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Virginia Tech Historical Data Book, Section 2.1:
Student Body Evolution

Although the first faculty members and officers of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College were undoubtedly nervous as they waited for their first student, William A. Caldwell of Craig County, to "wander in the front door" back on Oct. 1, 1872, it was not long before some of them might have wished that no student had ever shown up for classes. By the end of the first year, the student body had grown to 132, but it would take almost 10 years before any real disciplinary policy could be firmly established. By that time, student misbehavior had helped cause problems that nearly shut the college down.

Until recent years, Blacksburg and Virginia Tech had always been rather remote from Virginia's urban entertainment centers and offered little for students to do in their spare time. Consequently, the student body had to provide most of its own entertainment during much of the university's first century. The resulting student solutions to the problem of what to do when they weren't studying often led to even greater problems for officials of both the town and the university.

Although military training has been offered from the earliest days, initially, there was no disciplined cadet structure. There were two major reasons for this situation: many of the students had to live in town because of lack of housing on campus; and the first president of the college chose to interpret the Morrill Land Grant Act's "military tactics requirement" as merely requiring that such tactics be offered. President Minor's interpretation of the act, while valid, would soon be challenged quite strongly.

Since the early students could find so little to do in town, they had to create their own pastimes. The Gray Jacket, the first student publication, reported in May 1877 that prevailing student "games" were "marbles, fishing in Tom's Creek and the New River, baseball, and checkers." The students also had debating societies and national social fraternities, but it was not enough to keep them busy during the long afternoons and nights in which they were free to roam.

To help alleviate some of the boredom, most of the students played pranks on each other, the faculty, and the townspeople. One standard student joke was to send a roommate's belongings home to his girlfriend. Another joke, as reported in the Gray Jacket, was to stage a fake duel between two students and make unsuspecting freshmen believe that one student had killed the other. Students painted Minor's cow on one occasion and on numerous other occasions "borrowed" carriages from faculty and townspeople, disassembled them, and then reassembled them on the roofs of college buildings.

Students often would engage in noisemaking orgies in the middle of the night, sneaking up on some unsuspecting faculty or local resident's house and suddenly letting loose with noise from every conceivable percussion instrument they could acquire or make. Some of these sessions might have been planned in one of the local barrooms over "one too many drinks," or so the townspeople thought. In May 1877, the Gray Jacket lamented: "A few weeks ago our little town boasted of four bar-rooms in full operation; now, only one is open to the public, and that one against the solemn protest of the people." Possibly in protest over the demise of so many of the local pubs, the students (referred to as "a party of persons" in the July 1877 Gray Jacket) proceeded to demolish the kerosene lamps on Blacksburg's Main Street. "For some minutes the cries of the mob and rattle of smashing glass rendered Main Street hideously musical," the Gray Jacket reported. Since many of the students were also members of the five national social fraternities that had local chapters at the time, some of the blame for the mischief was put on members of those groups.

As student behavior became more and more of a problem, the faculty and officers of the college split into two factions. Gen. James H. (Gamecock) Lane, who was in charge of military tactics, wanted the college organized along lines similar to Virginia Military Institute, believing that it would be the solution to the disciplinary problem. Minor, on the other hand, did not believe that the state legislature had envisioned another military institute in the state, and he strongly disagreed with Lane. The two points of view both had their supporters in the faculty, and the argument came to a head one day when Minor and Lane got into a heated discussion about the subject and ended up in a fistfight. The increasing dissension and disciplinary problems at the college became public knowledge throughout the state, causing a loss of confidence in the college and a consequent and drastic decline in enrollment. The board of visitors finally decided that something had to be done to keep the college from closing its doors, and it ordered a reorganization of the college and replacement of Minor in 1879.

The "Report of the Committee on Reorganization" was adopted on Nov. 13, 1879. Enrollment had dropped to 50 in the 1879-80 session, the lowest ever. Since all of the students could be housed on campus for the first time, that was one of the committee's recommendations. The lack of discipline in the student body was attributed to classes ending at 2 p.m., leaving students on their own until the next day. In the words of the report: "After classes are over the students are masters of their own time, and they would be exceptionally good youths if they did not require habits of idleness and soon become familiar with the vices which idleness invariably begets and which can be so conveniently supplied in a small village."

Another recommendation of the Committee on Reorganization concerned a decided shift in the prominence of military training: "To be efficient, the military discipline must be rigid, and the penalties for disobedience must be military in their character, and the drill must be made obligatory . . . of all students not specially excepted; . . . a college uniform is essential to the successful establishment of military instruction . . . and the students should be required to wear it except when in their rooms or on detail duty . . ." Additionally, all students were required to attend church on Sunday mornings and daily religious exercises under the direction of the president of the college. Membership in all secret societies was also prohibited.

