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Rearview Mirror: Managing Mason

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Jesse Mason was a powerful, powerful man in the early 1960s.

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They keep on pulling him every which way!
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (

If Edwin Harrison as Institute President was a Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor, then Dean of Engineering Jesse Mason was absolutely his Hohenzollern King in Prussia. Yeah, we read more than Tech history here at From the Rumble Seat. Buckle up.

When we last left President Edwin Harrison, he was a little preoccupied by integrating the Institute. His first four years were fruitful, but the impending integration loomed over his administration like a storm cloud. There was no outrunning it. Now free to pursue more long term visioning, it was up to Harrison to see through what Blake Van Leer ran out of time to finish and what Paul Weber never really felt he was empowered to do.

The Chick Graning game was, in a lot of ways, the bellwether of changing times at Georgia Tech. At the risk of assigning too much importance to a particular game, that, other than the football premise, didn’t really change too much about the Institute proper, it marked the clearest turning point to the country at large that the school had reached an end of innocence of some sort. The Georgia School of Technology wasn’t dead, per se, but the times had forced it to change. Traditions were evolving. The composition of the student body looked radically different. How the school, its students, and its administration saw itself in relation to sports, Atlanta, and culture was changing rapidly.

It was time for the structure of the administration to reflect that. But, even in the 1960s, when the bureaucracy was just a shadow of what it is today, changing the fiefdoms of power at the Institute was just as tall of a task.

Tech, in the waning days of the 1950s, had seen a radical shift in funding sources, student demographics, and physical plant. The question of how to provide the same quality education - or better - for a population that had nearly doubled in size, and had seen tremendous growth in degree diversity was imperative. Buildings were sprouting further and further west of the old campus on the Hill. Money was pouring in, most notably from the federal government, to a school that had been run not on just a shoestring budget, but one that was a shoestring fraying in the middle, held together by elbow grease and a dream. You get the idea. The important question became what exactly should be done with all of it.

Joe Guthridge was a relative newcomer to Tech when he stepped into his role as director of development. His vision saw Tech continuing to grow, so it was vital that Tech understand how best to channel its growth. Like true engineers, it should be formulaic. Hence, the aptly titled 1961 Formula for Growth. This was one of many self-studies at the time that looked at urban renewal, campus growth, economic growth, and, most critically, campus administration.

In the former three fronts, the increased earning and spending is more clearly a universal good. More money in means more growth. Managing that growth was important, sure, but the halls of power in the administration were in more apparent need of restructuring. The ancient feudal domains of the Dean of Engineering, to name a prominent example, needed reform as Tech prepared for increasingly exponential growth. After all, money is power.

McMath makes the bold claim that people observing Tech would decide it was remarkably stable in the early 1960s. On some levels, this is true. The relative seamlessness of a massive shift like integration lulled a false sense of that, it would seem. Yet, in the year celebrated its 75th anniversary, 1963, it also left the Southeastern Conference. But all the studies revealed a greater truth - Georgia Tech was in need of a shakeup, and it would not be one that came easily.

This is where we leave the views of Wallace in Dress Her in White and Gold, published as perhaps the most concrete remnant of the anniversary celebration - though the fallout over Earl Warren’s speaking appointment at Tech certainly brought the most notoriety at the time. Of course, the affects of the celebration, as well as the events, are worth further discussion, but aren’t super relevant to the direction of this particular edition of Rearview. But, McMath is clear - the studies’ most prominent purpose was examining the purpose of the Institute. He summarizes,

“The section began by exploring earlier statements of purpose going back to the enabling act by the state legislature in 1885 that had made possible the establishment of the school. That statement, previously discussed in chapter 2, saw Georgia Tech as essentially a trade school, following the model of the Worcester Institute in Massachusetts. That practical “hands on” emphasis had continued strong throughout the years. Gradually, however, the scope of education at Georgia Tech had broadened with the addition of new programs. Especially after World War II, increasing concern for research and for graduate education developed. Theoretical as well as practical knowledge became more and more a part of the program. Tensions began to be felt between the practical and the theoretical emphases in engineering education, as well as between the Engineering College and the General College. Some even began to raise the possibility that Georgia Tech might eventually become a technological university, with a full range of programs in the sciences and liberal arts.”

I don’t usually like to quote the books this long, but McMath said it as well as I ever could. I think it exemplifies the transition we’ve been talking about. And it shows Tech was self-aware during this transition. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say Tech would become that technological university institute, but without the changes that had been happening - as well as the ones that this would continue thanks to the implicit endorsement of the study - it wouldn’t have happened that way. That’s what made the Georgia Tech we know today.

