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Some of the Places where the University Blazed a Trail for Others to Follow

As is quite proper, with the history of her early years in mind, the University of Michigan has always been a pioneer. Looking over the long story of the University's accomplishments these last ninety years, one might almost say that she had made a specialty in pioneering. What were radical experiments in educational policy at the time they were made, have come to be the usual thing in American colleges and universities, particularly in the State institutions. Some of these innovations, like co-education, were spectacular;  some were not. There were, too, some mistakes like the "university system" of the early eighties,  designed to free certain students from the routine of classroom drill, which,  while it did not work out as had been planned, was an interesting forerunner of some of the ideas which are being advanced today by President Little.

One thing may be said about these evidences of Michigan’s progressive spirit, aside from the fact that practically all of them have proved through the passage of years to have been wisely taken, and that is that almost all of them were taken after careful,  and we doubt not, prayerful, consideration. They were not merely the result of a casual radicalism.   How much Michigan’s strength is due to this wise progressive policy no one can say, but they have given her a unique position among American universities of which every Michigan man and woman must be proud.

Doubtless many alumni, however, are unfamiliar with some of these forward steps which have meant so much in the history of American education. The establishment of the University itself as an experiment in State education, is generally recognized as a great and successful innovation. Michigan was not by any means the first State university, but some way its establishment focused the eyes of the country on the idea of the maintenance of an educational system by a State.  Its early years were watched with an attention we can hardly realize now, and when, after the first trying years, it found its feet as a university under President Tappan, all the States in the Middle West, and later in the West, followed suit.

In the curriculum, the subjects taught the students, in those first days, Michigan was something of a radical. For long years education had been in a rut, with the classics, logic, Aristotelian science,  and Ancient History as the whole body of the college education for the embryo clergyman, doctor, and lawyer. The men who established the University,  and later President Tappan, thought that a college education should include more than that, and a very broad field of study was laid out which it is safe to say has not been entirely realized even today.  Nevertheless the steps which were taken were fairly radical. The study of law and medicine as part of the university training was not unheard of, but the establishment of technical, scientific work, like the course in civil engineering, in 1855, which eventually led directly to the Department of Engineering, was unknown outside of Harvard,  while Michigan actually established, in 1857, this first chemistry laboratory then existent in America, let alone in any American university.  This little building that formed the chemistry laboratory is now part of the old Chemistry Building now used by the Department of Physiology and Economics.

From this beginning also developed the teaching of Pharmacy in the University in 1868, and in1876 as a separate department. Other professions did not fare quite so well for a projected agricultural department did not materialize, while Departments of Mining Engineering and Military Science died in infancy. A College of Architecture was also established in 1876 but was discontinued four years later, not to be revived until the present college was established in 1906. The point of all this is that Michigan became a university almost from the first.

Meanwhile President Tappan'a interest in science had led to the establishment of the Detroit Observatory in Ann Arbor, one of the two or three well-equipped observatories in the United States.  From this small beginning sprang that long line of astronomers which has given Michigan a unique place in that science.

Up to 1867 Michigan was a State university rather more in name than in fact. True, the State had established it and had "loaned" it $100,000 to get it started (this loan was never cancelled, by the way, until 1877), and had given it certain sections of land to support it, but the institution had never received a penny in the way of further support from the Legislature. The lands proved less productive than had been expected; the University was growing, and something had to be done.   The device finally hit upon was the mill-tax, which was later adopted by almost every other State university. This first tax involved the assessment of one-twentieth of a mill against every dollar of tax-able property in the State. The amount realized was not large, $16,000 annually, but the principal of coordinating the University's financial growth with the development of the State was sound and wise. At present the University's annual income from this source is $3,700,000, even though at present the tax is not completely operative; in fact, the Regents are seeking the removal of the limitation on the mill-tax to this amount as the most important item in the legislative program for the present year. 

Just between the administrations of President Haven and President Angell, while Professor Henry S. Frieze was Acting President, came two most important measures, —the admission of women as students and the close affiliation of the University with the High Schools of the State through the recognition on the part of the University of diplomas from he high schools as admission requirements instead of the examinations which had been demanded before that time. Co-education became at once a burning issue. Many of the men students, and not a few of the Faculty, were bitterly opposed and the position of the first girls in the University was not an easy one. There were no traditions in the larger institutions in America in support of the education of women along with the men except in a few of the smaller sectarian colleges, so that Michigan's temerity in putting it to test on a large scale in1871, was commented on far and wide. The number of co-educational universities in America at the present time is sufficient evidence of the wisdom of the step.

The same thing can be said of the diploma sys-tem of admission. Michigan was established as the cap-stone of a State educational system and the admission of High School students upon this evidence of satisfactory preparation was only a logical result, a development of which has been followed impractically every other commonwealth where a State institution exists. This action, moreover, lead eventually to another step in which Michigan was a pioneer.   If the State was to maintain thus an organic relation with the High Schools it followed that the teaching in those schools must be of high quality.   The preparation of teachers for their work therefore became a task for the University. This led to the establishment of a professorship in the science and art of teaching, another idea which spread rapidly.  Many universities even went Michigan one better and made it a separate department under a dean long before Michigan took that step. Michigan, however,  was satisfied with the progress made, being content,  after the first radical step, to "make haste slowly" in this as some other things.

With the broader educational policies once firmly established, Michigan took another step which was viewed with misgivings in other institutions, but which was soon followed elsewhere.  That was the establishment of a course in which the classics were not a prerequisite for graduation.   First Greek went, when the Latin and Scientific course was established; and then, in 1877, an English course with Latin, also taken from the list of requirements for a degree, led to the degree of B. L. Moreover, an even revolutionary step was taken in throwing open more than half the courses to free election, with the result that the attendance in the University increased almost twenty per cent the first year.

Many other measures might be mentioned but there is only space here to mention a few places where Michigan has struck out in new ways.   In the first place the great hospital which rises on the hills along the Huron is the first and largest hospital in the country maintained by a university for teaching purposes. Likewise in the establishment of the Michigan Union and the proposed Women's League Building, Michigan also struck out in a new and untried field. There were Unions, or buildings answering the same purpose, in other institutions, it is true, but they were all relatively small and could only serve at best the needs of a comparatively few students. It is the huge size of the Union, as it was conceived from the first by the Union Committee, which distinguishes it from all other previous ventures. This feature led to the shaking of many heads before the building was erected, but once it was in use it demonstrated triumphantly the fact that there was emphatically a great need for such a building in a university community. Now almost every large university is erecting or is planning to erect a similar building.

Then there is the Yost Field House on Ferry Field where a visitor to Ann Arbor will find another experiment which has justified the farsighted vision of those who built it. More than the stadium, which came first in so many other universities, the athletic authorities at Michigan felt that a building such as this was needed for the training of athletes during the months when outdoor exercise is impossible.

Finally, in the very method of its administration by the Board of Regents as State officers, Michigan stands almost unique. For the Regents are not only elected directly by the people, instead of being appointed by the Governor as in so many other State universities, but they hold a position coordinate with the Governor, the Legislature, and the Superior Court instead of being subordinate.   Moreover, the Board, composed of eight men, is small in numbers and each member holds office for eight years.

Wilfred B. Shaw

The Michigan alumnus

March 12 1927, Page 455

Michigan as Trail Blazer