The job of university president is exceedingly complex and difficult. It is difficult both in itself and because society has never clearly defined what manner of man a president ought to be. Within living memory several completely different answers have been given to the problem.
There was the vogue of retired or eminent divines. These reflected a sound conviction that education is a moral business. But the Divine did not always prove equal to the involved business administration necessary to a little universe, and sometimes the right hand of divinity did not know what the left hand of necessity was up to. Necessity, indeed, had to be recognized, and society sought the Great Figure who could "stand for" the university before the public, overpower the resistance of legislatures, and win endowments for institutions chronically in need of money. His appointment was just as reasonable as the Divine's, but as the Great Figure usually came from outside, he might have a dim understanding of the intricate inter-relations of a cloister whose internal disaffections and heart-burnings become public property with the speed of light. What next? Society gets down to diagnosis, and realizes that the Eminent Divine and the Great Figure, before they could become so, were both old — and is not the twentieth century the age of Youth! And the university is the domain of the Intellect. In comes the Precocious Brain. The highest I.Q.'s were diligently sought out and installed — and in some universities whole departments resigned in a body. Obviously, it takes more than brains to run a university. It takes administrative experience. We turn to the Proven Executive. He has managed a mail-order business or a railroad, he has been in the thick of it, the hurly burly of wages and prices and labour troubles, or he has taken an army through a bitter campaign. A handful of professors will be apple pie to him. Apple pie? Apple pie a la mode. But a man may get on well in realms where the profit motive operates or where death is another word for disobedience, and even for disagreement, and find himself at a loss among professors. He lacks the common speech and lives in a Tower of Babel; the solid ground he has hitherto trodden so firmly seems to evaporate, leaving him with his feet solidly planted on air. And society seeks his successor. The most recent fashion finds that successor among the staff of the university itself — and so the wheel comes full circle and we get back to something like that ideal of the Middle Ages that a president should preside and not boss or command, that he should be simply, primus inter pares, the First among Equals.
I have not here been speaking of specific men or universities, least of all of Alberta, but simply of fashions in presidents as they have appeared in Canada, the United States, and even Britain in the last fifty years. It is against the background of the difficulty of the job and the failure of society to understand what it demands that we must assess the achievements of Robert Newton.
What is the ideal president? One's conception of the ideal depends upon one's conception of the university itself. Well, the university on this continent, for good or ill, is the classroom. We cannot talk of it, as Dr. Newton himself has done, as "an association of scholars." Our students are not scholars, and they are a large part of the university — indeed, almost the only part that society recognizes. They are not scholars, but pupils: they must be taught. Research is an abiding inspiration of good teaching, and therefore important; but the university does not exist for research. It exists to teach, and if a good teacher can be created by John Barleycorn or any other agency, he still has a place in the university though he do no research work whatever. Research may also have an economic value, but the university does not exist to develop the resources of the state: it exists to teach, to train, to educate. Research may broaden the empire of Truth, but the university exists to teach what is already known. Let me not be misunderstood: I am not speaking of what an ideal university might be; but of what actual universities are. And it is what they are that induces legislatures to spend money on them. Legislators are for the most part good, common-sensible men, but I cannot see them contributing to the support of "an association of scholars."And, as a matter of fact, they don't. But they do pay for the training of lawyers, engineers, teachers, and doctors. To keep us happy they may throw in a few frills; but for the most part they are spending money for sensible, practical, visible ends.
It will be evident that a president has two separate and equally important duties. He must take care of the classroom teacher, and he must gain the confidence of the Legislature. An ideal president will serve the classroom teacher, keep him happy in his working place, satisfy his needs, and provide ideal conditions to maintain the effectiveness of his work. The classroom teacher, after all, is the front line soldier; and the whole organization must contribute to his success. But the classroom teacher is a curious, complex, bewildering animal unintelligible to the outer world. He must be explained and interpreted to the public, only too often he must be defended, and the value of his work must be constantly underlined; and the ideal president will not only see to it that all is well in the classroom, but he will convince the public that this truth is true. In short, as in a little country, the president must take thought to affairs both foreign and domestic.
Both for the sake of public confidence and to keep the classroom effective, the president must keep the student body in hand. They can easily become fractious and unruly; they can damage property both inside the university and outside; and, being young, they can be mis-led by their own demagogues or by predatory interests into the pursuit of silly, chimerical, or unworthy ends. But the fact is that they are in the university to be trained and educated, and not for nonsense. And if they don't know that this is true, the public does — and the public pays the shot.
