Henry Chauncey Jr. – better known as Sam – became a dean at Yale during the 1950s when he was still a college senior. He has been affiliated Yale in various capacities ever since. From 1964 to 1971 he was special assistant to Kingman Brewster Jr., Yale’s controversial 17th president, who transformed and modernized the university along meritocratic lines while holding the institution together during the turmoil of the 1960s. Chauncey also served as secretary of the university from 1971 to 1981.
In this podcast interview, Sam discusses his father, Henry Chauncey Sr., who was a pivotal figure in the history of meritocracy and one of the central characters in Nicholas Lemann’s 1999 bestseller The Big Test. The elder Chauncey founded the Educational Testing Service in 1947, the entity that still administers the SAT to college-bound high school seniors. Sam also analyzes the changes in American society that impacted higher education during the 20th century, the shifting composition and priorities of university students and leaders at selective institutions, the threats to free speech on campuses today, and the qualities of effective administrators.
Sam Chauncey: So there’s been a misconception that coming to a university now means that you’re going to be trained to be a good investment banker, or a good lawyer. That’s not what Yale’s all about. What Yale should be about — and I think still is, to the great part — is helping a student to develop their mind to make good decisions about everything they do.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events.
And I’m delighted to be joined today by Henry Chauncey Jr., known to one and all as Sam. Listeners to this podcast will know that I have a general interest in the institution of the American university, and a particular interest in Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. My first book was in fact a portrait of Yale’s seventeenth president, Kingman Brewster Jr., who was head of the university from 1963 to 1977. And I was particularly interested in Brewster because he was a pivotal figure in the history of meritocracy and presided over the transformation of Yale into a modern international university. It also seemed to me that he was one of the few leaders of any description during the 1960s who found the right institutional balance between tradition and change during the upheavals of the 1960s. And I could not have written that book without the friendship and support of Sam Chauncey, who was assistant to the president from 1964 to 1971 and then secretary of the university from 1971 to 1981. Welcome, Sam!
Sam Chauncey: Thank you, Geoff, and thank you for including me in this little session.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, Sam, even though I still think of you as a young person, whatever the calendar says, you have been associated with Yale in one capacity or another for almost seventy years.
Sam Chauncey: That’s right, and that’s a long time. I was born in 1935. I entered Yale as a freshman in 1953, and I continued to work at Yale until ’81. And then I continued to live in New Haven, so I’m still very much part of the Yale orbit.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, and because you actually entered the university administration as a dean when you were still in your senior year of college, you really have an almost unparalleled perspective on the institution across eight decades.
Sam Chauncey: Well, I was very lucky. I wanted to work in the admissions office and I had a job offer, and then I went to the Yale College Dean’s Office because they ran out of people. They needed a body to fill the seat, and so I took it, before I’d actually received my degree, in order to get some of the background I needed.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’ve known you since the 1980s, and for basically all of that time I have been urging you to set down some of your memories of your time as a university administrator. But it was only in this past year that you did so, in the form of a privately printed book entitled “Recollections and Reflections on Yale.” Why did you finally decide to put pen to paper, metaphorically speaking?
Sam Chauncey: Part of it was because people like you pushed so hard that I wanted to get them off my back. But actually it took me three years to write the book. And I suppose it comes when you get… You know I’m in my mid-eighties now, and you get to a point where you do spend more time looking back and thinking about what you did or didn’t do. And I just decided that I was interested in doing it, but I don’t like memoirs and I don’t like autobiographies. But I have noticed that there are Yale students, faculty, and sometimes others who are interested in Yale history. And so I thought what I would do was, originally, just create an oral history of my recollections and reflections about the university — not in a scholarly sense but just as a person looking back and perhaps telling a story. And when I got all finished I thought, “Well, why not print a few copies?” But it is basically an electronic version which is in the archives of Yale University, so that any student or faculty member or anyone else can access it today if they would like to. But you guys pushed me, I got the work done thanks to all you all, and there it is.
Geoff Kabaservice: And congratulations! I’m sure that some of the listeners are going to find it tantalizing, in the bad sense, to hear us talk about a book that most of them will not be able to get their hands on.
Sam Chauncey: I don’t know how we’ll work this out, but it is going to be available on a sort of on-demand basis. But I can’t give any details yet because I don’t know them.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay, well, we’ll look forward to that. Sam, I’d like to start by talking a little about your father, Henry Chauncey Sr. Some listeners may know him as really the central figure of Nicholas Lemann’s 1999 bestseller, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. He started the Educational Testing Service after World War II, which continues to administer the SAT to millions of anxious college applicants every year. Lemann pointed out that the Chaunceys were a distinguished American family; your great-grandfather fifteen or sixteen times over was Charles Chauncy, a puritan minister who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1637 from England and became the second rector of Harvard. But many of your forbears were poorly paid ministers, and your father didn’t grow up with any money to speak of, did he?
Sam Chauncey: No. My father grew up as the son of a minister. My grandfather, the minister’s grandfather, had lost all the money that the Chauncey family once had, so there was no money. My father was able to go to a very fine college preparatory school, but on scholarship. But he could not afford to go to Harvard and, interestingly enough, a very wealthy classmate of his ended up paying the money so that my father could transfer to Harvard. And he did graduate from there.