Although it would take two more years to fully implement the recommendations of the Committee on Reorganization, the student body would closely follow the military pattern established by the 1879 board of visitors for most of the next 75 years. The college would never become entirely military, however, since there were always some students excused from drill and the corps of cadets for physical reasons. The military structure did not entirely solve the discipline problem either, since the cadets were still bored in their isolated environment and dreamed up new ways to misbehave: hazing freshmen in new and ingenious ways; dropping bags of water on unsuspecting passersby from the barracks windows; stuffing retreat cannons with rocks that went flying everywhere; shooting off dynamite caps; and general destruction following barracks parties fueled with "Brush Mountain Spirits."

During the Lomax administration (1886-91), discipline deteriorated to such an extent that the board of visitors forced Lomax to resign his office. President John M. McBryde (1891-1907) also had his problems with students. In the fall of 1904 a junior was expelled from college and told his classmates that he had not received fair treatment from the faculty. The junior class became highly incensed over the matter and, without investigating the reasons for their classmate's dismissal, issued a demand that the faculty reinstate him. While the faculty was taking its time in responding to the demand, the entire junior class, except for 12, withdrew from the college. Most of them applied for readmission after the Christmas holidays, but each had to formally "express regret for their hasty action and their intention of giving due recognition to the paramount authority of the governing body."

"Sophomore Night," a later development, became a cadet "tradition" that soon had each succeeding class trying to outdo the preceding one in the amount of mischief and destruction wreaked. It all came to a climax in 1925, when cadet sophomores took cows to the top floor of the barracks; placed a farm wagon, harrows, grain drill, skeleton, and horsedrawn hearse on the roofs of various barracks; took two steam rollers from a highway construction job and brought them to campus for a "bullfight" between two students; headed a grocery truck down a basement stairway; filled the barracks quadrangle with all manner of livestock; and hauled a fully-assembled fire hose reel up a flag pole. President Burruss decided to make the sophomores pay for all the damages before he would let them graduate. The mischievousness then subsided.

In 1921 women were admitted to Tech for the first time as full-time students, slightly increasing the size of the non-military student body. About the same time, Burruss and a faculty study committee proposed to eliminate the corps of cadets and put the entire college on a civilian basis. The board of visitors discussed the proposal and then decided to keep the corps - but with one important change: Beginning with the 1924-25 session, only the first two years of the corps would be mandatory for all able-bodied male students; the last two years would be optional.

As the number of civilian students began to increase rapidly, a movement to form a civilian student government was launched, culminating in establishing a Civilian Student Union formed in November 1930 by about 200 males "out of military." Women were not included because they were still considered "second class citizens" by Tech males. In fact, coeds were not allowed representation in The Bugle until 1939 and, even then, it was tokenism; they were given a single page in the extracurricular club section. Coeds formed their own Women's Student Union in September 1934. The following year, male civilians and cadets established a "super student government" to act on matters of common interest to both groups, but each continued to maintain a separate student government as well. This arrangement was dissolved in the fall of 1939 because the civilians found the cadets had too much power. They did, however, maintain a joint committee to coordinate matters of mutual interest. The two civilian unions of males and coeds then decided to unite and form a single Civilian Student Body on Nov. 14, 1939.

The student body was comparatively "at ease" throughout the 1930s, but it hit the headlines again in the early 1940s when unsanitary conditions in the dining hall provoked a mass demonstration and march on Burruss' home in July 1942. Gov. Colgate W. Darden Jr. came to the campus to talk with Burruss about the matter, which had created a great deal of unfavorable publicity. Evidently convinced that Burruss had not devoted enough time to student affairs because of an overload of work, Darden called a meeting of the board of visitors to correct the situation. The board decided to establish a Student Life Committee (forerunner of the president Commission on Student Affairs), which would meet with Burruss at least once a month to consider "all matters that affect student life." In addition, the board named a special committee of faculty and students "with power to act" on the dining hall situation. The dining hall incident quickly faded into the background the following year, when most of the students received notice that they would be called to active military duty.

During World War II, the student body declined from a high of 3,582 in 1942-43 to a low of 738 in 1944-45. The college was kept going during most of the war by several special training programs primarily for Army engineers, which brought as many as 18,800 soldiers to the campus at the program's peak. Following World War II, veterans were excused from participation in the corps and, with the huge influx of returning servicemen, civilians outnumbered cadets for the first time in the winter of 1946. They have been more numerous ever since. Another attempt to merge cadet and civilian student governments was made in the fall of 1946 but was defeated at the polls by a 10-1 margin.

