Universities in the Big Society

Where’s the best place to research the American Revolution? Boston, the urban crucible of resistance to British rule? Or Virginia, home to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? Both have much to offer, but there’s also a wealth of material in a far less predictable location: Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This takes some explaining. Ann Arbor played no role in the Revolutionary War. Indeed, Ann Arbor wasn’t founded until 1824 and Michigan wasn’t admitted to the Union until 1837. In the late eighteenth century this was a place on the fringes of Anglo-America, a place of trappers and hunters, where Native Americans were more likely to speak French than English. Yet the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan can boast one of the finest collections of manuscripts from the revolutionary era.

The University of Michigan, it should be said, is Ann Arbor. The University dominates the centre of town and students, of which there are 40,000 plus, give the place a youthful buzz. Michigan has voted Democrat in recent years, with Greater Detroit area voters turning out heavily for Obama in 2008. Even so, Ann Arbor is notably liberal in politics and relaxed in tone. This is a town in which your next-door neighbours are likely to hang wind chimes in their porch, shop for organic arugula and recycle with above-average zeal.

The University of Michigan (‘UM’) is a big-hitter as US universities go, with a formidable reputation for research. That it became so was thanks to a succession of ambitious benefactors, of whom William L. Clements was one. A ‘UM’ alumnus and Progressive Era industrialist, Clements was an avid bibliophile, specialising in American-related titles of the colonial era.

He also began to acquire the papers of some of the key military figures in the Revolutionary War. At first he concentrated on Patriots, but he was not averse to picking up the manuscript remains of those who had fought for George III. Indeed, he came to appreciate that Michigan could stake out a claim for itself as the place at which the American Revolution could be studied in the round. To that end, Clements began to make trips to Europe where he found that a good many landed families whose forebears had served the British crown in the Revolutionary War were very ready to part with their ancestors’ archives for hard cash. That’s why anyone wanting to consult the papers of a senior British commander like Sir Henry Clinton must travel to Michigan.

William L. Clements was not alone in investing in scholarship. In fact, devoting money to higher learning was something that American plutocrats of his time were very keen on. As citizens of a state without a titled aristocracy on the European model, this sort of benefaction was a way of commemorating their achievements and embedding their names in public memory. The name of Ezra Cornell (1807-1874), for example, who made a fortune as a promoter of telegraphy, still resonates today because of the university he helped establish in upstate New York. Were it not for Cornell University’s Ivy League laurels its founder would be known only to a handful of business historians.

The English historian J.A. Froude, visiting New York in the early 1870s, reflected on this: ‘There is Mr Cornell, who has made all this money, living in a little poky house in a street with a couple of maids, his wife and daughters dressed in the homeliest manner. His name will be remembered for centuries as having spent his wealth in the very best institutions on which a country’s prosperity depends. Our people spend their fortunes in buying great landed estates to found and perpetuate their own family’.

Royal Holloway
Royal Holloway

Does the contrast Froude made – between public-spirited Americans and selfish Britons – hold water? The current Coalition government must hope not. The ‘Big Society’, as advocated by David Cameron, relies upon activism by concerned citizens. Quite how this is to happen is not completely clear. Argument continues as to whether civic activism is to complement the state or substitute for state responsibility. (In the eyes of many critics, of course, the ‘Big Society’ is little more than an ideological gloss on punitive tax-cutting.) Either way, philanthropy has to be a big part of the ‘Big Society’ agenda.

Britain has a commendable philanthropic tradition but the habit of giving to educational institutions is far less pronounced here than in the United States. There are some exceptions to this rule. Royal Holloway College takes its name from Thomas Holloway (1800-1883), a manufacturer of patent medicines who endowed a women’s college in memory of his wife. Generations of students have reason to be grateful – as do television producers who have found Royal Holloway’s main building, a French Renaissance confection, perfect for filming costume dramas. Overall though, the record is patchy. Business magnates in Britain seem to have been more comfortable aping the aristocracy, just as Froude charged. And in aping the aristocracy they were imitating a conspicuously selfish class. The landed elite, for all the talk of noblesse oblige, has ever delighted in spending money on itself, most notably by the building of rural palaces (a.k.a. stately homes).

The culture of giving in Britain is very different to that of America. The Coalition government hopes for convergence. So do university managers as they watch public funding for higher education shrink. Finance directors are hoping that US-style benefactions can make good some of the shortfall. The historical record suggests that is very unlikely. Watch out for increased courtship of the rich (euphemised as ‘individuals of high net worth’) by UK institutions, but do not expect private donation to compensate for the withdrawal of public resources.

Chris Evans

This entry was posted in History: Comment and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *