The American University at Mid-Century

          Up until the 1940s, American parents might postpone a son's entrance into the job force with an idyllic interlude for disinterested study removed from the tumult of business, politics, and industry.  I came upon the academic scene just in time to catch a glimpse of that traditional purpose for higher education.  The GI Bill, an Act of Congress providing any World War II veteran with means to attend college, inundated the old idea of a university.  The GI Bill not only staved off post-war unemployment in the nation at large.  The pressures and promises of growing enrollments enabled faculty like Professor Thomas to employ novices like me.  My career rode the wave.  I was lucky to get my first job at the University of Pennsylvania.  I was either too sharp, or too dull to please the department head, but that turned out to be of no consequence in those days of swelling enrollments.  When I resigned from Pennsylvania in May, I thought I was leaving teaching for good.  I quickly got two offers for the fall, and continued to receive solicitations through the summer.  Six years after that conversation with Wesley Thomas on the steps of Old Main, I was running the German program at the University of Houston.  In 1963, I was called back to the institution which had granted my Ph.D., and became head of a major German department. 

       Since my cohort had come of age during the war against Germany, it contained very few aspiring German teachers.  When I began to teach, the post-World War II "baby boomers" were at the college doors.  Tyche had clearly led me into a profession much in need of personnel.  Expansion was transforming a once remote academic world into an enterprise as vast and comprehensive as the Church in the Middle Ages.  Parents and young people on the one hand, thriving industrialists and expanding government on the other, were looking to the universities for research in areas important to science, government, business, and industry.  We in the humanities enthusiastically argued that language and literature served these same national goals.  Congress was persuaded to include language study as vital to the national defense, hence eligible for fellowships and grants.  Promise of money and prestige drew many new graduate students and future faculty members into higher education, including the humanities. 

        I had the good fortune of associating with several wise old fellows who had long served as heads of departments (something like feudal duchies in the Middle Ages), Bill Shoemaker of Spanish and Joseph Smiley in French, also a very gifted historian about my age, Robert W. Johannsen.  Actual administrative duties were negligible.  I conceived it as my task to recruit true scholars, and to try to demonstrate sincere scholarship myself.  The university had not yet by that time transmogriphied into a pronounced bureaucracy, but the process had begun.  The third quarter of the twentieth century saw the advent of the "multiversity" as described by Clark Kerr, president of the many branched University of California.  The rest of the country followed California's example for several reasons.  In the first place, the tidal wave of enrollment and faculty hirings had changed the character of teacher and student alike.  Perhaps more basic, an ever larger portion of the university budget came from industrial grants and subsidies, while at the same time increasing dependency on federal funding enhanced conformity between public and private schools and erased old regional distinctions.

        Obviously, relations between state universities and state legislatures had changed.  At the same time, the legislatures were themselves were being restructured.  During my tenure at the University of Houston, the Supreme Court required North Carolina (Baker v. Carr, 1962) to abide by its own constitution in apportioning its legislature.  In subsequent rulings (Wesberry v. Sanders, 1963; Reynolds v. Sims, 1964; and Lucas v. Colorado General Assembly, 1964), the Warren Court, already notorious for expanding the 14th Amendment's "equal protection" clause even to overruling the voters themselves (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), proceeded with its "one man, one vote" rulings to require both houses in state legislatures to be chosen by population (as distinct from the model set by the United States Constitution).

        This program had far reaching implications for state universities.  Most of them traced their roughly hundred-year history back to the Morrill Act of 1862, which had set aside federal land grants for state universities, a huge boon both to industrial and agricultural research.  A quarter century later, the Hatch Act had created agricultural extension services.  Among a still predominantly rural populace, this combination constituted tremendous political strength.  It also reinforced that peculiarly American ideal of the college campus
as a quiet retreat for disinterested learning, "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife."  Under "one man, one vote," such a concept of the university now became obsolete.  Higher education was politically dependent on population centers and their needs.

