Undoubtedly the years that Minor, Buchanan, and Conrad spent in the presidency of the college were the most turbulent ones in the history of the college. Only a few incidents will be mentioned here.
To begin with, President Minor had a fist fight with Professor Lane, his commandant of cadets, and as a result was removed from the presidency by the Board of Visitors, which then elected Dr. John L. Buchanan president of the college.
At the time, Virginia was carrying a heavy handed indebtedness as the result of the Civil War and the reconstruction period. A number of people in both parties in the legislation wanted to readjust the bonds downward. These people naturally came to be called Readjusters.
In 1878, these Readjusters were in control of the legislature and in 1881 elected a governor as well. Once in office, many leaders tried to organize the movement into a state party. One Readjuster in campaigning for office openly pledged if elected "to put all administrative departments in the state in sympathy with the people," meaning he would replace all incumbents with members from his own party. As far as possible, the promise was carried out in the legislative sessions of 1879-80 and 1881-82. At the session of 1881-82, the legislature elected a new Board of Visitors, all Readjusters, for the V. A. M. C.
Before this time, about March 1, 1880, Dr. Buchanan had assumed the presidency of the college and acting on instructions of the board, had reorganized the college, especially the military department, along lines which have survived to the present time. At the time it elected Buchanan to the presidency, the Board of Visitors also established a preparatory department and gave responsibility for it to the professor of English. At the same time, the salaries of the faculty were reduced, and V. E. Shepherd was assigned the duties of treasurer with no additional pay.
Surprisingly or not, the Readjuster Board of Visitors appointed by the Readjusters Governor, ignoring the fact that Dr. Buchanan had been in office less than two weeks, declared all offices of the V. A. M. C. vacant and began electing a new president and new faculty. Buchanan was offered the presidency, but he declined it. Whereupon the board elected Colonel Scott Shipp, at that time on the faculty of V. M. I., and asked him to meet with the executive committee of the board on April 25.
The assignments of the faculty elected on August 12, 1880 indicated the nature of the reorganization desired by the board at this time. Those appointed were Colonel Scott Shipp, president and professor of mental and moral philosophy; John Hart, professor of English literature, Latin and French and director of the preparatory department; Martin P. Scott, M. D., professor of chemistry, natural history, and agriculture and director of the part of the college farm designated for experimental purposes; J. C. Christian, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy; Colonel W. W. Blackford, professor of mechanics and drawing, and director of the workshop and superintendent of grounds and buildings; E. S. Detwiler, farm manager; and John Gardner, treasurer. In line with the board's determination to reduce the military program, no one person was assigned responsibility for military tactics, but it was assumed that Colonel Shipp would add this instruction to his other duties.
Colonel Shipp had a different idea. When the executive committee of the boards showed him the proposed plan of organization and assignments, apparently it was the first time Shipp had seen the plan. In the warm discussion that followed, Shipp realized the board, not the faculty, would be in charge of the plan for organization to be followed. He resigned at once!
Regardless of whether Shipp's term as president is measured by the two weeks between his appointment as president on April 12 and his resignation on April 25 or by the one day spent in Blacksburg as president, his tenure still stands today as the shortest one for any president of the college. Shipp returned to V. M. I. where he enjoyed a lifetime career of exceptionally distinguished service to that institution.
Shipp's resignation on the eve of opening the college created both consternation and disarray in the board. Ruffner was offered but immediately declined the presidency, whereupon Professor John Hart was appointed acting president. Hart neither wanted nor sought the presidency but accepted the role of acting president, expecting to be relieved upon the appointment of a president. The board simply couldn't find one, and Hart reluctantly presided over the college for the 1880-81 session, perhaps the darkest session ever experienced by the school.