While he was working there, soon after his graduation, he was in the admissions office. Those were the days when Harvard admitted most of its students from the northeast United States, from a very small number of very select schools. And Harvard had a new president then, James Conant, who was very interested in expanding the base of Harvard students to include (then only) men from all over the country and from different backgrounds. So he sent my father out on the road looking for such people
My father noticed immediately that one of the problems was that the schools from which Harvard had normally admitted students were well known, the grading systems were well known, and so when a youngster had a grade of “A” the admissions office knew what it meant. However, when he went out across the country to smaller high schools in different parts of the country, it was harder to evaluate what an “A” meant. And so he became very interested in finding a way in which a person in admissions could make a judgment as to whether the candidate, regardless of his economic or geographical background, how he ranked in intellectual terms or academic terms. This was encouraged when, during the Second World War, he went to Washington and was in charge of the Army/Navy Qualification Test, where the seven million men (it was mostly men) who were inducted into the armed forces had to be divided into basic groups: infantry officer, intelligence, engineering, and so on.
My father was quite surprised that the young people going in the Army who might have come from Harvard or Yale or one of these other types of institutions didn’t necessarily look like the best leaders; maybe it was a young man from a farm in Iowa or in someplace in the Bronx in New York. So he again began to question: How do you find out who merits going to college, who deserves to go to college? And that got him so interested that ultimately, as you’ve mentioned, he did in 1947 found the Educational Testing Service to start with the idea of standardized tests so that one could equate the educational achievements and intelligence of young people on an apples-to-apples basis.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think the analogy that Nick Lemann used was that the SAT was to undergraduate admissions what the standardized rail gauge was to railroad transport.
Sam Chauncey: Exactly. Yes, it was the same idea.
Geoff Kabaservice : Sam, as you know, the last several years have seen a lot of pushback against meritocracy and the SAT from the progressive left. In fact, Harvard just last month announced that it won’t require standardized tests for at least the next four years. How do you think your father would respond to the criticism that standardized tests favor wealthy, white applicants and disadvantage minority and low-income students?
Sam Chauncey: Well, my father was blessed to be able to live to be over a hundred, or just about a hundred, and in the latter years of his life we talked about that question. And he was both chagrined to discover that indeed the tests that he had developed did have real problems when it came to the socioeconomic background of certain of the people who were taking the test, and that it probably wasn’t fair. But I think he still felt that it was important to try to develop instruments that can measure people in a way that that won’t happen. Now, secondly, as he pointed out to me once by the time he died in the early 2000s, most admissions offices in the country knew a great deal about many, many of the schools across the country and they could make evaluations of students without the test.
I don’t think if my father were alive today he would be brokenhearted that colleges were giving up the test, because they have been able — through modern technology, through lots of travel, bigger staffs — to find out what many of the high schools in the United States are like, what an “A” means from this one and what a “B” means from that one. So I think — I hope — he died a happy man in the sense that he wanted merit to be the primary consideration. And his method of discovering merit turned out not to be the best, but at least it got us going on the road and down the right track.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think there are obvious limits that come with relying only on measures of merit such as the SAT. But I think the SAT has played a very useful role as a diagnostic of sorts. There are 25,000 schools in this country. No university can get to even a fraction of them, even if it tries. And when someone at one of these hinterland schools, let’s say, does really well on the SAT, that throws up a signal. And I do worry that there’s going to be less of that in a future without the SAT.
Sam Chauncey: Well, I think that’s true. But, you know, you can go online now and you can study a school… Supposing I’m in the Yale admissions office and we have a youngster who applies from a school we’ve never heard of. I can go online pretty quickly and I can find out some interesting statistics from that that school — something you never could have done in the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s. Secondly, colleges and universities have developed alumni interviewing — that is, alumni in different towns who interview, which gives you an initial screen. It’s not always the best one, but it gives you some initial screens. Students are much more sophisticated today in presenting their own case in writing good essays, having good resumes put together. So you’re right, and of course the academic achievement is not the only goal that virtually any college or university wants. You want to know more about the character, the person: what are they good at, what are they not good at? So I think we have, because of the internet, the ability to get a lot more information. Nevertheless, if you have a lot of applications for a small number of places, it’s just a plain judgment call and we have no video review.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was interested, speaking of admissions, that when you became an administrator you were able to go and look at your own admissions file.
Sam Chauncey: Yes, I couldn’t resist. When I became a dean, the files were therefore available to me, and I couldn’t resist going and looking in my own folder. I had never set foot in the dean’s office, so there was no paper from there but there were the admissions materials. And the then-dean of admissions had written on the blue interview form one sentence, and it was: “Henry Chauncey’s son.” So the question of my getting in… This was small… There were only 3,000 applicants for a thousand places, and it was very unscientific. And so that’s what we wanted to get away from.
Geoff Kabaservice: At that time, Yale basically had a student body that was all-male, virtually all-white, and mainly from private preparatory schools in the Northeast such as your alma mater, Groton.
Sam Chauncey: Right. Yeah, my class had one Black student. And he was a wonderful person, but he was captain of the basketball team and it was clear how he’d been admitted. I have said to some of my classmates that I can only remember one student in our class from California. They tell me I’m wrong, but not by a lot. But I had one good friend who came from California, and I really thought he was an amazingly different person. So it was a pretty narrow group of people. And I think there were only about 8% of us who were on financial aid. I’d have to check that figure to be sure, but I was a scholarship student and there weren’t very many on scholarship.
