Disturbing the War
In 1938, Hutchins had roundly deplored the University of Chicago's chaotic and ineffective administrative organization and suggested that he should be president in fact as well as in name. Under the statutes of the university the president had neither power nor responsibility. Nobody had. There was nobody at Chicago (or anywhere else) charged with asking, "What are we trying to do?"
His introduction of the question of power and responsibility had followed a 1938 vote of seventy-six members of the two-hundred-man university senate, who decided, forty-two to thirty-four, to investigate a complaint by the regional Association of University Professors that Hutchins and his deans had too much control over appointments, promotions, and salaries. They asked the investigatee to head the investigating committee, and nothing more was heard of it. But one of them was quoted anonymously at the time as saying that a large majority of the faculty "believe he has an insatiable lust for power."
The issue of presidential power had been simmering on the back burner since then, though he let it be known now and again that it was still on his mind. But it was clear with the country at war that nothing so radical, in terms of the university's long-run activities, would be brought forward. Nor was it—until in mid-July 1942 he prepared a sixteen-page memorandum to the board of trustees—not to the faculty, to the board. The memorandum proposed a revision of the university's constitution, something which "has never been done, here or elsewhere."
All he wanted to do was turn the organization of the institution upside down. After twelve years of bucking the faculty line, gaining a yard or two here, losing a yard or two there, he was attempting an end-run. The constitution of the university was the board's province. He condescend—
statutorily he needn't have—to suggest that the board send his proposal to the faculty senate and ask the senate to appoint a committee to advise with a committee of the board concerning it. (The board did so; the senate appointed its committee; and two years later he was constrained to observe that nothing had been done.)
Formally the proposal was couched in alternative forms. The structure of the modern university—Chicago included—was "confused and ineffective" as a consequence of its being modeled (with only minor changes) on the small college of the previous century. "If democratic government requires responsibility, then university government is undemocratic, for no academic individual is responsible for his acts as part of that government. . . . According to the [Chicago] Constitution the faculty controls educational policy. . . . But the President may refuse to appoint or promote members of the faculty"—and determine the range and diversity of the institution's activities in terms of its financial condition.
Thus the faculty "is for all practical purposes without a remedy against the use of these presidential powers to create an educational situation of which, if given a chance to vote, they would never approve. Though they participate at Chicago in the selection of a president, they can do very little about him after he is in office." On the other hand, "the powers of the faculty over education mean that nobody can be held responsible for education. The authority of the faculty is such that the President can not be held responsible. In no event could the faculty be. The members of a department could not be discharged because their judgment with regard to appointments proved to be bad or because their preoccupation with duties relating to part of a program led them to resist suggestions for the improvement of the program as a whole."
Could something fundamental be done? Could the University of Chicago be made orderly and democratic? Hutchins thought it could be—in one of two ways. Plan I (as it came to be known) involved "the abandonment of responsibility and efficiency as criteria of university government. We should simply say that these notions are inapplicable to the kind of thing a university is. We should hold that there are other values more important to a university and that these emerge in proportion as the community of scholars which is the university manages its affairs. On this theory all matters affecting the institution, its expenditures, its public relations, its plant, as well as its educational and scientific program, would be under the direction of the faculty." Under this plan the president would be the chairman of the faculty, simply a presiding officer who would also represent the institution at public events, like the rector of a German university, who serves for one year, exercises no power, has no educational
function, and enjoys the improbable designation of Magnifizenz . (But the German and other European universities so operated are ultimately answerable to a government ministry.)
Hutchins went on advocating Plan I as an alternative—"preferable to that under which we are now operating"—in the ensuing two years of controversy. But he was disingenuous in doing so. Not only was it not like him temperamentally or philosophically to countenance such a "democratic" structure; it was not like the faculty of a university, Chicago or any other, to want to undertake the role Plan I assigned to it. Hutchins as much as cut it down in his memorandum to the board: "Nor are the background, training, and duties of American professors such as to give much hope that they could manage the affairs of a great institution in the interest of the institution as a whole. For the most part they are selected because they are or are expected to become experts in their special fields. Their first duty is to become as great experts in their fields as possible. The votes of great experts in special fields do not necessarily add up to the best judgment on the policies of the institution as a whole."
