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WHAT DOES THE UNIVERSITY THINK
And Why Does It Not Speak Up as an Institution
GERALD W. JOHNSON
NCE I was a college student and after that an alumnus. Then, following a dozen years in newspaper offices, I became a college professor, and now I feel it in my bones that I shall never be a real, one hundred per cent alumnus again. To be sure, I am out of the faculty now and am become a harmless, necessary newspaper man again. But the flavor lasts. Two years behind the scenes have proved to me that nearly all my beliefs about college life, favorable and unfavorable alike, were wrong. I am under the necessity of constructing an entirely new theory, without reference to the accepted standards of the Alumni Association.
Yet I believe that the institution which prompted this revaluation is fairly typical of American universities. Probably a man coming to it from another faculty would observe nothing extraordinary about it. It dates from the eighteenth century, which makes it quite old, as American universities measure age, and it is therefore crusted over with precedents, legends, and traditions, like most of the Eastern schools. But it But it has undergone a relatively immense expansion within the last decade, so that one finds on the campus the raw new buildings and the characteristi
cally American mechanical conveniences that are conspicuous features of the universities of the newest Western States. It is a State-controlled institution, a thorough-going exponent of American State education. It is not very large, but its twenty-five hundred students raise it out of the ranks of the little colleges. In brief, it is a fairly representative American university of the better type, not running to superlatives in any direction.
The State that has maintained this institution for nearly a century and a half knows it from the outside. The record of the football team is familiar to every voter, and the number of students, the size of the graduating class, and the names of some of the more prominent professors are known to the intelligentsia. Professional delvers into the occult, including preparatory school superintendents and some newspaper editors, even know in what sciences the university is strongest; but that marks the furthest bounds of popular information about the institution. The men in the State who know anything at all about the inner life of the place probably could be numbered on one's fingers.
This is conspicuously true of the alumni, who think, of course, that it
is not true of them at all. The alumni of the in stitution in question are quite correctly "loyal." That is to say, they are willing to fight to secure larger appropriations for it, and within recent years they have gone a long step further in successfully challenging the efforts of religious fanatics to throttle the university's intellectual life. In their willingness to give the university anything they have to give, the alumni are beyond criticism. From the official standpoint of the institution, that is all that could reasonably be asked, and with it the institution, as an institution, no doubt is content. But when an alumnus stands up in the legislature or on the public forum and at a real personal sacrifice gives battle for his alma mater's material wellbeing, it does not necessarily follow that he understands her inner life.
In this lies no charge against the alumnus. There is an adequate explanation of the fact that he seldom knows anything worth mentioning about the essential life of his university. The explanation is that he has never seen it. Ordinarily his only intimate contact with the institution was as an undergraduate student, and what do students know about the life of their colleges? They know only student life, which is at best merely the icing on the cake, and frequently not even honest icing, but a frothy, insipid meringue, void of flavor and nutriment.
The American undergraduate is adolescent mentally as well as physically. I refer, of course, to the abler ones, those who are not mentally infantile. But understanding does not belong to adolescence. If the
adolescent mind is able to grasp and retain facts, it does all that may in justice be required of it. The student stuffed full of facts during his four years in college is not educated, of course, but he is in a fair way to become educated, for he has learned how to grasp facts, and in the course of the years the sharp reagents of experience will help him to digest and assimilate them.
But the facts that it is possible to pack into the adolescent mind are restricted mainly to those which may be set forth in text-books, and the life of a university is not a fact of that sort. There is no example that may be given to illustrate it, no mathematical formula by which it may be described, no diagram by which it may be represented. It is to be apprehended by mature minds only, and to expect undergraduates to grasp it would be as silly as to expect them to grow long gray beards during their college days.
The alumnus therefore goes out with an adolescent's impression of the place, which, in the usual course of events, he never has occasion to correct. It is inevitable that that impression should almost always be false and frequently grotesquely false. How grotesque such impressions may be is unbelievable, however, until one has examined the donation list of some institution. There is not a big university in the country, probably not a big college, that has not had money left it on the condition that it be applied to some perfectly absurd project. Occasionally one finds an institution seriously handicapped by the fact that a large proportion of its funds is tied up by the terms of the deeds of gifts so that
And where money is squandered through failure to appreciate the real needs of a university, time, energy, and enthusiasm are much more lavishly squandered. This is the waste that surprised me when I had opportunity to look at a university through the eyes of a faculty member. The old boys swarmed back for the big football games, and on University day, and at commencement. They spread all over the place and filled it with laughter, jollity, warm friendliness, infectious enthusiasm, and imbecile ideas.
And had I, only a year or two before, been even as one of these? Exactly, only worse, for most of these had a higher and more unselfish loyalty than I had ever risen to. They were quite literally willing to give the university anything they had; but there was one thing that few of them had for it, and that was respect.
I can imagine, but no one could describe, the fury with which this insinuation would be repelled in a meeting of the Alumni Association. But it is true. This is a typical This is a typical American alumni association, and the most conspicuous trait of the American alumnus is his disrespect for his alma mater. Oh, we love dear Old Siwash! We would fight and bleed and die for the honor of dear Old Siwash, if necessary, and unconstrained we get drunk in honor of Old Siwash every time her football team wins a game. But we trust dear Old Siwash just as far as, and
no farther than, we can throw a bull by the tail.
You doubt that? Well, don't you remember how we nearly had hydrophobia when a yellow journal announced in screaming head-lines that Old Siwash had a communist on the faculty? Our investigation revealed that what had actually happened was that an acting assistant instructor in the Department of Economics had remarked to his class one day that the Russian experiment in communism is absorbingly interesting to economists and may result in supplying some valuable data for use in this country. We agreed that this did not seem very subversive, but we also agreed that President Roe and Dean Doe ought to be extremely careful about whom they employ to teach economics in these unsettled times, and we resolved to keep a vigilant eye on all subsequent appointments.