        The University Provost whom I knew, the final arbiter for the university budget both on campus and before the legislature, was the scholar-administrator Lyle Lanier, a crony both of the New Critics in his native Tennessee and of legislators in Illinois.  This authentic researcher and author served as credible mediator between academic and political mentalities.  The same was true of his successor Herbert Carter, who had built Illinois' distinguished chemistry department.  Such men, and I think there were many of them across the nation, would have found much of their effectiveness lost on the numerous "campuses" of the new multiversity.  Its demographically located centers were coordinated by boards of higher education, which were connected to the legislatures through a Byzantine labyrinth of committees and administrators.  Appointment, retention, and advancement of "human resources" now had to conform with procedures which necessarily excluded the personal, arbitrary judgment revered and practiced by the old scholar-administrators.

            In 1959-60, just before I returned to Illinois, an event on that campus accelerated the national trend toward normalization of university governance.  On a Homecoming week end, an assistant professor of biology, Leo Koch, published in the campus newspaper his view that premarital sex could be salutary for undergraduates. 
University President David Dodds Henry, either genuinely alarmed at the application of biological expertise to student life, or in order to reassure the public that his university still conformed to the principle in loco parentis, dismissed the young man.  The American Association of University Professors contended that Professor Koch had been denied due process, and blacklisted the University of Illinois until the faculty senate should adopt bylaws detailing procedures for faculty retention and dismissal.  The case had national implications.  The day when a university administrator dared apply individual judgment in personnel matters was passing.

         Rules and procedures for retaining and advancing the teeming new work force had become imperative.  The most obvious criterion for the all important scientific and technical fields was publication of research.  Absent exercise of individual department heads' judgment, faculty careers were to be determined by quantifiable measures, the number and length of publications, the venue in which they were printed, and the frequency of their citation, eventually also by machine-graded student evaluations, participation on committees, etc.  My friend, the head of the English Department, devised his own carefully gradated point system.  As in the management of other large organizations, everyone right up to the chief operating officer was concerned with his own "career," a word newly popular among teachers.  As in all organizations, advancement meant delegating responsibility, so that the operator rose ever farther above the operation itself.

        In the scientific and technical fields, universities naturally reflected needs and desires in the nation at large.  
In his inaugural address at Rockefeller University (1990), the new President David Baltimore observed, "Biomedical science has become big business in America, attended by keen competition for funds and ideas; managers and politics intrude . . . biomedical science today attracts armies of patent lawyers, corporate funders, auditors, personnel managers, Congressional investigators, and peer review panels."  Baltimore's words were true for most institutions of higher education.  Baltimore himself was a man of learning, even dedication, but most university executives were selected for other qualities.  Their job was to manage multibillion dollar businesses with a focus on engineering and other technical fields, including business administration itself, and above all to promote an attractive life style for the eighteen to thirty-year-olds aspiring to enter those fields. What I had imagined as the core of the university, the old rhetorical learning, lay at a forgotten periphery.

At the end of the century, the university still retained the patina of a transcendent ideal.  "Mission" statements regularly accompanied appeals for public support.  But now more than ever before, the American public was convinced that their children's welfare and happiness depended on university acceptance.  Parents' willingness to pay rapidly rising costs, students' readiness to encumber their future with debt, were a measure of Americans' profound faith in the university.  Unprecedented indebtedness of graduates in all fields, most prominently law and medicine, compelled new members of these professions to focus as never before on billable hours and numbers of clients treated.  The enhanced stature and prestige of university personnel heightened their awareness of their own careers, and commensurate salary demands.  All these practical considerations displaced the old ephemeral goals of "higher learning" in the minds both of teachers and students.  Like any other enterprise involving large sums of money, the university became a magnet for outside interests with shrewdly calculated methods and goals.   The first obvious collaboration between financial institutions and university policy makers occurred in the vast new enterprise of student lending.

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