Today’s Academy

Running a university


Three years before setting up the Catholic University in Dublin, Newman spoke about two guiding principles for how it should be run.

Firstly, ‘a perfect unity of purpose and operation’ in the teaching and governing body was paramount, so as to secure the harmonious action of the professors and lecturers, ‘their growth into one body, and their production of a real education for those under their care’. To this end, they needed to be guided by a working rather than by a theoretical constitution.

Secondly, they needed to meet ‘the actual state of the pupils, as to knowledge, and moral and intellectual training’: time was needed before the University would be able to create its own atmosphere and a standard both in knowledge and of moral character. ‘In the meantime it must take the youth as it finds them, and make the best of them, which entails a certain period of experimental action.’ (‘Report on the Organization of the Catholic University of Ireland’, October 1851)

Newman as rector

Newman could have easily distanced himself from the student residences and the problems they threw up, yet it was typical of him that he wished to deal with individuals rather than remain aloof in academic and administrative isolation.

‘A Rector ought to be a more showy, bustling man than I am, in order to impress the world that we are great people. This is one of our great wants. I feel it vividly – but it is difficult to find the man who is this with other qualifications too. […] I ought to dine out every day, and of course I don’t dine out at all. I ought to mix in literary society and talk about new gasses and the price of labour – whereas I can’t recollect what I once knew, much less get up a whole lot of new subjects – I ought to behave condescendingly to others, whereas they are condescending to me – and I ought above all to be 20 years younger, and take it up as the work of my life. But since my qualifications are not those, all I can do is to attempt to get together a number of clever men, and set them to do what is not in my own line.’ (Newman to Mrs Bowden, 31 August 1855)

To Newman’s worries as rector of the Catholic University were added those of being rector of the Birmingham Oratory. The difficulties of heading two totally different institutions in different countries he described as follows:

‘Alas! you do not realize my work. My chattels stand about my room in the same confusion as on the night I came here three weeks ago, from my inability to find leisure for removing them to their places. My letters are a daily burden, and, did I not answer them by return of post, they would soon get my head under water and drown me. Every hour or half-hour of the day I have people calling on me. I have to entertain strangers at dinner, I have to attend Inaugural Lectures – four last week, I have to stop Professors resigning, and Houses revolting. I have to keep accounts and find money, when I have none. Besides the book I have just finished at Longman’s [Office and Work of Universities], I have three reprinting which I am reading thro’ and correcting; and I have to provide four Sermons in print by St Paul’s day, that for Sunday week not having the first word written yet. I have to lecture on Latin Composition, and examine for Exhibitions [i.e. scholarships]. In ten days I rush to Birmingham for their sheer want of me – and then have to throw myself into quite a fresh world. And I have the continual pain of our [Oratorian] Fathers sighing if I am not there, and priests and professors looking black if I am not here.’ (Newman to H. Wilberforce, 11 November 1856)

In his final year as rector, which he spent largely in Birmingham, Newman explained to his long-term adviser on all matters educational:

‘It is impossible […] that I can govern 300 miles off without continual little collisions. While I am on the spot, there is a continual action and reaction between all members of the University and myself, which has hindered anything of the kind. We have hitherto been in the most perfect harmony – So we are now – but I despair of its continuing if I am to act in the dark in another place.’ (Newman to Hope-Scott, 24 December 1857)

Pastoral oversight

In the Easter sermon of 1827, during the termly service at which it was customary to take Communion, Newman spoke to the Oriel undergraduates of his responsibility for their welfare: ‘Account of us as thinking much and deeply of your eternal interests, as watching over your souls as those who must give account.’

Newman considered that ‘a Tutor was not a mere academical Policeman, or Constable, but a moral and religious guardian of the youths committed to him’. (Memoir, 1874)

Dealing with the young

Students who met Newman relate that he spoke about all the subjects of the day except the religious controversies, and that he put everyone at ease. The historian J. A. Froude writes,

‘Newman’s mind was world-wide. He was interested in everything which was going on in science, in politics, in literature. Nothing was too large for him, nothing too trivial, if it threw light upon the central question, what really man was, and what was his destiny. […] He seemed always to be better informed on common topics of conversation than anyone else who was present. He was never condescending with us, never didactic or authoritative; but what he said carried conviction along with it. When we were wrong he knew why we were wrong, and excused our mistakes to ourselves while he set us right. Perhaps his supreme merit as a talker was that he never tried to be witty or to say striking things. […] He was lightness itself – the lightness of elastic strength – and he was interesting because [….] he had something real to say.’ (J. A. Froude, Short studies on great subjects)

One undergraduate who breakfasted weekly with Newman was able to calm the fears of an anxious relative by declaring that Newman never talked to him about Tractarianism; instead he urged him ‘to diversify my reading, to take exercise, and to get as much practical knowledge and cheerful society as I can’.

