University Regulation and Retention: A View from the Early Eighteenth Century

As I’ve noted elsewhere, many university charters in the West pre-date universal suffrage.  Universities thus not only arise academically out of a medieval monastic model, but are also often defined as institutions in pre-modern terms. Many of these charters have been extensively revised, of course, but residues of these older traditions remain, and not just in the strange garb and rituals of university convocations.  From time to time, therefore, this blog will include older material on university governance.

This week, I’ve posted an excerpt from Richard Newton’s University Education (London, 1726): an account of the founding of the University of Oxford and the regularizing of its rules in 1636 in order to deal with student retention problems that were impacting university finances (a concern that has led to myriad reports in recent years, such as this pdf).

Newton ascribes seventeenth-century student retention problems to just one cause: in search of “Looser Discipline,” students were transferring from one Hall (a sort of proto-College) to another.  A Hall that lost students also lost them as “Tenants,” and thus “Rent and Subsistence” for the Hall’s Principal.  The regularization of requirements across the university would thus, in this argument, stabilize university finances at the lower levels.  Newton has reasons for stressing this view of the history: he was something of an educational reformer, and University Education is a long polemic on the subject of  student discipline, including a lament, “that, if there be a Relaxation of Discipline in the UNIVERSITY, Parents Govern’d by their Children and by their Children’s foolish Acquaintance, are One great Cause of it” (128).

Parental rule and university governance continue to confound each other in Newton’s treatise.  In the excerpted section, he quotes the charter’s definition of the university as a corporate body consisting of the Earl of Leicester (“and his Successors for ever”), as Chancellor, and the Faculty (Masters and Scholars), effectively making the university “a Political Person.”  Then, he offers a strangely opaque allegory in which that incorporated university is a “Mother” to whom students are “adopt[ed]” “Children.”  And, somehow, this personification of the University not only confers honours and degrees, but also “visit[s]” to hear “Complaints of Abuse of Power” by faculty or “Contempt of Authority” by students.  At one level, Newton is distinguishing the public institution (“political person”) from its internal regulation (“mother”), but he is also creating the terms by which he sanctions the total transfer of parental control to the university.  At the end of the polemic, he notes, “if the Parent hath a Natural Right over his Son; The UNIVERSITY hath a Political Right over her Members. . . . The UNIVERSITY is ready to Undertake the Liberal Education of Those Young Men who are willing to accept thereof upon the Condition of Obedience to Her Laws, and not Otherwise” (193).

The distinction between natural right and political right is a significant one in early modern European thought (roughly 1500-1800).  In the broadest of terms, natural right is independent of a specific society or state (say, Hobbes’ “preservation of . . . his own Life” in Leviathan); political right operates by contract, that is, defined through terms to which the parties are bound (e.g., everyone in Toronto has to obey Toronto by-laws). In his Treatises on Government, Locke linked the two by contending that everyone is born with an inherent sovereignty (natural right) but agrees to contribute that sovereignty to a larger group (agreeing to abide by laws, political structures) in order to reap certain benefits.

Newton, then, is defining the university in the terms of an early modern state, but it is not merely analogy.  It was also in some details entrenched in real-state terms.  Those 1636 Oxford statutes thus describe the Chancellor as, in effect, the aristocratic holder of the university, answerable only to the monarch:  “he not only has the peculiar custody of the whole University entrusted and committed to himself alone, under our Lady the Queen, but he also has common guardianship with the city mayor of the whole Borough or City of Oxford” (176). The Chancellor, a hereditary aristocrat, is co-ruler over the region in which the university is located.

This centralization of power is also reflected in Newton’s discussion of students: they have no rights. Either their parents have rights “over” them or their university does. Newton’s polemic is centrally about stabilizing a top-down hierarchy by preventing the exercise of choice by those at the bottom of that hierarchy. And this is part of the history that lies behind twenty-first century university governance…


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