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A Rearview Mirror Special Feature: Ángels and Preachers, Part III

And today, we wrap the series with a look at Tech’s modern presidents.

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More presidents with presidents, if you count that this was after his tenure at Tech.
AP/Charles Dharapak

And today we come to the conclusion of this week’s mini-series on past Tech presidents in honor of the announcement of the new Tech president, Ángel Cabrera. The Olympic Age began with John Patrick Crecine and ends with our twelfth and newest president, who will lead Tech into the next major phase of its existence. Or at the very least, close out the one we’re in. Analyzing history in the moment is, frankly, rather impossible. But you get the point.

Tech’s modern, or current, age began with the advent of the Olympic dream, continued through the Olympic years, until the modernization projects we see today. If it weren’t so accurate, I’d say the uniting cause behind all of these presidents was getting rid of as many surface parking lots as possible. It’s a noble cause indeed, but with what Tech has done for undergraduate research, international education, and the student experience in the last thirty years defines the shift past the post-war research institution into a more well-rounded technologically cutting-edge school still situated on the top of a hill overlooking downtown Atlanta.

John Patrick Crecine

Years in Office: 1987-1994

Industrial management was Crecine’s background, and at Tech he would certainly prove adept at managing. It’s difficult to distill his tenure down to a single “most important” moment, but the advent of three new colleges - the first College of Computing in America, the Ivan Allen College of Management, Policy, and International Affairs, of which he was a professor, and the College of Sciences - is likely the most significant. Of course, the Ivan Allen College has since spawned the Ernest Scheller College of Business, but the fracturing of General Studies reflected the rise of Tech as an excellent institution across the board, not just one specialized in the fields of engineering and design. In his time, the achievements of minorities and women lapped those of peer schools, athletics, led by Dr. Homer Rice, saw a level of comprehensive success never before seen on the Flats, and, among other construction, Tech more than doubled its housing, thanks in no small part to being selected as the Olympic Village for the 1996 Olympic Games. It was largely thanks to Crecine that Atlanta won the bid, with its cutting edge computing simulation of the Atlanta games, which was an unprecedented of a nascent technology. Though his successor is famous for having been president during the Olympics, Crecine secured them. Though his successor is famous for increased educational offerings, Crecine set up the structure necessary to start them. Though his successor is famous for pushing undergraduate research and international education, Crecine opened doors both in research fields, and quite literally opening the doors of a new campus in Metz, France known as Georgia Tech Lorraine. His top-down leadership style both garnered Tech the Olympics, hosting boxing, water polo, swimming, synchro, and diving, as well as all the athlete housing, but also drove wedges into his administration, like the controversy stirred up by his reorganization plan. Crecine and the usefulness of varsity athletic facilities are largely to thank for the Olympic legacy. In hindsight, his sweeping changes are considered inspired, and set Tech up as a model research institution into the next millennium.

G. Wayne Clough

Years in Office: 1994-2008

It’s funny that people most strongly associate President Clough with the Olympics, since they were all well into their preparation stages by the time he assumed the role. That said, the first alumnus to be president of the Institute left a pretty strong stamp on the school in his nearly decade and a half at the helm. His tenure saw Tech’s first big push into getting undergraduates involved in research and increasing the opportunities for engineers to study abroad. Of course that’s redundant, because I mentioned that with Crecine. He built extensively on his predecessor’s legacy, including splitting the College of Management from the Ivan Allen College, a step that would have been difficult without past reorganizations, but was the final step to balancing the colleges into the system that still functions well today. Of course, Management had previously been its own college, and this would be a return to independence, and also the last major milestone for any of the constituent colleges until the metamorphosis of Management into the Scheller College of Business. The Olympic housing all came online around this time, and one building, at the corner of Hemphill and Eighth, was named in honor of Crecine. The first phase of the eventual Campus Recreation Center was the McAuley Aquatic Center, built for the Olympic games. Clough oversaw the renovation into the gorgeous athletic space we see today, as well as its companion next door, the Stamps Health Center. Klaus Advanced Computing, Marcus Nanotechnology, and the BioTech Quad all came online in his administration, as well. He was generally well-liked, and receptive to the rest of the city, most notably seen in the advent of the Tech Square project. Today, that toehold on the east side of the Downtown Connector, rooted at the Fifth Street Bridge and the intersection of Fifth and Spring, is often regarded as the catalyst for the sweeping revitalization of Midtown Atlanta. His legacy on athletics is commonly regarded as mixed at best, but, as far as seeing development through for the rest of campus, Clough is perhaps the best builder we’ve seen since, say, Brittain.

