Paul Brandon Barringer, born in Concord, North Carolina, in February 13, 1857, came to the presidency of VPI with possibly the broadest academic background, including an M.D., of any other president prior to his taking office in September 1, 1907. He became president amidst a chorus of praise from all directions; therefore it would seem incongruous that some have called his presidency the unluckiest in the early history of VPI. Certainly many of the incidents occurring during his term were not of his making. Others were, as he soon found out. Barringer was aware of the fact that Virginia at the time was rural in nature and depended on its agricultural economy, and he was determined to build up the agricultural part of the college without changing anything on the engineering side. Barringer's hope that his intention would be "shouted from the housetop" was realized, when the dean of engineering led the shouting and at the same time started a sub-rosa guerrilla warfare against the president.
Barringer also soon ran into difficulty of another nature. For economic reasons, he decided to sell some of the 300 head of cattle on the college farm. The sale was held, but unfortunately a number of scrub animals with decided blemishes had been sold as pure-bred stock. To make matters worse, some of the cattle sold had tuberculosis. Public reaction was swift and bitter. The college refunded the purchase price for all diseased animals and faced lawsuits from the purchases of others. Privately Barringer began to plan ways to replace individuals he believed to be responsible for the incident.
He wrote to a number of college presidents in the area, asking about the policies they followed in replacing "dead wood" in the faculty. He received no help from the source beyond some vague statements. President Venable of the University of North Carolina, who knew Barringer, facetiously suggested that the only absolutely sure way was to "pizen" them. Barringer's reply is unknown.
In an effort to make the farm department more efficient, the board authorized Barringer to make some changes in departmental personnel. The press inadvertently made it appear that the board had authorized Barringer to replace any faculty in any department as he saw fit. The erroneous report sent a sizable shock wave through the faculty, causing some senior professors to start making discreet inquires about openings in other institutions.
In a flurry of activity in securing a director for the Experiment Station, to succeed Soule, Professor Quick became acting director, to be succeeded in 1908 by Dr. S. W. Fletcher. Then Professor Quick presented Barringer with a bill for the time spent as acting director. Barringer objected to the bill but was forced to pay it when the United States Department of Agriculture refused to pay the bill and decided to withhold funds from the Experiment Station until it was firmly established that all funds had been and would be expended legally.
Before this situation had been clarified, Barringer was informed that during the McBryde administration VPI had entered into an arrangement with the State Board of Agriculture for Dr. T. L. Watson, professor of geology, to conduct a geological survey of the state but that during the session of 1906-1907, Dr. Watson had moved to the University of Virginia and was expected to start the geological survey at the University instead of at VPI.
Opposition came from Barringer, students and alumni, of VPI. Appeals to the legislature were to no avail. Barringer did not know that the Rector of the Board of Visitors, J. Thompson Brown had conducted his own private poll of the Senate and along with some of the board, had decided it would be futile to oppose locating the survey at the University of Virginia. The Board of Visitors therefore compromised by agreeing that if the legislature would establish a professorship of mining engineering at VPI and finance part of the cost, VPI would withdraw its objection to locating the geological survey at the University of Virginia. By those who made the decision it was agreed that VPI did not need a political fight at this time.
The compromise bill was passed by the legislature on March 13, 1908. Barringer accepted defeat gracefully, but not the alumni. The day the legislature established the geological survey at the University of Virginia, marked the beginning of an alumni revolt, fairly or unfairly, against Barringer for his remaining days at VPI.
Not one to sulk, Barringer continued to offer many suggestions for improvement in both the institutional program and campus life in general. Many of his suggestions, especially for campus life, not only were too advanced for the Blacksburg community of his day but were unattainable financially. His proposal for a swimming pool and the one for Congressional abolition of the military requirement in the Morril Act are reported to have left the members of the Board of Visitors speechless for some time. In spite of the many disputes engendered by this terse and husky Anglo-Saxon, he never lost sight of his desire to make the agricultural instructional program at VPI one of true college level.
Around 1912, however, Barringer began to suspect that Governor Mann, with whom he had had one or two altercations, did not like him or his program and was planning to pack the Board of Visitors with anti-Barringer men; therefore, on July 2, 1912, Barringer resigned from the presidency of VPI. The board accepted his resignation but asked him to continue in office until July 1, 1913. After due consideration, Barringer agreed to the board's request, and his resignation as president became effective on that date.