Life of Patrick Hues Mell





     In 1878 the Board of Trustees passed a law requiring a Dormitory System to be inaugurated in the University of Georgia. There were objectionable features and Dr. Mell argued against it but consented to try the plan if the Board insisted, and would furnish him with the necessary facilities to make it successful. This they failed to do but enacted instead a law which if enforced he felt would wreck the University.

    The following extracts taken from the Chancellor’s Annual Report for 1880, thoroughly explain this very important matter in the history of the Institution.

    “As soon as I arrived at a definite conclusion as to what was my duty in the premises, I addressed to every member of the Board, through the Secretary, the following communication:



                                                                                                                                        ATHENS, GA., August 9, 1879.

HON. WM. L. MITCHELL, LL.D., Secretary Board of Trustees, University of Georgia:

    Dear Sir: On my personal application, two days after the adjournment of the Board of Trustees, you were kind enough to furnish me a copy of the action of that body on the subject of the method of discipline in the University, as follows:


    “After careful consideration, your Committee recommend the following action:

    “I. That the house on Lumpkin Street be taken possession of, and be let, rent free, to some proper person who will take students as day boarders.

    “2. That the Prudential Committee shall have both the College Dormitory Buildings thoroughly repaired and cleaned, and the students be required to occupy them, with the following exceptions:

    “1. All students residing in Athens.

    “2. The members of the Senior Class who shall prefer to room in town.

    “3. All students who shall bring the written request of their parents or guardians, asking that they he allowed to room in town.

    “With these exceptions, the Faculty are instructed to require other students to room in the College Dormitories.”

    It distresses me to have to announce to you that it is morally impossible for me to comply with the above legislation. Of course, in taking such extreme ground as this, I recognize that I can be justified only on the principle of invincible necessity—a necessity, too, that must be made apparent to you and the other members of the Board of Trustees. Before attempting to give my reasons, however, let me relieve the subject from two irrelevancies.

        First. I do not propose to make any issues with the Board, or with any member of it. I have the highest respect for that honorable body, and for all the distinguished gentlemen who compose it. They have never, as a body, so far as I know and believe, done me any intentional wrong or harm; but have, on the contrary, brought me under many and very great obligations. They elected me first, to a professorship, and then again to the Chancel lordship, without my being in either case, a candidate for office. During all the twenty-three years of my connection with them they have treated me with kindness and consideration; and their generosity toward me, when I was disabled and well-nigh dead with nervous prostration, has brought me under a debt of gratitude which I shall ever feel, and at all times and in all ways be proud to acknowledge. There is no controversy between me and the Board of Trustees, as there are no just grounds of variance between me and any of the able and distinguished citizens that compose it. Let it be distinctly understood, then, that this is not an arraignment of the honorable Board of Trustees as a body, nor of any individuals that constitute it; but a respectful—perhaps I may say an imploring, though I hope manly—appeal to the members to do what they can to rescue me and the University from the impossibilities that environ us.

    Second. This is no case of intentional disobedience to law. I admit and maintain that the Trustees, when assembled in an organized body, are the highest authority in the University; and that their enactments, in their letter and in their spirit, must be obeyed by the Chancellor so long as he continues in office. He may not disregard them; he may not intentionally evade them. True, if laws enacted may seem to the Chancellor to be pernicious or impracticable, he may escape responsibility by resigning. If the law-making power in that event should prefer the measure to the officer, it is under moral obligation to release him immediately; for it would be in violation of all right and propriety to attempt to force one to execute a law that, as in this case, is in violation of his reason, his experience and his conscience—that jeopardizes his reputation, and that will certainly wreck his administration.

    But, it may be asked, why I did not, when the Board was here, and why I do not now, relieve myself by resignation? I answer, because I am and have been environed by impossibility On account of the extraordinary conception (if any at all) that the Board have of the relations the Chancellor and Faculty bear toward them, while they are engaged in legislation, I did not know their action in the premises until after their adjournment. Neither officially nor unofficially, directly nor indirectly, was I informed or given reason to suspect that the Board had such a proposition under consideration; for the measure ad opted was altogether a different thing from that against which I had argued in my annual report. This I had heard had been voted down; and the rumor had reached me that the form of College Government which I had recommended, and for the last year administered, had been adopted by a majority of one; but I did not know that the vote had been reconsidered and the present plan substituted, until the Trustees had dispersed. Had their action come to my notice in time, I should have tendered my resignation immediately, respectfully but peremptorily; for nothing could induce me to assume the responsibility of administering the present system.