On foreign affairs we can give Dr. Newton an A grade at once. During his regime the University budget has increased enormously as it could not possibly have done had confidence in the institution relaxed. His budgets may have been trimmed a little, remarkably little, from time to time, but it is asking too much of human nature not to expect legislators to lop off a little here and there from someone else's expense account. Moreover, the Province has given him a huge building fund and already provided several costly buildings. He has greatly added to private endowment, always the most difficult of achievements in a state university. And he has added to the prestige of the University by his service on many outside committees. For one little matter he has never received among us the recognition he ought to have received: when Cambridge University wished to honor a scientist from the Dominions, it was our Robert Newton, out of a large group of eminent men assembled from the ends of the earth, who was singled out for the D.Sc. There would have been banners and snake-dances and all manner of publicity in most universities to celebrate such an occasion, but all I can remember about it here was a three-line announcement in the Edmonton Journal. Just here another forgotten fact may be added: he is one of three men in the entire history of the University of Alberta to have earned the Doctorate here. With the honorary degree conferred at the last Convocation, he is the only man on whom this University has conferred two Doctorates. The latest honor he well deserves, for if it be the job of a president to enhance the prestige of the university he serves, Dr. Newton has done it.
In his dealings with students he has been equally successful. Our graduates tend to look with contempt upon the laxness of other campuses, and they value their degrees. None of our graduates is at all likely to wish that he had gone to another university — and that is the test that matters. The President has consistently encouraged them to work, to seek genuine values, and to make intelligent use of the opportunities provided for them. He has fostered democracy and self-government on the campus — and it is a noteworthy fact that student leaders have always thought well of him. There have, of course, been some unfortunate incidents, but these were incidents and not the regular thing, and we have come through an extremely difficult period of the war and the bulge with amazingly few troubles.
In internal affairs, indeed, the University has passed through, during the time of Dr. Newton, its most difficult period. It is not merely that we have increased greatly in size, but that this increase implied a fundamental change or metamorphosis. We were a small college; now we are a university; and there is as much difference between the one and the other as between an egg and a duck. The business organization that will serve a college cannot merely be enlarged to serve a university; it needs to be transformed or new created. Many persons have been aware of the increase in staff in the Bursar's and Registrar's offices, in the Library, and in the University generally; few have realized the complete overhaul and renovation that has marked these years. Let it be remembered also that a growing institution may outgrow its men. Men who were excellent in their duties in a small, intimate university might well become perplexed, frustrated, or disaffected, might even become dead wood, in a large one. But, with all its inherent difficulties, this transformation has been smoothly and efficiently achieved.
One of the first things done under Dr. Newton was the disentangling of the salary situation. With us now, as with comparatively few universities, the rank and the pay go together. There is now no secrecy about it, and we are not at the mercy of our individual bargaining skill against an opponent who holds all the cards. We do not have associate professors with the salaries of instructors, nor instructors with the salaries of professors, nor do we have the private bitterness and heart-burning that go with that condition. Indeed, it could be maintained that Alberta now has, not the highest salaries in Canada, but the most intelligent and satisfactory system of rewards for service — and this happy result is largely the work of Dr. Newton. It is true that the Faculty Relations Committee has negotiated these matters year by year with the President and the Board of Governors, but the committee itself was one of those agencies which he has transformed, or permitted to transform itself, into an efficient and effective instrument. Many another president would have stopped that committee dead in its tracks, or gutted it, but Dr. Netwon fostered it. And, just as student leaders have respected the President, so the persons who have represented the staff before him year by year are precisely those persons in the University who think of him most highly. Few administrators could stand this test.
Once on a visit to another university, one of my colleagues remarked, "Elsewhere men are loyal to the president, but Albertans are loyal to the institution." It was a very penetrating and true remark — and the man is a child who would prefer one of these other places. For if an employee can be loyal to the University, there cannot be much wrong with it. But if he is loyal only to the president, there is plain evidence that the president has been able to shift the blame or that he is using the office for personal aggrandizement. The remark also implies that at Alberta the classroom teacher is happy in his working place — as he could not be if the President were not doing his job well. And it is a fact that few of our instructors have sought or accepted jobs elsewhere in the last ten years. Of these, some have later wished they hadn't.
It is to be remembered also that university professors are not easy to deal with. The best teachers are likely to be of nervous temperament, trigger-edged, emotional. The president has to deal with every kind of human eccentric and put up with every kind of attitude toward things which he may consider important. A man with his head full of atoms or the complexities of life under the Caesar's may be dead to the world of deadlines or blandly contemptuous of administrative red tape. Yet the Provincial Cabinet meets on a fixed date, and the University estimates must be ready. Heads of Departments have been known to toss unopened into the waste-basket important communications from the president's office (though I do not know of any such incident in our University in Dr. Newton's time); and a Department Head can grumble for years that his instructors are not promoted, only to admit when the matter comes to a crisis that he has not recommended them on the forms annually provided for the purpose. With all these difficult persons the president must deal; and however naive or cross-grained or forgetful or excitable he may find them, he must remember that in the classroom they speak as men having authority, yea, with the tongues of men and angels. He must remember that they, and not he, are the university.
