Nowadays, few of those close to higher education are sure which is hardest -- to find a college president, to keep one, or to be one. The Presidency calls for the "wisdom of serpents and the purity of doves" on part of both the person occupying the office, and those affected by it. Several constituencies are presumably united in spirit and purpose, but are all too frequently at odds: students, faculty, alumni, trustees and administrative office. It is not always easy to tell which body is playing serpent and which is dove. In the end, it is often the president who gets the credit or blame in the historical record.

 

It is for this reason that search committees scour the country for the Angel Gabriel or for St. Joan. They do their level best. They often find the best, but sometimes come up with Satan or Hecate, and tenure varies from weeks to decades. Head-hunting is not a soft job, especially when looking for a stout-hearted and patient saint.

 

In colonial days, college presidents tended to stay on; brief tenure was more often than not attributable to death. Finding a president was a simple routine. Most of the earliest colleges and universities were tied to a religious sect, and their presidents were preachers of that sect. Harvard was for years controlled by Unitarians; Yale was Congregational; Princeton was founded by Presbyterians; Columbia University began as Kings College under the Church of England (Episcopalian); Brown was chartered in 1764 as the Rhode Island College of Baptists, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, was Dutch Reformed. Wittenberg and Muhlenberg were Lutheran. The Wesleyan universities were Methodist, named for John Wesley.

 

Search committees had only to find the right Protestant divine, and put him in charge -- responsible to the governing body. Land grant, non-sectarian colleges, such as Cornell, appeared later. But in the late nineteenth century, colleges of religious bias were still springing up. The University of Chicago was chartered as Baptist in 1891 and opened with gifts by John D. Rockefeller.

 

In 1885, New York University was led by the Reverend John Hall, an Irish Presbyterian who, for a time, had been pastor of Fifth Avenue Church in New York, and much admired. He accepted the chancellorship reluctantly in 1881. Expecting to be no more than an interim leader, he felt he needed an able, younger administrator as backstop. Whereupon there appeared in Washington Square at University College of the City of New York (as it was then called) one Henry Mitchell MacCracken, Professor of Philosophy and Chancellor of the Western University of Pennsylvania, also a Presbyterian. He was given the title of Vice Chancellor; but in effect he was the first full-time administrative head of New York University. In 1891, he was elected Chancellor.

 

Like many of its sister institutions of the time, NYU was far from being the reputable institution we see today. It was a weak, small University College of about 100 students, and with little prospect of growth. It was surrounded by a developing district that only fifty years earlier had been country land. It had made the mistake in 1870 of declaring free tuition, a move which angered many alumni, who, according to NYU historian T.F. Jones, felt it had thereby become a charity school, to which no self-respecting citizen would send his son. To make matters worse, it was without a sectarian connection at a time when association with a church had great appeal. Strange as it may now seem, a secular college in the midst of city bustle and with no tuition charge, had little going for it in the late nineteenth century.

 

As Vice Chancellor, Dr. MacCracken did his best to remove the university toward the Presbyterian Church. It would help raise money. In 1904 in a speech about Columbia and NYU, he said, "Neither university has ever thought it could consistently invite either Catholics or Jews to form part of its governing body . . . It is hardly to be expected that the intellectual activity of either the Catholic or Jewish population will ever find expression in Columbia or New York University." Exclamation point.

 

On MacCracken's arrival in 1885, NYU was still giving the A.M. degree to any alumnus who asked for it -- application being the equivalent of academic interest. It was MacCracken who began to pull together the loose ends of administration. He started a Department of English and organized graduate studies as best he could by, for example, setting up a teachers college called School of Pedagogy. He began to charge tuition -- one hundred dollars. Under him, a true university began to emerge from a "chrysalis college."

 

Most of MacCracken's fame, however, rests in his being the prime mover of the campus from Washington Square to University Heights in the Bronx.He wrote in his report of November, 1890 that "the marked advance of business into the neighborhood raises the question whether our work might be advanced by any change of place. . . The University College, planted in some easily accessible neighborhood, would in short time fulfill more readily the idea of an American college than a college in a business locality ever can be."

 

He also included his favorite argument, denominational support. It would be good to offset some of the influence of Episcopalian Columbia. He omitted one point in his favor: he had already had practice having moved the Western University of Pennsylvania from Pittsburgh to Allegheny.