    But it may be asked again why I do not resign now? You, sir, can answer that question. You will bear me witness that I offered the resignation to you, but you declined to receive it on the ground that I could not be released now, since the law required me to give twelve months’ notice.

    This is no attempt to disobey or evade law, but a recognition of the impossibilities that surround me, and a frank statement of them through you to the able and distinguished and just individuals who compose the Board. If an enemy had done it—if the hand of malignity, with consummate skill and malice aforethought, had provided and disposed the obstructions—I could not have been more thoroughly hemmed in than I have seen by the excellent gentlemen who have given me hitherto, so much of kindness and confidence. By their action they have placed me between the horns of an inexorable dilemma. If I carry into effect their legislation, I inaugurate a system that will ruin the boys and young men confided to me that will bring disaster upon the University, and that will wreck my administration, if I omit to carry their enactment into effect, I seem to be disobedient to law and discourteous to them; and by their failure to inform me of their action previous to their adjournment, they have made it impossible for me, by resignation, to extricate my self under the forms of law.

    Let no one, then, uncandidly make appeal to prejudice, by asserting or intimating that this is a determined attempt to disregard law, and to overthrow legitimate authority.

    But what is there in the system that justifies me in taking such extreme ground?

    First. I object to the very essence and genius of the system.

    1. Because of the peril to which it subjects the moral character of the student. It requires young men and boys to occupy large dormitories in large numbers, with no officers or other influences to protect them or restrain them. In this respect it is a new thing, unlike the old and obsolete Dormitory System proper, and unlike anything that has been hitherto-tried. Young men may have been, in some unfortunate localities, thoughtlessly permitted to assemble together in large numbers, in detached buildings, away from the constraining influences of authority, and from the conservative influences of home and virtuous female society; but never before, in the history of colleges in all times, have unsophisticated boys been forced, by wise and Christian men, to occupy such positions of peril. In such dormitories, organized vice would entrench itself and hold high carnival. Drunkenness and gambling and licentiousness would there fix their permanent headquarters. This is not the Dormitory System, the Trustees voted to adopt a year ago, and against which I argued in my annual report, but the result of a compromise, intended to harmonize the members of the Board; and adopted at the very close of the session, as a substitute for a measure that they had carefully considered early in the session, and by majority vote approved; and which for this purpose had been reconsidered. It may have been very effective in reconciling the views and feelings of the members of the Board, but it will be very potent in working discord and destruction to the University community if put into effect.

    I beg again to call attention to the fact that this system is entirely different from that against which I argued, and which I promised to attempt to administer if the Trustees insisted on it; provided that they would supply for it the essential agencies. The Board have not insisted on the plan referred to, but have adopted another. Of course, then, my conditional promise falls with the condition on which it was suspended. There is no longer any promise of mine to attempt, on any conditions, to administer any kind of Dormitory System.

    2. I object again because the system furnishes occasions the least favorable to studiousness and advancement in scholarship. These dormitories will be the places where the sensations will be found, and will furnish resorts at all hours for the idle and the vicious from all parts of the town. Force compels the young men and boys to lodge there, but there is no government enthroned to protect them from encroachment and interruption.

    Second. I object not only to the genius of the system, but to its details also.

    1. An unwise and unjust distinction is made between students. Some are under duress, while others are free; some are forced to occupy the dormitories, others, no more deserving, are permitted to room where they please. The boys whose parents have no confidence in the wisdom or discretion of the College authorities are rewarded by being accorded the largest liberty; while those whose parents confide in us are treated as if they are imbeciles or inferiors, and virtually punished for the misplaced confidence of parents or guardians. The system then would give us two classes of students—the superior and the inferior, the free and those in duress. Surely, reason and justice would say, if we must have an enforced Dormitory System, let it embrace everybody.