The rapport Newman established with students was achieved not by ingratiating them, but by appealing to their higher natures and opening up prospects. Young men warmed to his simplicity of manner, which was quite at odds with the donnish demeanour of the time, and the great interest he took in everything around him. His sympathy and feeling for the rising prospects and promise of youth can be felt in many of his letters and sermons, and evidently attracted young men to him.

‘How beautiful is the human heart, when it puts forth its first leaves, and opens and rejoices in its spring-tide. Fair as may be the bodily form, fairer far, in its green foliage and bright blossoms, is natural virtue. It blooms in the young, like some rich flower, so delicate, so fragrant, and so dazzling. Generosity and lightness of heart and amiableness, the confiding spirit, the gentle temper, the elastic cheerfulness, the open hand, the pure affection, the noble aspiration, the heroic resolve, the romantic pursuit, the love in which self has no part.’ (‘The Second Spring’, sermon preached on 13 July 1852)

John Hungerford Pollen worked with Newman at the Catholic University in Dublin and witness at first-hand how he dealt with the students. ‘The late Cardinal’s sympathy with the young man was a feature of his character, natural and acquired […] He felt for their generosity, their hopefulness, the trials, the struggles, the disappointments that might be in store for them in the unknown future’. (Pollen to Goldie, August 1890)

Newman’s comment to Gerard Manley Hopkins, then a lecturer at University College, that, ‘If I were an Irishman, I should be (in heart) a rebel’ (3 March 1887), reflected his ability to enter into the hopes, dreams and anxieties of the young – but did not imply that he was wholly sympathetic to Irish revolutionaries.

Dealing with a parent whose son was all but told he should not apply to Oxford, Newman wrote:

‘It does not do to beat the life out of a youth — the life of aspiration, excitement and enthusiasm. Older men live by reason, habit and self-control, but the young live by visions. I can fancy cases in which Oxford would be the salvation of a youth; when he would be far more likely to rise up against authority, murmur against his superiors, and to become an unbeliever, if he is kept from Oxford than if he is sent there.’ (Newman to Lady Simeon, 10 November 1867)

Dealing with the young in Dublin

Among the ‘objects to be kept in view’ in devising a plan for the University, Newman noted the need to unite ‘indulgent or at least gentle discipline with moral and religious results’ in a way which would ‘combine authority with influence’. This meant that the plan should ‘so consult for the natural course of the ideas, purposes, needs, pursuits and acts of the youthful mind, i.e. its habits and ways, as to lead it to concur and co-operate with the principles and precepts of education which wisdom and experience […] lay down’. (‘Memorandum relating to the Catholic University’, 19 February 1853)

Nevertheless, Newman did not flinch from acting swiftly and firmly when he needed to. When he had to invoke the disciplinary code in 1857 and arrange for a sanction to be imposed on two students, he explained to one of them:

‘I have no wish to be severe with you or any one. It is much pleasanter to be indulgent. It gives a person in authority no trouble, and makes him popular. But you must recollect I have an account to give to my own conscience. I have ever regarded the care of young men, in whatever degree it comes upon one, as a heavy charge. At the most anxious season of life, when their course for time and eternity may perhaps be fixed, they come under the superintendence of the Authorities of a University. In time to come, they themselves, on whose conduct I had had to pronounce, and their companions too who had been witnesses of it might unite in thanking my memory for what at the time seemed severity, and [not] in dishonouring it for an unwise unfaithful indulgence.’ (Newman to Molloy, 26 December 1857)

To the other he wrote, ‘I have a great responsibility in having a number of men under my charge. I shall have to answer for that charge. I must not act from mere desire to please them, but in order to please Him who at present has placed them under me.’ (Newman to Mulholland, 26 December 1857)

Personal influence in education

‘With influence there is life, without it there is none; if influence is deprived of its due position, it will not by those means be got rid of, it will only break out irregularly, dangerously’.

‘An academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else.’ Newman called this state of affairs ‘the reign of Law without Influence, System without Personality’.

