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


THE first constitution of Michigan, adopted in October, 1835, sixteen months before the state was admitted to the Union, provided for a superintendent of public instruction to be appointed by the governor and to serve for a term of two years. The legislature was also to create a system of common schools and to administer the lands given by the Federal Government for the support of a University. Two residents of Marshall were largely responsible for these provisions — General Isaac E. Crary, chairman of the convention committee on education, and the Reverend John D. Pierce, a Presbyterian missionary. They were graduates of Eastern colleges, interested in education, and conversant with current developments in America and Europe (see Part I: Early History).

No laws affecting education were passed by the first legislature, but at an extra session called on July 11, 1836, Governor Mason called attention to the need of a school system. The committee on education, however, felt that no action should be taken without great consideration, and on the last day of the session, July 26, the collecting of such information as would enable the successors to act understandingly was authorized. The Governor, influenced by General Crary, nominated John D. Pierce to serve as superintendent of public instruction, an office entirely new in the history of American education. The appointment was unanimously confirmed by the legislature and the new superintendent was directed to draw up a plan for common schools and a university "with branches."

Pierce's report was presented to the second legislature in January, 1837, and formed one of the most important documents ever acted upon by a Michigan legislature. In it two fundamental educational principles were set forth: (1) Page  172that the schools should be the property and responsibility of the state, and (2) that the facilities of education should be available to every child in the state. The powers and duties of the superintendent of public instruction were also defined, and a plan submitted for an educational system comprising common or primary schools in every township, a university, and intermediate schools, denominated "branches," in every county containing a given number of inhabitants.

The plan for primary schools was adopted and is in operation today, although it has been extended and certain minor changes have been introduced. The development of the branches as advocated by Pierce is described elsewhere (see Part I: Branches).

The powers and duties of the superintendent of public instruction relating to the University were outlined by Pierce as follows: (a) to submit to the legislature an annual report on the University funds; (b) to appoint an annual board of visitors; (c) to administer all University lands, and dispose of them according to law; (d) to invest all moneys arising from the sale of such lands; (e) to apportion the income of the University fund between the University and the branches.

Superintendent Pierce's plan, which remained in force until 1851, was worked out after extended observation in the older sections of the country. It vested the government in a Board of Regents of eighteen members, six of whom were members ex officio. The Board of Visitors was to consist of five members who were "to make personal examination into the state of the University in all its departments and report results to the superintendent, suggesting such improvements as they deemed important."

In putting into effect this plan for a university Pierce had a much harder task than with the common schools. Few precedents existed, and the state universities already organized had failed to become true state institutions, or had languished until reorganized on a broader basis (see Part I: The University of Michigan and State Education). It was a problem of breaking new ground and building on a foundation of his own laying. Similarly, as superintendent of public instruction he had no precedents except perhaps in the powers and duties of a similar officer under the Prussian system.

The legislature concurred in his views and in February, 1837, authorized the superintendent to sell the lands set apart by the government for the support of the University; to invest the proceeds; and gave him the care and disposition of all the lands and other property granted to the state for educational purposes.

On March 18, one month later, the University of Michigan was established in accordance with Pierce's plan. The legislature at once fixed the minimum price of the lands to be sold, at "not less than $20 per acre," and Pierce estimated the value of the prospective fund arising from this source at one million dollars, which he rightly considered amply sufficient for the University of that period. Unfortunately, no such sum was ever realized (see Part I: Early History).

Pierce bestowed particular attention to the branches, believing they were a necessary connecting link between primary education and the University, which in his mind were to perform a dual function, teacher training and preparation of students for the University. That Pierce was a realist as well as a theorist in educational matters is shown by the record of his early dealings with the Regents.

The state, in April, 1838, had promised a loan of $100,000, and the Regents were accordingly instructed to proceed with plans for University buildings, subject to approval by the governor and the superintendent Page  173The first designs called for the expenditure of half a million dollars and were approved apparently by the governor, the legislature, and in fact, by all those interested except Superintendent Pierce, who maintained that the University could not exist on buildings alone, that professors, laboratories, apparatus, and libraries were necessary. His courageous action in vetoing the plan doubtless saved the life of the institution, as the proposed cost would have far exceeded the amount of the money in the building fund. The plan finally adopted was comparatively modest and inexpensive (see Part VIII: First Buildings). Even with this modified plan the Regents at one time suspended all operations, and more than that, resolved to close the branches and to put an end to all expenditures.

The branches of the University, however, were a very important part of Pierce's plan, and in his report for 1839 he urged a more liberal provision for them, suggesting that the University fund be relieved by devoting the income of the salt spring lands to their support. In his next report he insisted upon the importance of opening the University to students and noted that already students prepared for the University in the branches were going elsewhere to continue their studies.

At the same time the Regents began to question the centralization of power in the office of the superintendent of public instruction. They petitioned the legislature to revise the organic law of the University in order that they might prosecute their responsibilities and duties more vigorously and successfully. The veto power of the superintendent, who did not attend the Regents' meetings and was not even an ex officio member of the Board, was questioned. They felt he was not as capable as the Regents themselves of judging the propriety of certain actions. They also objected to the fact that they were required to make reports to him rather than to the legislature and had no control of University lands or investments and were accordingly embarrassed by the uncertainty as to the University's income.

No action was taken, however, by the legislature, at this time. In the same year, 1840, the legislature authorized an exhaustive inquiry into the condition of the University, and the committee recommended that the legislature entrust the management of the institution more unreservedly to the Regents. No action was taken on this report except a joint resolution, requesting the Regents to report such changes as might be necessary in the organic laws of the University to secure the objectives desired. The Board accordingly reported to the legislature the following year that the first change essential was a proper restriction of responsibility to the Regents, while a second related to the trust and management of the funds. They further reported that the "duties of the superintendent in connection with the University are unnecessary and onerous."

