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Rearview Mirror: Drexel by Default


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Matheson watches another of the programs born under his watch, the Reserve Officer Training Corps.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection

The constant of running a state school is its incessant limbo in the whims of state legislative politics. Always. Let alone the University System of Georgia. Let alone the Board of Regents. Or, for that matter, the strange and different political bodies of third president Kenneth Matheson’s days at the helm of the Georgia School of Technology. Arguably those politics had a hand in the very demise of second president Captain Lyman Hall, let alone the retirement of Dr. Isaac Hopkins. And though Matheson was busy shaping Tech into the behemoth we know today, a faint feeling was about him. And that would ultimately come to a head in the aftermath of the Great War.

The beautiful thing about being an undergraduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology - there’s a lot in the name, but more on that later - is that there’s so many opportunities outside the classrooms. Sure we all know about Greek life and attending sports on the Flats or joining that odd club that keeps handing out flyers on Skiles Walkway or hacking into the school in Athens’ calendars, and those are tried and true ways to spend your time at Tech. But what about the other stuff in the weekly circulars I presume most departments send out. Looking at the Mechanical Engineering one this week, I see info about co-ops, research at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, and the Bachelors/Masters program. Cues 30 for 30 music.

What if I were to tell you that Kenneth Matheson oversaw the creation of all of those? That almost no one remembers how? That, sometimes, it is a matter of life and death? That no one can escape state politics? What if I told you he’s more than just his library? That you can’t heal all wounds with a fight song? That the man everyone loved, just up and resigned? What if I told you running the Institute was more like climbing a Hill? 1 story. 1 president. Like half a decade or something. This week on FTRS’ critically unknown Rearview Mirror. Thursdays at 8:00 AM. Presented by...okay, fine, time to get to the point.

Boy, aren’t rhetorical questions just swell? Welcome back. Those FTRS readers who are also alumni with a memory for about 2004 through 2016 might remember the Campaign Georgia Tech. Tech raised upwards of $1.8 billion in an historic fundraising campaign spanning more than a decade. This funded 103 endowed chairs and professorships, endowed deans and school chairs, the renovation or construction of 15 facilities around campus, and included $275 million for the Athletic Association. There have been many funding drives in the history of the Georgia Institute of Technology, but the first one was the Greater Georgia Tech campaign. The $100,000 raised by Matheson in 1917 pales in comparison to the almost incomprehensible sum raised just two years ago, but it was enough to construct and stock Tech’s power station tucked into one of the last undeveloped corners of the Hill. From Richard Wallace in Dress Her in White and Gold,

“The campaign was a success mainly through the subscriptions of the businessmen of Atlanta, who by now seemed completely sold on the value of the school to the city’s growth,” (Wallace, 68).

The school’s financial situation was getting less and less precarious as time passed. Sure, there weren’t too many alumni to lean on to fund the operation with donations when the state and the budget didn’t quite line up, but Tech was gaining powerful allies with every successful graduate they sent to work about six blocks south on Techwood.

The point of this new power supply station was to be the centralized, beating heart of a new state-of-the-art engineering research facility. The Engineering Experiment Station, as it was originally known, wasn’t created by the state legislature until 1919. It took until 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, that it even became operational. Federal funds earmarked in 1919 weren’t tapped until 1939 when the first wing of the new research building as finally completed. Needless to say, keeping the lights on was pretty fine for the building, too. But Matheson was busy laying the groundwork in facilities and legislature for what would become one of the foremost research organizations in the academic world. Gravitational waves? The world has an English professor-turned-Institute president to thank for that.

Funding for the school from the legislature, the county, and the city grew steadily as the school and the Atlanta businessmen it supplied with able and ready employees both increased in stature. As the city expanded, so Tech did with it, and sometimes into it, as the slow push north, followed by explosive postwar growth to the west, though that is getting slightly ahead of topic. Fulton County, for its part, lent contracting work and grading (read: prison labor) for the many hills and lots Tech owned, in order to shape it into useable land. Tech’s footprint was roughly from today’s Downtown Connector to Fourth to Cherry to North Avenue.

Matheson also spearheaded the cooperative education program at Tech. This program, now featuring semester long stints, usually three, broken up by semesters of school, originally started in 1912 on alternating one-week shifts. The twelve mechanical and electrical engineering students in the initial program worked for the Central of Georgia railroad and would take classes from Monday through Saturday, travel overnight and into Sunday and fall promptly asleep in the space left open by whoever was on the opposite schedule. Yikes. It slowly was extended, until after the war it became month-long rotations. By the Great Depression, it finally hit its modern length. Though Wallace says it takes five years for sure for a co-op to graduate, stranger things happen nowadays on campus than seeing someone make it out in a whirl of four total years featuring three semesters of co-oping.

