The Idea of a University: When Trustees Turn a College Into a Commodity | Beaufort County Now

Every American college and university is affected by the issue raised in Professor Beardís dramatic resignation from Columbia as a protest against trustee autocracy. james g. martin center, trustees, college, commodity, october 18, 2019
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The Idea of a University: When Trustees Turn a College Into a Commodity

Publisher's note: The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal is a nonprofit institute dedicated to improving higher education in North Carolina and the nation. Located in Raleigh, North Carolina, it has been an independent 501(c)(3) organization since 2003. It was known as the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy until early January 2017.

The author of this post is Martin Center Staff.


    EDITOR'S NOTE: This article by Randolph Bourne, a writer and public intellectual, was originally published as "The Idea of a University" in The Dial on November 22, 1917. This is the second of a Martin Center "History of Higher Ed" series where the Center will republish overlooked writings that shaped American higher education.

    In September 1917, Professor J. McKeen Cattell of the psychology department and Professor Henry W.L. Dana, an assistant professor of comparative literature, were dismissed by the trustees of Columbia University. Both teachers had expressed publicly their opposition to World War I. In protest against this breach of academic freedom, Professor Charles A. Beard, a professor in the history department, resigned from the university.


    Every American college and university is affected by the issue raised in Professor Beard's dramatic resignation from Columbia as a protest against trustee autocracy. For the conditions which he found intolerable spring from a ruling conception held by university trustees and a portion of conservative public opinion as to the nature of the modern university. The methods taken at Columbia to secure the expulsion of Professors Cattell and Dana are very revealing as to the status of professors and the nature of university prestige.

    The excuses, causes, and reasons given by the university authorities and the current comment of the newspapers show how frankly the American university has become a financial corporation, strictly analogous, in its motives and responses, to the corporation which is concerned in the production of industrial commodities.

    Trustees who are business men, who hold positions as directors or executives in large financial or industrial corporations, carry over into the management of the university the attitudes and sensitivities learned in the corporate world. The university produces learning instead of steel or rubber, but the nature of the academic commodity has become less and less potent in ensuring for the academic workman a status materially different from that of any other kind of employee.

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    As directors in this corporation of learning, trustees seem to regard themselves primarily as guardians of invested capital. They manage as a sacred trust the various bequests, gifts, endowments which have been made to the university by men and women of the same orthodoxies as themselves. Their obligation is to see that the quality of the commodity which the university produces is such as to seem reputable to the class which they represent. And in order to maintain the flow of capital and the general credit of the institution they must keep the stock above par.

    In the minds apparently of the trustees, and of the executives and professors who work with them, the reputation of a university is comparable to the standing of a corporation's securities on the street, the newspapers taking the place of the stock exchange. The real offence of Professors Cattell and Dana seems to have been not so much that they were unpatriotic as that they had lowered the prestige of the university in the public mind. Neither the president nor the trustees nor the faculty committees brought forward any evidence besides epithet that either professor had, in the language of President Butler's warning, actually "opposed or counselled opposition to the laws of the United States, or had acted, spoken, or written treason."

    What these professors had done was to associate themselves with organizations which were enjoying infamy in the irresponsible press.

    No attempt was made to discover whether the newspaper accounts were true. Chatter and rumor were sufficient to convict them. Why? Because on the stock exchange it is by rumor and prejudice that the value of securities is hit, not by evidence. When your stock is depressed by an alarming rumor, it is irrelevant whether the rumor is true or not. The mischief lies in what people think, not in the actual facts. And for this purpose newspaper chatter is authoritative. Your object then becomes not to discover the truth but to combat the rumor. If the fall in your stock is due to a suspicion of the value of your commodity, you renew your efforts to convince the public of its soundness. If it is due to an offending employee, you dismiss the employee. Having removed the cause of the prejudice, you may then expect your securities to resume their former level.

    Only on such an interpretation can we explain the tendency of university authorities to rely on newspaper opinion and upon the complaints of persons whom they would not take seriously on any other question whatever. One is often amazed at the callousness of university trustees towards the indignation that follows these arbitrary dismissals of professors. But this corporate attitude naturally discounts the opinions of the non-investing public.

    It is not the discontent of idealists that matters, but the vague complaints from parents that their sons are being taught irreligion and sedition within the university, complaints from business men that a professor is tainted with economic heresy, indignation of prominent alumni at the connection of the university's name with unpopular movements.

    These are the attitudes that depress the credit of the university in the investing world, and these are the attitudes that carry weight, therefore, with the university president and the trustees. Vested interests presumably receive dividends in the form of orthodox graduates. Whatever interferes with the supply of such a revenue is therefore a serious assault on the stability of the corporation.

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