The Michigan Alumnus 4
by Howard H. Peckham
The University had been operating in Ann Arbor for 14 years before its first president was appointed. And it had been badly managed. The Board of Regents was active in administration as well as in determining policy. The faculty of 10 elected a chairman annually, supervised student behavior, regarded the Regents as their natural enemies, and quar reled among themselves over relative teaching loads, admissions, etc. In addition, town and gown were at odds.
What changed the situation was not the light of experience, but a new state constitution, adopted in 1850. It provided for popular elec tion of Regents, one from each of eight judicial districts, for a term of six years. By that constitution the Board was given "general supervision of the University and the direction and control of all ex penditures from the University in terest fund." That fund was deriv ed from the sale of lands granted by the federal government for higher education. Student fees and room rents provided other income; there was no state appropriation.
Further, the constitution ordered the Regents to elect a president, who would preside at all meetings of the Board. This constitutional provision for the University indicated a general dissatisfaction with the way the institution was being run, and removed it com pletely from control by the State Legislature. Nevertheless, the legis lature blandly assumed it still had some control and, at its first ses sion, enacted a statute requiring an annual report to be sent to the superintendent of public instruc tion, and the creation of a law school in addition to the existing literary and medical departments, as called for in the originating act of 1817. Later on, the State Supreme Court would nullify even this much authority over the Regents, saying that the Board derived from the constitution all the power necessary to govern in ternal affairs of the University.
In the spring election of the eight Regents in 1851, the Democrats made a clean sweep, having nominated some distinguished and concerned citizens to serve. Two were former appointed Regents. When they convened in January, 1852, they appointed one member as secretary and named a commit tee to find a president.
The committee approached George Bancroft, former Secretary of War and a distinguished his torian. He declined and suggested Henry Philip Tappan, a former professor of philosophy at New York University. His name was seconded by President Eliphalet Nott, of Union College, probably the foremost educator in the coun try. But first the Regents offered the presidency to Henry Barnard, respected and widely known educator of New England who eventually became the first U.S. Commissioner of Education.
When Barnard declined, the Regents turned to the Rev. Dr. William Adams of the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, New York. He, too, refused (later ac cepting the presidency of Union Theological Seminary) and the Board offered the job to Tappan, who had been interviewed by the secretary. His ideas were known, however, from his recent book: University Education. Tappan accepted the call.
He was a native of Rhinebeck, N.Y., born in 1805 of Dutch extraction. He had graduated from Union College in 1825 and from Auburn Theological Seminary two years later. After a brief period as a minister, he became professor of philosophy at New York University. In a faculty-administration quarrel in 1837, he was dismissed with several other professors. In the next seven years he published four notable works of philosophy. Tappan had a well-to-do wife, a son who became University li brarian, and four daughters.
Living abroad part of the time, Tappan became enamored of German universities. In essence he believed that universities were a state responsibility, contrary to the English and American concept, and that their task was to train minds rather than character. Further, he felt that the University of Michigan was one of the few institutions in the United States where his ideas could be realized. In his book he made a disturbing indictment of U.S. colleges, declaring flatly that "we have no universities," because they lacked large libraries and laboratories, faculties devoted to research, freedom to inquire into every subject, and opportunities for students to pursue advanced degrees. His vision placed him above the current controversy in higher education between the old private colleges that emphasized a classical curriculum and close supervision of maturing ado lescents (based on English models), and certain other colleges that em phasized flexible entrance requirements and popular, useful courses in preparation for careers in business and politics. Tappan could see values and limitations in both camps, but he sought to move in a different direction and to reform faculties as well.
Arriving in Ann Arbor in October 1852, he was seen to look like a president. Six feet tall, with side and under-chin whiskers, he walked briskly and carried a cane. In a day of stovepipe hats, he wore a felt hat tipped rakishly to one side. Invariably, he was accompanied by one of his two huge St. Bernards. He was inspirational and optimistic, a charismatic leader who did not hesitate to take on a faculty committed to the English tradition and to secondary school methods of teaching. The public in general was concerned more with settling a continent and holding together a constitutional government threatened by the ab solutism of slaveholders and aboli tionists, while the State Legislature was indifferent to the financial needs of the University. Tappan would have to cultivate his vine in rather barren soil.
Two of his constituent bodies supported him warmly: the Regents and the students. The Board quickly recognized that they had got themselves a mover and shaker, and the best thing to do was give him a loose rein and stay out of his way. The students were overawed by his powerful intellect and his urbane manner. Though he believed in an aristocracy of in tellect, he wanted and urged his boys to join that aristocracy by applying themselves diligently to the pursuit of knowledge. Every one should be educated to the limit of his capacity. Vocations were something separate, to be pursued later.
