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Rearview Mirror: Losing Our Trust[ees]

You can call it 6:00PM on a weeknight ‘cause we’re going back to Brittain.

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Y. Frank Freeman, member of the last Board of Trustees and present-day namesake of Freeman Hall.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection

M. L. Brittain, perhaps the most prodigious builder of all the Tech presidents, surely made his impact felt on the campus. Whether it was athletics or academics, housing or highly prestigious programs and research opportunities, Brittain was here to create the next long before it became a catchy slogan used by the social media pages of this fair Institute. And, sure, within the confines of campus, he was in his element - he could rubber-stamp everything from the use of in-house architectural talent to design new buildings to admissions and everything in between. Long before there were “new sports innovation hack-a-thons,” Brittain had figured out to use the braintrust and clout of the Institute to its’ own advantage. However, he soon found himself on less commanding ground when affairs mingled with those away from the tower on the hilly perch of former Confederate defensive works along North Avenue, with a view of the Georgia State Capitol on the southeastern horizon.

Marion Luther Brittain was a good man, a prescient man, and a capable man. He had a wealth of previous success on campus to back him up when he turned his focus towards his next major challenge: the state legislature.

The state and Tech had long been at odds. Tracing the feud all the way to its origin predates even the founding of the school on North Avenue. Whether it was tiny appropriations, legislative bureaucracy, or just generally not wanting bothersome and needy Tech to exist, the state government had no love lost for Georgia Tech. Much of the early problems at the school - only having two buildings when the school opened, a shop and classrooms, with nary a dormitory, dining hall, library, or student facilities in sight; inability to hire new and qualified staff due to minuscule pay and benefits; reliance on outside donors; slow and precarious expansion - can be directly tied to horribly inattentive and sometimes malicious governance.

As if the unclear relationship to the school in Athens wasn’t already bad enough, the grey area the two schools operated in with respect to one another was often a point of contention. From the Institute’s founding, the powers-that-be in Athens had been attempting to take it over, first by maneuvering to have it colocated with the older school, then by using subtler means as an attempt to wrest control from the burgeoning hub of science and technology education. Brittain’s crucial mistake would be to play right into their hands.

Ever the enterprising education innovator, Brittain had spent much of his early presidency striving to make everything about Tech more efficient. All while publishing what was, at the time, the only history book ever written about Georgia Tech. As he was writing history, he was making it. This efficiency, though, included efficiencies with the state government and Tech’s relationship to its higher powers.

It was an obsession of Brittain’s, really, this striving for clearly defined relationships and state support. On a trip to Savannah, he made a very public address that stated just that - he wanted an overarching government body to define the mess of statewide public higher education and to properly support the institutions chartered by the state legislature, to the tune of $100 per capita at junior colleges and $200 at senior ones. Most importantly, he wanted to limit the public university system to just a few schools - any more would split scarce revenue into even smaller portions. This was a good thought, especially as the iron grip of the Great Depression set in.

The critical problem was that, in advancing this view, which was picked up by a bevy of newspapers, Brittain unwittingly was no longer in the drivers’ seat of his own plan. When the final bill was signed into law creating the University System of Georgia, Tech’s president had inadvertently allowed his own Institute’s Board of Trustees to be smudged out of existence.

To paraphrase Wallace, the Board was excellent because it was self-perpetuated by men of vision who loved Tech.

“During its 45-year lifetime, the Board of Trustees had taken a dream of one lone man [John Hanson] and the dedicated action of another [Nathaniel Harris] and made of them an institution of national prominence. In only 43 years it had created a $2,750,000 property out of one valued at only $140,000. The most amazing thing is that they did it with disturbingly small allocations of state funds. Most of the money for the buildings, the equipment, and the land came from sources other than the state treasury. The ability of these men to raise money from friends and foundations to build a state-owned institution would have been laudable even in the present [1963] when money flows much more freely for educational support. In the era in which they operated the feat was downright unbelievable,” (Wallace, 166).