Geoff Kabaservice: And Yale of course was not a need-blind institution at that time.
Sam Chauncey: No, and it was… You’d have to adjust these figures, but in 1957 it had an endowment of some $2-300 million dollars. Today it has an endowment of $42 billion. The budget of Yale in that same year ‘57 was $100 million and today it’s $5 billion. So yes, it was a very different place financially.
Geoff Kabaservice: Obviously. But in terms of the diversification of the student body, even in class terms, it wasn’t actually a high level of tuition and room and board that was holding that back — because I was fascinated by that story about the summer job you held.
Sam Chauncey: That’s correct. Yes, in the year between my freshman and sophomore year, I held a job in a beach club: the Breezy Point Surf Club out in Far Rockaway, New York. I think it still exists. I was a cabana boy during the day; I got the furniture out of the cabanas and I got the ice and the coolers and all that sort of thing. And then, after they were closed at seven o’clock, I went in and was a waiter in the restaurant. And at the end of the summer, I was able to take home $3,000, and my tuition, room, and board the next year was $1,650. So I almost earned two years’ worth of tuition, room, and board. For a student at Yale to do that today, where the tuition, room, and board is $72,000, it would be… I can’t imagine any job that would pay $150,000 in the summer.
Geoff Kabaservice: Even the investment banking jobs don’t pay that much.
Sam Chauncey: That’s right. Well, that also reflects the real problem that tuition and room and board increases have way exceeded inflation. And that gets you into the question of what are universities spending all that new money for?
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, that is a key question. You know, one of the interesting aspects of your career is that you were present to witness and play a role in what I guess I would call the transition between Old Yale and New Yale, which you yourself described as unfolding over the half-century between 1930 and 1980.
Sam Chauncey: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: And that related very directly to changes in the country at large as well. What would you enumerate among some of the factors driving this change?
Sam Chauncey: Well, the first factor I mentioned is the one that most people don’t think about. Yale and Harvard and Princeton and the so-called elite universities pretty much hired their own graduate students as faculty, so that you frequently had a person as a professor at Yale who had gone to Yale as an undergraduate, gone to Yale as a graduate student, got a Ph.D. and was retained on the faculty. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the Yales and Harvards of the world woke up to the fact that the great state universities — like Michigan, Wisconsin, the University of California, the University of Washington — were producing graduate students equal to or better than those that Yale produced. And so we began hiring people who had come from great state universities, and they were much more broadly based — they, believe it or not, admitted women as undergraduates. And these young faculty members were a cause of change.
Then, of course, there was the whole question of geographic diversity, and that is because as a country we were becoming closer together. People traveled more, people could go to different parts of the country. We were getting people from different parts of the country. And then of course there was the beginning of the admission of students of color: primarily, in the early days, Black students and what we referred to as Chicano or Hispanic students, and later Asian-Americans and Native Americans. Finally, Yale, of course, also decided to admit women as undergraduates. So all of these things all reflected things that were going on in society. This is the era of The Feminine Mystique and the beginning of the women’s movement, and the civil rights movements led by Martin Luther King, and the gay and lesbian movements. And it was it was the time of challenge to authority by young people. So Yale was changing as it admitted these new students and had these new faculty.
Simultaneously, intellectual knowledge was exploding. We were beginning to see… I remember being offered a job where I would work with something new called a computer. I turned the job down because I like people better. So society was forcing the institution to change as well as there being pressures within it to change.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, students at Yale in the 1950s liked to pretend that they were back in the 1920s. You actually had a revival of people wearing coonskin coats to football games and so forth. But actually I think you put the beginning date of the transition correctly at 1930, because the Depression and World War Two also really had an impact on Yale and other elite private universities.
Sam Chauncey: Right. You can even say… I was told by my mentor — who was the dean of Yale College and had gone to Yale, graduated 1921, I think — that right after the First World War, he felt, was Yale’s greatest intellectual movement. Many very bright young people had come out of the war and come to Yale. Then of course you had two things happen. One thing at Yale… We had a president named James Angell, who was the first president of Yale in its modern history not to have gone to Yale. And he decided Yale ought to be a university rather than just a boys’ college, and so he made major changes. And then you have the Depression and the shakeup which resulted when, after the Second World War, the GI Bill of Rights comes and everyone is promised a college education as part of having fought the war. So it does start in the ‘30s. And the final painting of the portrait, if you will, comes in the ‘60s and the change is made. You also begin to see another change which we talk about a lot these days, and that is science as a major part of the curriculum of these great colleges and universities, where before it had been a rather minor part with the exception of the MITs, Caltechs, and the ones that had dedicated themselves to science. So that too was a revolutionary change that comes to these great universities.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes, one of the big impacts after the war was the GI Bill of Rights, which allowed a lot of people who had never thought about going to that kind of university to do so on the government’s tab. One thinks of Henry Kissinger, for example, who prior to World War II had figured that he would go to City College of New York and become an accountant. But the GI Bill of Rights sent him to Harvard and opened up other vistas, shall we say.