G. P. “Bud” Peterson

Years in Office: 2009-2019

It’s fitting that the man who shares his initials with Tech’s most infamous graduate took office on April Fools’ Day of 2009. Perhaps one of the most fun stories about Peterson is that when Tech upset the no. 4 VPISU Hokies on the Flats, Tech had probably its best riot since the 1990 Virginia game - the stoplight above Bobby Dodd and Techwood melted over a furniture bonfire - when the students pulled down the goalposts and marched them to the president’s house as a present. Enrollment and applications have rocketed through the stratosphere during his tenure, and Tech’s name recognition has risen, as well. Tech Square has truly come into its own both as a development and economic hub, but also as a neighborhood, as well. From non-Institute student and business development, to start-ups and collaborative space, Tech has grown by leaps and bounds in Midtown. Between the acquisition of the iconic Biltmore Hotel building and the construction of Coda, a home of both high-powered computing and corporate collaboration, and the longest spiral staircase in the world, Tech has made a readily apparent mark on the skyline in the past decade. Partnerships with biomedical organizations, non-defense governmental organziations, and Emory University have brought tremendous growth as well. The birth of the post-modern library - the renovation of Crosland Tower and the removal of the books to a joint, off-campus facility - being the newest fruits of the latter. He has also seen strides taken on the implementation of several key aspects of the Tech master plan, like the Atlantic Drive pedestrian mall, turning the student center into the campus center, and the Eco Commons project. Peterson doesn’t so much as leave Georgia Tech, but rather steps into a different role on campus now that his tenure as president is over. He is the first president since Brittain to stay on in some role after his time as the chief executive is over, as a mechanical engineering professor. Though his administration suffered from some rather glaring rotten eggs in the lower echelons in his later years, he was beloved in his time as president, with his wife colloquially known as his “Queen Bee.” His tenure wasn’t perfect, and we don’t look at it with the benefit of hindsight - many of his initiatives are still underway - but I genuinely believe him a good, kind man who did excellent things for Georgia Tech.

Ángel Cabrera Izquierdo

Years in Office: 2019-present

I don’t have nearly as much to say about Cabrera as I do about the previous eleven presidents. Well, except maybe Hansen. He really didn’t do that much. Cabrera is Tech’s first international president, and second alumnus to take the reigns. Originally hailing from Spain, he has interestingly been dubbed “not an engineer” by some Tech student social media (looking at you, r/gatech), yet his first two degrees are in electrical and computer engineering from the Polytechnic University of Madrid. He then came to Georgia Tech on the Fulbright Scholarship to earn his master’s and doctorate in cognitive psychology, which is probably where the misconception came from. His wife and son are also Georgia Tech graduates. But, anyways, Cabrera takes the reigns of perhaps the most Institute most suited for sustainable, long-term growth that any president has inherited. Though it is not perfect, Tech is suited for growth and streamlining in the next few years. Be it the physical plant, academics and research, or student life, the campus is primed for a fresh start in what, if we’re lucky, will be known to history as the era of Cabrera, Collins, and Stansbury.

I really used up my best line to close out the Cabrera profile, but I think it’s fitting. Whereas Crecine was an Isaac Hopkins, growing Tech, keeping it tied to its roots, and pursuing new opportunities, he also knew when the right time was to step aside. Meanwhile Clough was a Matheson, growing in previously unthought of ways, and moving on to new opportunities in the north when his time, too, came. Then, he was followed by a man of the Brittain mold, a Tech man not by degree, but by longevity, who was well-liked among many students and will stick around after his time as president is up, unlike all but the aforementioned Brittain. And finally, we don’t know what Cabrera will become. But if this alumnus and engineer can fill some of the great shoes left in front of him, the Georgia Tech that was home to the birth of the New South, of cutting edge technological developments that span more than a century, of Olympic glory, and a bastion of progress and service worthy of the nickname Scion of the Southland, he will surely go down as the latest of one of the great men and women of Georgia Tech history.

The likes of John Hanson, Nathaniel Harris, and Isaac Hopkins. General Leonard Wood. Lyman Hall and John Heisman, and Chip Roberts, Joe Guyon, and Everett Strupper. Kenneth Matheson and Marion Brittain. George P. Burdell. William Alexander, Mack Tharpe, and Clint Castleberry. D. M. Smith, Gilbert Boggs, Joseph Howey, and Vernon Skiles. Blake Van Leer. John “Whack” Hyder, Freddie Lanoue, Shirley Clements Mewborn, and Bobby Dodd. Dorothy Crosland, Dean George Griffin, and Dean James Dull. Edwin Harrison and the Emersons, Cherry and William. John Saylor Coon, John Henry “Uncle Heinie” Henika, and Jesse Mason. Joseph Pettit and John Patrick Crecine. Bobby Ross, Homer Rice, and Bobby Cremins. G. Wayne Clough, Paul Johnson, and Bud Peterson.

It’s not an exhaustive list, but hopefully one that someday includes Todd Stansbury, Geoff Collins, and Ángel Cabrera.

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. 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.