Tappan pulled the boys out of their dormitories in Mason Hall and South College in order to obtain more classrooms. Besides, he thought it better not to isolate them from the town, but to make them live daily in the community. He was not concerned about their conduct outside of class so long as it was law-abiding. If it was not, the police should take care of them. He was used to serving wine in his home and did not object if students drank beer. This was the German attitude toward students.
Tappan set about soliciting money to enlarge the library, planned a new chemical laboratory building, and in Detroit found most of the money for an obser vatory with a 13-inch telescope. As director of the Detroit Observatory, he appointed a German astronomer, the first PhD on the faculty, who shortly became his son-in-law. He ordered the Univer sity's first microscope. He called for an art gallery and encouraged the new Student Lecture Associa tion to bring speakers of national prominence to Ann Arbor. He established four scholarships of $50 each. He instituted a scientific cur riculum (bereft of foreign lan guages), along with the classical curriculum and conferred the first bachelor of science degrees in 1855, the second school so to do. Two years later a degree in civil engineering was awarded. No wonder enrollment grew!
Reaction of the faculty to Tap pan was mixed. He shortened their work year by tossing out the trimester schedule and starting two longer semesters, with the summer off — but it should be used for research and travel. Students could earn money then, too. This calen dar lasted for 108 years. He added four members to the faculty, two in medicine and two in engineer ing. All professors were supposed to continue working in their spe cial fields and to involve students in research methods. They were advised to deliver lectures to their classes rather than conduct recita tions from textbooks. In brief, their obligation was to maintain the excitement of learning. He himself assumed the chair of philo sophy.
Unfortunately, Tappan felt the superiority of his intellect, and his condescension irritated some of the faculty. He did not hesitate to reprove them, like students, even in front of others. He was not adept at settling their disagree ments. His open admiration of things Prussian rankled some citizens, though not the German settlers of Ann Arbor. He felt he should attend the various Protes tant churches in town, but this tolerance was construed to be indifference, and his meandering pleased no one.
The editor of the Detroit Free Press, W. F. Storey, made Tappan his special target. Storey was a venomous egotist of enormous prejudices and vitriolic language. He bought the Free Press in 1853 and made it a raucous Democratic organ, attacking the abolitionists, asserting the right of the South to hold slaves and to secede, and making his paper the bellwether for some 20 other Democratic papers in the state. Storey opposed Tappan's refusal to make the University a vocational college, ridiculed abstract knowledge, belit tled his admiration of German universities, questioned his salary, made fun of his use of the title of chancellor, and generally accused him of un-Americanism and snob bery.
In 1858 the terms of all the Regents expired. Now that there were 10 judicial districts, 10 Regents were to be elected. The victors were all new and the ma jority were new Republicans. They were not of the caliber of the previous Board. In a struggle for lost power, the leaders set out to reverse the recent trend and tell the president exactly how to run the University down to the least details. All the faculty were regarded as employees of the Board. Regent Levi Bishop, a Detroit attorney, had formed his views from reading the Free Press. Regent Donald Mclntyre, Ann Arbor banker, was an ardent prohibitionist who disliked Tappan's liberalism. With two other Regents critical of the University, the four men met from time to time in Mclntyre's bank and planned tactics to take control of the University out of Tappan's hands. Through 10 committees, ex ecutive operations were sequestered for the Regents. Prof. Alexander Winchell became a con fidant and informer of Regent Bishop. Tappan had hired Win chell as professor of physics and civil engineering, but, as he did not succeed in those fields he was transferred to geology and biology. By 1860, Bishop was openly boasting that he intended to get Tappan fired. A few faculty members tried to mediate the differences between Board and presi dent but without success.
Meanwhile, in 1859, the Regents authorized opening a law department, and Tappan found three part-time professors of distinction. The course ran for one year, as at Harvard, and led to a bachelor of laws degree. Four years later it was the largest law school in the na tion. The old-style master's degree, awarded on an honorary basis, was changed to an earned degree after postgraduate study. Tappan pioneered in admitting special students not in a degree program, and in allowing seniors to select some of the courses they wished to study. The University became a national institution as the percen tage of out-of-state and foreign students rose to 46.
Both the president and Andrew D. White, professor of history, encouraged the students to take an interest in current events. They debated political issues and fol lowed the presidential campaign of 1860. Tappan believed in effecting student discipline by keeping them busy enough to stay out of mis chief and by exhorting them to assume responsibility and self- control against temptations of vice, self-indulgence, and destructiveness if they expected to become influen tial men. He felt that student deportment improved each year.
