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32 Brooks Brothers Bolshevik
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Brooks Brothers Bolshevik

As the faculty and trustees poured out of the grand ballroom of the South Shore Country Club that evening of January 12, 1944, they were sharply aware that the only thing their president had said that he hadn't said many times before was that "the only measure of compensation in a true community is need." He had caught them all—friends and enemies—off base. For fifteen years he had talked education and nothing but education (except when he had taken to the microphone in 1941 to talk war and peace). Of an unforeseeable sudden he had thrown moral and social philosophy at them.

The moralist demanded the application of the moral principle of social justice to a capitalist institution in a capitalist country. He could not have taken the University of Chicago to be the true community of which he spoke; it must have been that he intended to make it one. But it wasn't his university, and he had no statutory voice in the economic basis on which it operated. That was the sole prerogative of the trustees, who, if they were not capitalists in principle, were nothing. The Hutchins proposal, that storied evening, was some sort of bolshevism. His offhand projection of a family allowance combined with abolition of rank suggested that the faculty members of a great university, from the most renowned to the most obscure and unpromising, might all be paid the same salary by a board no one of whom would dream of running his own business that way.

It wouldn't work, of course; when did bolshevism ever work, and why wouldn't it succeed, in this case, in simply driving the best professors away and deter the best professors in other universities from coming to Chicago ? ("I don't believe we will wreck it—nor let it be wrecked.") Who, if he had a chance to go elsewhere, would stay, besides the incompetent, the half-competent, the nonproductive, and a few young idealists who were more


interested in utopianism than they were in their work? Who would want to come? Again, the same sort of utopian and the same sort of none too promising men and women who would exert all their energies to get taken on and achieve tenure with nothing further in view than being sustained in the Life of Professor Reilly their lives long.

Plainly, Hutchins had at last flown from the rock-hard reality of human nature and human society. There were some men and women—certainly in a university—who wanted other things more than they wanted money. But where were the men and women to be found who didn't want money, too, and not just enough money to keep them alive at a level determined by Robert M. Hutchins or his subalterns? Where were the men and women who didn't want a new car or a bigger house even though the old car and the old house were, however unsatisfactorily, still serviceable? And where was the governance of such a society that didn't come down, in the end, to arbitrary and capricious tyranny?

What was the man up to?

Interviewed by Donald McDonald for the Columbia University Oral History Project twenty-five years after the event, he dated the final faculty onslaught on him from that speech. He insisted (perhaps disingenuously) that he was actually surprised when his socialist proposal "struck terror in the hearts of many members of the faculty." The terrified were, of course, the old. They stood only to lose, the great men who in the largest sense make or break a university. Again, they saw Hutchins appealing against them to the lowly young.

The greatest of the great men had access to one or another of the trustees socially. They went to their friends on the board and "appealed to them not to listen to me any more. They did not suggest that I retire or resign, but they thought it would be nice if the Board were less attentive."[1] The Hutchins proposal was double-barreled. It would focus the whole attention of the professors on their proper work, and it would achieve something he had been trying to get from the board for several years past: a salary increase for the lower ranks of the faculty. (In the interest of disarming opposition in the higher ranks he had asked the board for an overall 25 percent increase.) It was appropriate, and inevitable, that the president of a corporation ask his board for wage raises for the employees who had no one else to represent them. But a wage raise, however steep, would not threaten the principle of differential compensation as long as it was proposed on a percentage basis. That wasn't bolshevism. This was.

He had, to be sure, been making radical noises, off and on, all his life and making them in public. As long ago as his speech to the Young Democrats in 1932 he had urged social legislation more radical than FDR's and


had indicated his support for the Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas.[2] Again and again down the succeeding years he had emerged to fire a fine salvo at the ship of state laden with its inequities and iniquities. But he had never left the high-minded road of generality and got down to cases. He had never carried responsibility for the social order into his own back yard.

Neither his enemies nor his friends supposed he ever would. He was, after all, the chief executive of a great corporation and, as such, a man whose genteel sybaritism was so deeply ingrained as to be unconscious. What about his need and his family allowance? True, he had cut his own salary exemplarily during the Depression and had always turned his outside earnings over to the university (a practice he hadn't advertised); but who was to decide, and on what basis, how much he needed to support his three children, his wife, her studio and the family's summer sojourns on the Connecticut shore or in Europe? Or the servants at the university president's house? How could he set up a scheme that would level gross differentials in compensation and do away with the invidiousness on which the money-making world turned? In the first place, he seemed to be talking (and later said that he was) about earned income. Now professors A and B had gone about as far as they would go in biology and history respectively, and they drew down, it was understood, low wages at their already attained ultimate level of associate professor. But they lived lavishly in large houses, when leading professors were living in unpretentious apartments. A and B had married money. What kind of family allowance was A or B to get to maintain three children? What about professors C and D, who were themselves heirs? The earnings of such men were the least part of their income. At a faculty meeting on the subject someone asked what Hutchins would be expected to do with the money if he won a Nobel Prize of (at that time) $46,000. "Keep it," said Hutchins airily—as if such an exception wouldn't invalidate the whole scheme. The likely abuses were endless.