Many Oxford undergraduates of Newman’s generation had been content with this state of things because it gave them the illusion of freedom, but there were others who had aimed at higher things, both intellectual and moral. Searching for those who would exert that influence upon them, they gravitated to where they ‘saw a little more profession of strictness and distinctness of creed, a little more intellect, principle, and devotion, than was ordinary’. (Rise and progress of universities)

When absent from Dublin and having to deal with disciplinary matters in the absence of a vice-rector, Newman wrote, ‘I have ever acted, not by formal authority and rule, but by influence, and this power cannot be well exerted when absent’. (Newman to Ornsby, 31 December 1857)

Personal influence is what gives any system its dynamism: the action of mind on mind, personality on personality, heart on heart – and this is lacking from systems based chiefly on ‘distance learning’. If acquaintance becomes friendship, all the better since friendship is the privileged way of doing good to someone; ‘it requires one to be intimate with a person, to have a chance of doing him good’, Newman once told his sister Jemima (8 February 1829).

All this makes sense on realising that Newman was intent on giving a deep formation to students, a formation which operated at various levels: the intellectual, the moral, the spiritual.

Professorial system

The system of university teaching which is dominated by the one-hour lecture was called the ‘professorial system’ in Newman’s time, and he and others contended that the system had serious shortcomings.

Newman challenges the idea that lectures by themselves are sufficient for learning at university. He argues that:

‘the work of a Professor is not sufficient by itself to form the pupil. The catechetical form of instruction and the closeness of work in a small class are needed besides.’ Newman explained that, even if the professor was a man of genius and able to interest his students, what was gained from his lectures would often be very superficial. Undoubtedly, students who were academically self-motivated would be able to profit from them; but in general, if the reliance was solely on lectures, ‘the result will be undisciplined and unexercised minds, with a few notions, on which they are able to show off, but without any judgment or any solid powers’. (‘Report on the Organization of the Catholic University of Ireland’, October 1851)

The solution is to combine what he calls professorial and tutorial (i.e. collegiate) systems.

Professorial and collegiate universities

In the 1850s Oxford and Cambridge were institutional anomalies which differed markedly from other universities, virtually all of which adopted the professorial system.

The professorial university was geared towards the transmission of knowledge and preparation for the professions, as well as the expansion of knowledge through research, but provision for residential living was not viewed as an essential part of its mission.

The collegiate foundations of a medieval university, on the other hand, contributed to the stability of society and religion by nurturing upright citizens through the study of classical literature with the aid of a tutor. An Oxbridge college was a place of residence where a student would find himself under the guidance and instruction of college tutors and others who would oversee his personal interests, both moral and intellectual.

The standard university teaching method was the hour-long lecture to large groups, with little attention being given to individual needs and ability. At the two English universities the practice of small-group tuition based around directed private study had become the predominant form of instruction.

Newman’s preference was to combine the advantages of the professorial and the tutorial (i.e. collegiate) university: ‘It would seem as if a University seated and living in Colleges, would be a perfect institution, as possessing excellences of opposite kinds.’ (Rise and progress of universities)

‘The Professorial system fulfils the strict idea of a University, and is sufficient for its being, but it is not sufficient for its well-being. Colleges constitute the integrity of a University.’

Mark Pattison of Lincoln College argued strongly in favour of the tutorial system and against the professorial. He told the Royal Commission Oxford (1852) that ‘the mischief of the Professorial System is that it implies a different idea of Education; that it aims at, and is the readiest and easiest way to, a very inferior stamp of mental cultivation, but a cultivation, which from its showy, available, marketable character, is really an object of ambition in an age like the present.’

The university-college principle

‘A University embodies the principal of progress, and a College that of stability; the one is the sail, and the other the ballast; each is insufficient in itself for the pursuit, extension, and inculcation of knowledge; each is useful to the other. A University is the scene of enthusiasm, of pleasurable exertion, of brilliant display, of winning influence, of diffusive and potent sympathy; and a College is the scene of order, of obedience, of modest and persevering diligence, of conscientious fulfilment of duty, of mutual private services, and deep and lasting attachments. The University is for the world, and the College is for the nation. The University is for the Professor, and the College for the Tutor; the University is for the philosophical discourse, the eloquent sermon, or the well contested disputation; and the College for the catechetical lecture. The University is for theology, law, and medicine, for natural history, for physical science, and for the sciences generally and their promulgation; the College is for the formation of character, intellectual and moral, for the cultivation of the mind, for the improvement of the individual, for the study of literature, for the classics, and those rudimental sciences which strengthen and sharpen the intellect. The University being the element of advance, will fail in making good its ground as it goes; the College, from its Conservative tendencies, will be sure to go back, because it does not go forward. It would seem as if a University seated and living in Colleges, would be a perfect institution, as possessing excellences of opposite kinds.’ (Rise and progress of universities)

