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Rearview Mirror: Weber for a While

I couldn’t handle some of Bobby Dodd’s comments about his golden-era teams, so we’re ignoring them for a week.

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Paul Weber and Ed Harrison.
Georgia Tech Archives/Paul Weber Photograph Collection (

It is somewhat unfortunate that a few good men, administrators who served Tech for decades, go relatively unnoticed, while we lump Arthur Hansen in under the illustrious group of former presidents. Today, we coincidentally focus in on one of Tech’s most dedicated executives, though one who rarely, if ever, finds his way to the center of attention. I think Paul Weber would prefer that, frankly.

For the second week in a row, Arthur Hansen, purportedly Tech’s seventh president, or so they say, is the target of ire in Rearview Mirror. This week, it’s more indirect, but still deserved. For those who took a cursory glance at the header photo above, you’ll notice the subjects are Paul Weber, Arthur Hansen, and an unidentified third man. Weber was a career Tech man, a diligent worker, and a brilliant chemical engineer. He never sought the highest office on the Flats, yet he was thrust into it for seventeen months. This is nearly as long as the 21 months Hansen spent there, yet, the two men couldn’t have been more different in their intents, let alone in their service to the Institute. So how did Weber wind up with a position he didn’t want?

Last week, while looking at the past Tech presidents, for one of the first times, the column alluded to the evolution of the General College into the Colleges of Science, Design, Computing, Business, and the Ivan Allen College. Well, at least we talked about Crecine and the COSALS. Point is, a growing Tech, striving to be a major research institution, required several overhauls to keep up with the times. But Weber was not the man who undertook it. Rather, it was one of the final acts of Blake Van Leer. Tech’s fifth president, who had been in consistently poor health for several years, didn’t exactly foresee his own death as much as he was just trying to be prepared in the event he was no longer capable to lead the school. With the retirement of Cherry Emerson in 1955, he had his occasion.

Emerson, a Tech grad and longtime servant of the school, much like his father before him, had risen all the way to the post of Vice President of the Institute. Wallace adds that not only does it both wipe out the structural remnants of the Matheson and Brittain years, but it also both eclipsed the name change in importance, though less apparent, and set the school on its course for the next few decades. In hindsight, we see that Tech needed another major organizational overhaul to get to the present day, but, still, the sweeping changes were radical.

Emerson, a 1908 graduate who was also the Dean of Engineering, simply had too much power vested into a single office. His position as Vice President was swiftly eliminated, as was the post of Executive Dean. In the meantime, the heads of research and continuing education, the Engineering Experiment Station and the Engineering Extension Division, respectively, would report to Van Leer. Executive Dean, largely redundant to the Dean of Faculties, was mostly merged with that position, while the Registrar too over class attendance enforcement. Meanwhile, the Dean of Students took over student discipline, a role it retains today, except with the added title of Vice President of Student Life. Not all changes stick.

That raises an interesting point - why bring back vice presidential executive appointments if the original one was too powerful? I suppose, though, that with multiple vice presidents, as there are nowadays, this becomes less of an issue.

Less fortunate in the shakeup than the retiring Emerson were the deans who got reassigned to teaching posts, Lloyd Chapin and Phil Narmore, in the English and Engineering Mechanics departments, respectively. At least the former eventually got a building named after him. Meanwhile, Weber was elevated from the head of chemical engineering to the Dean of Faculties. He had, in the past, served as Dean of Engineering in an interim role, which was an interesting bit of foreshadowing. The engineer by trade had no desire to stay in that role for very long.

The President, with these changes, had grown more powerful, as had the other positions that gained responsibilities. Just as one would expect, it took competent and dedicated people to effectively fill these roles. The prevailing sentiment was that it took an engineering background to be a competent Dean of Faculties, a bias that sent Chapin packing back to teaching as a Regents Professor of English. Of course, that thought is still alive and well today, if the comments surrounding Ángel Cabrera’s elevation to the role of President is any indication, as he holds two degrees from Tech, neither of which are engineering degrees, though more often forgotten are his two other degrees, both in engineering. And, if the past is any indication, it doesn’t take an engineer to be a competent executive, looking at Matheson and Hall, and not all engineers are good executives, looking at Hansen.

Though one of Van Leer’s primary motivators was his insistence that he didn’t want to essentially pick his successor through his vice presidential pick, with the changes, Weber, the new Dean of Faculties, became number two by default. So naturally, when Van Leer died, he was thrust into the role of president, a role the modest administrator never really wanted in the first place. It became his mission to keep the lights on and the ship afloat until the next head man could be brought aboard. And it certainly wasn’t going to be him, committed to the Institute though he may have been. The politics and the networking simply weren’t for him, no matter how hard the faculty tried to ramrod that though through the Board of Regents.

In his tenure, the student to faculty ratio kept climbing, at least at first. A common Tech problem through the first 80 or so years was the poor pay, as well, which didn’t help the issue of instructor retention. This was high on Weber’s priority list. In the meantime, the physical plant kept growing rapidly, two laboratories were dedicated, the Alexander Memorial Coliseum was underway, and at long last a general classroom building was almost ready to be built. Yet, in his own review of the year, Weber took little credit, and mourned the loss of the widely popular Van Leer.

Weber’s pet project, teacher salaries, would bear fruit in his second year at the helm. Between the Board of Regents obtaining the school an extra $300,000 in funding and the support of the Georgia Tech Foundation, Tech was able to hire more quality educators and retain the ones they already had. Somewhat astonishingly, if you’ve been following this column since the Cocking Affair, former governor-turned-future senator Herman Talmadge, not really a friend of Tech, one might put it, and a fellow graduate of the school in Athens approached two Tech men, Ivan Allen, mayor of Atlanta, and Walter Mitchell, to spearhead a Joint Tech-[school in Athens] Development Program. This essentially was an elaborate scheme to more effectively leech money from their respective alumni bases, the state legislature, and local businesses. And it worked!

The first step was figuring out where Tech would spend the money. And they left that task to Cherry Emerson, William Wardlaw, Fuller Callaway, and William Parker. It is no coincidence that there are four major landmarks on campus named after three of these men. Their fundraising was astounding.

The rest of the physical plant that would continue to grow, like the classroom building project and other new research and educational opportunities, would continue under Weber. He would see the Alexander project to the finish, and spring several more onto the table, who would be completed under the oversight of Tech’s next president, one Edwin Harrison.

A story for another time.

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.