Reflecting long afterward on the immediate effect of that historic speech of his, Hutchins acknowledged that his hearers that evening could well have felt themselves threatened by a proposal as casually and cryptically presented as that one. Would a department head with no dependents actually be cut, and an instructor of no particular promise doubled in salary to support his three children—or more to support his six? But these were the least of the scandals that threatened the very fabric of the institution.

Hutchins had already broken the back of the scandal of scandals: medicine. The scheme in America was the affiliation of an independent medical school with a university, in Chicago's case the Rush Medical School,


whose wealthy men in white treated many of the university's wealthy trustees and donors. Hutchins mounted a crusade to establish a new medical school integrated into the university's biological sciences division and succeeded, over the years, in persuading his board to accept this proposal over the agonized protest of the free-enterprising Rush faculty and the medical profession generally.[3]

The new medical school proved to be the most durable and exemplary of Hutchins' achievements, elevating Chicago to the forefront of medical research. But in economic terms the adoption of a full-salaried contract, eliminating private practice, constituted an outrageous invasion of the sacred and sacrificial halls of medical care. It was denounced by the doctors as the most arrant sort of socialism. Its opponents, said Hutchins afterwards, "were sagacious enough to foresee what eventually happened. They foresaw the ultimate abolition of their own school because of the establishment of the new one." The medical establishment never forgave him, and the University of Chicago doubtless lost the financial support of many who took their family physician's advice regarding benefactions.

But the practice of medicine was only the most egregious form of outside earnings that diverted faculty members from their research and teaching. The scandal lay in the academic moonlighting in the private sector. It was a perquisite of the academic trade if you happened to be in a field where your services might enrich a business or industrial firm—a biologist moonlighting for a pharmaceutical firm, a geologist for an oil company, a physicist or chemist for a steel or chemical combine. Consider the professors who wrote textbooks for the great textbook houses, walking away with colossal royalties. Department for department, the most prolific offenders were in the business school (called commerce and administration at Chicago). But the practice turned up everywhere.

Socialism—"in one country," at that—was ridiculous. It wouldn't work. It never had.

But the capitalist board of the University of Chicago adopted the full-time contract reform. In a letter to alumni who wrote in to ask about it, Board Chairman Swift said that the prevailing opinion of the trustees was at first unfavorable, but subsequent consideration turned the board around. He cited, in particular, the fact that all fourteen of the deans and all eight of the senior administrative officers supported it. What Swift did not advert to was the faculty opposition to it. Because it wasn't an educational issue but an administrative matter having to do with financing alone, the trustees saw no reason to listen too closely to the muttering of senior professors, many of whom saw their financial prerogatives jeopardized.

In the event, their prerogatives weren't jeopardized by the proposal as it


came to the trustees (and as they adopted it). It was not compulsory to come into the scheme except for instructors after their four-year probationary terms, when they were advanced to assistant professorship or dropped. The plan was voluntary for faculty members with the rank of assistant professor and above. It wasn't, in a word, the imposition of all-out socialism but, rather, its imposition on the lowly and an invitation to the exalted. As for the abolition of rank, Chairman Swift told the alumni that it was in the exploratory state and would not be hastily undertaken. "My guess," he wrote, "is that it will not be done." He was right. It wasn't.

Swift had not, he said, expected as many as fifty applicants for full-time service. He was amazed to find that 115 had applied and been accepted. (Several had been rejected, "these being people who had few outside contacts and who probably thought a permanent increase in salary might be affected thereby.") The idea, he went on, was to take into the plan "many of the younger and most capable men and pay them enough to live comfortably so that outside money-grabbing will not be necessary." If, on the other hand, the professor who came into the plan felt that his outside activities were valuable to his professional development or to the university, there was no objection to his continuing them as long as the money went to the university. "The idea is not so much an attempt to control the individuals, but rather to control conditions so that they can give their chief time and attention to the things they want to do, and so that they will not need to deviate from them for the sake of making a living."

Because the term "socialism," in one form or another, had been widely used in the press in connection with the proposal, conservative alumni had come to the board in considerable number to express their concern. The board chairman assured them that the program was experimental, and that careful observation would be made of all aspects of it, including "whether desirable persons from other institutions hesitate to come to us."

