The Higher Learning In America — Chapter 4


Academic Prestige and the Material Equipment

In the course of the preceding chapter it has appeared that the introduction of business principles into university policy has had the immediate and ubiquitous effect of greatly heightening the directorate’s solicitude for a due and creditable publicity, a convincing visible success, a tactful and effectual showing of efficiency reflected in an uninterrupted growth in size and other tangible quantitative features. This is good policy as seen from the point of view of competitive business enterprise. In competitive business it is of the gravest importance to keep up the concern’s prestige, or “good will.” A business concern so placed must be possessed of such prestige as will draw and hold a profitable traffic; otherwise the enterprise is in a precarious case. For the objective end and aim of business enterprise is profitable sales, or the equivalent of such sales if the concern is not occupied with what would strictly be called sales. The end sought is a net gain over costs; in effect, to buy cheap and sell dear. The qualities that count as of prime consequence in business enterprise, therefore, particularly in such business enterprise as has to do with many impressionable customers, are the salesmanlike virtues of effrontery and tact. These are high qualities in all business, because their due exercise is believed to bring a net return above the cost of the goods to the seller, and, indeed, above their value to the buyer. Unless the man in competitive business is able, by force of these businesslike aptitudes, to get something more than he gives, it is felt that he has fallen short of the highest efficiency. So the efficient salesman, and similarly the efficiently managed business concern, are enabled to add to their marketable goods an immaterial increment of “prestige value,” as some of the economists are calling it. A margin of prepossessions or illusions as to their superior, but intangible and inexpensive, utility attaches to a given line of goods because of the advertiser’s or salesman’s work, — work spent not so much on the goods as on the customer’s sensibilities.

In case these illusions of superior worth are of an enduring character, they will add an increment of such intangible utility also to goods or other marketable items subsequently to be offered by the same concern; and they can be added up as a presumptive aggregate and capitalized as intangible assets of the business concern in question. Such a body of accumulated and marketable illusions constitute what is known as “good-will,” in the stricter sense of the term. The illusions in question need, of course, not be delusions; they may be well or ill founded; for the purpose in hand that is an idle question.

The most familiar and convincing illustrations of such good will are probably those afforded by the sales of patent medicines, and similar proprietary articles of household consumption; but intangible values of a similar nature are involved in nearly all competitive business. They are the product of salesmanship, not of workmanship; and they are useful to the seller, not to the buyer. They are useful for purposes of competitive gain to the businessman, not for serviceability to the community at large, and their value to their possessor lies in the differential advantage which they give to one seller as against another. They have, on the whole, no aggregate value or utility. From the point of view of the common good, work and expenditure so incurred for these competitive purposes are bootless waste.

Under compulsion of such precedents, drawn from the conduct of competitive business, publicity and “goodwill” have come to take a foremost place in the solicitude of the academic directorate. Not that this notoriety and prestige, or the efforts that go to their cultivation, conduce in any appreciable degree to any ostensible purpose avowed, or avowable, by any university. These things, that is to say, rather hinder than help the cause of learning, in that they divert attention and effort from scholarly workmanship to statistics and salesmanship. All that is beyond cavil. The gain which so accrues to any university from such an accession of popular illusions is a differential gain in competition with rival seats of learning, not a gain to the republic of learning or to the academic community at large; and it is a gain in marketable illusions, not in serviceability for the ends of learning or for any other avowed or avowable end sought by the universities. But as competitors for the good-will of the unlettered patrons of learning the university directorates are constrained to keep this need of a reputable notoriety constantly in mind, however little it may all appeal to their own scholarly tastes.

It is in very large part, if not chiefly, as touches the acquirement of prestige, that the academic work and equipment are amenable to business principles, — not overlooking the pervasive system of standardization and accountancy that affects both the work and the equipment, and that serves other purposes as well as those of publicity; so that “business principles” in academic policy comes to mean, chiefly, the principles of reputable publicity. It means this more frequently and more consistently than anything else, so far as regards the academic administration, as distinguished from the fiscal management of the corporation.