Sam Chauncey: Right. I’ve mentioned to you a particular case… My father, back in the ‘30s when he was looking for bright young men from unusual places, went to the Bronx in New York and found the son of a woman who made a chocolate candies for a living. His name was John Blum, and my father encouraged him and financially found a way to make it possible for him to go to a private school for his senior year, to beef up his academic standing. And then he went to Harvard and became one of the great historians of the twentieth century, first teaching at MIT and then coming here to teach at Yale. And that’s a perfect example… And he was also a Jewish student, and that was right at the time that Yale gave up… It actually had a Jewish quota, where only 7% of the student body could be Jewish. So he embodied a great many changes in his lifetime.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was John Blum’s last graduate student advisee, and I remember him telling me that part of what maybe your father made possible for him as well was to have elocution lessons to get rid of his strong New York City accent.
Sam Chauncey: His New York City accent, that’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: Interesting. You know, I’ve run into a lot of people over the years who are very nostalgic about that Old Yale world. I remember talking to my undergraduate advisor, Brad Westerfield, who was a political science professor. He told me that Yale prior to the 1960 was what he called “a deeply close-knit community. It was almost like a club. In retrospect, one understands only the vices of such a state of mind. But at the time, one understood only the virtues of it.”
Sam Chauncey: Well, it was a club. I did experience a couple of things… One was that, because I was a scholarship student, I was required to work in the dining halls. I chose to work in the mornings. And I vividly remember an occasion when I was going around while the students were still there and I was taking some things off the table as they were finishing. And a student took his hand and pushed his plate onto the floor and looked at me and said, “Pick it up.” And so there was… It was a very homogeneous group — not a 100 percent pleasant one.
Geoff Kabaservice: You were a dean at Yale for about six and a half years. In what ways was the job of being a dean in those days similar or different, do you think, from what it is nowadays?
Sam Chauncey: It was very different. Yale did believe that each student should be advised and counseled based on his entire life. Some universities divide the academic side of counseling and the non-academic side, and they’re run by two separate units, if you will. So the dean in the ‘50s… I was the dean of the senior class. It was believed that the person who was a dean should specialize in the time the student was in college. Freshmen have one kind of problem, sophomores have another, juniors have another, seniors have another. So I was the dean of the senior class. Students in general came to the dean only when they couldn’t find any other solution themselves. So not every student… As I had never set foot in the dean’s office, not every student set foot in the dean’s office.
Today, the role of the dean is very much a role of proactively seeing that the student gets what he or she needs. So there today are things like writing tutors and there are psychological counselors in each of our dormitories (or colleges as we call them). I felt the student in the ‘50s was far more independent and relied pretty much on himself to make decisions until he knew he didn’t know it all and he ought to seek some help. Students in the ‘50s did not consult their parents as much as students today. I still have advisees at Yale today, and I have students who tell me they talk to one or both of their parents every single day. I was not allowed to call home because we couldn’t afford long-distance calls. I was told only to call if I was really in trouble — otherwise write a letter.
The dean of the ‘50s was a person who enforced rules which in general dealt with teaching people good behavior. You should wear a coat and tie when you go into the dining room. You should not have a woman in your room, heaven forbid, after seven o’clock. You should go to every class. Today, the rules and regulations are more about things you can’t do, more about trying to guide you in every sector of your life. I’m not going to make a judgment right now as to which is the best. I think students of today have a very hard time because so much is expected of them by parents and peers and their hometowns and so on, and yet they’re not quite sure what it is they’re here for.
Geoff Kabaservice: I cannot help but observe that the Yale College undergraduate student body is about the same size now as it was back in the 1950s — somewhat larger but not radically so. But there were five deans in your day where there are 50-plus now.
Sam Chauncey: 50-plus now, yeah. There’s a dean for almost anything you can imagine, including a dean for student engagement. I’ve never quite found out whether that means getting engaged to be married or whether there’s something else. But at any rate, there are a lot of deans.
Geoff Kabaservice: But something interesting about reading over your recollections of that time is that even though you’re talking about sort of enforcement of rules — including the rule that everyone must attend every class and that you must go to every dinner dressed in a coat and tie — there also was a considerable amount of flexibility in some of the stories you were talking about, such as the student whom you called Larry, for example.
Sam Chauncey: Yes. I think one of the advantages of a dean’s office with a small number of deans was the ability to see our role as to try to find a way for a student to accomplish something, rather than set up a bunch of barriers: “You can only do it if you’ve done A and B or you’ve submitted a petition to do C.” Larry was a student who came to Yale, very bright student, intending to go into the sciences. First year he had straight A’s or 90s — whatever grading system we were using then. End of his sophomore first semester, he’d failed all his courses. So I called him in to see what the reason was. And he said he just decided he wanted to read instead of going to all these science classes.
So I asked him what he read, and he started listing the books he’d read. And so I sent him home, told him to come back the next day with an accurate list of every book that he’d read. And he came back with a rather extensive list. It was mostly in poetry and fiction. So I gave it to a couple of members of the English Department and I said, “If somebody had told you they’d read all these books, what would you say about them?” And both professors responded by saying, “This is a very well read, intelligent person.” So I consulted my colleagues and said, “Let’s give this guy credit for the semester but tell him from now on he’s got to do it the regular way.”
Well, Larry went on… He didn’t win the Nobel Prize, but he won a big prize in biology, a national prize for his work. And when he came back to Yale as a 55-60 year-old man, he was talking to Yale’s president and asked if Chauncey was still alive. And when told he was, the president asked me to come right over and see him. And Larry told me that that experience of being able to go off on his own for a semester and read all those books not only was terribly important to him, but he said he really felt it made him a better scientist. Because he had gotten out of science and into the humanities in a way that made him think about things that he might not have thought about before. I think that’s wonderful, because I think flexibility in how you structure an individual’s education is the best possible thing. If it has to be done by rules and regulations, you may miss out some on some good opportunities.