This was a board of capable alumni, supporters, and friends of the Institute that cared deeply about the school and its students, faculty, and mission. It was not Brittain’s mission to erase them from the picture, but to more clearly define the relationship between their shared Institute and the state it served. Instead, they were blown off the map. Their letters and meeting minutes reflect this deep devotion to the Institute and the work they did cannot be understated. This column is often a column about Great Men and Great Events, espousing the likes of the Cumberland Game, John Heisman, and Col. Lyman Hall. This Board was more than that - they didn’t set out for anything other than excellence. They were not out for personal fame or glory, and often the work they did was behind the scenes. But in losing them, Tech lost the steady hand on the wheel guiding it to safer waters, though, admittedly, four decades after they first set sail, the waters around Tech were decidedly calmer. One calamity would not be the end of Tech, though it very well could have been back in the early days.

In their last letter, addressed to the first chairman of the Board of Regents, the Board of Trustees reflected on what it meant to serve the Institute, and what their place in the changing tides of time were. They also set down an enumerated list of future goals for the Institute, which are interesting, to say the least.

  • “We have adhered strictly to a non-coeducational policy at Georgia Tech. Through wide investigation, we have been convinced unanimously that it was best to keep this particular institution strictly for male students. The very nature of our technical curriculum is not encouraging to female students and if it were, very few would take advantage of it. We have never considered that a small number of female students intermingled with the large male attendance would be best.”
  • “We advise that the Georgia School of Technology be permanently kept at its present location...our scheme of development has been very carefully thought out and for the last several years has been closely followed [there would be several attempts to snare Tech from Atlanta over the years].”
  • “That the Institution be kept entirely a technical school, with proper and sufficient allied commercial courses [emphasis mine]. We believe this policy has given Georgia Tech a National Prominence among Technical Institutions of the United States.”
  • “We strongly advocate encouraging out-of-state students. It would be a great thing to have fifty percent of our students coming from outside of the state of Georgia. This in itself gives our student body a wide acquaintance and a national position, and automatically reduces the cost per student to the State of Georgia.”
  • “We advise everything possible being done to provide Dormitory space for all freshmen and cooperative students.”
  • “Our experience with this Institution has convinced us that it is not necessary to to have at any one time large amounts of money for expansion, such as has been enjoyed by some of our sister institutions in other states. We urge, and would prefer, a reasonable yearly expansion program, systematically applied.”
  • “Athletics and student activities of this Institution have been operated by a Board of Directors of the Athletic Association...we have regarded athletic and student activities as being entirely voluntary and...they should be primarily at the direction of this Association. Operations under this plan have proven satisfactory and of material benefit to the Institution and financial saving to our State.”
  • “We beg to call to your attention to the fact that although the State of Georgia has appropriated but a few thousand dollars to the plant and equipment of Georgia Tech, the Institution, through its policies [etc.]...[has seen] that its progress was never retarded.”

The Board of Trustees earnestly sought the best for Tech. Though not everything they did was perfect, they set Tech on the path to more success. They had Tech’s best interests at heart. Not every one of those ideals they spelled out in their last letter is still true to this day, some for the better, some for the worse. Often, those big-picture decisions were not made at the Institutional level, but rather by the new Board of Regents.

And that Board of Regents was, without exaggeration, entirely composed of exactly no one connected to Tech. Rather, with the way the state legislature had connived the independent oversight away from the Institute, Tech no longer was in charge of its own destiny. Rather, the Board of Regents was a new construct controlled entirely by graduates of the school in Athens. That would only spell doom, with the Athenians finally having a way to pull strings on the Atlanta campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Dark clouds loomed over the school on the hill on the north side of Atlanta.

Yes, this is a two part column. If you’re already pretty agitated, I cannot imagine what you’ll think when you figure out what comes next.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.

If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule (as the column is only planned out through Hate Week). What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Hope springs eternal on the Flats. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.