims of the scholar and teacher, as he will have you know, are essentially disinterested. His work in the world is that of a missionary working for others. Or if the "others" sounds too evangelical, at least his motives are those of professional honor. It is therefore out of the question for him to make any very overt demand for increased compensation. Rather is it the business of society to recognize the delicacy of his position and see that he is properly rewarded.

Yet there is something incongruous in a missionary complaining of his pay. The missionary is supposed to be delighted with hardships and to find ample satisfaction in "the beauty of self-sacrifice." If, like other men, he thinks that he is also entitled to a fair living, then it is not to be seen why the duty should not rest upon him, as upon others, of presenting his account. The college professor may plead in excuse that for him the business of settling accounts is specially troublesome. And it is true that his work calls to a special degree for freedom from distractions, and that to the problems upon which he is engaged questions of compensation are external and immediately irrelevant—while for the business man distractions are the ordinary routine and higgling for higher prices the game in which he delights. Unquestionably, in the interest of the college professor's work, it is desirable that his economic welfare be reasonably secure. Yet if the professor's furnace fire goes out, and no one is at hand to attend to it, he must set about it himself or freeze. By the same token, if society fails to attend properly to his salary, the responsibility rests upon him. And in the end this is the place where the responsibility should rest.

It would make this responsibility clearer if he would frankly ask himself what, after all, he is really standing for. And if the question were once plainly put, he would be compelled at the outset to abandon the illusion of "missionary work." The missionary idea presupposes the poor lad with a keen thirst and capacity for knowledge to whom the college doors are closed. This pathetic image has long ceased to represent any substantial reality. If any such lad is still unprovided for, a hundred college presidents would be delighted to make his acquaintance. As the case stands to-day, it is the colleges who are competing for students and not the students for admission to college. Like the life-insurance companies, the colleges are expending a large part of their energies in securing "new business," and their criterion of progress is the life-insurance criterion of numbers. If the catalogue shows no increase of attendance over last year, the year is counted as lost; and in the matter of attendance everybody counts for one, no matter what kind of a one. "The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few "—nothing could be further from the truth at present in the field of higher education. So insufficient, in fact, is the supply of ripe fruit that many of the laborers are gathering stalks.

Nothing better measures the active demand for higher education—for education, and not for college degrees—than the prevailing academic standards. A few years ago out of a class of forty in formal logic I conditioned ten. A colleague, commenting upon the fact, remarked that "the mortality was rather high"—in which, of course, he was correct. Yet, as I felt called upon to say to the class (many of whom were students of law), if they had been defending themselves by their own logic in a trial for their lives, not half had escaped being hanged. And had they been making shoes, not half the product would have been fit to wear. Think of a factory where the workers receive full wages if sixty per cent, of the product is marketable! Or of a physician who makes a false diagnosis in four cases out of ten! Yet sixty per cent, is the usual academic standard; and, as this standard is commonly interpreted, a student receives credit for the course if he answers correctly six questions out of ten—not test-questions, be it noted, but "fair" questions. Similar standards prevail in other matters. Many colleges put up with a laxity of attendance which is unheard of in an office or factory. If it be asked why academic credit should be earned more cheaply than dollars and cents, the answer must be in terms of supply and demand: the supply of student material which would satisfy the standards of fitness that prevail elsewhere is insufficient to meet the colleges' demand for numbers.

In the presence of these conditions, "missionary work" becomes a mere euphemism for academic inflation. And nothing has been more fruitful of corruption in academic life than just this policy of inflation. Nothing has contributed more to lower the college in public esteem or to obscure its purpose as the promoter of serious thinking. In the interest of increasing its numbers every intellectual ideal has been compromised, athletics have been made the determinants of college policy, and college life has become a carnival of "student interests." Nothing, however, has done more to depress the salaries of professors, and at the same time to cheapen the type and character of men considered eligible to the profession. To this, indeed, we owe the preference over the scholar, the student, and the teacher, of the academic entrepreneur, or "educator." It is most noteworthy that the Carnegie Foundation, in its search for the obstacles to the advancement of teaching, has landed upon this point first—namely, the cheapening of salaries and of men which comes from reckless expansion. And it is not pleasant to reflect that, while the laboring man is prepared more or less to stand for himself, the function of a trade-union for college professors is left to Mr. Carnegie's foundation; or, further, that the college professor, while eager to share in its benefits, has shown thus far no very hearty sympathy for the purposes of its investigations.

