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Rearview Mirror: Southern Technical Institute and the Georgia State College

Yeah, I’m talking about Kennesaw State this week...

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This is somehow the only picture the Georgia Tech Archives had featuring anything from Southern Poly.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (

Since we last checked in on the Evening School of Commerce more than a year ago, roughly thirty years have passed since it was wrenched away from Tech. We’ve only briefly touched on Southern Tech. With how much of a role Georgia Tech has played in the foundations of each of them, it’s only fitting that we take a look at what the two have been up to in the meantime, particularly in the age of the GI Bill and the Civil Right Movement.

Before we get too deep into this, I would like to make one thing clear: I am not crediting Georgia Tech with all of the events that have ever happened at these schools. Even half of Kennesaw State spent decades as, well, Kennesaw State before Southern Poly was even in the picture, but it is important to know what happened as a result of the methodical expansion of the Georgia Tech catalogue. Good? Good.

Anyways, it’s probably apt to frame this side plot with some context. While nowadays both Kennesaw State and Georgia State are obviously fulling functioning universities independent from the Institute, save for the ties through the governance of the University System of Georgia, both have their roots in good, old fashioned Georgia Tech wrangling. Of course, it’s also true that Tech is virtuous and ambitiously striving to achieve its goal to educate the state of Georgia, but it’s also about Creating the Next. In this case, that innovation was more geared towards finding ways it could skirt around the asphyxiating stranglehold of the Board of Regents and the state legislature. It should not be surprising, knowing what we know about the history of the relationship between Tech and both of those government institutions, that they often butted heads with Tech’s leadership, particularly when it came to what the older school in Athens saw as the upstart engineering school bumping into its turf. The boiling point for this dynamic came with the fallout over the Evening School of Commerce.

Having spent not one but two lengthy columns discussing the birth and background of the Evening School, I’ll spare most of the details here, but the one paragraph summary is that Tech wanted a business school, so its first foray into undergrad business education was a part time night school for commuters and full time workers. Eventually, Tech was offering full time degrees under Dean Fred Wenn, eventually memorialized as the namesake of the student center, and they even called it “commerce” instead of business! See? Totally different thing! Anyways, the Athenians weren’t fooled, and, in a “cost-saving” move, they shut down Athens’ few agricultural engineering classes, a degree not ever considered by Tech, in exchange for moving a sizable plurality of the Tech student population, as well as the vast majority of the athletes, under the umbrella of Athens in one of the first moves of the unified University System of Georgia Board of Regents.

Anyways, the unit, the part-time division of which was Tech’s only co-ed unit at the time of separation, just one example of its dynamism in the previous 15 years of rapid growth, was immediately launched into a state of limbo. George Sparks, head of the school, tried to plant it on a firm footing, complete with a full four year offering, was almost immediately rebuffed by the Regents, who declared the school would focus on part-time education and its junior college offering. In this time, it was managed in theory directly by the Regents, de facto by the levers of power, which were usually in Athens, and de jure by Sparks, who officially changed nothing about the status of the school while fleshing out nursing and liberal arts studies during the growth offered by World War II and especially the GI Bill, as Atlanta’s need for easily-accessible education boomed with its city’s fortune. However, once more, the Regents meddled with the school, merging it into the Athenian structure as the “Atlanta Division.” Unsurprisingly, the “mother institution” wanted to use the new experiment as a feeder for established programs on the main campus and restrict the offering in Atlanta. The particular sentiment of the draw to Atlanta and the fears of the school getting extremely large were proved prescient, especially considering the school would go on to become larger than its parent, and they would continue to stamp out attempts to diversify programming and expansion into graduate degrees. By the time the 1950s closed, the uneasy relationship would be called off, and the Atlanta Division was given full independence. Ironically, by the end, the main institution wanted to keep it within its orbit, mostly for the clout and power, but by 1962 the independent school was known as the Georgia State College and had survived the same existential crisis faced by all Georgia public schools when the state government had banned them from integrating. The times were rocky, but it was, by then, well on its way to forging the independent identity that it has today.

