Popular Science Monthly/Volume 87/September 1915/A Civic Investment

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By President P. R. KOLBE


IN these modern days of municipal extravagance, of crowded city budgets, and of frantic legislative attempts to control undue rates of taxation in our centers of population, any new source of expenditure is almost pre-fated to encounter the shrug of suspicion—the stony stare of hostility. Even the propagandists of municipal ownership demand their pound of flesh—the new venture must pay for itself in hard cash.

What claim then has higher education upon the purse strings of the city taxpayer? "Support a college with city money?" grunts the rich manufacturer, "Not by a long shot; what this town needs is more paved streets, not Greek and Latin students." Did it ever occur to you that to the average business man all college graduates are "Greek and Latin students"? Many expressions have become so formalized that they are inevitable—they slip from the lips as naturally as "the sunny south" or "the great metropolis" or any other of the thousand and one substitutes which our jaded minds employ in the place of real ideas. So it is with education. All students learn "Greek and Latin," all education is "impractical." Ten to one the man who uses these terms has not been inside an institution of higher learning for years—probably never. If salvation itself were at stake he could not name half a dozen subjects taught in the modern college—"Latin and Greek" he would tell you "Ah, er—yes, Latin and Greek and—well—I really can't say, but anyhow it's all quite impractical!" He doubtless has inherited this idea as he did his politics and religion, but in both of the latter, he has kept more or less abreast of the times. In the case of higher education, though, he has never given the matter sufficient independent thought nor investigation to modify his grandfather's viewpoint, and even the most partisan supporters of education must confess that that old gentleman would perhaps have been right, had he called the education of his day "impractical." In the course of the next few years, I believe, the leaven of the "new education," the actual preparation for life, will have worked itself in to the very center of the lump—will have educated not only its students directly, but working through them, will have inspired a wholesome respect in all the people for the practical efficiency which many of our best colleges are imparting to their charges—all of which brings me back to my real subject, the municipal university.

The municipal university represents one of the newest, the most modern types of education for the purpose of practical efficiency. With the examples of the great state universities ever in mind, it has realized that the highest mission in its field lies in service to its community. Since the services which education may render to a city are somewhat different from those which it may render to a state, the municipal university has had a new problem to solve or rather should I say—has a new problem to solve, since both the conception of the problem and the attempts at its solution are still in their infancy.

Our country to-day possesses only half a dozen municipally supported institutions of higher education. As a matter of fact, in the old sense of the word, we have only one municipal university—the University of Cincinnati. Other municipal institutions of collegiate rank (my own among them) have assumed the title "municipal university,"' in the face of educational disapproval of the term, largely for the reason that our language offers no name to characterize a school which has outgrown the limits of the old fashioned college, which has actually established other schools than that of liberal arts, but which does not possess all the professional faculties. For such institutions, in view of their close cooperation with various city departments and in further view of the fact that a development along practical and technical lines has multiplied the number of their schools to a greater or less extent, the name "municipal university" seems not ill chosen.

The keynote of a municipal university must ever be public service—not that somewhat indefinite public service which gives young people a "broad, general education" (too often a euphemism for a mere smattering of many subjects)—but rather that public service which will awaken in our young people a consciousness of their relation and responsibility to the community and which will actually train them for life and for civic duties.

The recent meeting held in New York at the call of Mayor Mitchel under the auspices of the American Political Science Association's Committee on Practical Training for Public Service discussed as its main topic the service of the university to the community. The same topic engaged the attention of the Urban University Association at Washington last November. This meeting marked an epoch. For years it has been growing more and more apparent that every collegiate institution which exists tax free in the midst of a large community does owe an actual debt to its city. This feeling has doubtless been strengthened by the attitude of a few municipal universities, notably Cincinnati, who have been trying to make some practical return for the money which taxpayers have given them. Just how this can be done is one of our most important modern problems. With the feeling that New York offers an unparalleled field for such activities the New York conference adopted a resolution calling upon the College of the City of New York to institute a series of experiments along this line, whose results should serve to guide other institutions toward the same goal of public service.