In an age when all that could be seen were ‘naked Universities and naked Colleges’, Newman saw clearly that the college–university principle answered a definite and pressing need. After the Oxbridge reforms of the 1850s and 1870s a clearer division of labour came about: in the new order, the university stood for the transmission of knowledge and intellectual competence, achieved by means of lectures, laboratory work and exams; the colleges, on the other hand, represented the higher idea of unity of knowledge and the formation of rounded personalities.

While there are many ways at looking at the complementary functions of college and university (and the different forms each can take), there are no indications that Newman ever had reason to alter his conviction that, ‘It would seem as if a University seated and living in Colleges, would be a perfect institution, as possessing excellences of opposite kinds.’ (Rise and progress of universities)

The consequences of the current-day neglect of the collegiate dimension of university education are evident in their effects: emphasis on technical training and a narrow, skills-based instruction to satisfy the needs of the labour market, at the expense of that more lofty formation which embraces the full measure of what it is to be human. In the long run, Newman’s higher vision helps to save us from a reductionist and curtailed vision of humanity.

Testing and exams

While Newman strongly disliked cramming and superficial learning, he maintained that regular tests had a specific use in training the intellect:

‘It is plain that, if a University Education is what I have described it to be, Examinations hold but a subordinate part in it. I have broadly stated in the [Idea of a university] that a residence without Examinations comes nearer to the idea of a University Education than examinations without residence. Examinations are in this day matters of necessity, and they have their specific use in the training of the intellect. Their prospect keeps youths occupied, and, when frequent, they impart self-confidence, they serve to bring home to a youth what he knows and what he does not, they teach him to bring out his knowledge and to express his meaning clearly – but mere examinations, if they are the first and whole instrument of education, have a special tendency (if I may use very familiar language) [to] promote cramming and create prigs.’ (Newman to Northcote, 23 February 1872)

The university as a business

In both the UK and the US, ideas about the market place have deeply affected universities, with such obvious manifestations as the disappearance of idealism and the rise of the undisguised pursuit of material well-being.

As one commentator puts it, students are ‘treated like pampered consumers whose preferences must be satisfied, not as acolytes whose preferences are being formed in the process of being educated’: for the current generation of undergraduates, ‘monasticism is out and hedonism is in’. (D. L. Kirp, ‘This little student went to market’)

The fallacy of excluding theology

Like Jeremy Bentham and Henry Brougham, the Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel held that religion should be excluded from education, as it was simply a source of controversy and division.

Newman countered by arguing that without the aid of religion, knowledge alone was utterly incapable of achieving what Peel claimed for it. History showed that the ‘apprehension of the unseen is the only known principle capable of subduing moral evil, educating the multitude, and organizing society; and that, whereas man is born for action, action flows not from inferences, but from impressions, – not from reasonings, but from Faith’.

Therefore, Newman argued, ‘Christianity, and nothing short of it, must be made the element and principle of all education. Where it has been laid as the first stone, and acknowledged as the governing spirit, it will take up into itself, assimilate, and give a character to literature and science.’ Otherwise, ‘if in education we begin with nature before grace, with evidences before faith, with science before conscience, with poetry before practice, we shall be doing much the same as if we were to indulge the appetites and passions, and turn a deaf ear to the reason’. (‘The Tamworth reading room’, letters to The Times)

A decade later, in the Idea, Newman developed his case for denominational education by arguing that theology was necessary in order to acquire a philosophical view: ‘Religious truth is not only a portion, but a condition of general knowledge. To blot it out is nothing short, if I may so speak, of unravelling the web of university teaching.’ (Idea of a university)

Student residences overseeing them

Newman emphatically believed that a university would provide a deeper formation if it were residential, and he took seriously the duty of care of looking after students who were living away from home.

On the dedication page of the Idea of a university Newman quotes a well-known phrase from the Gospel, Hospes eram, et collegistis me (Matthew 25:34). The phrase is usually translated along the No 86 acw.ielines ‘I was a stranger and you gave me shelter’, and at first glance appears to refer to those mentioned in the dedication that follows, to ‘his many friends and benefactors, living and dead, at home and abroad’, who had come to his aid during the Achilli trial; it could also be taken as referring to his Irish hosts who had welcomed the stranger from England.