How, then, has Dr. Newton met the challenge of this impossible job? He has met it first of all, I believe, by careful self-preparation and self-discipline — and prayerfully. He groomed himself for the job by long and careful forethought.
He tried to learn by industrious reading and study what a university is and what it ought to be, what a president ought to be and do, and he questioned his own abilities and short-comings. It is significant that almost the first undertaking of his administration was the University Survey which investigated the needs of the . University well into the future, and which made recommendations to the Government. The Survey showed the conscious, practical approach of a practical man. In that self-interrogation of his, he must have said, "I am a scientist," and considered the obvious perils. One would expect a president after such a career as his to lean to the scientific idea; but the fact is that nobody in our history has done more to advance the cultural health of the University. It was he who started the Department of Fine Arts, and it was he (and Mrs. Newton) who gave us our first important collection of paintings. In this respect, Mrs. Newton who is herself skilled in several arts must have provided a fine inspiration. Nor can anyone accuse him of going too far in this direction: he has given us an equable, balanced and just administration which has catered to all of the needs of the University — as can readily be seen when we set alongside of Fine Arts the forward strides of Dentistry, Pharmacy, Education, and Engineering.
He must have realized also that the Presidency was a lonely job, and that there would be hard things to do. He has done the hard things, has never shrunk from them, and has never complained. He has had no intimates., and coddled no favorites. Nor has he ever encouraged or wanted "yes-men": he wanted honest opinions, and nobody under him has ever suffered for speaking his mind, even though with bad grace and ill temper. The fact is an index to the man.
He knew, indeed, that he was not a back-slapper, full of bonhomie and geniality. Very wisely, he did not try to be anything but what he was, a little cold, certainly, and not much gifted in the smoking room or tavern, but honest, conscientious, and just. Some persons would prefer the smoking-room type of president. They would prefer the man who can hoist his feet to the presidential desk, throw a pack of cigarettes to his visitor, and start an important conference with some such airy remark as, "How's tricks?" But people with such preference may not have counted the cost: our President has been a worker.
How he has worked! These terrific forward strides of the University, this roof to cellar overhaul, these little things do not come of themselves. Some conscious mind is behind it all; some person somewhere is responsible. Every editor of any University publication knows that there is one reader who catches every misprint, who never misses a comma or an error in fact, who has time to spend on every article, even on the advertisements, and whose encouragement and appreciation never flag nor fail. Other persons who have had to do with the President have been equally amazed at his labor and his conscience. He might be called the real architect of the Rutherford Library, for every detail of the plans has been through his minute and conscientious study time and time again. So everywhere: he took the whole University for his province, and he mastered every page and every footnote in that huge and complex volume. Many and many a president would have to be informed or "briefed" by confidential aides before conferences; but the entire University in all its multifarious detail was familiar to this tremendous and most conscientious worker.
Moreover, he has been modest. The very manner of his retirement is symbolic, for he retired at the end of the year when it was impossible for people to make a fuss over him. Other men would use the presidency as a sounding board by means of which to broadcast their personal greatness. Not Robert Newton. He has been content to dispense with personal acclaim, with personal popularity, and to get on with the job. And he has worked to good purpose: on the foundations he has laid, it will be possible for future presidents to build sanely.
I think he has had this historical sense, that he felt himself a little part in the great onward mark of the University. He was not merely holding office, but correcting the mistakes of the past and laying foundations for the future. And he knew that whatever any individual may say now or in time to time, influenced as we all are by whims and caprices and petty considerations, the work of his hands would remain, and to the discerning eve be visible, in the fabric of the University he loved.
He has made mistakes, and he has not been without faults. As a young President he was somewhat dictatorial, impatient of old regulations, rather ruthless, and even contemptuous of the views of others. But his natural modesty very quickly re-asserted itself; and there is an ancient precept which, I believe, he followed: "Let him that is greatest among you, be your servant." As time passed, he became much less the "boss" and more the co-ordinator of the work of other men. In this humility he became a real administrator and edged as close to greatness as any university president is likely to come.
And yet, it seems almost shocking to say so, to recognize this plain fact. For the greatness that the world recognizes usually arrives with flags flying and trumpets blowing, and not in this quiet, self-effacing style. Tinsel catches the eye more quickly than gold, and showmanship seems more appreciated nowadays than man-ship. Our President has been a plain man, and not a three-ring circus. He has worked hard. He has walked with simple, unaffected modesty in the light of conscience and in the eye of God. In the justice of his dealings with other men and in the fruitfulness of his work, he can challenge comparison with any university president Canada has known.
Published Fall 1950.