The experiment was a middling success; in the course of a very few years a great majority of the lowest ranking faculty came into the plan, validating, in the view of the older men, their suspicion that the plan was one more Hutchins device for pitting the younger faculty members against the older. Even some people in the higher ranks came into it, and there was no indication, in the ensuing years, that able young men and women hesitated to join the Chicago faculty as instructors because they would be faced, four years later, with entering the program if they were to be retained.

But it did not change the character of the University of Chicago or catch on elsewhere. The higher learning in America remained a free-for-all bastion of free enterprise, and as the moonlighting proliferated both in avail-


ability and reward, and as both the cost and the conception of living went up in the succeeding decades, more and more college and university professors found themselves drawn to money on the side and away from the modest wages they had once been paid for having chosen the life of the mind. So the salaries of professors went up competitively, and nothing more was heard about need as the only basis for compensation in the true community or, for the matter of that, about the true community.

Hutchins' socialism—or bolshevism—in one part of one country was done away with after he left the university, seven years after it was initiated. It was a famous victory—but more famous than it was victorious. And it was the last one of any consequence he was to have as a university president.

One sunny Santa Barbara day, thirty years or so afterward, I sauntered into his office and reminded him of that icy Chicago evening in January of 1944, when he had proposed that members of the University of Chicago faculty be put on a full-time basis and be required to turn over all their outside earnings to the university. "The only basis for compensation in a true community is need." How much of an aberration (if it was one) was his assertion? If that proposal wasn't some sort of socialism, what was it? But he had lived like a capitalist all his life. I told him that before either of us lived any longer I wanted to know his view of the free enterprise system in the abstract. "Tell me why what you were trying to do was in essence different from socialism as the proper organization of society as a whole."

"What I was trying to do was to organize and operate the best university I could. . . . The specific measure that you refer to had nothing to do with my ideas of social, political, and economic matters in general."

"Tell me about your ideas of social, political, and economic matters in general."

"Well, I have a very strong belief in justice, and I have a very strong feeling that the present economic, social, and political order in the United States is unjust."

"Why is it unjust?"

"It is unjust because men are unjust, and because the institutions we have created are unjust, and because the procedures that we follow are unjust. . . . You may say there is no hope as long as we have the economic, social, and political structure we have now. And this is a serious question."

"Have you a serious answer?"

"My serious answer is that in my lifetime I have seen a tremendous amount of improvement in some respects and a tremendous amount of failure in many others. In some ways we were worse off . . . and in some ways . . . better. And I'm unable to decide whether if we had a major


revolution we would be any better off than we are likely to be if we kept working away at trying to obtain justice, if it can be obtained under the present system. For example, the Fourteenth Amendment. . . . And there are various other things. . . . As long as we have tremendous concentrations of private power we are not going to have the kind of country we ought to have."

"But the fact is that the Constitution doesn't say anything about the economic order. Is justice possible under capitalism?"

"I don't know. It is necessary everywhere. But not inevitable under any system. I think that the possibilities of obtaining justice under our system are far from exhausted. At the same time we can not assume that injustice will ever be completely wiped out as long as men remain in their fallen condition. And I take their fallen condition to be congenital. The object, then, is to try to make whatever system you have as just as you can."

"Is there anything inherently just or unjust in capitalism or socialism?"

"Well, I would doubt it. I think there are some very serious questions raised by Marx's theory of surplus value.[4] I may say that I don't like the words 'socialism' and 'capitalism' because I don't know what they mean and I don't know how you would identify any existing state. Is Russia a socialist state? Is the United States capitalist? From some points of view Yes, and from some points of view No. . . . The question is, what can be done under given circumstances with given people at a given time? I merely say that ours is not a system that one could describe as altogether a free enterprise system, nor is it a socialist system however one defines socialism. We should take the United States as it is—forget whether it's capitalist or socialist—and say what's good and bad about it, what can be done about what's bad, what can be done to confirm what's good, and how you try to make it a better system. . . . I don't believe that I could recommend any existing economic system as it stands."

And so it went. He said nothing that would scandalize the rich beyond their bearing; he was an eccentric one of theirs, but still one of theirs. The establishment's antiestablishmentarian. If it wasn't the system that made the difference, if it was the men; and if the men were in a fallen condition, and the condition was congenital; then how could the men be expected to improve the system? How could congenitally unjust men be expected to "keep working away at trying to obtain justice"?

The vicious circle was obvious to him. In the pinches, the lover of grand abstractions about the true community abandoned the abstraction for reification.


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