In 1950 the board of visitors undertook another study of the corps of cadets and the question of the military requirement for most freshmen and sophomores. The board did not announce its decision until 1952, when it decided to strengthen the corps through appointment of the first full-time commandant of cadets since World War I. New Student Life Regulations and a Basic Policy for Student Life were also established in the fall of 1952, along with the first official dormitory counselors program. The first black student in Tech's history enrolled as a freshman cadet in the fall of 1953.

The recurring problem of student unrest arose again in 1957 when Blacksburg town officials announced their intent to annex the campus. Car-owning students, fearing that they would then have to buy town auto tags, staged a six-hour demonstration and boycotted downtown stores for one day. Police were forced to use tear gas to break up the demonstration, but the students won the battle when town council finally dropped the annexation plan. It would be 12 years before Blacksburg would again attempt to make campus students town residents, and two more years before the town would win court approval to do so.

As Virginia Tech began its real surge from college to university status in the 1960s, it soon became evident that many excellent students were not considering enrollment at Tech because of the mandatory two-year corps of cadets requirement. In addition, the failure rate of freshman cadets was higher than that for civilian freshmen. After considerable study, the board of visitors finally decided on May 18, 1964, to make participation in the corps of cadets voluntary for all male students. It left standing, however, a requirement for two years of ROTC for freshmen and sophomores. This decision caused an avalanche of criticism from pro-corps alumni who believed that the move would send the corps to a speedy demise. In order to clear the air, Gov. A.S. Harrison Jr. requested the board of visitors to hold an open meeting on campus for all sides to be heard. After listening to 64 people express their opinions, the board went into executive session on June 29 and reaffirmed the voluntary corps concept with one important change: participation in ROTC would be restricted to members of the corps. This meant that, effective in the fall of 1964, the university returned to the original founders' concept that military tactics merely be offered, not required.

From the time the first coeds were admitted to Tech in 1921 down to the late 1960s, there had been little growth in their numbers. Radford College, about 20 miles away, had been merged with Tech as the "Women's Division of VPI" in 1944, and most coeds enrolled there, except when the courses they wanted were available only at Blacksburg. With the rapid growth of both institutions in the early 1960s, it became increasingly difficult to have both the state's largest university and largest women's college under a single board of visitors and single top administration. The board of visitors decided to request a separation of the two institutions, and a bill to that effect was introduced in the General Assembly in January 1964. The legislature approved the measure and it became effective on July 1, 1964.

The two actions concerning the corps and Radford changed the student body composition enormously. Enrollment in the fall of 1963 totaled approximately 6,000, of which 274 were women and about 2,000 were cadets. Eight years later, enrollment was 13,282, of which almost 4,000 were coeds and less than 600 were cadets. While total enrollment had more than doubled, coed enrollment had increased 13 times. At the same time, cadet enrollment had declined to less than one-third of its 1963 strength, making it the smallest corps in more than 50 years.

In September 1964 a joint committee of civilians and cadets was organized to frame a constitution that would try once again to unite the two groups under one student government. The constitution was defeated by the cadets in a referendum the following March, even though the civilians had supported the unification overwhelmingly. A slightly revised constitution, eliminating some cadet objections, was brought up for a vote on Feb. 22, 1966, and was passed overwhelmingly by both groups. The constitution, which established a Unified Student Body of all Tech students, became effective April 19, 1966. The name of the organization was changed to the Student Government Association in the 1967-68 session. Civilians and cadets continued to maintain separate Honor Courts, however. A single Honor Court, established in January 1935, had tried both civilians and cadets for violations of the honor code until fall 1939, when the civilians established their own court. Tech students officially adopted an Honor System in the 1908-09 session, although they had started the system unofficially at least two years earlier.

The rapid shift in the composition of the student body was accompanied by a shift in many student attitudes - both nationally and at Tech - in the mid-1960s. It became a national student fetish to challenge college administrations' concepts on practically everything, and when an administration was too slow to change its concepts or refused to accede to unreasonable demands, the students quite often became violent. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, a vocal minority of Tech students held both peaceful and disruptive demonstrations and, occasionally, engaged in destructive activities. The basis for their complaints ranged from assertions that the university was not doing its part in relieving the ills of the world down to a demand to be allowed to conduct their lives in the campus residence halls without university supervision or regulation.

It will be some time before the lasting effect of recent events can be put into proper perspective. There was no question that the evolution of the student body had come a long way since 1872; the only question that remained was: "Where is it going in its second century?"


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Last Modified on: Tuesday, 25-Sep-2001 08:16:07 EDT