Meanwhile, the middle west has been working out its own salvation as regards the public duties of city bred educational institutions. Ohio with its three municipal universities at Cincinnati, Toledo and Akron, leads its neighboring states in this respect.

When Akron, a city of 100,000 inhabitants, established such an institution upon the foundation of the old Buchtel College, many, good citizens shook their heads in doubt as to whether a city of this size could afford the "luxury" of higher education. Fortunately, however, the young people of the city saw in this opportunity not a luxury but a chance for practical preparation for life. In the two short years of its existence, the university is already beginning to be one of the strongest factors in the community for civic betterment.

Why can a municipal university offer more practical education than other colleges or universities? As a matter of fact, any private institution can do as much. The municipal institution has simply by force of its position, heard the call more clearly and for this reason leads the way. Its activities are divided into two general lines:

1. The training of students.
2. Cooperation with city departments and activities.

Either one of these two is impossible without the other. Students can not be trained for practical life without contact with actual conditions. Such contact can only be secured when every department of the university is in close cooperation and contact with that part of civic life to which it is most closely related. On the other hand, such contact can only be secured by putting students directly into the activities mentioned and thus forming the connecting link between city and university.

The beginning of this contact was made at Cincinnati about eight years ago, when Dean Schneider established his courses in engineering on the cooperative plan. It is scarcely necessary here to mention the merits of this much discussed system. In brief, it means that engineering students work for alternate two-week periods in class room and in factories, under actual shop conditions. Thus a graduate from this course is not a mere theorist, but knows manufacturing and engineering from the standpoint of personal experience.

To students of economics and sociology an especially broad field is open for experience with the conditions of actual life. In my own city, a thorough housing survey has been carried on by university students under the joint direction of the department of sociology, the charity organization and the board of health. Nor has this work been mere play with no practical use. As a result of reports brought in by student inspectors, the sanitation of houses and even of whole districts has been improved through vigorous action of the building inspector. The city has been benefitted by enlisting in its service a body of capable inspectors at no cost, while the students have received credit at the university for "laboratory" work.

When the city of Akron established its municipal university, it was found that the university laboratory offered better facilities than that of the city chemist. In order to avoid expensive duplication, the university thereupon undertook to carry on in its laboratories the entire testing work of the city and established as one of its departments a bureau of city tests. Again the practical value of cooperation became apparent. Advanced university students in chemistry, instead of working at mere theoretical problems, were given actual city chemical testing work. The difference became at once apparent. A student who plodded through a "book problem" as drudgery, became an active, interested worker in the solution of a real food problem affecting the health of his community. The value of chemistry as an actual factor in life became apparent. At the same time, certain students were receiving experience which would later enable them to enter, well equipped, into a life calling.

When the city council, feeling the need for information, asked the engineering department of the university to undertake a survey of paving conditions in the city, cooperative students were called in to help in the work of inspection. When the need arose for a supervisor of city playgrounds, the physical director at the university was called upon to assume the position. Several of his sub-directors are city university students. Thus the city is beginning to regard the university as a laboratory to which it may, at any time, turn for technical advice and help. Through experience with problems thus offered, students are given the opportunity for training in the service of their community. They are taught to study and know city activities and interests—they become better citizens.

The state university offers free tuition to all who can take advantage of the opportunity. The city university also offers free tuition to its community, a practical training for life, and the advantage of a higher education at home. This latter fact opens up possibilities to hundreds of students who could never attend even a state university. A cooperative engineering student, who earns apprentice wages during his alternate two week shop periods and who has the privilege of living at home can secure an education and support himself at the same time.

From all parts of the country come inquiries from cities regarding the operation of a tax supported municipal university. Cleveland has considered a plan by which her students may receive free higher education at a municipal university formed by a coalition of her great privately endowed colleges. The day of the municipal university will come as inevitably as has that of the state university. Municipalities are already beginning to realize the possibilities of practical higher education as a civic investment.