Geoff Kabaservice: The reading semester of Larry that you described in some ways prefigured the Scholar of the House program, where a student would just devote their entire year to one subject leading to a final paper, and not go to any classes at all.
Sam Chauncey: That’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was kind of curious to find that there actually was more innovation than one might have thought going on in the college in the ‘50s and ‘60s — in some ways more than there is today.
Sam Chauncey: Yes, there was a lot of innovation, due in great part to a man I just mentioned a minute ago, my mentor William C. DeVane, who was the Dean of Yale College for 25 years and the father of the current curriculum in many ways. He thought of the Scholar of the House program. He thought of the freshman and sophomore program, Directed Studies — it’s not the right way to describe it, but kind of a Great Books program. And we had at Yale under Kingman Brewster a program which we humorously called “junior year in the jungle,” in which we allowed a student at the end of his or her sophomore year to spend a year in an underdeveloped country and then come back and complete the junior and senior years. And Yale paid all the bills for that year off, and furthermore the student could return after they’d gotten their bachelor’s degree if they wanted to pursue graduate work, and Yale would pay for their graduate work. So there was a lot of variety.
We also had a variety on how you could pay for going to Yale. It was called the Tuition Postponement Option. And it was a plan whereby a student could borrow the entire cost of going to Yale and then promise over the next twenty years to pay back at a rate depending on what they were earning. So every student would pay at least 50% of what he or she had borrowed, and no more than 150% of what he or she had borrowed. It was an enormous success with the students because it in a way gave them a degree of independence from their families and from burdening their families. And the problem was that it was so successful, Yale didn’t have the necessary capital to be able to keep on loaning out all the money. We had hoped the federal government would take over this program; they did not. However, Governor Mitch Daniels, who’s now president of Purdue, has introduced this program at Purdue, and I’m told it’s equally popular now as it was then. So there was a lot more experimentation going on, I think, than there may be in these kinds of things.
Geoff Kabaservice: And it seems to me that [something] even some people who were fond of the changes that took place in the ‘60s get wrong is that a lot of these changes that they identify were actually led by faculty or even administrators rather than students, as most people seem to think.
Sam Chauncey: That’s right. Well, one of the… There is even today a great popular misbelief about what a university really is, and what a successful university is. And one of the things I talk about in the book is what I call a sort of healthy competition between the faculty and the administration — healthy tension. In the ‘60s, the faculty were considered to be part of the decisionmakers in terms of major decisions about the university’s future. And the president and the senior administrative officials considered it their job to consult with the faculty about decisions, and frequently asked faculty committees to make recommendations about change in everything from curriculum to faculty retirement age, healthcare coverage — all kinds of things. And so the faculty were not only professors of history or chemistry or Spanish, they were also institutional faculty members who cared about the institution and where it was headed and where changes could be made.
That has changed. The size of the administration of universities has grown enormously, far exceeding the size of the student body or the faculty members in percentage of increase. Some of this is due to governmental regulation. There is too much government interference in private universities. But some of it is the result of an administration which is trying to create a university of and for itself, rather than what my mentor told me when I first became a dean. He said to me, “Sam, your job and the job of every administrator is to make the life of the faculty and the student easier.” So we were intended to be, if you will, servants of the faculty and the students. Today, the administration is the only governing unit in the institution. And so I fear for universities where the faculty are not major players in deciding the future of the institution.
For example, Yale changed its mission statement. I think a change in the mission statement calls for all the faculty to be involved, because after all the basic mission has to do with teaching and learning. As I understand it, the faculty were not broadly consulted about the change in the mission statement. So that that is a major problem, the expansion of administration — the number of administrators per student at Yale is very high — and the diminishing role of the faculty in governance.
Geoff Kabaservice: For a long time, Yale’s administration was almost three individuals: the president, the secretary, and the provost. And now there are actually more administrators than there are faculty members, and almost as many administrators as there are students. So that obviously has been a huge change over time.
Sam Chauncey: That’s made a big change in the place. It’s made it very complicated.
Geoff Kabaservice: You were a kind of assistant to Yale president A. Whitney Griswold, who served from 1951 to 1963, and then you served in a far more substantial way as Kingman Brewster’s special assistant during the 1960s — and in some ways you served as his administrative alter ego.
Sam Chauncey: Right. Well, serving a little bit under Griswold and then later under Brewster reflected one very interesting fact. President Griswold, who served from 1950 to 1963 as president of Yale, had three people working in his office, or two-and-a-half people. He had a secretary, he had a file clerk, and he had a woman who was a lawyer who was part-time to deal with any legal issues. By the time President Brewster left in the late ‘70s — and Brewster was Griswold’s successor — I would say there were thirty people in the president’s office. Secondly, President Griswold generally had one appointment in the morning and one in the afternoon. And he told me that if he had an evening speech or event he had to attend, he didn’t have the afternoon appointment. And so while he was president of the university, he spent a good deal of his time at his desk writing essays about education and speeches about education. Whereas Brewster, shortly into his tenure as president, his first appointment might be at 7:30 in the morning and his last might be at 10 o’clock at night. So the role of the president of the university changes dramatically in that time. But each of them were extraordinarily good presidents for their time. And I’ve often thought if they’d been reversed, and President Brewster had been first and President Griswold second, neither one would have been very happy.
