Dreaming spires pointed heavenward, enveloped by what Evelyn Waugh called “the soft airs of centuries of youth,” can inspire us. Yet ideas of idyllic college life are at best partial and often fictive. In Waugh’s university—certainly in prior centuries—soft airs were less likely than what a royal order once decried as the horror abominabilis of swine-mucked public ways. Medieval Bologna’s youthful students were rabble-rousing radicals who dominated their masters. Riots at the University of Paris had the ignominious status of exceeding Oxford’s outbreaks of violence in severity and frequency. Difficulties abounded for Cardinal Newman’s University College, Dublin, as Gerard Manley Hopkins learned in his despairing final years in a university greater in idea than reality. No less did the scholars and students of America’s first universities make fitful, imperfect work of their institutions’ bold vision.
Consider Harvard, the oldest, wealthiest institution of higher learning in America. It was not always so. Disastrous leadership from an early alumnus nearly doomed the fledgling college. President Leonard Hoar professed high hopes, but in a brief term faced political difficulty, religious controversy, and morale crises. One historian writes of “disgust and even revolt” arising not only from “something pompous or ridiculous about Hoar,” but from harshness to the Fellows and brutality to students, including the “flogging of one of them at the hands of a prison-keeper who was later dismissed for cruelty.” Resignations mounted, and when “the students as a Body deserted the College,” Hoar himself resigned in despair and disgrace.”
Such wretched events were lost to memory a century later when a mock-heroic poem praised the scholars of yore: “Sure tutors were then as they ought to be, / Facile in teaching, and in converse free, / Humane and gen’rous, affable and kind, / Polite and easy, and of open mind.” The poet mythologizes the 17th century in order to emphasize an unkindly 18th-century Harvard, where the supercilious Latin tutor never smiles, but “will swell and flout, / And with importance turn his chair about,” while the stiff logic tutor “wipes his greasy face, / Then spits his venom in sarcastic wit.” Oh my!
The American Revolution devastated Harvard with plummeting enrollments, food shortages, and scarce books. Its few students were often “misfits and downright rascals,” one a “dissipated sot,” an “expert gamester,” one who “never had an idea in his life, except to grease his hair and clean his buckles,” another described as “spoilt” and “dissipated,” two drunkards, one suicide, two who went insane, one who was “burnt to death by foolish sport after election day playing with squibs,” and one who was murdered. One might imagine erudite custom taking root by the 19th century. First, however, students had to survive barbarities practiced upon one another in annual fights loosely organized around savage ball games in which grave injuries were common and fatalities occasional; the “average freshman was literally afraid for his life.” Even the great Charles Eliot, Harvard’s visionary president par excellence, must have been chagrined by the gap between aspiration and reality during “an epidemic of bonfires in the Yard” when he was “seen pulling a mattress off the flames, with a student at the other end trying to get it back.”
In recounting a select record of mahem and mistakes, I mean no disrespect to a great institution. Moreover, I’m sure our colleagues, Candi Cann and Julia Hejduk, would report a much-improved university during their days as Harvardians. My point is that self-critical perspective is necessary in the pursuit of any university’s mission. High-flown idealism always exceeds the realities of which we’re capable at any given time. For this reason, reflecting well and rightly about our universities is imperative; it serves the interest of accuracy and, more importantly, the interest of mission.
All of that leads me to this. We serve on behalf of an inspiring Christian mission. In the HC, it’s easy to extol our vision, honor colleagues’ excellence, and praise students’ accomplishments. We’re privileged to have much in which we justifiably take pride. Yet we must also tell the truth, certainly to each other, about shortcomings great and small. If the history of great universities is any guide, our own University will come up short from time to time. That’s inevitable of any human institution. Yet by speaking the truth in charity, we preserve the prospect of success worthy of the greatness to which dreaming spires point.
In the category of honoring accomplishment and serving each another well, please note:
• Under Andy Hogue’s direction in the Office of Engaged Learning, prospective undergraduate Fulbright applicants were asked to identify their most influential faculty member, who in turn worked in concert with the Office of Engaged Learning to read applicants’ essay drafts, write recommendations, and consult on the University’s formal endorsement. Please join me in thanking the following HC colleagues who served as Fulbright Faculty Mentors for well-deserving students: Erika Abel, Mark Long, Eric Martin, William Weaver, Mike Whitenton, Jason Whitlark, and Davide Zori.
• Please know how appreciative I am of your unfaltering commitment to recruit, advise, teach, mentor, research, write, publish, lead, and serve effectively, even in the middle of an unremitting global pandemic. Under such circumstances, our work is difficult and late-semester weariness is understandable. We’re almost there. Keep up the good work!
• The President’s Council has adopted an interim policy for events and lectures during COVID-19: “Any faculty or staff member within Academic Affairs who wishes to propose an event (to include guest lectures, gatherings with students outside of regularly-scheduled class times, field trips, or other student-related travel) . . . should begin by submitting that request . . . to the appropriate department chair, then to the relevant dean’s office, and then to [the provost’s office]. . . . If approved by the Office of the Provost, the request will then be reviewed by the Health Management Team . . . and then the President’s Council for final approval.” Please refer requests to program directors, who can provide further guidance as well as event request checklists and forms.
• An end-of-semester panel discussion for faculty and staff will be led by President Linda Livingstone, Provost Nancy Brickhouse, Chief Business Officer Brett Dalton, and Chief Human Resources Officer Cheryl Gochis. Planned for Wednesday, November 18, at 11:00 a.m., the panel will address our COVID-19 response, spring semester plans, and other matters of general interest. Log-in details will be provided prior to the event.
All the best,
Douglas V. Henry | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University
baylor.edu/honorscollege | 254.710.7689