Trust Old Siwash? Why, in our hearts we are convinced that if we turned our backs on her for a moment she would burst with a yell from her century-old shell of conservatism and begin furiously to propagate atheism, communism, dadaism, and eroticism certainly, and possibly murder, rape, arson, and burglary as well. Trust Old Siwash? We dare not. Oh, we think she has deep erudition, fine traditions, and good intentions, but we know she has no sense. Let the alumni abandon their attitude of paternal, but firm, guidance, and she would go hell-bent for election toward whatever abyss happened to be handiest.
Now what is this but a faithful reflection of the attitude of the un
dergraduate? Was there ever normal undergraduate who did not look upon the faculty as fine men, certainly, with deep learning and high ideals, but badly scrambled in the belfry? In the undergraduate this is natural and perhaps proper. A boy of nineteen shrewd enough to estimate accurately the intellectual and moral force of old scholars would be so preternaturally shrewd as to be nothing short of a monstrosity. But what is natural and proper in a boy of nineteen is anomalous in a man of forty-five. When the boy becomes a man he should put away childish things.
But I, for one, did not put this thing away until I had to. At the top of my mind, of course, I recognized the absurdity of the undergraduate attitude, and if any one had asked me the question, I should have professed, not insincerely, the highest respect for college professors as a class. But under the surface I was as shaggy an alumnus as walked in shoe-leather.
Then I went back to Old Siwash and worked there for two years, in the course of which I made the astounding discovery that Old Siwash has more sense than the Rotary Club! I don't mean learning, either, but horse-sense, plain, old-fashioned brains.
A little thought would have convinced me of that before I went back to the campus, but, like most alumni, I had never given the matter even a little thought. It had never occurred to me to ponder, for example, the way of a competent dean with a student al charged up with a mixture of idealism, moral indignation, misinformation, and inexperience.
Had I thought it over, I should have realized that the average manufacturer, facing the same sort of problem when a strikers' committee appears, simply is not in the dean's class when it comes to swift, sure, easy efficiency. Yet the ability to handle men is recognized as one of the highest types of business ability.
I have never known a professor who has made a million dollars, and I have known several business men who have done so. Before I went to college for the second time, I should have handed the business men the palm for financial superiority without question, but I would do nothing of the sort now. I doubt seriously that the acquisition of a million is as strong evidence of high financial ability as is the feat of living on a college professor's salary in the style befitting a college professor and yet accumulating enough capital to banish the specter of want in old age. Yet that is accomplished now and then in every faculty. I know men whose salaries have never run higher than five thousand dollars a year, and who have raised families, bought and maintained pretty good automobiles, acquired libraries, and traveled in Europe at least once every seven years. I respectfully submit that the man capable of such feats is possessed of financial skill that would not disgrace Mr. Andrew Mellon.
It is not every professor who can do such things, but the proportion of able financiers among them is astonishingly high. Personally I believe that the percentage of excellent managers is distinctly higher among professors than it is among Rotarians, Kiwanians, Civitans, or
Lions. In financial ability, as well as in executive ability, Old Siwash is as well off as the Alumni Association, to put it most conservatively. Then why doesn't she count for more in the active life of the State? Indirectly perhaps she does. At any rate people are always talking about her incalculable influence upon the rising generation and the vast power she wields through her sons. This talk is not all cheap buncombe, although much of it is. But the question I raise is: Why should Old Siwash have to operate through her sons? Why doesn't she count for more in, of, and by herself?
In the university which I attended there are nearly two hundred men employed because each is supposed to be an expert in something. An effort has been made to cover the whole range of knowledge; and if the covering is rather thin in spots, still it does stretch a long way. Yet it is rare indeed for this body of expert opinion, this collection of highly trained minds, to exert any appreciable influence in the decision of any public matter of importance. Occasionally an economist, or an engineer, or some other specialist from the university faculty is called into consultation by officialdom to deliver an opinion on a specific problem. But the institution as a whole never presumes to advance an opinion on any thing, and apparently it never occurs to any one to inquire, in the discussion of matters of high importance, "What does the university think?" The plain fact is, the university doesn't think. It is not permitted to think. The people of the State would be shocked and enraged if it did think, or at least if it adopted
the custom of expressing opinions on controversial topics. It is difficult enough to secure to individual members of the faculty the right to hold and express an opinion. I was myself informed, on one occasion, that as long as I remained a member of the faculty I was not a citizen and therefore had no right to express an opinion that might be displeasing to bona-fide citizens. I hastily add that that information did not come from any member of the university. It came from a man not connected with the institution, but it unquestionably reflected accurately the attitude of a large number of voters.
This particular institution is Statecontrolled, but many privately controlled colleges and universities are as rigidly restricted. Church-controlled colleges certainly are not permitted to propagate opinions in conflict with the dogma of the controlling church. Endowed institutions may profess to be uncontrolled, but let them collide with the dogma of the Board of Trustees or what is more promptly fatal-with the dogma of the Alumni Association, and they quickly learn that their professions are but poorly supported in fact.
Control of opinion, however, is only half the woeful tale. Perhaps it is the less important half, for on occasion control may be, and is, defied. Even a university will turn, being trodden heavily enough. Mine own eyes have seen a university president confronted with the threat of passage of a "monkey bill" similar to the Tennessee Anti-Evolution Law. He voluntarily appeared before a legislative committee and denounced the measure, and his univer