    2. Again, another strange anomaly is, that the Senior Class is excused from the operation of the system. No officers are to room in the buildings with the boys, to restrain them; and, to make it worse, no experienced student—one who has met with the difficulties and dangers to character and mastered them—is required or expected to be present, to exercise an influence over them. The members of the Senior Class are morally acclimated, their characters are formed; and, if they were present, they might establish and maintain a correct and mature public opinion, that might assert some conservative power. But here all College authority is withheld, and all, or nearly all, College conservative influence dismissed, and the inexperienced boys, sons of those who confide in me, are forced into those relations which promise good neither to morals nor to mind.

    Finally, the system promises, in the matter of discipline and order, nothing but confusion and riot. In the first place, the boys are forced into the buildings, hut there is no power present there to govern them. In the next place, if nature is in them, they will resent what will appear to them to be outrageous distinctions made between them and others; and the deterioration of character, which the system will produce in them, will be ready, in vicious ways, to lend aid to their resentment.

    These being my views as to the character and inevitable tendencies of the system, my conscience (I say it with profound respect) will not permit me, either actively or passively, to be a party to its inauguration here.

    A weighty consideration, influencing gentlemen of the Board in their action, may have been that, under my system and in my hands, a large building, in which has been invested no small amount of money, would be shut up and useless. This is a great mistake. The system which I would administer needs all the buildings on the campus. We have a plan which will unify and utilize all the houses that we have. I did not present it or allude to it in my report, because motives of delicacy and prudence prompted me to wait until the Board had taken definite and final action on the “Dormitory System.”

    Hoping that it will be in your power to serve every member of the Board with a copy of this communication, I subscribe myself,

                                With profound respect, your obedient servant,

                                                                                       P. H. MELL,

                                                         Chancellor University of Georgia.”


    Copies of this letter to Dr. W. L. Mitchell, mentioned in the report above published, were sent to all the members of the Board of Trustees, and called forth from them a number of replies, some commending, others condemning. Two of these letters from the President of the Beard are printed below to indicate how deep the feeling was on both sides of the question at issue.


                                                “AUGUSTA, GA., October 4th, 1879.


                            Chancellor, University of Georgia.


                            Your communication of the 9th of August last, to the Secretary of the University of Georgia, accompanied by a request that a copy be sent to each member of the Board, has reached me and has induced much painful consideration, resulting in a conviction that it was my duty to convene the Board. I have accordingly ordered a meeting on the 29th inst.

    It is not my purpose now to discuss this unpleasant matter with you, but simply to suggest, in all kindness and respect, that it may be expedient that you should be in Atlanta at that time, as the Board may desire to communicate with you either by committee or in full session. I make this suggestion in memory of your very valuable services to the Institution in the past, in consideration of fair promises of good results to the Institution given by the past year of your Chancellorship, in full acceptance of your disclaimer of intentional disrespect to the Board, and in the earnest hope that by conference in mutual kindness and candor, an escape may be found from this dilemma which I cannot but regard as serious.

                                                                                                                Very respectfully, etc.,

                                                                                                                                    C. J. JENKINS.”


    To this letter the following reply was made:


ATHENS, GA., October 7th, 1897.


    President, Board of Trustees, University of Georgia.


    I have received yours of the 4th instant, in which you inform me that you have ‘ordered a meeting (of the Board of Trustees) at Atlanta, on the 29th instant.’ I have also been permitted to read the manuscript text of that order. I have most respectfully to request that you will modify the terms of that call. I beg leave to assure you that I am not in antagonism with the Board of Trustees, and that I do not mean to refuse or neglect to carry into effect any enactment of theirs. This I am prepared to show both by word and action on the occasion furnished by your call. Excuse me for saying that your card seems to prejudge the case and to condemn me without a hearing. Its publication will do me great injustice, and it may spring an unfortunate discussion in the newspapers; for some indiscreet friend of mine, knowing that I am misunderstood, may unfortunately attempt to defend me. The public have nothing to do with this question, and there is really no issue between me and the Board of Trustees, whatever may be the appearances.

    Please, therefore, Sir, let your call be a mere technical one, without tone or coloring, and couched in such terms as to make it impossible for inferences to be drawn unfavorable to anybody. For I assure you there is no conflict between me and the Board of Trustees, and I stand ready, as hitherto, to do all in my power to enable that honorable body to carry out all its wishes with reference to the University.

