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Your town can have a university: Here's how

Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell
In the March 1904 issue of The Nineteen Century and Beyond, Lord Walter Frewen (whoever he was) answered a question he asked himself: “What is a university?” His essay was basically an explaner for how to bring a university to your town, assuming your town was a newly affluent industrial city in England.

A university in Birmingham, how can it be?
Prior to the 19th century there were two universities in England (you know which ones) and only five by the end of the century. Skepticism about the prospect of expansion was deep. Sir. Christoper Marlow called the University of London, the perhaps best established non-Oxbridge institution, nothing more than a hoax.
Between 1900 and 1909 seven universities were established. They cropped up in smoggy cities like Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds. In less than a decade, more universities were founded than in the proceeding 740 or so years after Oxford was established.
As this revolutionary institutional explosion was underway, Frewen took it upon himself to show how these new places could be universities. He offered five lessons that might be of use to you today.
Lesson one: You can’t be Oxford for Cambridge, so don’t even try.
Let’s be clear. Your cannot be Oxford or Cambridge. No one can. They are special, you are not. Get over it.
“… when we talk of university life in connection with any place in England except Oxford and Cambridge we are face to face with the conclusion that it is impossible of attainment.”
Lesson two: Get these three things right and you have the academic side of the house.
The academic core of the university is comprised of three things: professors, facilities, and a senate.
First, you’ll need some professors. What’s a professor? A subject matter master. Sure, some subject matter masters are not professors, and some professors have not mastered any subject, but if we are at talking in the abstract, a professor is a subject matter expert. When you get to Manchester things might not be ideal, but where are they?
Now that you have a professors, you need to put them in faculties. Faculties is the plural of faculty. And the faculty is a collection of professors from the same subject matter. Frewen says you’ll want faculties in subject’s like “geology, botany, etc.”
It is best to have more than one faculty. But having faculties is not so strictly required. You see, “one faculty is enough to begin with if funds are lacking for a larger enterprise.”
The third thing you’ll need is a senate. The senate will oversee all the academic matters of the university and is the council of the faculties.
“There is your university.”
Lesson three: Don’t forget the administration!
Everyone knows that the academics need some sort of supervision. Yes, they can mostly govern themselves, but we can only trust them with academic matters, and then only barely. You will need an administration. But don’t worry. That’s easy enough.
To get an administration, you just need to give out some titles.
“Every Englishman affects a contempt for titles, which lasts, as a rule, until he sees one within his grasp.”
One title that engenders special contempt is professor. Let’s face it, no one likes the professors, not even their friends and families.
So we need some other titles to show the professors what’s what. That will keep the town satisfied that the professors are not getting too big for their britches.
Get a Chancellor. The Chancellor won’t do much but will have the job for life. If you want, you can pick the Lord Mayor of London to be Chancellor. See, that was easy.
Now you need a Vice-Chancellor. He makes the most money - this is important - and you have to get the right guy for the job. The Vice-Chancellor has to be a schmooser. He’s got a lot of influence but not much direct authority over anything. His primary job is the keep the faculties talking to each other and to keep the rich people in town happy enough with the university to donate cash and good will. The Vice-Chancellor ought to be an academic-type, but not too academic. When it comes to selecting a Vice-Chancellor:
“A man of many clubs is preferable to a man of many books.”
Because the town is going to need to support the university, you’ll need an electorate and a council too.
The electorate is anyone who can give some money, say 100 pounds in 1904 (or about 12,600 GBP today) to the university. These people will not be interested in what goes on at the university except occasionally to eat and drink there. They will have a vote for selecting the new Chancellor once the old one dies, but not really do much else. They will be very proud to be a “university man,” and will boast about it often.
The council is more serious. The council runs the show really, and consists of the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, members of the senate but then some other dudes (this is 1904, so only dudes) who just happened to pay a sum of at least 1,000 pounds for their seat.
Lesson four: It’s going to cost you, but not that much.
Most people only care for ceremony, and to be seen, and for food and drink. You have to make sure there is some of that to keep the university afloat. But as real university people, we know that the worst thing that can befall a university is a loss of “mental vigour.” So, you need to pay the professors enough to get good ones. Sure, some will be bad, but most need to be ok.
“We cannot expect much for 500l. a year, but we can expect what we actually find-an adequate supply of people who are capable of the faithful discharge of routine duty.”
(In case you want to know, 500 pounds is about 63,000 pounds today. As it turns out, the wage of a professor hasn’t changed much in the last 120 years.)
What is the routine duty that needs to be discharged? Simple: 150 lectures between October and June.
“One hundred and fifty lectures, if they are good lectures, are enough to exhaust most men.”
There are some who are not so easy exhausted, but they are the rare kind with “animal spirits.” If you find that tiger sprit, hold on to it:
“If, by chance, the university should secure a man who is capable of exertion outside the degree course, council should cherish him as the apple of its eye.”
Lesson five: Some things you should say at the club to other university men so that everyone knows your university is a serious.
Brains before bricks: you say this to show that you really care about academic stuff and are not at all jealous of Oxford’s buildings.
Those who pay the piper call the tune: You say this to explain why you are starting a faculty of commerce and economy but don’t have a single professor of Greek, Latin, or geology.
No politics: Don’t let anyone know you are a Tory. They will think it. But don’t give them the satisfaction of knowing.
No religion: Some Catholics, believe it or not, might want to donate to your endowment.
Parting words:
“If a university is nothing but a hobby, it is of little consequence to the country whether it fails or not. We have assumed, however, that university education is a matter of national concern; and, as a rule, pious founders are of that mind.”
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Brendan Cantwell
Brendan Cantwell @@cant_b

Associate Professor @HALEatMSU and Joint Editor-in-Chief for Higher Education ( Speak only for my self.

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