Harrison declared in fall quarter of 1961 that “Quality is Our Constant Goal” before he requested that all interested faculty members submit written statements dictating the purpose of the Institute. It was time for Tech to grow out of its misconstrued representation as mostly a regional outpost. It’s telling that the response rate was low, but particularly so from the Engineering College. The responses they did get ranged from preserving the status quo in amber to growing into a “first-rate university.” Conservative professors - in the academic sense - tended to see the discussions as an attack and a reflection of what they perceived as the devolvement of their field nationally towards glorified physics - and the conservative establishment was firmly rooted in the office of the Dean of Engineering, Jesse Mason.

Mason’s extraordinarily prominent public reticence would come back to bite him in the [Aerosmith], when the time came to move from ideation to execution.

Paul Weber had seen through the basics of Van Leer’s presidential reorganization in his time as interim president, but the works of 1957 served more as a patchwork than a rigorous reshaping of the administrative structure of Georgia Tech. In particular, the manpower was understaffed and the methods used to accomplish an ever-increasing amount of paperwork was ancient, having hardly changed since the school was two buildings and a couple hundred students. Weber, being the fastidious worker he was, was reported to have loved the struggle. His work on the budget and staff evaluation was akin to that of a mad scientist working in his laboratory. But it didn’t make sense to do work the impossibly long way in 1957, and it made even less sense eight years later. He relished control over the little details - even one that sucked whole quarters worth of free time away - and in that, he would find a foil in Jesse Mason.

Harrison knew as well as anyone that change was necessary. The aftershocks of his actions would come to define the legacy of his administration.

McMath notes that the weaknesses Harrison perceived in the system were doing nothing but growing, and that personality clashes were considered inevitable. The reorganization stands “as a watershed in Tech’s history.” He continued, adding,

“What had been an essentially personal institution, run largely through informal individual contact and still focusing largely on undergraduate engineering education with emphasis on practical training was gradually giving way to a more formally structured bureaucracy that placed greater emphasis on the theoretical aspects of undergraduate education, while also stressing research and graduate education.”

Jesse Mason was the personification of the personal institution, focused largely on undergraduate education and practical training. He had served as Dean of Engineering since 1948, and had been a member of the faculty and head of the chemical engineering department for a decade longer. He was a holdover of the Brittain days, to say the least, and one of the titanic figures in non-presidential leadership, as seen by his position through building-related veneration with the likes of William and Cherry Emerson, John Saylor Coon, William Vernon Skiles, Fred Wenn, George Griffin, Gilbert Boggs, and Joseph Howey. He ranked third in command of the Institute, as Dean of Engineering, behind Harrison and Weber, who served as the Dean of Faculties. Curiously, though, Weber was perceived as deferential to Mason, who was known as a hardline, detail-oriented leader who would stop at nothing to get the most allocated to his school and to strengthen his like-minded bulwark of handpicked heads of the engineering schools. Though the administration was notoriously convivial, the differing personalities of Harrison and Mason - notably Mason’s businesslike, impersonal traits - and the latter’s unwillingness to defer to presidential prerogative caused an increasing rift between the men at the top. The gap would only widen by 1965.

It says something that, even after nearly being ousted as the Dean of Engineering in Van Leer’s early attempt to reorganize in 1954, Mason was not only able to hold on for more than a decade, but, in the meantime, consolidate power over what McMath un-hyperbolically refers to as “a considerable personal empire” within the administration. Mason was the College of Engineering and the College of Engineering was Mason. And Mason was the loudest, most unwavering advocate for the traditional Tech style of education - shop culture*. Harrison’s entire tenure - unsurprising given his actions in Toledo - had been driving broader engineering curricula and theoretical education. All the more reason for the impending clash. All it needed was a trigger.

*An analysis of shop culture is certainly worthwhile for a future week of Rearview Mirror, both as it pertains to the antebellum culture of the school in Athens, as well as the debate between school and shop culture in engineering curricula.

In early 1965, Harrison found Mason had essentially used his fiefdom to create an engineering slush fund for the college, using the money to support his personal philosophy, instead of the party line of the Institute president. Mason stood firm when confronted. Conveniently, the studies had called for a decentralization of power. Mason’s time, unlike 1954, was up.

It is a common perception in national electoral politics that the vice presidential role is essentially a dead end. The proposed Tech reorganization invented five vice presidential roles, though only one was a dead end. Academic Affairs was the most powerful, followed by controller, development, and planning. All were filled by current administrators, and only Weber’s role in planning could be seen as a step down in their previous power. The fifth role was that of special projects, and it was akin to the role the vice president plays in the federal government. Mason was offered the job, primarily to remove him from his role as dean. Unsurprisingly, he turned it down.