For, in the end, it is the college professor himself who is largely responsible. I doubt if many college men fully realize the intimate connection between the policy of inflation and their own economic position. Most of them are as naively enthusiastic over a gain in attendance as a student over a foot-ball victory. And when it is otherwise they are content to lay the burden of responsibility upon the head of "the administration." It is not my intention to absolve the administration; yet there must be few cases where the choice of the administration is not more or less determined by the faculty themselves. In any case, a hostile administration could not long survive a serious and well-considered opposition. As President Schurman says in his last annual report, "A faculty will not be dominated or over-ridden which justly asserts itself." It must always be remembered that, with the exception of the president, the only persons who are with the college all the time, and whose interests are continuously identified with its welfare, are the faculty. And they are the professional experts. Consciously or unconsciously, positively or negatively, they are bound, therefore, to have a large influence upon its policy.

In the matter of inflation they have been more than negatively responsible. Under the opportunities for competition afforded by the elective system, nearly every professor is struggling to magnify the importance of his courses by increasing the attendance. He knows that, under the present conditions, attendance will count for promotion, and further that a large attendance is incompatible with very severe standards; and he finds it easier to conform to the conditions than to raise his voice in protest. Likewise every head of department is striving to make his department the largest, to print the longest list of names upon the department letter-paper, without regard to quality or price. The net result is to strain the financial resources of the institution almost to bursting, and at the same time to lay the foundation for such an increase of fixed charges as to bar all possibility of a more liberal scale of salaries.

In all this the college professor is apt to congratulate himself upon the wisdom of the serpent. The argument of numbers, he will tell you confidentially, is to impress the imagination of legislatures and millionaires, and when a comfortable establishment has been secured, of course all will be changed. But, apart from the fact that the wisdom of the serpent is not the scholar's special brand, and sits not well upon him, if every increase of resources is to be paralleled by a corresponding increase of liabilities, in the form, say, of new departments to maintain, it must be said that the college is playing a losing game. In the meantime there are few, at least of the better institutions, which could not be financially independent on the strength of their present foundation, if only they would have the courage to curtail their product in favor of a better grade of goods. If standards were raised to approximate those used elsewhere, if college education were presented as a privilege, to be reserved for those who will work for it, if the college would determine for itself what it can profitably offer and what the student can profitably take, instead of aiming at a department-store assortment of electives, it would improve its own dignity, increase its real usefulness, and at the same time be able to make a more liberal provision for its faculty.

Inflation of attendance is, however, only part of a general program of extravagance and improvidence. The popular theory of academic finance is the theory of the deficit. Nowhere else is it considered a mark of economic wisdom to spend beyond your income. In the college it is held to be a necessary condition of health and "life." And for the necessities of "life" it is assumed that the Lord will, and will thus be compelled to, provide. At the same time the furnishings of life have acquired a larger importance. It is no longer a matter of Mark Hopkins and a log, but of the log and Mark Hopkins. Remembering that the chief factor in teaching is the personal intelligence of the teacher, it must be said that the salaries of instruction, as compared with the other expenses of maintenance, cut a surprisingly small figure in the budget.

Here again, however, the college professor is largely responsible. Some allowance must be made for the necessary equipment for instruction in science. Yet even here, and perhaps specially liere, it is true that too much emphasis is laid on the laboratory and too little upon the man. It is apt to be forgotten that many of the greatest scientific achievements have required only very crude instruments, and that, after all, the aim of science, as of philosophy, is, in the words of Hegel, to be a thinking study of things. The fact is that it hardly occurs to the college professor to ask what he can do with the means at his disposal. The same man who, in his household budget, is careful to ask what he can afford, urges the demands of his department upon grounds of absolute necessity. A two-thousand dollar professor will insist unblushingly upon a two-hundred-thousand-dollar laboratory. And by dint of urging and begging he may get it. Of course he thinks that his salary will rise to correspond. He is then much chagrined to discover that what might have been added to his salary is needed for the maintenance of his laboratory; and the responsibility is laid upon "the administration."

All of this goes to show that, in spite of the theory of "missionary work," the activity of the college professor is not a purely altruistic response to a crying need. To this it may be replied that it is precisely in accordance with the missionary idea to endeavor to create the need. All very true, perhaps, but just this may be claimed for every line of business, for jewelry and millinery as well as for preaching. In fact, "missionary work" is one of the stock-features of the slang of advertising. The real question has to do with the nature and significance of the need you are endeavoring to create, whether it be a need for college life and academic degrees or for culture and serious thinking. Whichever it be, it would be profitable for the college professor to recognize that, like men in other trades and professions, what he is endeavoring to create is at any rate a need for himself. In other words, he, like other men, is aiming to develop a field for his own activity. Now he is none the less to be respected for this. Eather do I think, the more. Nor does this lessen the social value of his work. If his work have a genuine intellectual content, it is bound to be worth while, for others as well as for self. The point of criticism is not that the college professor works for himself, but that his self-seeking is so persistently unintelligent; not that his "missionary work" conceals ulterior personal motives, but that these motives are allowed to remain ulterior and to express themselves in ways so ineffectual and so little in accord with the dignity of his profession.

What the college professor needs, then (paradoxical though it seem), is a self-consciousness of his position. He should make it clear to himself that, whatever be the social significance of his aims, he is working at the same time, like other men, for the satisfaction of personal ends, among which is included a satisfactory provision for his living. He should then take upon himself the responsibility of doing openly, deliberately and intelligently what he is now doing covertly and blindly, without cooperation or organization. To this he commits himself by his present attitude. Upon him, then, should rest the responsibility, both of formulating his case and of using the means at his disposal to secure the satisfaction to which he conceives himself to be entitled.

Now when the question of title is raised, he is quite likely to be reminded that his occupation is a rather pleasant one and possesses many features very delightful to a man of scholarly tastes. We need not deny this. In fact, if the college professor is not to lose an important part of his case, it would be well to remember that his demands are not for bread alone. But the beauties of the professorial life are such for the academic man; for the average business man the life would be intolerably dreary. And in this respect, that there is a certain correspondence between work and tastes, the occupation is singularly like many others, and it is not to be seen why the profession of teaching should be specially penalized. It is all very well to talk about "plain living and high thinking." I admit that it is not for the college professor to aim at the pace set by fashionable society. But I can see no virtue in plain living just for itself. Its only value for the scholar is to leave the mind free for high thinking. And if living is too plain, the result may be easily the reverse. Such, in fact, is the present situation. Few college men would be "living high" at twice their present salary. Indeed there are rather few cases where this would constitute more than a properly liberal allowance for the best "performance of function."

But the question as I am endeavoring to state it is not primarily one of abstract justice or social function. It is the more direct question, addressed to the college professor, namely. What are you going to do about it? How are you going to make your claims good? As the question is often put, it takes the form of a dilemma: on the one hand, the dignities and privileges of a learned profession, if you will accept a life of poverty; on the other hand, a better chance of a comfortable living, but no opportunity for the things that are specially dear to you. Choose and remain silent, for you may not have both. But most dis-junctions are fallacious, and valid only for the stupid. If the college professor is as intelligent as he claims to be he may refuse to accept the choice of alternatives and assert his intention of securing for himself both a liberal living and the opportunity for an intellectual life. And he will do so, as I have suggested, by applying to his own case the principle of organized self-assertion which is illustrated in the trade-union.