Word of South Carolina's attack on Fort Sumter reached Ann Arbor on Saturday, April 13, 1861. News of the fort's surrender followed late Sunday. Anxious students looked to their president on Monday mor ning for leadership. He did not disappoint them. He called for a civic rally at the Courthouse at 2:00 p.m. and said he would speak. Addressing an overflow crowd of townspeople and students, Tappan declared that government had borne with seces sionists and traitors until forbear ance was no longer a virtue. Now an overt hostile act had been com mitted, and the government must respond or fall to pieces. The seceders must be conquered and the flag restored.
The excited students formed themselves into three companies of militia and began drilling on cam pus. At the June Commencement, there were 150 graduates from the three departments. Seventy-nine promptly enlisted in response to President Lincoln's call. Enrollment had reached 675, but dropped by 60 in the fall.
In the spring election of 1863, the existing Board of Regents was repudiated and all new members, limited to eight, were elected save for one. Further, for the sake of continuity, their terms were stag gered and extended for eight years, so that two terms expired every two years. Storey of the Free Press had sold his paper and departed for Chicago. Tappan breathed a sigh of relief and felt himself secure. But the old Board had nine more months to go and felt vindic tive.
Disgruntled and vengeful, with one Regent dead and two of the more enlightened ones absent in the war, the seven others met in an illegal secret session the night be fore Commencement and planned the firing of President Tappan. Next day, in regular session after Commencement, June 25, they briskly passed a prepared resolu tion dismissing him. Tappan re sponded that he regarded their shocking action as "extraordinary" since they had been repudiated by the people. He said he was not afraid of the verdict of history and then walked out. The Board then proceeded to hamstring its succes sor Board by electing the Rev. Erastus O. Haven, a Methodist editor and former professor under Tappan, as president.
Students and local alumni held an impromptu indignation meeting and condemned the Board. Later that night some of them serenaded the Tappans at their home, and then threw stones at Regent Mcln tyre's house and burned him in ef figy. Next day citizens of Ann Ar bor called a meeting and labeled the Regents "jackasses." As word spread southward among soldier alumni, a protest meeting was even held at Union headquarters before Vicksburg!
But the students scattered for the summer, and some of the faculty left town. The remaining faculty acted out of expediency, and, fear ing an open fight against the Board might injure the University, they pledged cooperation to Haven. Early in July the battle of Gettysburg riveted everyone's atten tion on the war. Then, as names of casualties came in, various houses were saddened and shuttered. Memorial services were held in churches repeatedly. The University quarrel seemed much less important.
The Tappans left Ann Arbor in September for Europe and never returned to this country. Before they departed, the mayor and a large delegation of citizens pre sented the family with a silver service. In 1875 the Regents expunged all criticism of President Tappan from their records and invited him to be honored guest at Commence ment, but his health would not permit it. He died in Switzerland in 1881, aged 76.
Henry Barnard, then editor of the American Journal of Education, called Tappan's dismissal an "act of savage, unmitigated barbarism." Years later, President James B. Angell, himself an inter nationally known educator, said: 'Tappan was the largest figure of a man that ever appeared on the Michigan campus. And he was stung to death by gnats!"
It is almost impossible to exag gerate the importance of Henry Philip Tappan in shaping the University of Michigan. He re vealed to the people of the state the kind of university they had brought into being. It had been declared to be non-sectarian, and, at a time when sectarianism was rampant, Tappan proceeded to clarify what its absence meant and to channel the freedom that was thereby released. The prospect was frightening to most people because it was outside their experience. They were not ready to accept the University for what it was.
The fact that the University was imbedded in the state constitution, with its own elected governing Board, prevented the Legislature from dictating to it, although it tried. Tappan had argued each biennium that when the federal land grants were all sold, the Legislature must assume some responsibility for providing revenue if the institution was ex pected to grow. He pointed out that there was precedent in the Legislature's recent actions to establish an agricultural school outside Lansing and a teacher training school in Ypsilanti. Thus he planted the seed for state aid.
His emphasis on a faculty capable of continuous research, on teaching methods that excited and involved students, on postgraduate study to achieve scholarly expert ness, on student acceptance of responsibility for their proper behavior in order to make the most of the opportunities open to them, and on his ideal of an educated man exercising leadership in a democratic society — this philosophy of a vital university, not accepted everywhere then, has never been denied at Michigan.
On the contrary, the University has moved, albeit slowly, in the direction he indicated ever since. The tragedy of his administration, of course, was that he could not have remained at the helm for another 10 or 15 years to develop his challenging concept.