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The Trustee: Master or Servant?

Rochester Review
Spring 1972



"Masters ought to feel their positions of authority a greater burden than servants their service," said St. Augustine in The City of God. The trustee of a university worthy today of the name has the worse of it (or better, perhaps, depending upon your attitude) because he is master in name and carries that burden, whereas, in fact, his service is a servant's and much of it is expected of him.

I wager, however, that few trustees would have it otherwise. The good one knows that he is looked upon as the repository of ultimate power and therefore the bearer of absolute responsibility in those institutions within Western life which promise to shape it more than any others, probably including Church and State, in those clusters of human beings whose thrust is farther out on the frontiers of science and technology and beauty than those of any others, whose vitality is burgeoning because of the great sweep of youth's aspirations and needs, and whose organization is more loosely defined and poorly described than any others. But the good one also knows his ability to form the real effectiveness of these bodies is sharply limited by "powers and dominations" beyond his control. Yet still he works. He works to gain consent. He works to have an impact on thought. He reels at times with frustration. He sinks in morasses of academic debate when he knows decision should be taken and actions started. He is aghast that plans are sometimes poorly laid, but he keeps on. Why? Whitehead said that "education is the art of the utilization of knowledge." The trustee knows somewhere, deep within him, that this art is the most important which comes to men; and that he who helps nurture it serves best his fellows.

To determine whether a board of trustees serves usefully, should we not question the purpose of education, or perhaps more specifically the purpose of a university? Whitehead's definition is a valuable contribution but perhaps it is not enough. Tappan, president of Michigan in the middle of the nineteenth century, said, "By the university, he means 'cyclopedias of education wherein libraries, cabinets, apparatus, professors, provision is made for studying every branch of knowledge in full, for carrying forward all scientific investigation; where study extended without limit, where the mind may be activated according to its wants...."

"The heart of the university is its faculty," Tappan further said of great universities. "Their intellectual vitality, their power as educational institutions, their distinction and prosperity and the general state of learning in .the countries to which they belong have always kept pace with the ability and erudition of the professorial corps they could bring together and maintain...."

The American Association of University Professors itself says that an academic institution has three main functions:
1. To promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge
2. To provide general instruction to the students
3. To develop experts for various branches of the public service. The trustee must give of himself-of his substance to advance these purposes.

Today the university has new functions to perform, or at least some old ones are growing so in importance and complexity that they must be treated as new. These functions, to be performed effectively, will require that trustees, administrators, and faculties arrive at new relationships, at new understandings almost before the old ones have crystallized or been understood.

If at the core of the problem lies consent and freedom, as in my view it does . . . then the assurance of academic freedom and the avoidance of arbitrary exercise of power by trustees are essential. The A AUP in its general declaration of principles, adopted in 1915,says it superbly well. "If education is the cornerstone of the structure of society and if progress in scientific knowledge is essential to a civilization, few things can be more important than to enhance the dignity of the scholar's profession with a view to attracting into its ranks men of the highest ability, of sound learning, and of sound and independent character." It follows then, to quote further, "that men of high gifts and character should be drawn into it by the assurance of an honorable and secure position." In relation to the trustees, the professors" are the appointees but not in any sense employees of the former. .. ." "A university is a great and indispensable organ of the higher life in a civilized community in the work of which the trustees hold an essential and highly honorable place, but in which the faculties hold an independent place, with equal responsibilities, and in relation to scientific questions, the primary responsibility."

Here then is where wisdom must be brought to bear. How to nurture these delicate relationships? As time and thought have passed, the role of the trustees has become less clear, just because the role of the faculty has become richer, more clearly seen, more widely respected; the intellectual's, the scholar's status in our society has blossomed...

My contention is that to permit the trustees' role to dwindle would be a serious blow to education.... The reasons lie implicit in the emerging new functions of the university. Science and technology, of course, have grown in the past century to have so deep an influence on our lives that in the future life itself is affected by them and how they are used.

The organization of American and Western life has brought in train social problems which seem to cry out for rapid progress in the social sciences . Great new discovery in biology is dependent upon the universities-and the integration of the medical schools and the arts and science colleges within them -to break through into more promising ground .. .. The universities must show a strong sense of responsibility to society but not become community service stations. Otherwise their influence weakens...

Now there appears a dazzling new emphasis for the lay trustee in this second half of the twentieth century-the guidance, the persuasion, the counsel, designed to build and form the bridge between the university and these new aspects of life. The university is no longer solely educating or adding to knowledge or providing public servants at a comfortable pace in an ivy covered campus. It is on the frontiers of human welfare-frontiers which are pushing outward almost too fast to comprehend. The trustee must have insight into this. His main job is no longer to conserve funds, but to discover imaginatively how to finance projects of monumental magnitude, and most of all to articulate to his fellows what an enormous, indispensable resource the university is and the new ways it can serve society. He must communicate immediacy, he must seek new links between the university and business, between the university and urban planners, between the university and government, between the university here and the university there. There are perhaps 50,000 university trustees in the United States. They must trumpet the new role. They must mold it. They must help the scholar see it as well. ...

Woodrow Wilson, with his usual prescience, saw much of this and described it beautifully in 1896: ". ..it is not learning but the spirit of service that will give a college place in the public annals of the nation. It is indispensable, it seems to me, if it is to do its right service, that the air of affairs should be admitted to all its classrooms. I do not mean the air of petty politics, but the air of the world's transactions, the consciousness of the solidarity of the race, the sense of the duty of man toward man, of the presence of men in every problem, of the significance of truth for guidance as well as for knowledge, of the potency of ideas, of the promise and the hope that shine in the face of all knowledge. There is laid upon us the compulsion of the national life. We dare not keep aloof and closet ourselves while a nation comes to its maturity. The days of glad expansion are gone, our life grows tense and difficult; our resource for the future lies in careful thought, providence, and a wise economy; and the school must be of the nation."
What a proud task for a trustee-to help make those words ring! How happy the opportunity to be a servant to man at this strategic heart of his future and of his life!