The mere suggestion is too much. Imagine, if you please, a strike of the college faculty for an eight-hour week, a cordon of police about the university, the professor of education, as walking-delegate, puffing a black cigar into the president's face, while "scab" instructors, supporting a family on a thousand a year, are teaching depleted classes in fear of their lives! Yes, but why imagine all this? I am speaking presumably of the self-assertion of intelligent men, of men, indeed, who claim to embody the highest intelligence of the community. And I am standing, not for trade-union methods, but only for the trade-union principle, namely, the principle of self-assertion. If your college professor can assert himself in no better style than the labor-union, his intelligence is an illusion and he has no case. The working man can conceive of no way of bettering himself except at his employer's expense. In his view there is a fixed margin of profit between a fixed cost of production and a fixed market-price, and what is added to wages must be deducted from profits. And having no personal authority, by virtue of education or social position, he can conceive of no way of asserting his claims without the exercise of economic pressure or physical force. It should be the aim of the college professor to prove, in ways already suggested, that he may indefinitely better his position, not at the expense of his college, but in the very process of making it a more worthy and influential institution; and that for this the chiefly potent force will be the authority of his position and of the argument that he is able to present.

But for this purpose it will be unnecessary to form a special organization. For the college professor is already organized. Practically every member of the profession is a member of a college faculty and also of one or more learned societies. The latter, of course, as associations of men united by the interests of a special line of work, bear a nearer resemblance to the trade-union; and they would not be going out of their way if they should include the advancement of the scholar in the advancement of learning. But for our immediate purpose the college faculty is more important. For as a member of the faculty the college professor already holds a franchise of considerable possibilities, and a place where he is authorized to speak, where, indeed, he is responsible for expressing himself regarding the welfare of his college, and where, as I think, he may also rightfully represent his own claims and those of his order. Simply to make a responsible use of his official prerogative would go far toward improving his position. And if the college professor is ever to assert himself, this is the place to begin.

For this in fact is the point at which he is most conspicuously weak. Nowhere does he appear to less advantage than as a member of the faculty in faculty-meeting. It may be doubted whether any other assembly of men indulges in more ill-considered talk and more ill-considered action than the average faculty. Men who habitually talk sense seem here to talk nonsense. They advance confident opinions on matters that they have never considered; on the spur of the moment they offer motions, often of a far-reaching import, whose meaning they are afterwards unable to explain; they entrust special business to committees and then ignore the committee-reports; and they constantly illustrate the law of action and reaction by reversing at the next meeting the measures of the last. The fact is that the individual college professor, however responsible in study or class-room, has as a rule little sense of the dignity and responsibility of his office as a member of the faculty. And it is also true that many men are admitted to our faculties who, by reason of inexperience and immaturity, or of constitutional lack of culture and self-respect, should not be entrusted with the office. Nothing better demonstrates this than the fact that measures pass to which a large majority are heartily and sincerely opposed—measures which, it may be, are clearly to their disadvantage. Let it be known, however, that the measure is the president's own, there will be few to vote against it, almost none to speak against it. The majority conceal their want of frank courage under a Pickwickian conception of "loyalty."

Thus it has come about that the seat of authority in college matters has passed to a large extent from the faculty to the president, who, then, by analogy with commercial ideals—to which college men are often curiously deferential—has been invested with the character of captain of industry. Now the captain of industry may be necessary in the business world, where, perhaps, most men are fit only to be led. And I do not doubt that the modern college will need an executive head, whatever be his relations, on the one hand to the trustees, and to the faculty on the other. But that the college professor should himself adopt the entrepreneur-theory of the office, as he frequently does, and should even glorify "the rule of the strong man "—over himself, can stand only for an utter contradiction between the idea of his profession and its present actuality. In a word, it is an incredible attitude in one who believes himself to be a scholar and a gentleman and who attaches any moral significance to the fact. If the democratic principle is to hold anywhere, it should hold here. But it can hold nowhere unless men have the courage to say what they mean and a responsible meaning to express.

