The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor.
University of Michigan.

IN June of 1881, the Regents authorized a School of Political Science — a two-year course for upperclassmen and graduates. This school was suggested by Thomas McIntyre Cooley and was begun in September, 1881, under the deanship of Charles Kendall Adams, who had recently returned from Germany. The student was permitted to study in related fields with much greater freedom than had been previously possible.

The relationship of this school with the rest of the Department of Literature, Science, and the Arts was considered by the faculty from December, 1881, until May, 1882, when the faculty agreed upon a compromise plan for a small number of students in the Literary Department. This plan, which was known as the "university system," did not require a student to complete a fixed number of courses, but permitted him, under the direction of a faculty committee, to take a large amount of work in a limited range of studies, and required him to write a searching examination at the end of four years. If his examination were satisfactory, he would be granted the degree of bachelor of arts. If the student were able to write a brilliant examination and to present a meritorious thesis, he might be granted the degree of master of arts. Women were included in this plan during its first year of operation.

The student who elected this university system ordinarily selected three related lines of study and arranged his courses subject to the approval of a committee of professors. This work consisted entirely of the election of regular courses within a small range of the academic subjects and represented a degree of specialization which was otherwise impossible. The instructions to a student frequently indicated three groups of courses. The first group was to be completed as if he were working under the credit system, with all the regular course requirements and the final examinations. The courses in the second group were to be attended and as much benefit derived from them as possible without formal election. In the courses of the third group the student was to browse as time permitted.

It is evident from an examination of the historical records that the adoption of this plan was preceded by a detailed consideration of how to carry on true university work without additional preparatory work during the first two years. It would seem, therefore, that the introduction of this system was intended to provide the line of division between preparatory and university work which has so long been a distinguishing characteristic of German education.

During the two-year period 1883-85 the university system expanded very considerably, until there were in all nine fields in which students might specialize under this program. The names of these fields, with the chairmen of the various committees, are as follows:

  • Greek and ancient languages — Martin L. D'Ooge
  • German — Edward L. Walter
  • English literature — Isaac N. Demmon
  • History and political economy — Charles K. Adams
  • Philosophy and the fine arts — William H. Payne and George S. Morris
  • Chemistry and related fields — William H. Pettee
  • Geology — Alexander Winchell
  • Mathematics — Wooster W. Beman
  • Astronomy — Mark W. Harrington

Contrary to the implication of the speech of President Frank Aydelotte of Page  439Swarthmore College in the spring of 1936, the university system was not an early attempt at honors work in the sense in which this has been adopted at Swarthmore and other colleges throughout the country. The program was, it is true, only for the abler students, but it provided for no independent work or reading. A full course program was sometimes outlined for two years in advance. There was, in fact, almost no one on the staff at that time who knew the meaning of reading for honors as it has been practiced at Oxford and Cambridge universities for centuries.

During the years when the university system was under consideration, the faculty was also discussing the qualifications for the various doctor's degrees which should be granted by the University. Inasmuch as there was at that time no graduate school, the university system and the work for advanced degrees became inextricably bound together, and the Registrar's Office records indicate that as early as 1883 there were graduate as well as undergraduate students enrolled under the university system. By 1885 or 1886, the number of graduate students who were enrolled in the university system was equal to that of the undergraduates, and within a year had exceeded the number of undergraduate students. The records for 1887-88 were labeled:

  • 1 — Graduation on the University System
  • 2 — Higher degrees on the University System
Subsequent to 1888, the number of undergraduate students enrolled in the university system comprised a very small proportion of the total. During 1889-90, the records were labeled: "University System and Advanced Degrees; The Last of the Group Arrangement, Decentralization."

This statement of fact, appearing without any explanation on the records of the Registrar's Office for that year, would be difficult to understand, were it not for the action of the faculty taken on June 2, 1890. This action named the professor of the department in which the major study fell as chairman of the committee for advanced degrees, the committee to be composed of professors and assistant professors who instructed the candidate. At least three members were required for committees on advanced degrees.

This method of constituting the committees for advanced degrees eliminated the need for the university system in graduate work. The numbers of students who enrolled and graduated in three representative years of this decade were as follows:

Enrolled Graduated
1883-84 18 11
1887-88 16 13
1890-91 3 3
Shortly after the end of this decade, the university system ceased to exist as a vital part of the work of the Literary Department, although the possibility of study on this program was not revoked until after 1900, and occasionally students graduated under its provisions until that date.

A list of students who studied under this plan contains the names of many who later attained prominence. Among these are Ernest Sutherland Bates, Claude Van Tyne, Fred N. Scott, E. R. Sunderland, and Aldred S. Warthin. It is very evident from letters of alumni that this program provided "two years of the richest experience in intimate contact with … great men that a young man could possibly realize."