Of course, the standards, ideals, principles and procedure of business traffic enter into the scheme of university policy in other relations also, as has already appeared and as will be shown more at large presently; but after all due qualification is had, it remains true that this business of publicity necessarily, or at least commonly, accounts for a disproportionately large share of the business to be taken care of in conducting a university, as contrasted with such an enterprise, e.g., as a bank, a steel works, or a railway company, on a capital of about the same volume. This follows from the nature of the case. The common run of business concerns are occupied with industrial enterprise of some kind, and with transactions in credit, — with a running sequence of bargains from which the gains of the concern are to accrue, — and it is upon these gains that attention and effort centers, and to which the management of the concern constantly looks. Such concerns have to meet their competitors in buying, selling, and effecting contracts of all kinds, from which their gains are to come. A university, on the other hand, can look to no such gains in the work which is its sole ostensible interest and occupation; and the pecuniary transactions and arrangements which it enters into on the basis of its accumulated prestige are a relatively very trivial matter. There is, in short, no appreciable pecuniary gain to be looked for from any traffic resting on the acquired prestige, and therefore there is no relation of equivalence or discrepancy between any outlay incurred in this behalf and the volume of gainful business to be transacted on the strength of it; with the result that the academic directorate applies itself to this pursuit without arrière pensée. So far as the acquired prestige is designed to serve a pecuniary end it can only be useful in the way of impressing potential donors, a highly speculative line of enterprise, offering a suggestive parallel to the drawings of a lottery.

Outlay for the purpose of publicity is not confined to the employment of field-agents and the circulation of creditable gossip and reassuring printed matter. The greater share of it comes in as incidental to the installation of plant and equipment and the routine of academic life and ceremony. As regards the material equipment, the demands of a creditable appearance are pervading and rigorous; and their consequences in the way of elaborate and premeditated incidentals are, perhaps, here seen at their best. To the laity a “university” has come to mean, in the first place and indispensably, an aggregation of buildings and other improved real-estate. This material equipment strikes the lay attention directly and convincingly; while the pursuit of learning is a relatively obscure matter, the motions of which can not well be followed by the unlettered, even with the help of the newspapers and the circular literature that issues from the university’s publicity bureau. The academic work is, after all, unseen, and it stays in the background. Current expenditure for the prosecution of this work, therefore, offers the enterprise in advertisement a less advantageous field for the convincing use of funds than the material equipment, especially the larger items, — laboratory and library buildings, assembly halls, curious museum exhibits, grounds for athletic contests, and the like. There is consequently a steady drift of provocation towards expenditure on conspicuous extensions of the “plant,” and a correlative constant temptation to parsimony in the more obscure matter of necessary supplies and service, and similar running-expenses without which the plant can not effectually be turned to account for its ostensible use; with the result, not infrequently, that the usefulness of an imposing plant is seriously impaired for want of what may be called “working capital.”(1*)

Indeed, instances might be cited where funds that were much needed to help out in meeting running expenses have been turned to use for conspicuous extensions of the plant in the way of buildings, in excess not only of what was needed for their alleged purpose but in excess of what could conveniently be made use of. More particularly is there a marked proclivity to extend the plant and the school organization into new fields of scholastic enterprise, often irrelevant or quite foreign to the province of the university as a seminary of learning; and to push these alien ramifications, to the neglect of the urgent needs of the academic work already in hand, in the way of equipment, maintenance, supplies, service and instruction.

The running-expenses are always the most urgent items of the budget, as seen from the standpoint of the academic work; and they are ordinarily the item that is most parsimoniously provided for. A scanty provision at this point unequivocally means a disproportionate curtailment of the usefulness of the equipment as well as of the personnel, — as, e.g., the extremely common and extremely unfortunate practice of keeping the allowance for maintenance and service in the university libraries so low as seriously to impair their serviceability. But the exigencies of prestige will easily make it seem more to the point, in the eyes of a businesslike executive, to project a new extension of the plant; which will then be half-employed, on a scanty allowance, in work which lies on the outer fringe or beyond the university’s legitimate province.(2*)

In so discriminating against the working capacity of the university, and in favour of its real-estate, this pursuit of reputable publicity further decides that the exterior of the buildings and the grounds should have the first and largest attention. It is true, the initial purpose of this material equipment, it is ostensibly believed, is to serve as housing and appliances for the work of inquiry and instruction. Such, of course, continues to be avowed its main purpose, in a perfunctorily ostensible way. This means a provision of libraries, laboratories, and lecture rooms. The last of these is the least exacting, and it is the one most commonly well supplied. It is also, on the whole, the more conspicuous in proportion to the outlay. But all these are matters chiefly of interior arrangement, appliances and materials, and they are all of a relatively inconspicuous character. Except as detailed in printed statistics they do not ordinarily lend themselves with appreciable effect to the art of advertising. In meeting all these material requirements of the work in hand a very large expenditure of funds might advantageously be made — advantageously to the academic use which they are to serve — without much visible effect as seen in perspective from the outside. And so far as bears on this academic use, the exterior of the buildings is a matter of altogether minor consequence, as are also the decorative appointments of the interior.