Geoff Kabaservice: People tend to forget this, but the Yale undergraduate body was very conservative during the time you were an undergraduate.
Sam Chauncey: Yes, it was extremely conservative. I remember most vividly that in 1953, our freshman year, there was only one television set for all of the first-year students — this was a thousand first-year students. And it turned out to be the year of the hearings between the U. S. Army and Senator Joseph McCarthy — McCarthy being an arch-conservative senator. The students that flooded into the room where this TV was were, as far as I could tell, 100% behind McCarthy. I happened to have not been in that group. And I had one friend who, though not related, had the very Democratic political name of Pendergast. And Jack Pendergast and I thought we were the only two Democrats in the entire class. I don’t think that was true, but we didn’t find many of our friendly sorts.
Geoff Kabaservice: When Whitney Griswold had been in the English Department and the History Department in the ‘30s and ‘40s, he actually was the only Democrat in those faculties.
Sam Chauncey: That’s right, he was the only Democrat — although he came from a wealthy, upper-class family, as did his wife. But you’re quite right, he was a Democrat.
Geoff Kabaservice: And of course, Joe McCarthy’s, one of his favorite targets was Harvard University. I think he may have avoided Yale just because it did have a conservative reputation. But that of course didn’t stop Bill Buckley from getting his start in political life by writing God and Man at Yale, an attack on the alleged socialism and anti-Christianity being taught at Yale in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.
Sam Chauncey: That’s right. Bill Buckley was a wonderful person and a good friend. Bill Buckley was maybe the leading voice of the modern conservative movement through his publication, National Review. But as far as Yale was concerned, up until recently he was the lonely voice of conservatism in a university that had turned very much the other way. Now things are changing. There are many more conservative students at Yale. There are more conservative voices around Yale. It’s terribly hard to say about the faculty. The conservative alumni I know think all the faculty are left-wing liberals. I don’t think that is true. It’s very hard to judge what the percentages might be, because in general people in many fields (particularly the sciences) don’t have any reason to disclose their political feelings. But the student body is more liberal, though I see it becoming somewhat more conservative.
Geoff Kabaservice: Of course, universities took on an enormous symbolic role in politics in the 1960s with the rise of student protest. In fact, I actually looked up a Gallup poll from the early ‘70s and student protest was seen by a plurality of Americans as being the number one most significant problem confronting the country — more important, more serious, more dangerous than crime, the war in Vietnam, you name it.
Sam Chauncey: Well, it’s interesting because at that time in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, our country was a badly divided country. We had the war in Vietnam. Civil rights, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the environmental moment were all progressing. People didn’t know quite how they felt. And it was young people who actually led us out of that division. They brought up the criticisms that needed to be brought to those in authority in order to make change.
What fascinates me today is that we are again a divided country, but unfortunately the college students do not seem to want to lead us out of that the way they did in the ‘60s. There are all kinds of reasons you could speculate as to why that’s happening, but on the campuses today we see no real effort to change what authority is doing. There are little protests here, little protests there… I came across one earlier in the year when the weather was still good. There were about twenty students marching down the middle of one of New Haven’s streets in what I think was a protest about the environment. But what struck you about it was they were having such a good time. They were cheerful. They were playing a trumpet, singing songs. You couldn’t actually discern exactly what the message was they were trying to get across. In the ‘60s, young people actually died for civil rights. They went to the Southern states — Mississippi and Alabama — and some of them didn’t come back. Students were willing to put their life on the line in order to get change. That would never happen today.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, you and I have had a friendly disagreement over how to characterize Kingman Brewster. You call him predominantly a pragmatist, and I agree he was a pragmatist. I consider him a moderate if only because he sought, I guess, to maintain a balance between tradition and progress. I wouldn’t say he sought a middle way on all things, when it came to student protest especially. But he didn’t go too far to the right in cracking down, as happened at places like Harvard and Columbia, and he didn’t go too far to the left in giving in to student pressures that happened at places like Cornell and, I don’t know, San Francisco State
Sam Chauncey: Well, let me go back to Griswold. Remember, I said Griswold would have been an unhappy man if he’d been in Brewster’s and vice versa. Griswold was a philosopher. He knew what he wanted the institution to be, and he tried to implement it. The place was pretty peaceful. You could make change if you wanted to; you could get rid of the provost and get a new provost. You could get a new dean, move things around a little bit. Students seemed to be happy. The faculty were happy. You could make change quietly.
I think the reason I focus on Brewster’s pragmatism rather than any philosophical background or thinking is that when he walked in, in ’63, the whirlwind started a year later. We had our first demonstration about a professor who hadn’t been given tenure in 1964. And then you have the nation beginning to be in turmoil, and the student body in turmoil. I don’t think Brewster had time to intellectually develop the kind of ideas that Griswold did. And therefore he had to say, “What can I do to hold this institution together: the faculty, the students, the alumni, the employees? How do I keep this whole thing from falling apart?” Because he saw around him colleges and universities where there had been brutal battles between the police and students. He saw presidents being fired and their assistants being fired. And we often talked about the question of what would happen if we did get fired, if things did fall apart.