Superintendent Pierce in his last annual report before his retirement in 1841 again expressed his deep conviction upon the importance of the branches to Michigan's entire school system. For nearly five years he had rendered distinguished service to the school system of Michigan, and so clear was his vision, so broad his philosophical conceptions, so successful his results, that he has been universally denominated "the father of the Michigan public school system." President Angell is quoted in Professor McLaughlin's study of Michigan's higher educational institutions as saying: "Henry Barnard did not do more for the schools of Rhode Island, nor Horace Mann for those of Massachusetts, than John D. Pierce for the schools of Michigan" (McLaughlin, p. 35).

Page  174The policies laid down by Pierce, particularly as regards the branches of the University, were vigorously pursued by his successor, Franklin Sawyer, Jr. He supported the Regents' appeal for an increase in their powers, but the legislature maintained that in financial matters the Regents might better submit to their embarrassments than to change the law. The changes proposed would also have given the Regents power to expend the principal of the fund as well as the income. Moreover, the legislature felt that it was the design of the constitution to have the superintendent of public instruction "as much the superintendent of the University and its branches as of the primary schools." Superintendent Sawyer, nevertheless, urged the separation of the fiscal from the more legitimate duties of the superintendent, and his recommendation led to the creation of the State Land Office in 1843, enabling him to devote his entire energies to the problem of education.

His successor, Oliver C. Comstock, who took office in 1843, added his testimony as to the value of the branches, but soon discovered that excellent as their services had been as preparatory schools they fell far short of supplying the demand for teachers and that some other agency was necessary. Ira Mayhew, who had been principal of the University branch at Monroe, succeeded him in 1845 and held office four years. He also conceived the public school system as a unit reaching from the primary schools to the University, but by this time it was plain that the branches could never accomplish the work originally planned for them and he therefore advocated the development of the union schools, which had made their first appearance in 1842 (see Part I: Branches).

When the second constitutional convention convened in 1850 the public mind was ready for important innovations. The new constitution provided that the superintendent should be elected rather than appointed, that the Regents also should be elected, and that they should be not merely a body corporate but a constitutional part of the state government. These changes, in effect, emancipated the University from legislative control. Likewise, they relieved the Regents of the embarrassment of control by the superintendent, although for some years he had not participated in the affairs of the University, except in an advisory capacity, and through the appointment of the Board of Visitors.

Although the authority of the superintendent over the University thus ended in 1850, the relationship remained cordial and sympathetic. Superintendent John M. Gregory, the incumbent from 1859 to 1865, advocated the establishment of courses in military science and the training of teachers, and for three years, even gave short courses of lectures on the organization and administration of schools. His successor, Oswald Hosford, emphatically endorsed the University's appeal for increased salaries, while Superintendent Daniel B. Briggs, 1873-77, advocated the establishment of a normal department in the University.

The question which brought all the different superintendents into closest touch with the University, however, was the question as to how secondary education should be developed after the abandonment of the branches. Superintendent F. W. Shearman, 1849-55, had declared in 1851 that the abandonment of the branches was the worst misfortune that had befallen the University, and his successor, Ira Mayhew, serving for a second term, 1855-59, recommended that the incorporated academies and seminaries be adopted by the state and that they, with the union schools, might include among their functions the preparation of students for the University.

Page  175Eventually, in 1859, the union schools were approved by the legislature, which gave to any district having not less than one hundred children between the ages of five and twenty years, authority to organize as a graded and high-school district with wide powers. Opposition to their support by taxation arose immediately, and finally culminated in the famous Kalamazoo case, in which the Supreme Court in 1874 declared the public high schools constitutional and all properly assessed citizens liable for their support. This decision closed the gap between the primary schools and the University for all time and gave Michigan a complete school system (see Part I: Branches).

The boards of visitors appointed by the superintendents to report on the University performed their duties thoroughly, intelligently, and conscientiously throughout the early history of the institution. The reports of John D. Pierce, General Crary, and Dr. George Duffield, among others, as chairmen of their respective boards, provide the most intimate, critical, and suggestive, as well as laudatory contributions concerning the University extant, and are of great value. All aspects of the University's program were covered, even to the way the students kept their rooms. As the University's program grew more comprehensive, these reports became more perfunctory, and finally were discontinued. The last published report was submitted in 1873, although apparently the Board of Visitors continued in existence for some years.

Two important changes affecting the relationship between the University and the superintendent of public instruction were incorporated in the Constitution of 1908. (1) The superintendent of public instruction was made ex officio a member of the Board of Regents, with the right to speak but not to vote; and (2) the constitution transferred the time of the election of the superintendent to the spring elections, when the Regents and the judges of the Supreme Court were elected. This action sought to render the office less a political football than formerly, and since that time the superintendents have for the most part faithfully attended the meetings of the Regents.

Twenty-six men have officiated as superintendents of public instruction, with an average term of four years. The first eight — Pierce, Sawyer, Comstock, Mayhew, Shearman, Gregory, Hosford, and Briggs — were born in the East, prepared for college in Eastern academies, and were graduated from Eastern colleges. Four of this first group also were clergymen. All possessed strong, forceful characters and revealed an interest in high standards of public education in their newly adopted state. To their conception of the public-school system as a unit, with the University as its head and inspiration, may be ascribed much of the University's success in serving the people of Michigan.

Of the eighteen successors to this pioneer group of superintendents thirteen were graduated from the University of Michigan. Nearly every legislature has added to their powers and responsibilities, and today the office of public instruction, aside from the University, is fast becoming the highly centralized institution which Superintendent Pierce recommended to the legislature in 1837.

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