Just from the names that Southern Tech, or Southern Poly, or The Technical Institute, as it was first known, had over the years, it’s quickly apparent that the history of the school was less linear than Georgia State. Now the engineering college of Kennesaw State, it began life in a repurposed campus on a war surplus corner of what is now Dekalb-Peachtree Airport in Chamblee after President Blake Van Leer identified a growing need for technical training in Georgia that the Institute could not fill, with its focus on four year studies, graduate learning, and research. The new school was small at first, but co-ed from the first spring quarter. It got off to a quick start, though, demonstrating the seemingly-infinite need its graduates, and in 1949, it adopted the new, much less generic sounding Southern Technical Institute name. Problematically, though, Southern Tech was never self-supporting. Budget shortfalls were common - the school was even started on the cheap in surplus barracks - and became even more so as the war veterans moved on. Much as the main campus was in budgetary uncertainty in the early fifties, things were much more dire at the comparatively tiny dot in Chamblee. It was bad enough that Van Leer considered the drastic option of moving the small operation to the North Avenue campus, which didn’t happen in the first place due to space constraints, fundamentally different missions, and separation and independence questions, or shutting it down altogether if the proper channels didn’t help support the school. To start the 1960s, it moved to yet another north suburban airport when it arrived at its current campus in Marietta. The school did not become independent from Tech until 1980, which was made possible by its accreditation as a four year degree-granting college about a decade earlier, as opposed to the two-year affiliate it started as. These two events weren’t directly related, but largely consequences of the same dynamics: Georgia Tech had other priorities of focus and Southern Tech was a large body with specific needs better filled by dedicated administration and leadership. Even when relations were best between the two campuses, McMath notes that the Marietta school and its faculty, student, and supprters felt like the “neglected stepchild.” In the end, Southern Tech was a part of the Georgia Tech structure for about three and a half decades, a fair bit longer than the School of Commerce was at Tech. Arguably, it did a lot more to further Tech’s original chartered mission, to bring technical education to the state of Georgia and make it accessible, than its mother institute, but they ultimately did go their separate ways for understandable reasons. McMath concludes that Southern Tech ultimately wanted the separation more than Georgia Tech opposed it, seemingly drawing things to a firm close. The most lasting legacy of Tech outside of the obvious technical-focused mission would be Buzz’s green cousin, Sting, who represented Southern Poly as it rounded the NAIA sports circuit.

Despite a bit of a branding instability streak in the late 1980s, as Southern Tech became Southern College of Technology, and then another name change to Southern Polytechnic State University when it became a full university less than a decade later, it wound up having four schools and a division, representing a robust program. Were it to be as linear as Georgia State, we would leave Southern Poly, in my totally un-connected opinion, the catchiest name that the school had, around then. However, it is worth noting that one last fell swoop of abrupt executive power from the University System of Georgia ended Southern Poly’s independent existence just 35 years after it was spun off from Tech. Now a robust unit of Kennesaw State University, much of the literature I see on the merger skews negative. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution noted that,

“[The merger] stunned the polytechnic school’s 6,500 students, [and] acknowledges an austere future in which nothing is off the table as the system looks to keep costs down. Still, Southern Poly supporters were dismayed. ‘The emotions I have range from angry to shocked to disgusted,’ said student Eric R. Cooney Jr.”

It seems hard to find much evidence of the last twenty or so years of the school’s existence just at a precursory level on the stakeholder websites. From what I could glean, the school may not have been the biggest, but it seemed positively viewed and like it knew its place in the world and saw success there. As for mergers and sweeping decisions from the Regents, well, those are nothing new, as we’ve seen. In a time where moves like this are supposed to cut costs, with less program duplication, it’s a little difficult to make that happen, even without accounting for how the non-teaching staff roles have ballooned in colleges in general over the years. It truly takes a village, and, even more so than State, it seems that Southern Poly was a true scion of the Scion of the Southland.

It’s not really all that true to say there’s a direct offshoot of Tech left. I don’t think it’s fair to call Georgia State or Kennesaw State that, even the parts of it that first sprung up in Marietta and Chamblee, considering it’s been long and windy enough that they’ve all got such different deeply-engrained cultures.

However, it’s worth talking about them, if not simply to acknowledge the deep relationship we have with them, besides them being our nearest peers in the University System. Things run deep. Sting and the Hornets may not be a thing anymore, and Scheller may be where our students learn what we can now openly call business, but both schools can trace their origin to getting written into existence on the desk of the president of the Georgia School of Technology in the halls of Tech Tower.

Random Aside: Speaking of mergers, someone recently asked when the nuclear engineering department stopped being an independent school and was folded into mechanical engineering, implying that it was particularly recent. It was actually 1983, I found. So, not that recent.

Additionally, on the fate of the School of Engineering Science and Mechanics, I’m still looking for more than what I’ve got.

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. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at some of the other events of the 1960s before we look at the Twilight of Edwin Harrison.