Professor V. E. Shepherd was called back to the faculty to assist Hart and to take charge of the preparatory department. But how could the military feature required in the Morrill Act be met? Fortunately there was a group of students on campus that had received instruction in military tactics by the new departed General J. H. Lane. One of their group was named acting commandant, and the others were designated officers. This group, according to the board, managed all drill throughout the session with the zeal, diligence, and efficiency it was reasonable to expect.
Unfortunately the board did not show the same efficiency in seeking a new president. Ruffner was again offered the presidency. There is no doubt that he was interested in the office, but neither is there any doubt as to why he declined. He knew the Readjusters would eventually fire him; and shortly after his refusal of the presidency, he learned that the Readjusters were planning to remove him as Superintendent of Public Instruction for Virginia. He thereupon resigned from the office. His resignation ended the connection of this remarkable man with V. A. M. C., but did not terminate his distinguished career as an educator in the state.
For reasons known only to itself, the board made no public effort to secure a president until it met in Blacksburg, in May 1881, and offered the presidency to Dr. Buchanan. To everyone's surprise, he accepted, and for the second time became president of V. A. M. C. Apparently the fact that Professor Hart had not been molested in any way while he was acting president for a full session led Buchanan to believe he would not be disturbed. Unfortunately he was wrong.
Governor Holliday, a Democrat, had appointed a Board of Visitors for the college that had not received approval by the Readjuster Senate which immediatley rejected the board. Governor Cameron, a Readjuster, therefore nominated a new Board of Visitors, all Readjusters, and sent the nomination to the state senate on January 17, 1882. The senate immediately confirmed the nomination to the board that reportedly met the same day, removed the president, the professors, and the officers who had been appointed by the preceding board and proceeded to fill all vacancies by electing a president, a faculty, and other officers for the college. By resolution the newly elected president was instructed to take charge of the college at once, ascertain its condition, and report a plan of reorganization.
The ubiquitous Thomas Conrad who had been bypassed on four previous occassions at last achieved his ambition. He was selected by the board for the president of V. A. M. C.
Because of the unsettling political conditions of the time, Dr. John Lee Buchanan had been removed from office for the second time as a result of the action of the Readjusters. By a peculiar turn of fortune and politics in 1885, Buchanan assumed the presidency of the University of Arkansas and was largely instrumental in further development of the university.
The board that placed Conrad in office in February 1880, made certain changes in the faculty. Professors Scott, Christian, and Shepherd were reappointed. Shepherd was promoted to professor of Latin and modern languages; John Gardner was again treasurer; William Grim replaced Professor Hart; W. W. Blackford was released, not to be replaced until the next year. Eli Tutwiler, farmer, was released and his position was abolished. C. H. Hitchcock was employed as the first professor of geology and minerology, and William B. Preston became professor of physics and military tactics.
Thomas Nelson Conrad, the third, fourth, fifth or sixth president depending on how and when one starts counting in the previous rapid succession of presidents, undoubtedly had the most colorful as well as controversial background of any person ever to hold the office of president during the first century of V. A. M. C.
A native of Fairfax Court House, Conrad had earned A.B. and M.A. degrees from Dickenson College in Pennsylvania. During the Civil War, he was chaplain and later scout (spy) for the Confederates operating in northern Virginia. In the latter capacity he was captured on numerous occasions in Washington and environs behind enemy lines. His feats of deering-do as self reported in his book A Confederate Spy could do credit to a modern TV thriller series. In one incident as he reported, he was arrested as a suspected accomplice in the assasination of President Abraham Lincoln and escaped being lynched by the crowd only by the protection of his guard who was taking him to prison. After several days of imprisonment, he was able to prove his innocence and was released.
As instructed by the board, Conrad took charge of the college and immediately gave a report on the college as he found it. This report, obviously organized to show the neglect and "know-how" of previous administrations as opposed to the benefits of the Readjusters' "know-how," was long and detailed. Having heard the report, the board decided to offer the A.B. degree in the literary and scientific department, beginning with the session of 1882-83. The college was organized into four departments: agricultural, mechanical, literary, and scientific and business.