But a third interpretation is also possible: by situating the phrase in a university context, Newman could be giving it a meaning along the lines of ‘I was a student and you ‘colleged’ me’ – collegistis being cognate with collegium (college) – and thereby a completely different emphasis. Seen in this light, the task of caring for students in halls of residence takes on an importance that approximates it to nothing less than one of the seven corporal works of mercy. (The seven traditional corporal works of mercy are: to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to shelter the homeless; to visit the sick; to visit the imprisoned; and to bury the dead.)

How to manage a university residence

Newman did not believe in smothering the young in rules or in mapping out their day with detailed timetables, as he meant to encourage them to take responsibility for their own actions and to learn from their mistakes.

He feared that the rectorship and vice-rectorship of his university might easily fall into the hands of narrow-minded men, ‘who have little other idea of a University than a place for imposing fines (“not above one pound”) on those who are slow at lecture and for sending out students into the Town two and two’, as if they were seminarians.

His blueprint for how to deal with students was laid down while he was rector of the Catholic University:

‘It is assuredly a most delicate and difficult matter to manage youths, and those lay youths, in that most dangerous and least docile time of life, when they are no longer boys, but not yet men, and claim to be entrusted with the freedom which is the right of men, yet punished with the lenience which is the privilege of boys. In proposing rules on this subject, I shall begin with laying down, first, as a guiding principle, what I believe to be the truth, that the young for the most part cannot be driven, but, on the other hand, are open to persuasion and to the influence of kindness and personal attachment; and that, in consequence, they are to be kept straight by indirect contrivances rather than by authoritative enactments and naked prohibitions. And a second consideration of great importance is, that these youths will certainly be their own masters before many years have passed, as they were certainly schoolboys not many months ago.’

‘A University residence, then, is in fact a period of training interposed between boyhood and manhood, and one of its special offices is to introduce and to launch the young man into the world, who has hitherto been confined within the school and the play-ground. If this be so, then is it entrusted with an office as momentous as it is special; for nothing is more perilous to the soul than the sudden transition from restraint to liberty. Under any circumstances it is a serious problem how to prepare the young mind against the temptations of life; but, if experience is to be our guide, boys who are kept jealously at home or under severe schoolmasters, till the very moment when they are called to take part in the business of the world, are the very persons about whom we have most cause to entertain misgivings. They are sent out into the midst of giant temptations and perils, with the arms, or rather with the unarmed helplessness, of children, with knowledge neither of self nor of the strength of evil, with no trial of the combat or practice in sustaining it; and, in spite of their good feelings, they too commonly fail in proportion to their inexperience. Even if they have innocence, which is perhaps the case, still they have not principle, without which innocence is hardly virtue. We could not do worse than to continue the discipline of school and college into the University, and to let the great world, which is to follow upon it, be the first stage on which the young are set at liberty to follow their own bent. So proceeding, we should be abdicating a function, and letting slip the opportunities, of our peculiar position.’

‘It is our duty and our privilege to be allowed to hold back the weak and ignorant a while from an inevitable trial;–to conduct them to the arms of a kind mother, an Alma Mater, who inspires affection while she whispers truth; who enlists imagination, taste, and ambition on the side of duty; who seeks to impress hearts with noble and heavenly maxims at the age when they are most susceptible, and to win and subdue them when they are most impetuous and self-willed; who warns them while she indulges them, and sympathizes with them while she remonstrates with them; who superintends the use of the liberty which she gives them, and teaches them to turn to account the failures which she has not at all risks prevented; and who, in a word, would cease to be a mother, if her eye were stern and her voice peremptory. If all this be so, it is plain that a certain tenderness, or even indulgence on the one hand, and an anxious, vigilant, importunate attention on the other, are the characteristics of that discipline which is peculiar to a University. And it is the necessity of the exercise of this elastic Rule, as in a good sense of the term it may be called, which is the great difficulty of its governors.’

‘It is easy enough to lay down the law and to justify it, to make your rule and keep it; but it is quite a science, I may say, to maintain a persevering, gentle oversight, to use a minute discretion, to adapt your treatment to the particular case, to go just as far as you safely may with each mind, and no further, and to do all this with no selfish ends, with no sacrifice of sincerity and frankness, and with no suspicion of partiality.’ (Newman’s ‘Scheme of Rules and Regulations’, 1856)

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