Shall The University Become A Business Corporation?

Henry S. Pritchett

[Originally published in The Atlantic, 1905]

Today, in the United States, two radically different plans for the support and conduct of higher institutions of learning are in process of development: the one that of the private university, the other of the university supported and controlled by the state The first finds its notable examples mainly amongst the older universities of the East, the second in the universities of the Central and Western states. While these last are younger, their growth has been rapid, not only in the number of instructors and students, but in facilities and income.

In the Eastern States, where the older universities have for a century and more supplied the demands of higher education, no great state institutions have grown up. In the central West, on the other hand, where the state universities were founded just as the railroads were built, to supply not a present but a future want, there are few strong and growing private universities. In fact, there are in almost every Western state private colleges and universities whose development has been practically stopped, and which must in the end become feeders to the great state universities.

There are a few notable exceptions to this rule: the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and Leland Stanford University. The first two are in the suburbs of Chicago. The reason that they have flourished is not far to seek. They are situated at the seat of the greatest social and industrial centre in America. They occupy an exceptional strategic situation for a great university or for a great school.

As one looks back at the rise of the great Western universities and realizes the wisdom and the far-sightedness displayed by their founders, one is surprised that they should have estimated at such low value the matter of strategic position. In nearly all cases these institutions have been placed in small and isolated villages; rarely have they been founded in connection with the centres of the social, commercial, and industrial life of the various states. The reasoning appears to have been the same as that which governed the location of the state capitals, which were put at the most inconvenient possible points, usually near the geographic centre of the state, without regard to the commercial centre toward which all lines of transportation lead. This was done upon the theory that the innocent lawmakers must be defended from contact with the wicked people of the cities. In the same way it wa~ believed that the student must be protected from the temptations and the distractions which the nearness of a great city might give. Both these assumptions are fallacious, and the history of the past forty years has proved their unwisdom.

The great state universities of the middle West have succeeded, not because of their isolation, but in spite of it, and no one can say how different might have been their history ,or how much more powerful might be their position in the future had the larger policy been adopted. The only possible chance for success for a new university in an isolated point lies in the possession of an enormous foundation, such as that which was given by Leland Stanford, by which an institution was founded out-of-hand and with free tuition. But even here the limitations of environment will place a practical limit to what endowment may effect.

These two systems of universities rest upon fundamentally different views as to the support of higher education. The one assumes that this support will come by the free gift of citizens of the commonwealth, the other assumes that the support of higher education no less than that of elementary education is the duty of the state. The one system appeals to the generosity of the individual citizen, the other appeals to the sense of responsibility and the patriotism of the whole mass of citizens. The one establishes a set of higher institutions which may or may not be in harmony with the elementary schools of the municipality or of the state; the other establishes a set of institutions which are an integral part of that system, and its crown. The one furnishes a system of instruction in which tuition fees are high and tending constantly to grow higher, the other furnishes a system of instruction practically free. The one had its origin in essentially aristocratic distinctions, whatever may be its present form of development, the other is essentially democratic in both its inception and its development.

Will these two systems -- different in ideal, different in inception, different in development, not necessarily antagonistic but contrasted -- continue to flourish, if not side by side, at least in contiguous sections of the country?

As far as one can see into the future, both of these systems will continue to live and to flourish, but with few exceptions they will flourish in different sections, not side by side. No one can doubt today that the state university is gaining as a centre of influence in intellectual and national life. There can be no question that it is to be the seat of university education for the greater part of the whole country, including the Central, Western, and Southern states. The private university which seeks to gain power and influence in this region should set itself seriously to the problem of supplementing, not paralleling, the work of the state university. It should ask itself earnestly the question, What is the logical function of the privately endowed university in a commonwealth where higher education is supplied by the state? So far as I have been able to see, little attention has been paid to this question, which nevertheless deserves serious and careful consideration.

No one interested in education can repress a thrill of exultation as he looks forward to the future of the great state universities. They were started at a fortunate intellectual epoch. Their foundation stones were laid when the battle for scientific freedom and scientific teaching had just been won. They were dedicated by the pioneers who founded them in a spirit of intellectual and spiritual freedom. They are essentially and in the broadest and simplest way democratic, and the logical outgrowth of a democratic system of public schools. It is to this real democracy, to the fact that they were founded, not by a few men or by a single man, but by the whole people of the state, that they owe their greatest fortune, and no one looking into the future can doubt that they are to be amongst the most influential, the richest, and most democratic universities of our land, vying with the oldest and most famous institutions of our Eastern States in a rivalry which we may well hope to see the noble rivalry of the scholar rather than a rivalry of riches, of buildings, and of numbers.

The American university, whether supported by private gift or by the state, is conducted under an administrative system which approximates closer and closer as time goes on that of a business corporation. The administrative power is lodged in a small body of trustees or regents, who are not members of the university community. The board of trustees, with the president as its chief executive officer passes upon the entire policy and administration of the institution. It appoints professors, promotes them, or dismisses them, it engages them to carry out specific pieces of work at specified times, as a business corporation employs its officials; the tenure of office of the professor is at the will of the corporation, as in the tenure of office of a business employee.

Under this arrangement the powers of the president are enormously increased, and the action of the corporation is in nearly all cases his action. He possesses an autocratic power which would not for a moment be tolerated in a European institution. From him the same administrative system reaches down through the institution. Professors employ their assistants for specific duties at specified times; students are required to undertake specific work in a prescribed way and at a fixed time.

It is worth while to note some of the consequences of this administrative attitude upon the life and upon the work of those who make up the university. One of the most direct consequences is that the professor in the American university is charged not only with the work of a scholar, but with a large amount of routine administrative work as well.

Would the American university whether a private or a state institution - be bettered if its administration were turned over to the faculty instead of being vested, as now, in a board of trustees who do not pretend to be experts in educational methods? Would it be a step forward, for example, to intrust to the faculty the election of the president and of the professors, and to put into their hands the settlement of the larger questions of policy and of expenditure? Ought the university freedom to be extended through the faculty to the student body so as to diminish the pressure of the organization and to enlarge the sphere of freedom both for professor and student? Can scholarship of a high order be developed under pressure? Are we educating our youth away from democratic ideals, not toward them, by the form and tendency of our university administration?

These are fundamental questions which affect our national life and, most directly, our youth.