James McKeen Cattell



One of the less-frequently mentioned founders of the AAUP is Columbia University psychologist James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944). Cattell was perhaps the most prominent academic gadfly of his time. He publicly called for the creation of the Association in 1912 and helped organize its founding, but never played a role in its leadership.

As editor of Science and several other academic journals, Cattell regularly commented on higher education in his publications and authored  a series of articles outlining his views on reforming academic governance, which he subsequently published as the book University Control in 1913. A fierce critic of Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler and the office of the university president in American higher education in general, Cattell exclaimed “In the academic jungle the president is my black beast.” His detailed proposals on reforming the university included the election of the president by the faculty and of the governing board by the faculty, the other officers of the university, and the alumni.

Cattell summarized his criticism of the prevailing order—an order that has not fundamentally changed in the subsequent 100 years—as follows

The trouble in the case of the university president is that he is not a leader, but a boss. He is selected by and is responsible to a body practically outside the university, which in the private corporations is responsible to nobody.

Cattell took a dismal view of the kind of people attracted to the office of the president at the time, people Thorstein Veblen called “captains of erudition.” As Cattell noted, “The German emperor, it is said, wants presidents in the American style—we could spare him at least one for each of the twenty-one German universities.” Veblen, incidentally, noted the influence of University Control on his own critique of higher education: The Higher Learning in America.

Cattell served as a delegate to the first organizational meeting to establish the AAUP, which took place in Baltimore in 1913. He also helped identify potential charter members and sent multiple lists of the most prominent scientists to John Dewey, who was to serve as first AAUP president. But as Cattell himself acknowledged to Lovejoy, playing a prominent role in the early AAUP might have given a more radical reputation to the Association, something the founders evidently wished to avoid.

Cattell attended the founding meeting of the AAUP at the Chemists’ Club and made perhaps the most memorable contribution to the lengthy discussion over the question of whether to admit university presidents as members. Upon the motion that they be eligible for membership with the right to speak but not vote, Cattell proposed the amendment that they be allowed to vote but not speak. In the end, the meeting decided that university presidents were not eligible for membership, a fact that the Association of American Colleges used to discount the Association as not being representative of the profession when they criticized the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure in 1917.

Cattell was dismissed from Columbia in 1917 over his opposition to conscription during World War I. A full account of his dismissal was provided by Carol Gruber in an article in the AAUP Bulletin in 1972. As she notes there about Cattell’s University Control: “This work has yet to receive the attention it deserves.” The same can still be said today.

5 thoughts on “James McKeen Cattell

  1. Pingback: The Ross Case | Academe Blog

  2. Pingback: The 1920 Governance Committee Survey | Academe Blog

  3. Pingback: “To Make Collective Action Possible”: The Founding of the AAUP | The Academe Blog

  4. Pingback: Happy Birthday, AAUP! | The Academe Blog

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.