He was not being derogatory here, except, perhaps, by implication, the implication being (as he said elsewhere in the memorandum) that "the President is the only educational officer whose sole duty is to the University as a whole, rather than to a department or a division. The great size of the University and the increasingly narrow lines of specialization in scholarship make it almost impossible for a professor to know all that is going on in his division, or in the University, or even, in some cases, in his own department."
This consideration led him to his Plan II, after his dismissal of Plan I because of the "fatal objections" he delineated (though he would continue to insist that it was a viable alternative). Plan II—this was Hutchins—was "a simple plan of administrative responsibility. This would mean that as long as the President had the confidence of the University Senate and the Board of Trustees he would be authorized to decide issues of educational policy. In addition to participating in his election the Senate would at any time be able to raise the question of confidence, and could, if it felt strongly enough, force the removal of the President.
"The President would be unable to proceed without the advice of the Senate and without that of a reorganized Senate Committee on University Policy. But when he had listened"—or, his opponents would say, pretended to listen—"to their advice, he would be required to decide, and take the consequences. The consequences might be an appeal from a small fraction of the Senate to the Board of Trustees to request the resignation of the President; the compulsory resignation of the President, which might or
might not be accepted by the Board; or the compulsory removal of the President. Since through inertia or timidity the faculty might not avail itself of any of these methods of showing its lack of confidence in the President, the President should be elected for a seven-year term." (The term of the chief executive of many European countries.)
"These changes would give the faculty protection against the President, protection which it does not now have. They would ensure the fullest expression of faculty opinion on all matters affecting the University. They would make the President responsible to the faculty and responsible in fact, as well as in theory, to the Board of Trustees. On the other hand, they would give a president who had the confidence of the faculty an opportunity to do something."
An opportunity to do something . To do "something" that Robert Maynard Hutchins had not up to then been able to do because of the checks on him by a majority of his faculty, or by an activist minority unopposed by a majority, or by a majority of the board, which legally owned the university and over which he had only the power of persuasion. In the closing pages of his memorandum he argued (and believed he had overcome) the objections that might be raised—including the unlikely objection in the current situation of the University of Chicago that the president would be sedulous to avoid antagonizing anybody or doing anything lest he fail of reelection at the end of seven years. The memorandum closed with the assertion that if Plan II—or, presumably, Plan I—were to be adopted, he would present his resignation, and the resignation of his deans, so that officers might be chosen in conformity with the new regulations.
What did he want? He wanted immense power—and immense responsibility to balance it. But the worst culmination of his assumption of the responsibility would be his mere dismissal, while the worst culmination of his assumption of the power might be a cunning and unconscionable succession of administrative actions which might injure, or even destroy, the university before the machinery to get rid of him was rolling. Or at least so his opponents might envision, and his opponents had had twelve years to come by the apprehension that he would, had he his way, make changes of a much more radical character than he had succeeded up to then in introducing. Way back there somewhere, when he had first got his college, he had said—and his enemies had long memories—"We are now able to teach the wrong things the right way." It was the right things his faculty had up to then forestalled.
A much milder man, or a forceful man without a program of his own, might have got some support in his faculty for his Plan II and some con-
siderable support among the businessmen on his board who knew what it was to assume responsibility, and its risks, along with power and its opportunity. Or Hutchins himself, when he was still relatively fresh on the scene and the opposition to him had not yet been hardened. But not Hutchins in 1942, and not Hutchins thereafter. And he could hardly help knowing it; he was an excruciating realist. What he sought was a cross between benevolent despotism and responsible autocracy, a parliamentary prime ministry as far as the vote of confidence was concerned, but without the restraints of the party a prime minister leads. He would have no party. He would stand alone. The board—where his power of persuasion was considerable—might refuse to accept his resignation, as the monarch sometimes does under ministerial governments. One of his friends said that he wanted to be a Benedictine abbot, serving with the advice, but not the consent, of the monks.
There wasn't a prayer of his getting what he asked. And he was bright enough to know it. And so was his board, including Laird Bell, who was probably the strongest man on the board and was not only Hutchins' strongest supporter but his personal attorney. Bell responded to the Hutchins memo as chairman of the board's Committee on Instruction and Research, but his response was (as was his wont) informal.
How would it work with a Chancellor Day—or whoever that Syracuse die-hard was?
Will you . . . get and hold . . . [faculty of the] highest calibre if they do not enjoy at least a measure of autonomy in their departments and schools?
Would faculties think they had much chance of getting you to accept the resignation of one of your own appointed deans?
Won't faculties believe . . . that the Board will back you up unless there is a sure-enough scandal?
Won't you stir up AAUP and radicals?
Any less radical way than one which suggests you want "dictatorial" powers?
I confess to a weakness for a not too definite blueprint of authority, and to checks and balances, God save the mark! You have in the end got, from the Board, most of what you went after.
All judgments on education and educators seem to me to be subjective. Is it the kind of field for a one-man judgment?
You have in the end got . . . most of what you went after . For which read variously: You aren't going to get this, or, You aren't going to get any more. It was the sharpest official rebuke Hutchins would ever receive, and he received it from a friend. If Bell was unsympathetic to Plan II—Plan I was not even discussed—the board as a whole would certainly be unsym-
pathetic. But Bell knew and the board knew that Hutchins was incapable of letting go. The man saw his administrative career as one of shameful compromise. In order to get things taught "the right way," he had yielded on having "the wrong things" taught; the liberal arts and the great books actually played a minor role in the undergraduate program. He had got the divisional organization and the autonomous college he wanted, but the university in its anarchical essentials was unaffected. Under cover of the war emergency he had got the "two-year" bachelor's degree (which would probably be revoked when the war was over). He had won a few skirmishes, such as the withdrawal from intercollegiate football and the severance of the Rush Medical School from the university and the incorporation of the university's own medical school into the new Division of the Biological Sciences. But twelve years had passed and he had been fought to a standstill on the central front: the exemplary reconstruction of the higher learning. He had, perhaps, meant to rest on his spear after Pearl Harbor and play the genteel role of an administrator of things as they were—or, now, as the wartime government wanted them. But it hadn't worked. He once said that he had the impression that his ancestors had been, on the whole, stubborn men and women. So, on the whole, was their descendant.
The Hutchins memorandum (of July 18, 1942) was marked Confidential. But it wasn't; board members had close friends in the faculty, and even an extremely able man like Bell, the busiest of lawyers, was unlikely to have undertaken to indite his response to Hutchins without considerable briefing from faculty friends. Certain senior members of the faculty were known to have the habit of going to board members with one or another aspect of "the Hutchins issue." While some of them had some effect, the habit had (as it always does) a tendency to backfire, too; university board members were generally administrators in their own fields of endeavor, and they preferred dealing with an able administrator rather than with professors. The Hutchins memorandum was followed by six months of board silence. At the end of December, the board sent a letter to the faculty senate, embodying the Hutchins alternatives and proposing a senate committee to discuss them with Bell's Committee on Instruction and Research.
The senate committee was appointed, consisting, of course, of senior professors, since only men and women of full professorial rank were senate members. That anything decisive would emerge from such quarters was itself most unlikely, in view of the fact that one of Hutchins' Plan II recommendations was that the size of the senate be radically reduced in the name of efficiency and its membership opened on a proportional basis to all ranks of the faculty. (His major strength, remember, was in the lower
ranks). The two committees met jointly on several occasions but made no apparent headway.
On March 10, 1943, Hutchins made his last stab, submitting to the board of trustees a memorandum—this one was not marked Confidential—painstakingly restating his proposals and dismissing Plan I as "requiring no elaboration." Moving immediately to Plan II he said, "I am not personally involved in the matter. We are here concerned with the proper administrative structure for a great university rather than with the amount of power Mr. Hutchins should have. The university should organize itself in the best possible manner and then seek for the individual who would be the best executive under that form of organization."
He went on, his passion concealed by his benign posture, to present an argument that was nothing less than tricky and transparently so: "The present organization of the University has broken down and is leading to a Presidential dictatorship."—The wolf crying, "Wolf, wolf."—"The President, without consulting the faculty, and often without consulting the Board, is deciding important educational issues himself because the speed and secrecy required make consultation impossible. I do not believe that this situation will be materially altered at the end of the war. The government will use the universities during the period of reconstruction as it has been using them since the emergency began. . . . The present president of the University is full of good will; but I think that no individual, however benevolent, should be permitted to decide crucial educational questions without such checks and safeguards as are proposed in Plan II." (The decisions which required "speed and secrecy" were, of course, war decisions which were either unrelated to crucial educational questions or were by definition temporary.)
Plan II hadn't a prayer. The well into which it sank appeared, as the months passed, to be bottomless. By the beginning of 1944, fattened by a steady diet of frustration and fury, he was ready to set his blunted spear aside and try his hand at throwing thunderbolts.