Perhaps Matheson’s most productive obsession, as he had many, evidenced by the library, was his incessant drive to raise the school’s academic reputation as high as possible. The number of enrollees was skyrocketing, quintupling over his sixteen year stint in the president’s chair. Though around six hundred of those students were studying in the night programs, which he was also highly involved in, the full-time population quadrupled in its own right. Notably driven by a quote from a visiting Atlanta banker about how he was in favor of the school for churning out legions of plumbers and blacksmiths, Matheson spurred the creation of the first the Chemistry Department in 1906, followed by the 1908 addition of the Architecture Department, and in 1912 the Commerce Department. More on that one later, say, Thanksgiving week. Slowly, Tech evolved from the shop culture model of Worcester Institute, but never quite made it all the way to the ivory tower pure theory of the Massechusetts Institute of Technology. Tech’s founders wouldn’t be totally appalled. But, occupying the unique middle ground elevated Tech’s academic profile with important theoretical courses. Of course, more weeding out of the student body from academics, as opposed to lofty moral and physical standards helped as well.

Tech’s academic stratification was landmarked and probably elevated by the addition of the evening schools. Though these were significantly below the rising Tech standard, they served a psychological marker. The main Tech curriculum couldn’t be some intellectual backwater of a trade school excuse for an institute of technology if it was clearly also teaching vocational courses to the city of Atlanta at large. The Evening Schools of Applied Science and of Commerce in the Engineering Extension Division were justified by Tech being the best suited in the city to provide it, even if it was below the ever-increasing standard. The programs even saw the first female students on campus. As mentioned two weeks ago, the Smith-Hughes Act was a boon for Tech, but it also provided another field of study for Tech students - Industrial Education. This program also curiously vanished around 1933 with the Commerce Schools.

As alluded to previously, the swelling of the student body after the war was putting more and more of a heavy burden on the faculty, staff, administration, and physical plant of the school. Tech’s enrollment in 1919-1920 was 2,209. The maximum envisioned in the original founding of the school was 1,000 undergraduates, roughly equivalent to the size of modern CalTech. Tech today has 16 times that many. But, back in the day, it was a fairly alarming issue. In 1921, the state refused an increase in the budget, and the doors were only kept open by a granted from the General Education Board and a loan from the Rotary Club of Atlanta. Oh, and tuition was increased for both in-state and out-of-state students. The funding matter would come to a head yet again in a conflict between the school in Athens and the ailing school on the Hill.

It is ironic that Matheson’s health began to fail so soon after his time in Europe with the Red Cross. He was subjected to several fainting spells, likely from the pressures of fundraising in hard times with meager resources, rapid, unsustainable enrollment rates, political pressures and failures in the state legislature, and the feuding with the Athenians. On the advice of his doctor, he began to look for a less demanding job. The Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry in Philadelphia offered him the same position with a pay increase and the ailing president accepted.

But Matheson wasn’t a lame duck in the last six months of his tenure. On the contrary, he pushed through the very first graduate program at the Georgia School of Technology: Master of Science, which is a pretty cool sounding name for what was a pretty generic degree. Even in his waning days, Matheson was laying the groundwork for another crucial element of the modern Insitute, on that now educates around 14,000 students on the Flats.

The faculty loved their outgoing president, rightly seeing him as the man that provided Tech stability in turbulent times at the beginning and ends of his time at the helm, as the man who gave the school academic legitimacy when it had none, and a forward-thinker throughout his decade and a half as president. They resolved that,

“The sixteen years during which Dr. Matheson has directed and controlled the destinies of the Georgia School of Technology has been signalized by an impressive growth in the size and usefulness of that institution. It has been a growth won through devoted and laborious service on the part of Dr. Matheson...the loss, moreover, is one that will be felt keenly by the educational interest of the State of Georgia and of the entire South.
Our sense of loss, however, is a more intimate one. In Dr. Matheson, we have found always, not only the far-seeing and trust-inspiring leader, but the personal friend.” (Wallace, 80).

Wallace himself acknowledges that the minutes of these meetings were usually disciplinarian and that these words are extraordinary. His predecessor would face a huge shoes to fill not only in deed, but in heart.

Matheson’s greatest legacy at Tech, far from being a kooky eccentric with a shiny new library, was his constant elevation of the Tech academic profile to the highest it could possibly be. Without him, Tech’s research, work program, curriculum, and reputation would all look radically different. He was keenly aware of the idiom that perception is everything. It’s no coincidence that the first murmurs of the name change bubbled around when Dr. Matheson was still in the president’s chair. It’s even less of a coincidence that the very institution he left for changed its name to the Drexel Institute of Technology shortly after his death. So it is likely Matheson, ever the striver, doer, and maker, that ideated the next name for the Georgia School of Technology. Sure, without him, we might still be known as Georgia Tech. But that’s not quite the whole story today, is it?

It’s that time of year again, on this morning in late August. Several hundred new first years will move into Matheson Hall itself, even, some this very day. And to them we say welcome to the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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 delve into it when I am back in Atlanta tomorrow. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in a future column. Hope springs eternal on the Flats. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.