I wish Kingman had had an opportunity to develop an educational philosophy, but I don’t think he had time. Though I do think that the one thing he’s not given enough credit for is the recruiting of superb faculty, and that he had picked up where Griswold had started to improve the quality of the faculty. Brewster picked it up, and despite all of the trauma of the ‘60s he never failed to see recruiting an individual faculty member, who was thought to be really superb, as one of his major jobs. And I think the faculty that he left in ‘77 was a far greater faculty than the one he inherited. So at least he had that component of thinking about the whole educational process. But you’re right, he was a moderate. He went down the middle. But he had his limits, too.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, one of the other ways that you characterized him I thought was interesting, which was that in some ways he was a very conservative person — almost a Victorian, personally.
Sam Chauncey: Exactly.
Geoff Kabaservice: But on the other hand he had that tension between the Victorian pull and the pragmatic push of recognizing that the world was changing and he needed to institutionally adapt.
Sam Chauncey: Right. And that’s where I jump on the pragmatism. I’ve told you, and I think I mentioned in the book, that Kingman Brewster and his wife really didn’t think Yale should be coeducational. They wanted a coordinate college or something like that. When our attempts to have a coordinate college failed, the provost and I — the provost was closer to my age — said to Brewster, “You know, there’s a snowball rolling down the hill here, and you have to decide whether you’re going to let it roll over you or whether you’re going to get to the side and help it down the hill.” And he pragmatically said, “OK, we’re going to admit women.” And I think that was a case of his pragmatism and being smart. Because if he had tried to prevent it, he would not have kept his job.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, this is a case again where his old-fashioned views were kind of at the fore. The worry actually was that a woman who graduated from a place like Yale would have significant student debt that would act as a “reverse dowry,” meaning that she wouldn’t get married.
Sam Chauncey: That certainly was one of the words… We of course expected when we decided to actually admit women to Yale College, the undergraduate school, that the alumni would be furious, but we completely forgot the fact that the alumni had daughters as well as sons. And I learned later that the wrath of a father whose daughter had been turned down was ten times the wrath of a Yale alumnus whose son had been turned down.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, when it came to what made Brewster effective in dealing with student protest, you and I have both been drawn to one of the phrases from one of his speeches which is now carved in the coping around his gravestone in the Grove Street Cemetery: “The presumption of innocence is not just a legal concept. In commonplace terms, it rests on that generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger.”
Sam Chauncey: Right. And the stranger was the radical, to him. That that word “stranger” really means “the young hippie character who comes into my office and tells me what I ought to do.” And he believed that. I don’t know where he got that; he may have gotten it from his mother, who was a woman who believed that everybody was equal, in a sense. But it’s perfectly true that when a person came to see him, that person usually left with the feeling that the person he’d just met with respected the visitor. And Brewster genuinely wanted to find out what you were thinking, and what you believed in, and what you did. If you were a fool he didn’t suffer you too well, but he gave you a long leash in order to prove your case.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, the conservative animosity against the universities is something somewhat different in the world, in the sense that there used to be as many defenders on the Republican side of the aisle as on the Democratic side. And that has changed. The last time the Republicans held control of Congress, they passed what amounted to a punitive tax on large university endowments. And this is part of the spirit of anti-elite populism which has come upon the Republican Party in recent times. And certainly there was some of that back in Brewster’s day. But I think one of the things that really does differentiate Brewster from today’s university presidents, as a class, is that he was actually much stronger on the importance of freedom of speech at the universities.
Sam Chauncey: Right. Brewster was much stronger — it should be said, first, because he made a terrible mistake on the freedom of speech issue when he was acting president. President Griswold died in office and Brewster, as provost, became acting president. And he got caught in between a rock and a hard place when Governor George Wallace was invited by a Yale student group to come and give an address, and the mayor of New Haven said to the president, “I will not protect that man if he comes to New Haven.” So Brewster persuaded the students to uninvite the governor, and that was a terrible mistake and came very close to costing him his election as president. So, one, he’d learned but in a practical sense. But secondly, he was a lawyer by training and he believed in free speech. And from that moment on, after he made his mistake, he saw to it that this university would foster free speech. And he appointed a very distinguished professor, C. Vann Woodward, to chair a committee on free speech. And that report — the so-called Woodward Report — stands tall today and is indeed still the policy of Yale University with regard to free speech. Whether it’s being properly implemented is another question.
Geoff Kabaservice: You have another quote from Brewster that I thought was quite impressive: “Universities should be safe havens where ruthless examination of realities will not be distorted by the aim to please or inhibited by the risk of displeasure.”
Sam Chauncey: That’s correct. And today in universities, Yale and others, this whole question of whether you can say something that might discomfort somebody is an issue, and it shouldn’t be. Brewster was right about that. Somebody else said liberty is being able to say anything you want to anybody, and that is essential to the greatness of a university. A university cannot exist if people cannot say what they want to say or write what they want to write. As Whitney Griswold said — I think he was the one who said it — burning books was not the right idea. The only way to deal with a bad idea was by producing a better idea. So this is a problem in universities today, and many of them have compromised the whole free speech question. And it will not help the university be great.
Geoff Kabaservice: To come back to a point you raised earlier on, when you were a dean… It seems to me that there have been pretty similar types of students coming to the universities that you have identified. But it seems that the proportion of these students changes from era to era.
