Thursday, March 15, 2007

President Barzun?

In the fall of 1945, a University Council-appointed faculty advisory committee chaired by Dean Pegram brought forward four faculty names for presidential consideration. Included among them were two historians, John A. Krout and Jacques Barzun, a professor of government and public law and later a member of the World Court in the Hague, Philip C. Jessup, and the economist and dean of the Business School Robert D. Calkins. Krout later served in several administrative capacities, including dean of Graduate Faculties (1949–52) and provost (1953–56). In 1948 President Truman appointed Jessup the United States representative to the United Nations. Calkins went to the Rockefellers’ General Education Board in 1947 and five years later became president of the Brookings Institution. Thus all three had estimable public careers after being passed over for the Columbia presidency.

But it is the thought of Jacques Barzun becoming Columbia’s thirteenth president in 1946 that makes the most intriguing might-have-been. In terms of his administrative interests, he was a protégé of Harry Carman and closely identified with the College, from which he graduated in 1927 at the age of nineteen. He passed the war mostly at Columbia, teaching a course in naval history. At thirty-eight, he was only two years younger than Low and one younger than Butler when they assumed their Columbia presidencies. He was both more naturally elegant and less intellectually circumspect than either. He was a superb teacher and an excellent scholar and had administrative experience. He wrote beautifully on a wide range of subjects but on none so wittily as on higher education, as in Teacher in America, which appeared in 1945 and marked his national debut as the acerbic commentator on academic folkways that he has continued to be into the twenty-first century.

“Jacques,” admirers said of him, “does not lack self-confidence.” For this reason, he might have given his trustees as much trouble as President Barnard had his, but with less shouting and more verbal playfulness. Of twentieth-century university presidents who might serve as functional equivalents of this president-not-to-be, there really are none, though the stormy tenures of Chicago’s Robert Hutchins and Boston University’s John Silber are at least suggestive.

But even had a faculty consensus developed around Barzun, it was unlikely that the trustees would have joined it. Theirs was a board historically predisposed against choosing its presidents from among the faculty.

— Robert A. McCaughey, Stand, Columbia, Columbia UP, 2003, pp. 333–334.