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Virginia Tech Historical Data Book, Section 1.10:
The Burruss Years (1919-1945)

The Twenties The Thirties The Forties

Burruss did not report to work in Blacksburg until Sept. 1 because he was working on his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago on a fellowship and requested the board to let him complete his studies.

Shortly after he began his duties, Burruss set forth a list of six ultimate goals, which were to be his guideposts during the 26 years he served as president. These goals were: "To do what Virginia needs to have done by this particular institution; to maintain highest standards in all endeavors; to provide a staff organization adequate to carry on the work efficiently; to provide a physical plant adequate for the work to be done; to so conduct the institution as to secure desired efficiency with the greatest economy; and to provide funds necessary for doing the job that is to be done."

How well he accomplished his objectives can be shown by the additions made to the physical plant during his administration and by the achievements of the thousands of Tech graduates who were at the college during those years.

Burruss had to begin his administration with a plant inadequate for the influx of students returning from World War I service and in an atmosphere of unrest. He listed as immediate and imperative reforms needed at the college: a revision of programs of instruction and of administrative structure, a better organization for student life, and an increase in physical accommodations.

One of the first problems Burruss tackled was the administrative organization. When he began his term of office, officials were responsible to other officials who were in turn responsible to the former; there was too wide of a dispersion of authority with confusion as to where responsibility would be placed; and there was lack of coordination in the spending of funds. Burruss immediately abolished four deanships (general faculty, graduate department, academic department, and applied science department). The scope and authority of the deans of agriculture and engineering were broadened, and the post of dean of the college (general departments) was established. He abolished the office of the college surgeon and hired a full-time health officer. The office of a business manager for the college was established. The Agricultural Experiment Station and Extension Service directors were put under the dean of agriculture. The registrar's office was abolished and the duties put under the dean of the college. Athletic activities were brought directly under the control of college authorities, instead of being under joint management of students and faculty.

The Twenties--Most of the major changes instituted by Burruss were made in his first eight years of office. In addition to the administrative changes already mentioned, those accomplishments included: resident faculty members doubled in number; student enrollment increased from 477 in 1918-19 to 1,224 in 1926-27; the number of degrees awarded at commencement rose from 42 in 1919 to 163 in 1927; instructional departments increased from 23 to 31; the number of courses rose from 238 to 376; the staff of the Agricultural Experiment Station increased from 29 to 42 and its work was extended, particularly in agricultural economics, agricultural engineering, home economics, and rural sociology; the Agricultural Extension Service staff grew from 154 to 183; an Engineering Experiment Station was established in 1921 and was followed by an Engineering Extension Division in the session of 1923-24; salaries and wages were increased on the average of 60 per cent and were doubled in some cases; the annual budget for the college was more than doubled; a full summer quarter was established; a course adviser system was inaugurated; loan funds and scholarships were increased considerably; academic standards were raised to bring the college to the standards of nationally recognized colleges through raising entrance requirements to 15 units (later 16 units), establishing a new grading system, and setting up systems of honors, credit-hours, and quality credit (1920); and women were admitted to all departments (except military) beginning in September 1921.

Physical improvements during those first eight years included repair to all existing buildings; remodeling of many buildings; erection of campus lights; purchase of 255 acres of land and leasing of 227 additional acres; paving roads through the campus; starting a landscape program; replacing the old decentralized heating distribution system with a centralized system; rebuilding and extending the electric distribution system; building a new sewage disposal plant jointly with the town of Blacksburg; completion of old McBryde Hall; construction of a new engine room for the power plant; installation of fire escapes on all buildings; and construction of several farm buildings, professors' homes and cottages, a greenhouse, beef and sheep barns, a poultry service building, one floor of Patton Hall, an Agricultural Extension Building (now Sandy Hall), War Memorial Gymnasium, part of Davidson Hall, Barracks No. 6 (now Major Williams Hall), Miles Stadium, and an Extension Division Apartment House.

During the remainder of Burruss' administration, the following buildings were added to the campus: Eggleston Dormitory, Campbell Dormitory, Hillcrest Dormitory, Hutcheson Hall, one unit of Smyth Hall, Saunders Hall, Seitz Hall, Agnew Hall, Patton Hall (completed), Davidson Hall (completed), Holden Hall, Squires Hall, Burruss Hall, Henderson Hall (an addition), Owens Hall, Mechanical Engineering Lab, new Power House, Faculty Center (old part of Continuing Education Center), and the University Club. An airport, hangar, and shop were also built.

The college coal mine was closed in 1923, since it cost more to operate than was being saved.

Another event of note on campus in the 20s was the founding of the Future Farmers of Virginia, which later grew into the national organization, Future Farmers of America. Walter S. Newman '19 (later Tech's tenth president), professors H.C. Groseclose '23, E.C. Magill, and H.W. Sanders '16, all of the agricultural education department, were the founders.