Sam Chauncey: I think there’s little doubt in the ‘50s that the students who came to the university were looking for a time to grow up and take the job that would inevitably be offered to them. As I’ve said to some, and I think to you, in my senior year at Yale nobody thought about a job for after they graduated until maybe May or April. And they would have ten offers before they graduated: banks, law firms, law schools, medical schools, family companies, Procter & Gamble, all kinds of opportunities. They didn’t see the college as a training ground for the job, they saw it merely as a maturing experience. They were supposed to come here and grow up and go from being a boy to a man.
Today, you have a very different situation in which altogether too many students think of Yale as a training ground for a particular profession such as law, medicine, the financial world, and so on. This is not what the purpose of a great university like this one should be. This university should be and have as its mission statement that it is a place where the development of free ideas can be disseminated through teaching and publication. The idea that John Stuart Mill had, in espousing the liberal education… He said in one of his speeches that — and he referred only to men — men could become businessmen, lawyers, or doctors. But if they had a liberal education, they would become very good businessmen, very good lawyers, very good physicians — meaning that the purpose of the liberal education was to train your mind to use it as effectively as possible in whatever you were doing. So there’s been a misconception that coming to a university now means that you’re going to be trained to be a good investment banker, or a good lawyer, or a good doctor. That’s not what Yale’s all about. What Yale should be about — and I think still is, to the great part — is helping a student develop their mind to make good decisions about everything they do.
Geoff Kabaservice: There was an article in the Atlantic this month by Stephen Marche called “How Ivy League Elites Turned Against Democracy,” which I think is almost cartoonish in its depiction of the Ivies, but particularly in the idea that not just do these places train you for positions at investment banks but that they in effect give you a secret decoder ring that allows you to waltz into whatever job you want — which is pretty far removed from the reality of how things work.
Sam Chauncey: It is to some degree true, Geoff. For example, if you take investment banking, the only way you can get into an investment banking firm is to have a junior-year internship in one that then gives you an offer, if you’ve done well, at the end of your senior year. The investment banks don’t go to every college and university in America. They go to Yale and Harvard and Princeton and Cal Tech and MIT and so on.
Geoff Kabaservice: That is true.
Sam Chauncey: There is a kind of key there. But you’re right, it’s not as great as the parody would have it.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, I think what it gets at is the reality that a lot of institutions and aspects and areas of American life are artificially tilted in the direction of a particular class or an elite. That is a reality. And that elite has done very, very well at the same time that a lot of people have stagnated, which adds to the resentments that come along with this. But you know, the Doob Report — we’re playing real inside baseball here — was the 1961 or ‘62 report which in many ways formed the blueprint for the reforms educationally of the Brewster presidency. And it was premised on the idea that Yale needed to change its admissions, not just to open up its intellectual opportunities to more intellectually gifted applicants but also so that it could produce more scholars and teachers. And I don’t think that’s actually happened.
Sam Chauncey: No, it hasn’t. And indeed, right after the Doob Report, we engaged in a program called the Carnegie Teaching Fellowship program in which we offered, I’ve forgotten, I think it was ten or twelve bright graduating seniors the opportunity to come back to Yale the next year and actually teach a course and do some graduate work — hoping we could seduce them into the academic world. Now, you should know also that one of the reasons Yale graduates and others from these universities are not going into the academic world is there are very few jobs, because of a federal law which prohibits universities from having mandatory retirement age, if you receive any federal funds. We have faculty members who go on into their eighties taking up a position that could be filled by a younger person moving along. So there is a problem in the academic world of getting good graduate students who get a Ph.D. and then can’t get a job. And so it isn’t a profession that people are flocking to. I sometimes wonder if there were many, many more jobs we might not have many, many more bright young people going into them. I don’t know. I have no way of knowing that. But they certainly aren’t flocking into it now.
Geoff Kabaservice: A bonus trivia point here: Leonard Doob, the sociology professor at Yale who was the author of that report, was the roommate of Nelson Rockefeller when they were both at Dartmouth College.
Sam Chauncey: I’m not sure I knew that. Leonard Doob was a wonderful man, a very interesting guy.
Geoff Kabaservice: So, Sam, as a last summing-up question… What do you think can be done to move some of these elite universities more in the direction of cultivating students who are interested in the life of the mind, in intellectual matters, and reorienting themselves in that direction despite the temptations of politics and filthy lucre on Wall Street and the rest of it?
Sam Chauncey: I am absolutely certain that the only way to do that is to restore the role of the faculty in the governance of the institution. I think in the ‘60s when we had great teachers who everybody admired, and they got together… For example, a great professor would have a debate with another great professor about some topic relevant to either the university or the current world, and students would flock to hear that debate. And they admired those teachers, and they saw them as people: “Wouldn’t it be fun if I was like one of them?” Today, the problem… We have great teachers here, great teachers. But they are so siloed into their own research and so on, they feel so left out of the decision-making process, that the student doesn’t see the great teacher other than when he or she is actually in the classroom — but never sees them in a public debate or a public discussion.
I think we tend, when we’re young, to look at careers where we’ve seen people we admired, and we’ve seen them function and do certain things. So I think the great university needs to get the faculty back into the center of the place so that the young people can say, “I want to be like that professor. I want to follow that group.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, I think that’s a wonderful prescription, and I hope very much that it can happen. Thank you so much for talking to me, Sam, and thank you for setting down your recollections and reflections.
Sam Chauncey: Thank you, Geoff, it’s been a pleasure.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.
Photo credit: iStock