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Rearview Mirror: The Commerce of Corruption

On this day, we give thanks for what we have, for those we share, and for the fond memories of that which we have lost.

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W. Elliott Dunwoody, first Tech man on the Board of Regents.
Georgia Tech Archives/George C. Griffin Photograph Collection (

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. And that Board of Regents was, without exaggeration, composed entirely of no one connected to Tech. Rather, with the way the state legislature had connived independent oversight away from the Institute, Tech was no longer 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.

For part one, click here. To see what happens with “Ma Tech tied to the railroad tracks,” read on.

“Brittain, the faculty, and the alumni immediately became alarmed about Tech’s growth under the new system when the members of the first Board of Regents was announced by the Governor’s Office,” (Wallace, 171).

When the first Board of Regents was assembled, there was much to be worried about. Though it was bad enough no Tech man made it on to the board that would largely dictate the future direction of the Institute, as well as the rest of the state’s public higher education, what made it worse was that the wide majority were graduates of the school in Athens.

Though the board filled their first vacancy with W. Elliott Dunwoody, a graduate of the Class of 1914 in Architecture, one solitary voice would not be enough to counterbalance the massive influence of the other school. The Institute’s lack of lobbying clout would drastically shape the progress of the Georgia School of Technology, in ways it was not prepared to handle, in ways that it should not have been treated, and in ways that often served no purpose other than to malign, distract, or even harm the school on North Avenue.

M. L. Brittain, who was still the president of the Institute, had long been a warrior fighting for greater efficiency in higher education. He was actually thrilled by the initial prospects of an oversight committee for higher education in the state of Georgia. He figured an impartial group of professionals would bring equity and balance to the wild, wild west of dueling over public funding, school programming, and long-term development. Just flip to an older week’s Rearview Mirror for an example. From budgets to buildings to the approval of a research department, the state and the school had long been at odds. As the process unfolded, though, it became extremely clear Brittain wasn’t getting what he asked for, but a rather a formally enshrined continuation of the same toxic system.

Immediately off the bat, the new university system was deeply in debt. The first three years of the Great Depression had taken a massive toll on the finances of state schools. One of their initial decisions to combat this would be to cut salaries for teachers, a move that made no one happy and almost everyone quite mad. The rampant duplication of subject matter and facilities amongst glorified high schools within the small colleges that made up the majority of the state university system was chief among the contributors to the problem. However, changes were in store for the bigger schools as well.

Just as the school in Athens had always had its designs on controlling the trade school on the hill outside Atlanta, they had also long coveted the State College of Agriculture and the State Normal School. They had always seen these as mere departments of the true mothership. This is the same light in which they had always viewed Georgia Tech, the school explicitly founded to be separate from them and placed in Atlanta not-insignificantly to be free from the conniving, manipulative ways of the leadership in Athens. The school had spent years underfunded, sure, but, before the extreme power play that was the creation of the Board of Regents, the Athenians had never been successful. It begs the question, though - on what planet would a school play varsity sports teams from a different part of the same school, on a campus located 70 miles away? Georgia Tech was always operated as an independent institution because it was an independent institution. That logic would be like Tech’s College of Design decided to up and move to Macon, start their own sports teams, oh, and be a separate institution chartered as such by the state of Georgia legislature.

But yeah, now the Athenians had the teachers and the farmers.

A commissioned report from the next year further recommended reducing the number of units in the system and to increase support for the leading three institutions in the state: the Women’s College in Millidgeville, Georgia Tech, and the school out east. Just like that, seven schools were cut out of the state university system. High school equivalence education was eliminated as well. The Georgia Tech Evening School of Commerce, a night school that taught business to Atlantans, was separated from Tech and merged into the Adult Education programs from Athens, though the program moved as well - to Downtown - seeing as Atlanta was a hub not only from business itself, but for adults seeking education to easily access. This eventually became Georgia State.

Losing the proud Evening School of Commerce was one thing, but paled in comparison to the next, most drastic step. It was quite a heated discussion in those days that both Tech and the school out east taught business administration. The report, as well as the board, strongly believed that Georgia could not support two schools of commerce. It is not difficult to imagine which school would be better suited to host said business education - obviously the one in the middle of a sleepy collegiate farm town in rural Georgia, not the hub of commerce, trade, and movement for the entire southeast. What an easy decision.

The Board of Regents decided that all engineering training at the school out east would be moved to Georgia Tech and that the commerce department of the Georgia School of Technology would be carted off to Athens.

The paltry civil and electrical engineering work done in Athens was modest. Back in Atlanta, though, 447 students, more than 20 percent of Tech’s student body, were seeking degrees in the commerce school. Just like that, in the height of the Great Depression, Tech was to be crippled, best illustrated by the image of turning a regular table with four legs into a pile of kindling after the new and improved three legged table crashes to the floor because some dude haphazardly cut off a leg with a rusty butter knife. It was not good.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention how a huge portion of those commerce students were Tech’s athletes.

“Tech students and alumni construed this as a political measure inspired by [the Athenians] to ruin Tech’s athletic program while the administration and faculty considered it in the more practical light as a move that would drain off over 20 percent of the student body. In the depression years, this was a serious consideration,” (Wallace, 174).