The Thirties--The college began offering the first two years of its principal engineering curricula at four extension schools in the 30s. The first was established in cooperation with the Virginia Mechanics Institute (later Richmond Professional Institute, now Virginia Commonwealth University) in 1930; discontinued in 1970. Later, similar arrangements were made with the Norfolk division of William and Mary (1931, discontinued 1964); Bluefield College (1932, discontinued 1964); and Lynchburg College (1932, discontinued 1938).

The Virginia General Assembly cut the college's appropriations by 7.5 percent and salaries by 10 percent in 1932 because of the depression. The depression-born Public Works Administration helped offset the loss of funds, however, by awarding a $1,066,000 loan to the college to construct several campus buildings. This loan, approved in January 1934, was later increased several times.

The first "Virginia Tech Day" (also called "High School Day") was held May 2, 1936, with the Alumni Association bringing hundreds of high school students to visit the campus for a program of varied activities. The observance was not held in 1942 because of war conditions.

The practice of having a salutatorian and valedictorian for the senior class was discontinued after the 1936 commencement. The honors had been awarded on the basis of popularity from 1916-20 and had been determined on the basis of scholarship thereafter.

The Alumni Association established an Alumni Loyalty Fund (later Alumni Fund) on June 5, 1937, "To promote the progress and growth of cultural and educational advantages" at the college. The first campaign ended Dec. 31, 1939.


The Forties--The war in Europe was distinctly felt on the campus as early as Oct. 16, 1940, when 509 VPI students were registered for the draft in Squires Hall under the Selective Service Act. Only juniors and seniors enrolled in ROTC were exempt from registering.

When the United States entered World War II, the college accelerated its program to enable students to graduate in three years by conducting a full quarter's work in the summers. The accelerated program was discontinued in June 1946.

The first Ph.D. in Tech's history was awarded to Nathan Sugarman of Atlanta, Ga., in May 1942. The degree was earned in chemistry.

The many abnormal factors generated by the war helped create a major controversial situation for the Burruss administration and bought it to a head in the summer of 1942.

The Hercules Powder/Radford Ordnance Works had lured away a large number of long-time, trained mess hall employees with the higher pay offered there. Consequently, untrained and often inefficient and careless youngsters in their teens were, of necessity, hired as replacements (some 250 replacements for a force of 35 in the year July 1, 1941, to June 30, 1942).

The big labor turnover led to unsanitary conditions in the mess hall and ensured complaints from the students. A misunderstanding between them and President Burruss resulted in a mass demonstration and march on president's home on July 27, 1942. Because of the unfavorable publicity and his interest in the matter, Gov. Colgate W. Darden Jr. made a trip to the campus on Aug. 11 and talked about the matter with Burruss, Col. R.W. Wilson (then commandant of cadets), and about 15 senior leaders. A special meeting of the board of visitors was called for Aug. 18, and Darden attended. The board decided that a reorganization of the administrative work at the college was needed in order to provide some relief from the "mass of detail" that was "overwhelming" Burruss. The board named a special student life committee to meet with the president at least once a month to consider "all matters that affect student life" and a special committee of faculty and students "with power to act" on the mess hall situation. The campus soon returned to relative normalcy.

In the following year, most of the seniors and juniors received notice that they would be called to active duty after Mar. 19, 1943. This announcement led to rumors that the college would have to close its doors, but these rumors were scotched with another announcement Feb. 27 that the college had been selected for the Army Specialized Training Program and would be used to train Army engineers. Later, additional war training programs, including a small naval pre-flight unit, were added. At the programs' peak, more than 1,800 servicemen were on the campus at the same time.

On June 23, 1944, Radford State Teachers' College was merged with Tech and became Radford College, the Woman's Division of Virginia Polytechnic Institute. A new legal name, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, dropping "Agricultural and Mechanical College," was also adopted. Under the merger, the board of visitors was to be composed of 10 men, four women, and two ex-officio members. The president of VPI became the chancellor and chief administrator of Radford College.

It became obvious in the 1940s that the ever-mounting pressures of the presidency and advancing age were beginning to take their toll on Burruss and were affecting his performance of duties. At a special meeting of the board of visitors in Roanoke on Jan. 4, 1945, Dr. Burruss was granted a six-month leave of absence, and John R. Hutcheson '07, then director of the Agricultural Extension Service, was named executive assistant to the president. Six days later, Burruss suffered a fractured vertebra in an automobile accident near Elliston. On Jan. 12, Col. James Woods, rector of the board, requested Hutcheson to "assume immediately all duties and activities of the president of the institution" until conditions warranted otherwise.

Following a meeting of the board in Blacksburg on May 15, it was announced that Dr. Burruss had been elected "president emeritus," effective July 1, 1945, and that a recommendation for a new president would be brought before the board at its Aug. 14 meeting. At that meeting, Hutcheson was unanimously elected Tech's ninth president.


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Last Modified on: Tuesday, 25-Sep-2001 08:16:06 EDT