    There is no man on earth who more thoroughly commands my esteem and admiration than yourself, and there is no one whose approbation would be more gratifying to me. Please, therefore, do not, even by inference, by the terms of your call unnecessarily throw the influence of your great name against me in advance

                            Your obedient servant,

                                                                                                                                P. H. MELL.”


    Governor Jenkins replied to this letter as follows:


“AUGUSTA, 27th of October, 1879

Rev. P. H. MELL, D.D., LLD.


    Your letter of the 7th instant, by some mischance, did not reach me until the 24th. Believe me, nothing was further from my intention in the call for a special meeting of the Board of Trustees, sent to the Secretary, than to excite prejudice against you or to throw my personal influence, great or small, against you.

    It has been my practice in calling such meetings (adopted from a Conviction of its propriety) to indicate the cause inducing the call, as I did in this instance. I alluded to conflict between the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees regarding a disciplinary law, passed by the latter at the last summer meeting, resulting in a refusal of the former to execute or attempt to execute that law.

    Now let me premise two things:—1st. I was absent from that meeting and all my information on the subject under consideration was derived from your communication of the 9th of August to the Secretary with a request that he transmit a copy thereof to each member of the Board, which reached me at a distant point in another State.

    2nd. That the conflict or antagonism (I think I used the former word) to which I referred in the call had no reference to any thing personal on either side, not even to permanent irreconcilable disagreement however originating, but simply to practical matter of fact disagreement. Can there be two opinions as to the existence of this fact? You give in your circular of the 9th of August the text of the new law, which is all the information I have on the subject. Alluding to this law you say: “It distresses me to have to communicate to you that it is morally impossible for me to comply with the above legislation.” Again you say, “It would be in violation of all right to attempt to force me to execute a law that, as in this case, is in violation of his reason, his experience and his conscience.” Again, “Nothing would induce me to assume the responsibility of administering the present system.” And still again, “If I carry into effect this legislation I inaugurate a system that will ruin the boys and young men confided to me, that will bring disaster upon the University and that will wreck my administration.” And yet again, “My conscience (I say it with profound respect) will not permit me either actively or passively to be a party to its inauguration here.”

    Here then we have the Board of Trustees speaking through their statute the text of which you have furnished me and you speaking of the character of that statute, as you regard it, and declaring, and repeating your determination not to carry it into effect. So there then is no conflict between the Board and the Chancellor, no refusal by him to execute their law? Bear in mind that I have not characterized that conflict in any way in my call, have imputed blame to neither party. I cannot see in it all any thing but serious conflict of opinion. . .and the existence of that conflict I made the basis of my call.

    It was my intention when I made the call to attend the meeting, if my health permitted, and, as intimated in my former letter, to unite with all similarly disposed in finding a way of escape from the dilemma, without prejudice to either the Board or the Chancellor and without rupture of their existing relations.

    I am not unmindful of the manly course you took promptly to relieve yourself by resignation, nor am I insensible to the embarrassment in which you felt yourself when you found that door closed against you. I do not at all question the rectitude of your intentions in all you have done. Still there was, and is, in my view, the simple act of conflict, which is anomalous, so far as I know, unprecedented, and demanding early action, for which reason I made it the basis of my call. I found also in your communication early and earnest appeal to the Board, to rescue you and the University from the embarrassing status. No word or line has passed between myself and any member of the Board, save our worthy Secretary and one other gentleman, who made a written request that I would call a meeting.

    Upon finding that the concurrence of two members with the President was necessary I revoked the call and in formed the gentleman of it. So far I have received no other. I do not now suppose there will be any. Should there be I will endeavor to so word it as to avoid the inferences you seem to think might be drawn from the language of the first.

    Believe me, Sir, nothing would pain me more than to find I had said or done anything to injure you in any way or wound your sensibilities.

                                                                                Very respectfully yours,

                                                                                                                        C. J. JENKINS.”


    In the reply that follows, Dr. Mell indicates how important it is that there should be a free and full consultation between the Chancellor and the Board of Trustees, so necessary for the best welfare of the Institution in which both have a vital interest.

    There is no possible chance for success in the development Of the University unless the Chancellor is fully aware of all contemplated enactments relating to the discipline and vital organisms of the Institution, and his judgment should be consulted by the Board before the final vote is taken. He has been appointed to the position because of his recognized ability to manage with distinguished credit, the trust in his charge. His constant presence on the grounds, and daily study of all interests relating to the University, better qualify him for safe and wise counsel than can be possible with any member of the Board of Trustees whose time, between the annual meetings, is wholly taken up with other subjects that have but little, if any, connection with college and University work. With this idea in view the following letter will be read with interest.


                                                    “UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA,

                                                                                            October 31st, 1879.


                            President of Board of Trustees University of Ga.


                            Your very kind and satisfactory letter of the 27th inst. has been received. Accept my thanks. The only object I have in view is to enable the Board of Trustees to establish a Dormitory System, if they desire, without sharing with them in the responsibility.

    The only right I have been endeavoring to exercise is the right to resign. If I had been a slave or a subject, I should have been compelled to submit to the law; if I had been a soldier, it would have been my duty to obey it as an order; if I had been an executive of a state or a nation, it would have been imperative on me to enforce it as an enactment. But I am a voluntary agent, responsible for every thing I voluntarily consent to carry into effect, and competent to escape responsibility by resignation. I am not resisting the Trustees. They shall not be obstructed by me, if they give me the privilege to escape complications. With this subject in view, and solely for this reason, I put all members of the Board on notice of my difficulties, six weeks before the opening of the term, with the hope they would assemble during the vacation, and—in the event they overruled my objections and adhered to their enactment—give me the opportunity to resign and retire immediately. Unfortunately they did not allow me to be heard on the law before they adopted it; and then after adopting it, they did not inform me of it before they adjourned that I might have decided to assume responsibility f or it by consenting to execute it, or escape such responsibility by resigning. But they did not consult me at all; and I did not know of the enactment until after their adjournment. Now, I know the Board did not mean to be unkind to me. The whole difficulty originated in the fact that, at the moment, they did not recognize that I was a voluntary agent, responsible as well as they, and that they had, not formally considered an important question—viz: What relation does the Chancellor bear to the Board of Trustees when that body is engaged in legislation; while it is making or modifying organisms in the University which compromise that officer, by affecting the discipline which he is to enforce? All, or nearly all, the irregularities and confusion here in times past have grown out of the fact that that question has not been settled to the satisfaction of all parties. Certain it is the present difficulty originates nowhere else. If there had not been an (unintentional) violation of this, as yet, unwritten law, I could not possibly have had an opportunity or pretext for pursuing a course which, though legal in my judgment, may possibly be offensive to some of the Trustees, and the necessity for which has been a source of great distress to me.

    With my views of the dangerous character of the system adopted, and with my desire to escape all responsibility for it, there was but one safe legal course for me to pursue I availed myself, therefore, of that provision of law which authorized you to call an extra meeting at the instance of two members, and virtually put all the members on notice of the necessity of it. If a meeting had been called before the responsibilities of a new year were assumed the Trustees could have had their own way without resistance or obstruction from me; and I could have escaped all responsibility under the forms of law. Unfortunately, it is too late now to remove embarrassment with safety. The students have been allowed to make their own arrangements without reference to the Dormitories; and an attempt to undo what has been done might place the University in the chapter of accidents.

    As soon as I received your notification of a meeting called for the 29th instant I proceeded to prepare a paper to be presented to the Board. In this I discuss the subject in all its relations; and endeavor to answer that important question. This paper, after a time, I may have printed, according to a provision of law, but at my own expense. In that event I shall serve every member of the Board with a copy, in advance of the annual meeting. I would do so at once but for fear that some might suppose I desire a meeting to be held now. This, for the reason given above, might be embarrassing (not to me but) to the University.

    This letter demands no reply. Hoping the gravity of the occasion and subject will justify me with you for writing you so long a letter, I subscribe myself

                                                                                    With great respect,

                                                                                                    Your obedient servant,

                                                                                                                                        P. H. MELL.’


    Governor Jenkins issued a call for a meeting of the Board of Trustees to consider the question brought before them by the position of the Chancellor on the Dormitory System. After receiving the published copy of the report, mentioned in preceding pages of this book, this call was countermanded and the entire question was deferred until the regular meeting in July, 1880. In the meantime the Prudential Committee suspended the enforcement of the rule for the session then in progress.

    At the meeting of the Board in 1880, the rule relating to the Dormitory System was reconsidered and defeated and the University was tided over the breakers in safety. Chancellor P. H. Mell had no more trouble with this matter as long as he was connected with the Institution.


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