In practice, under compulsion of the business principles of publicity, it will be found, however, that the exterior and the decorative appointments are the chief object of the designer’s attention; the interior arrangement and working appointments will not infrequently become a matter of rude approximation to the requirements of the work, care being first taken that these arrangements shall not interfere with the decorative or spectacular intent of the outside. But even with the best-advised management of its publicity value, it is always appreciably more difficult to secure appropriations for the material equipment of a laboratory or library than for the shell of the edifice, and still more so for the maintenance of an adequate corps of caretakers and attendants.

As will be found true of other lines of this university enterprise in publicity, so also as to this presentation of a reputable exterior; it is designed to impress not the academic personnel, or the scholarly element at large, but the laity. The academic folk and scholars are commonly less susceptible to the appeal of curious facades and perplexing feats of architecture; and then, such an appeal would have no particular motive in their case; it is not necessary to impress them. It is in the eyes of the unlettered, particularly the business community, that it is desirable for the university to present an imposing front; that being the feature of academic installation which they will readily appreciate. To carry instant conviction of a high academic worth to this large element of the populace, the university buildings should bulk large in the landscape, should be wastefully expensive, and should conform to the architectural mannerisms in present vogue. In a few years the style of architectural affectations will change, of course, as fashions necessarily change in any community whose tastes are governed by pecuniary standards; and any particular architectural contrivance will therefore presently lose much of its prestige value; but by the time it so is overtaken by obsolescence, the structures which embody the particular affectation in question will have made the appeal for which they were designed, and so will have served their purpose of publicity. And then, too, edifices created with a thrifty view to a large spectacular effect at a low cost are also liable to so rapid a physical decay as to be ready for removal and replacement before they have greatly outlived their usefulness in this respect.

In recent scholastic edifices one is not surprised to find lecture rooms acoustically ill designed, and with an annoying distribution of light, due to the requirements of exterior symmetry and the decorative distribution of windows; and the like holds true even in a higher degree for libraries and laboratories, since for these uses the demands in these respects are even more exacting. Nor is it unusual to find waste of space and weakness of structure, due, e.g., to a fictitious winding stair, thrown into the design to permit such a facade as will simulate the defensive details of a mediaeval keep, to be surmounted with embrasured battlements and a (make-believe) loopholed turret. So, again, space will, on the same ground, be wasted in heavy-ceiled, ill-lighted lobbies; which might once have served as a mustering place for a body of unruly men-at-arms, but which mean nothing more to the point today, and in these premises, than so many inconvenient flagstones to be crossed in coming and going.

These principles of spectacular publicity demand a nice adjustment of the conspicuous features of the plant to the current vagaries in decorative art and magnificence,that is to say, conformity to the sophistications current on that level of culture on which these unlettered men of substance live and move and have their being. As touches the case of the seats of learning, these current lay sophistications draw on several more or less diverse, and not altogether congruous, lines of conventionally approved manifestation of the ability to pay. Out of the past comes the conventional preconception that these scholastic edifices should show something of the revered traits of ecclesiastical and monastic real-estate; while out of the present comes an ingrained predilection for the more sprightly and exuberant effects of decoration and magnificence to which the modern concert-hall, the more expensive cafes and clubrooms, and the Pullman coaches have given a degree of authentication. Any one given to curious inquiry might find congenial employment in tracing out the manner and proportion in which these, and the like, strains of aesthetic indoctrination are blended in the edifices and grounds of a well-advised modern university.

It is not necessary here to offer many speculations on the enduring artistic merit of these costly stage properties of the seats of learning, since their permanent value in that respect is scarcely to be rated as a substantial motive in their construction. But there is, e. g., no obvious reason why, with the next change in the tide of mannerism, the disjointed grotesqueries of an eclectic and modified Gothic should not presently pass into the same category of apologetic neglect, with the architectural evils wrought by the mid-Victorian generation. But there is another side to this architecture of notoriety, that merits some slight further remark. It is consistently and unavoidably meretricious. Just at present the enjoined vogue is some form of bastard antique. The archaic forms which it ostensibly preserves are structurally out of date, ill adapted to the modern materials and the modern builder’s use of materials. Modern building, on a large scale and designed for durable results, is framework building. The modern requirements of light, heating, ventilation and access require it to be such; and the materials used lend themselves to that manner of construction. The strains involved in modern structures are frame-work strains; whereas the forms which these edifices are required to simulate are masonry forms. The outward conformation and ostensible structure of the buildings, therefore, are commonly meaningless, except as an architectural prevarication. They have to be adapted, simulated, deranged, because in modern use they are impracticable in the shape, proportion and combination that of right belonged to them under the circumstances of materials and uses under which they were once worked out. So there results a meaningless juxtaposition of details, that prove nothing in detail and contradict one another in assemblage. All of which may suggest reflections on the fitness of housing the quest of truth in an edifice of false pretences.

