Guido Marx and "The Problem of the Assistant Professor"

(Courtesy of Stanford University Archives)

Stanford engineering professor Guido Marx (1871-1949) was a member of the committee that organized the founding meeting of the AAUP. Between 1915 and 1919, he served on the Council and on two committees related to membership. He also served on the first investigation of the University of Montana in 1915. Marx was an outspoken advocate for less empowered faculty members. He unsuccessfully tried to make them eligible for membership early in the founding of the Association, and his survey of their difficulties in American higher education at the beginning of the 20th century gives us tremendous insight into the professional lives of faculty on quasi-contingent appointments during that time.

During the year 1914, much of the discussion among members of the organizing committee of the AAUP was dedicated to eligibility for membership. An early proposal to make membership institutional, just as in the Association of American Universities, was not approved. That still left the question how eligibility for individual membership should be determined. In response to one proposal sent to the organizing committee, Marx wrote to Dewey (in a letter that is in the Dewey correspondence):

I am strongly opposed to the clause “who shall be eligible only upon having attained an acknowledged standing as productive scholars” as this seems to me to miss what I conceive to be the very significance of the organization. We are not a national academy or an honorary society. We are a guild of scholars. As such our organization gains its strength for accomplishment through its numbers as well as their representative character, and should be open to all in sympathy with the movement who have completed a satisfactory apprenticeship—if I may be pardoned the figure. If this movement is to get anywhere it should be firmly based on a philosophy of inclusiveness and cooperation and not exclusiveness. We will get nowhere without a wholesome group consciousness. Our worst troubles as a profession arise from unwarranted assumptions of superiority on the one hand coupled with a too ready acquiescence on the other. Let us have one organization that is soundly democratic.

Marx proposed that all faculty members at the rank of assistant professor and above be eligible for membership, but his proposal failed, and the first constitution of the Association provided that:

Any university or college teacher of recognized scholarship or scientific productivity who holds and for ten years has held a position of teaching or research in an American university or college, or in a professional school of similar grade, may be nominated for membership in the Association.

Following nomination, individual membership further required approval of both the Council and the annual meeting.

In 1910, Marx published a paper, entitled “The Problem of the Assistant Professor,” in Science in three parts (part 1, part 2, part 3). Before reviewing the results of Marx’ survey, it is important to note that before the 1940 Statement of Principle on Academic Freedom and Tenure was widely adopted, security of tenure, where it existed, was tied to rank, frequently to that of the full professor. Thus, in order to achieve a greater measure of security of tenure, faculty members had to be promoted in rank. But what was missing, and what the 1940 Statement provided, was a probationary period of fixed length. And thus, assistant professors were frequently on quasi-contingent appointments – eligible for tenure at some unspecified point in the future.

While security of tenure of full professors was not safeguarded by the same provisions of academic due process that the AAUP has developed throughout its existence, full professors could often expect indefinite appointments either explicitly or implicitly, particularly at prestigious institutions such as those with membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU). For instance, Harvard president Charles W. Elliot noted in his 1908 book University Administration: “professorships are ordinarily held for life in a well-managed university….”

Marx sent a survey to 250 assistant professors at 22 institutions with membership in the AAU. Based on 120 responses received, Marx noted that the median age of respondents was 36, the median number of years of university service (including at ranks below the current rank) was 9 years, and the median number of years at the rank of assistant professor was 5 years. Twelve percent of respondents had been at the rank of assistant professors for 10 years or more. That 25% of respondents were above the age of 40, Marx noted,

points decidedly toward the existence of a class of permanent assistant professors. This is an important matter, and must seriously modify the prevailing view that assistant professors are young men temporarily occupying the rank on their march toward full professorship. If this point be well taken – and the writer fully believes it so to be – an entire readjustment of attitude toward the assistant professor is due. Compensation based upon the old conception will be found inadequate, and old forms of faculty organization and departmental administration will be found unduly repressive and subordinating toward amply tried and experienced men.

Noting the average amount of student indebtedness that assistant professors carried, Marx observed that the average salary of assistant professors “compares favorably with that of the good mechanic, but scarcely with that of men in those trained professions requiring equally arduous and expensive preparation.” Marx also surveyed the participation in university and departmental governance of assistant professors and noted that it differed widely between institutions.

Perhaps the most surprising result of the paper came from a separate survey of presidents of the same institutions. Marx determined that the percentage of faculty above the rank of assistant professor ranged from 46% (Johns Hopkins) to 18.2% (Cornell) with the average being 31.4%. Thus, around the time of the AAUP’s founding, at major research universities, well over 2/3 of faculty were on quasi-contingent appointments. Marx observed that

It is seen that while the assistant professors have formed a practically constant or slightly increasing proportion of the entire staff, the proportion of the staff above this rank has diminished to about one half what it was twenty years ago, and the proportion of the lower ranks has correspondingly increased.

This development was greeted and encouraged by administrators. Elliot noted: “It is of great importance that there should be a large body of young men on a university’s staff who hold only annual appointments.” Thus, even in the absence of today’s tenure system, a two-class system based on contingency was a part of American higher education.

5 thoughts on “Guido Marx and "The Problem of the Assistant Professor"

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