 

One day in 1891, while Dr. MacCracken was driving in the area called Fordham Heights, he was attracted by a property overlooking the Harlem River and a little to the south of what is now Fordham Road. University Heights, its present name, had been, during the American Revolution, the site of Fort Number Eight, one of a series of earthworks thrown up by the colonists, then taken by the British and used by them as embarkation point to cross the Harlem River to the heights opposite. From there the British inflicted on George Washington's troops a nearly disastrous defeat.

 

The land was for sale. The Chancellor persuaded the University Council to buy it, and to that place he moved the campus: eighteen acres for $308,000. He himself underwrote $40,000 of it and even bought his own house.

 

Work on the new campus began, says historian T.F. Jones, "under the ever watchful eye of Dr. MacCracken." In all of this, Jones tells us, the Chancellor saw the disadvantages of seeking the advice of the 32 members of the Council, the University's governing board. He seemed to now what he wanted. Strong-minded administrators on occasion have no need for committees. One college president, veteran of academic wars, wrote an Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not commit."

 

If is retrospect it appears to have been an ill-considered tact to move from Washington Square to the Bronx and back again about four score years later, it must be said that the cost now is often prohibitively high. Colleges still move, of course, but for most it is better to stay and try to work things out than cut and run to another site, assuming one can be found and paid for. There was, however, good precedent for it in 1891, and plenty of land at fair cost. The New England College for Baptists had moved from Warren, Rhode Island, to Providence to become Brown University. Kings College had long ago left the Trinity Church area on Wall street, and for a time settled on Madison Avenue, Midtown, as Columbia College. Trinity College moved from the area of the state capitol building in Hartford to a hilltop with a view. There have been many others.

 

Shortly after New York University made its purchase, Columbia was preparing for its second move, to its own Heights uptown, from which they could on the West have faced the Hudson River, but they chose instead the Morning side, and built a campus facing inward, boxlike a Roman forum.

 

Chancellor MacCracken wondered whether it might be a good idea for higher education if Columbia and NYU were to mere. The idea was bruited about, and financier/philanthropist Jacob Schiff said he would give generously to a merged university. Informally, Dr. MacCracken made a specific proposal to Columbia: NYU would change its name to University College would abandon the giving of degrees and become a teaching corporation. Columbia, he proposed, would become the University of New York, would get permission to relate it to the Episcopal Church and secure an agreed-upon amount of money annual for University College.

 

President Seth Low of Columbia replied, most courteously. Why not unite as Columbia University of the City of New York (the full name of Columbia is Columbia University in the City of New York), and call one college University College, and the other Columbia College. Whereupon MacCracken said no thank you, and hearty good wishes for the growth and success of Columbia. Low reciprocated, and graciously served four terms as an elector of the Hall of Fame.

 

Dr. MacCracken turned his attention wholly to New York University. Buying the Heights property, moving the campus, and maintaining a hold on Washington Square, was costly business. Long before deficit financing had become a rough collegiate sport and a dangerous governmental practice, MacCracken was familiar with it. In 1901 he reported through the treasurer, "Our deficit for the year is $57,000, our floating debt is $360,000; we are in the position of a gentleman who owns a magnificent domain but has no income to support it." Nevertheless, he pulled out of it and reduced the annual deficit, until in 1908 the budget was balanced.

 

He was an able man. "New York University's present strength is traceable in part to his having awakened it from its drowsiness," says T.F. Jones. His record of attainment was long. Jones gives MacCracken credit not only for University Heights, but also for a new building on Washington Square to replace University College, which was torn down when the decision was made not to move it uptown piece by piece as architect Stanford White had anticipated -- even planned for. A design in the NYU archives shows that it would have been the central building of the new campus.

 

The Chancellor also reorganized both the law school l and the medical school and started schools of engineering and commerce. In his time, he was one of the giants. It is to be wondered how he found time and strength.

 

Not least of all, he discovered private benevolence, especially that of Miss Helen Gould, daughter of wealthy railroad magnate Jay Gould, and took full advantage of it. Her gifts over the years to New York University were outstanding -- more than two million dollars in all. She was a one woman foundation. The greatest monuments to her are the landmark Gould Memorial Library and the Chancellor's innovative Hall of Fame which he tell us about in his book of the same name (1901).

 

 

 

The Concept