Brittain tried to fight the regents, only to be rebuked. In what had to have been the most difficult homecoming presidential address in the school’s history, Brittain thanked his students of the Class of 1933, whom had just given him a painting, saying, “It is particularly significant that some of these men are the survivors of the Department of Commerce just taken from us at Georgia Tech. I have an idea that their feeling that I was so at one with them in regard to this loss may have something to do with this token of their affection and esteem for I have never concealed my belief that it is not in the best interests of this institution, city, or state to remove the Department of Commerce from the Georgia School of Technology,” (Brittain, 1933). Hidden in that quote are two very important takeaways - kids that could stay at Tech did choose to stay at Tech. They loved this school more than their degree. That’s true Tech pride. Second, that Brittain does largely reflect the feelings of the school. The institute is not a solely engineering school then, just as it isn’t today. To chastise people today because they “took the M-train” or basically pick any degree besides non-Industrial Engineering or Computer Science is dumb, and the students of 1932 undoubtedly would agree.

Brittain said it best, continuing,

“It could not aid as a measure of economy from any standpoint and so logical is this decision in Atlanta for a department that I believe time will show the wisdom of its return. The responsibility which I have carried during these last years in guiding the fortunes of Georgia Tech has forced upon me a clear perception of our best interests and I do not think they are so definitely understood even by those of our own friends, who would restrict our activities. My own view is that this should be a distinct technical college rather than the Engineering Department of the [the school in Athens]. Engineers certainly need training in Business Administration. What I fear most, however, is that this first elimination will lead to the loss of other departments, as of Architecture, for instance, with the purpose of making Georgia Tech a mere subsidiary of the school at Athens instead of a complete technical college as I desire. Georgia cannot afford to dim the lustre of this school which has won fame in this country as well as abroad through the excellence of its work. We have too few colleges whose reputation extends beyond the Mason and Dixon Line. That we have fairly earned this high place let me prove by facts that have taken place since I have been president,” (Brittain, 1933).

Brittain would go on to elaborate about how, just including recent years, Tech had been granted one of six Navy ROTC branches in the country, the prestigious Daniel Guggenheim award in Aeronautics, and the highest rank in American higher education, approval in the Association of American Universities. Brittain would conclude, stating,

“Not intentionally would the fine personnel of the Board of Regents diminish this hard-won position, but I am frank to say this loss of our Commerce Department would never have occurred if Georgia Tech had been given our just share of alumni members on the Board of Regents with the instinctive and natural leaning towards their Alma Mater,” (Brittain, 1933).

Commerce would eventually return to the state capital, first via the reorganization of the adult education programs into the Georgia State College of Business Administration. Of course, this time there was no qualms about leaving a school of commerce in Atlanta. Later on, Tech was able to restart its own college of management, which proudly exists today as the Ernest Scheller School of Business. Brittain was right, after all. At the time Wallace wrote Dress Her in White and Gold, just the former of those two had yet happened, but his quote applies doubly today: “In avoiding duplication one place, the Regents had done nothing but start it somewhere else at higher cost,” (Wallace, 177).

Funny enough, the School of Economics at Tech was founded just two years after the elimination of commerce, the opening salvo in what would be a patchwork war to replace the degree. Industrial Management wasn’t far behind it, though it wouldn’t be until the twenty-first century that the management degree, for all intents and purposes the same as the commerce degree taken away in the thirties, would once again become known as business.

And as for the school in Athens, they similarly started their own patchwork of motley engineering degrees. In 2012, that became a full-fledged engineering department. Chair of the state appropriations committee Earl Ehrhart stated, “As long as I’m chair of the committee, they won’t receive a dime for that engineering program.” That engineering program hasn’t even been accredited for three months.

Did this specific event hurt Tech drastically? Of course. The financial hit hurt, but losing a huge student population and selling point for school degree diversity was brutal. The systematic suppression of the Georgia School of Technology has repeatedly kneecapped its abilities to thrive at the highest level, yet we always have overcome it. Tech is one of the greatest institutions in the world, endowed with excellent traditions, an inspiring history, and proud athletics, not to mention the academic and professional excellence that overflows from the Hill on down. They tried to kill the school, it didn’t die. They tried to kill athletics, they didn’t die. It is a testament to the ethos of the Institute itself, from its founding on down, to its very existence today. It is easy to get lost in “Great Man” history, the stories of landmark individuals from John Heisman to Marion Brittain, to Blake Van Leer, to people like Bud Peterson, Paul Johnson and Todd Stansbury today. However, it is not incorrect to say that every day, whether your commitment to Tech is administrative, athletic, teaching or being taught, or the researching on the cutting edge of almost every imaginable level, you uniquely contribute to that history. The Georgia Institute of Technology has always found a way to not only survive, but thrive. That’s what brings us together, that’s what makes us special, and that’s what makes this stark divide to apparent - the genteel old school in the country, with all the professional education, all the clout in government, and all the systematic advantages, versus the trade school on a hill, broke, whose second building burned down before the first class even graduated. But at the same time, it exudes the ideals of the New South industrialists, proud innovators creating the next in progress, and in service. It is something special, the bond of being a Yellow Jacket. Tech students, faculty, fans, family - you name it - we share this legacy, together. Today, for that, we all give thanks.

In the ultimate irony, nowadays, the Scheller College of Business is, across the board, rated even higher than its counterpart in Athens.

What’s the good word?

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 this very column. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.