And then the revolt began.

Almost immediately, eleven of the twelve engineering heads came to the support of Mason. McMath, again, not one to be hyperbolic, describes it as “an action that verged on academic mutiny.” Their opinions of the choice for the most powerful vice presidency, Mario Goglia, sitting Assistant Dean of Faculties, had some say in the matter, but the sources are fairly clear - Mason’s ouster would not be tolerated by his underlings. Harrison pulled no punches. When describing his choices for the new structure, he noted that the controller would oversee all finances and that, in turning down the new system, and that Mason had:

“informed me that he will not serve the institution as I wish—but only as he sees fit. For that reason, I am recommending to the Board of Regents that he be relieved of his responsibilities as Dean of Engineering and revert to his tenured position as Professor of Chemical Engineering. This action I perform with the greatest regret.” (Harrison, 1965).

Immediately after, the eleven heads, represented by Ben Dasher of Electrical Engineering, essentially declared their revolt. Mason defended himself and his actions. A Physics professor metaphorically fell on the sword for Harrison. The round of applause at the final defense of Harrison demonstrated that the majority sides with him - especially from the General College. But Mason and his ilk were committed to their vision, and they weren’t afraid to speak their minds. They saw him as the finger in the dike, holding up their positive vision of engineering education. Removing him was akin to adopting a “name” model, citing MIT, where “engineering has been prostituted to the early twentieth century German concept of the research institute or the present, USSR approach of specializing more and more on less and less.” There’s a lot to unpack in that statement - I can’t make this stuff up.

The changes to the Tech administrative structure, it was implied, were borderline fascist and communist, and, by association, bad and counterproductive to Tech and America. The new vision of engineering was akin to selling out. To the minority of professors that sided with Mason, it’s important to understand to them, this was their way of life and their life’s work. In a way, they were right. This decision was the one that the future of the Institute’s academic and administrative development turned on.

Before we move on with the fallout, I would like to take an extra moment to thank the secondary sourcing for this whole ordeal, in particular McMath. This is a bizarre time in Tech history, and without the necessary context, which, I, as someone who was not there and was having a time and a half putting it together from the primary sources, well, the perspective was vital.

The majority would soon let their voices be heard, too, with - unsurprisingly - the General College, graduate studies, and research being the primary backers of the president. Junior professors, too, the new vanguard, saw wisdom in the Harrison reforms. A proud mechanical engineer, I smile knowing that the one director not to side with Mason was the head of my school. Though, in retrospect, perhaps he had the least to lose in the transition. Mechanical Engineering, more than a lot of the engineering disciplines at Tech, remains incredibly broad. In fact, from my first time in the MRDC, the depth and breadth of opportunity not only in the curriculum - including notorious hands-on, practical classes - but also the opportunities after Tech has been constantly preached. Biomedical engineering - which was decidedly nonexistent at the time - comes close.

In the process of advancement of the whole, Mason became a necessary casualty.

“You took a considered position, stated it decisively, handled a difficult crisis charged with emotion; and you did this in a dignified and magnificent manner. Only a very strong and ‘big’ person dares to do this.” (Administrative Records).

It is unsurprising that the man chosen as the one who would almost certainly integrate the Institute - it’s biggest external pressure - would be the one who handled a rocky, but similarly vital, internal reorganization with grace.

Darwin Holt’s hit on Chick Graning was a superficial tip of a monumental iceberg. Tech had been changing for a long time. By 1965, with Dodd the coach on the cusp of retirement and his athletic department floating in the morass of independence, black and woman students walking campus streets graced by the curious return of a singular, iconic classic car to represent the whole institute, and Jesse Mason out as Dean of Engineering. The 75th anniversary was a celebration of a School - not an Institute - that no longer existed. What began with a superficial name change in 1948 - the same year a reorganization elevated Mason to his post as dean - was completed by the next colossal administrative switch.

Mason, most vocal supporter of a school and culture that no longer existed, or, if it did, couldn’t much longer if the Institute was to continue its extraordinary growth, was also its most prominent casualty. But Harrison’s changes would not be totally adopted by his eventual departure. Some took decades to set in.

Within three years, Mason’s reputation on the Hill would be improved enough to name the new civil engineering building after the ancient chemical engineer. But, in the end, it was also Harrison who was right. Welcome to the second great age of Tech - the era of the comprehensive technological institution known as 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.

There’s an interesting implication of these latest few columns - we’ve transcended the past into living memory. However, I can’t do what I do without the insights I have from readers like you. If there’s things I wouldn’t know just from reading about them, or important things you think I miss, please let me know. And, as always, thank you for reading the latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror.