by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The Martin Center focuses attention in its “History of Higher Ed” series on a century-old piece from Randolph Bourne titled “The Idea of a 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.
As directors in this corporation of learning, trustees seem to regard themselves primarily as guardians of invested capital.