Accordingly, as the first feature in the program of self-assertion, the college professor should seek both to strengthen his authority as a member of the faculty, and as such to secure for himself a more comprehensive representation in the government of his university. In this, while cooperating with the president and the trustees for the welfare of the institution, he will at the same time act with an explicit reference to his own. There is no reason why the attitude of any of the parties to the situation should be purely impersonal. The welfare of a university is represented in the fulfilment of the numerous interests which it may be conceived to represent, and these interests are in last analysis personal. The aim of college policy is their coordination, and in the college especially, a broad computation of each should leave little margin for dispute. But if all computations are to be impersonal there will be few suggestions of value to interchange and few data either for the problem or its solution. And if the college professor is to be represented anywhere, it should be by himself.

Hence, there need be nothing in faculty representation which is invidious to the rights of either president or trustees. And there is reason to believe that responsible representation would in many cases be welcomed. To quote again from President Schurman's last report, "No greater good could come to Cornell University than a quickening and deepening of the faculty sense of responsibility for its welfare. Too often the faculties of American universities have rolled all responsibility on the president and trustees." And later he adds, speaking of the relations of the faculty to the executive officers, "It is for them [the faculty] to keep the institution democratic. And nowhere else is democracy so important as in the university."

Then, secondly, as embodying the point in which he is most directly interested, it should be the aim of the college professor to have all academic appointments made publicly, with sufficient time allowed, if possible, to secure the consideration of all available candidates; and to have the list of candidates submitted for consideration to a committee of the faculty, chosen by the faculty themselves; and further to include in this policy the matter of salaries and promotions. I know that at this point gentlemen will cry. Politics! Politics! But it must be remembered that politics open and aboveboard is no longer "politics." There can be no "politics" except where there is secrecy, as under the present system of pocket-appointments.

Thirdly, however, it should be his aim to have the general features of the budget submitted for consideration to a similar committee of the faculty. At present the budget is supposed to lie wholly beyond the faculty's domain. Yet there are few questions in which it is not more or less involved, from the granting of a scholarship to a new system of electives. In the college, as elsewhere, it is a question always of what you can afford. And what you can afford is a question of the various alternatives. If the faculty are to act wisely, either for themselves or the college, they must know the financial possibilities. And if the trustees are to spend wisely, the recommendations upon which they act must have had these in mind. Under the present system of non-communication expenditure is too often footless. And nothing has done more to discourage the faculty sense of responsibility than the feeling that only part of the situation is shown them and that the president holds a card up his sleeve.

Finally, in the interest, both of himself and his profession, he should insist upon a high standard, both of scholarly attainment and of personal culture and responsibility, for academic appointment; and especially should he insist that membership in the official faculty be restricted to men of rank and maturity. In other words, like the laboring man, he should seek to protect himself from irresponsible competition. And if he is to stand for himself, he must stand for this above every thing else. For in the end the force upon which the college professor must chiefly rely is the authority of his character and his profession.

The program thus outlined would imply an eventual readjustment of constitutional rights. But it need not wait for this. The main point is that the college professor should undertake to speak in matters of college policy, both for himself and for the college, and that he should then secure consideration of what he has to say. If this is accomplished, he can afford to wait for recognition by law. For, after all, nothing is so potent as a reason, if only it can get itself considered. And none should be able to offer a better reason than just the college professor. His reason once formally made public, few presidents or boards of trustees would care to turn him down without a very good reason in reply. One of the sharpest contests in the history of college politics was over the question of a veto. The president had an unlimited power of veto over the action of the faculty—could he ask more? Yes, a little more; he might disregard the faculty's vote without committing himself to a veto. And this was the sole point in dispute. What it meant was that the president cared not to appear before the university and the public with his faculty's support withdrawn.

The program of self-assertion imposes upon the college professor a considerable increase of responsibility. If he is to be responsible for himself he must also assume a responsibility for his college. And to responsibility he is commonly adverse. But upon him the matter rests; and if he declines, he should forever keep silent about the narrowness of his conditions.