These architectural vagaries serve no useful end in academic life. As an object lesson they conduce, in their measure, to inculcate in the students a spirit of disingenuousness. But they spread abroad the prestige of the university as an ornate and spendthrift establishment; which is believed to bring increased enrolment of students and, what is even more to the point, to conciliate the good-will of the opulent patrons of learning. That these edifices are good for this purpose, and that this policy of architectural mise en scene is wise, appears from the greater readiness with which funds are procured for such ornate constructions than for any other academic use. It appears that the successful men of affairs to whom the appeal for funds is directed, find these wasteful, ornate and meretricious edifices a competent expression of their cultural hopes and ambitions.

NOTES:1. A single illustrative instance may serve to show how the land lies in this respect, even though it may seem to the uninitiated to be an extreme if not an exaggerated case; while it may perhaps strike those familiar with these matters as a tedious commonplace. A few years ago, in one of the larger, younger and more enterprising universities, a commodious laboratory, well appointed and adequately decorated, was dedicated to one of the branches of biological science. To meet the needs of scientific work such a laboratory requires the services of a corps of experienced and intelligent assistants and caretakers, particularly where the establishment is equipped with modern appliances for heating, ventilation and the like, as was the case in this instance. In this laboratory the necessary warmth was supplied by what is sometimes called the method of indirect steam heat; that is to say, the provision for heat and for ventilation were combined in one set of appliances, by bringing the needed air from the open through an outdoor “intake,” passing it over steam-heated coils (in the basement of the building), and so distributing the air necessary for ventilation, at the proper temperature, throughout the building by means of a suitable arrangement of air-shafts. Such was the design. But intelligent service comes high, and ignorant janitors are willing to undertake what may be asked of them. And sufficient warmth can be had in an inclement climate and through a long winter season only at an appreciable expense. So, with a view to economy, and without the knowledge of the scientific staff who made use of the laboratory, the expedient was hit upon by the academic executive, in consultation with a suitable janitor, that the outdoor intake be boarded up tightly. so that the air which passed over the heating coils and through the air-shafts to the laboratory rooms was thenceforth drawn not from the extremely cold atmosphere of outdoors but from the more temperate supply that filled the basement and had already had the benefit of circulating over the steam coils and through the ventilating shafts. By this means an obvious saving in fuel would be effected, corresponding to the heat differential between the outdoor air, at some 0° to -20° and that already confined in the building, at some 60°. How long this fuel-saving expedient was in force can not well be ascertained, but it is known to have lasted at least for more than one season.

The members of the scientific staff meantime mysteriously but persistently fell sick after a few weeks of work in the laboratory, recurrently after each return from enforced vacations. Until, in the end, moved by persistent suspicions of sewer-gas — which, by the way, had in the meantime cost some futile inconvenience and expense occasioned by unnecessary overhauling of the plumbing — one of the staff pried into the janitor’s domain in the basement; where he found near the chamber of the steam coils a loosely closed man-hole leading into the sewers, from which apparently such air was drawn as would necessarily go to offset the current leakage from this closed system of ventilation.

2. This is a nearly universal infirmity of American university policy, but it is doubtless not to be set down solely to the account of the penchant for a large publicity on the part of the several academic executives. It is in all likelihood due as much to the equally ubiquitous inability of the governing boards to appreciate or to perceive what the current needs of the academic work are, or even what they are like. Men trained in the conduct of business enterprise, as the governing boards are, will have great difficulty in persuading themselves that expenditures which yield neither increased dividends nor such a durable physical product as can be invoiced and added to the capitalization, can be other than a frivolous waste of good money; so that what is withheld from current academic expenditure is felt to be saved, while that expenditure which leaves a tangible residue of (perhaps useless) real estate is, by force of ingrained habit, rated as new investment.

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