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Rearview Mirror: Shortly Thereafter

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After Vernon Crawford’s brief interim presidency, it would be Arthur Hansen’s turn at the helm.

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Tech’s shortest-lasting president, Arthur Hansen.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photography Collection (https://history.library.gatech.edu/items/show/3768)

In my mental chronology, I always forget that James Boyd came after Arthur Hansen. So, having gotten through his backstory in a column that likely will now not come out until next week, it’s time to start fresh with the story of (spoiler alert) Tech’s shortest-tenured Institute president.


I will be the first to admit my biases, as longtime readers of the column probably know already. I write with a pro-Georgia Tech slant, I find the importance of sports and extracurriculars important to the academic history of the Institute, and I don’t really care for the politicking of the Engineering Experiment Station or what is now the Georgia Tech Research Institute. However, in one very specific case, that spills over into people. For whatever reason, I write with a little bit of bias against Arthur Hansen, or, at least, I used to. Today, I’ll show why he was a good president, and, I hope, be fair to him when he leaves the Institute after a very brief tenure at the school. But, in order to understand his presidency, we have to start with his time as the Dean of Engineering.

Arthur Hansen arrived at Georgia Tech in time for the 1966 school year, by way of the University of Michigan, where he headed up the school of mechanical engineering. Notably, despite having never formally taken a course on fluid dynamics, he wrote not one but two textbooks on it in his time there. What he did know, however, was broad-based. He was trained as an electrical engineer as an undergrad at Purdue, but his subsequent degrees - a master’s from Purdue and a doctorate from Case Institute of Technology - both came in mathematics. This made him particularly qualified for his primary mission at Tech: build a core curriculum. Having looked at the rise and colossal downfall of Jesse Mason, there’s not really a need to beat that horse. To make a long story short, there was a lot of overlap in class offerings between majors, a lot of graft and power grabbing, and a lot of ego involved. It took an outsider to tear it all down and rebuild it.

It helped Hansen, though, to have a reform-minded president in office over in the Carnegie Building. That man, however, was not Edwin Harrison, having already resigned from the role. His interim replacement was a man named Vernon Crawford.

Crawford, interestingly enough, had been Hansen’s colleague before he was his superior. After leading the school of Physics through a massive curricular overhaul, focusing on attracting students to the modernized program and promoting research in its faculty, he became the dean of Tech’s other college, the General College, on his way to the presidency. While he empowered Hansen to revise the engineering core curriculum, he also personally championed growth in the study of social sciences and humanities, while elevating Industrial Management to college-level status, as it was larger than any engineering discipline by about a half.

Hansen, simply put, was a firm member in the vanguard pushing modern engineering education across the country “toward a firmer foundation in mathematics and science,” increasing flexibility through electives, and teaching skills and techniques over “ingenuity.”

As previously noted, all of this was not without controversy - engineering drawing as a dying breed in American engineering education, mechanics as a product of the School of Physics or the School of Engineering Science and Mechanics, general reveling in Tech’s hard curriculum, etc. - as the old wars between the bureaucratic fiefdoms, school vs. shop culture, and philosophy of running students into the ground flared back up. It was into the mantle of reform that Hansen stepped into when, after months of searching, Tech settled on him as their next president. That same day, he told students, “If you do not have the freedom to explore, you will not learn, grow, and will not be a well educated person,” (McMath, 378).

That orator’s instinct was part of Hansen’s allure. Even though he wasn’t the Board of Regents’ first choice - that would be MIT’s Raymond Bisplinghoff - he was their second, and his youth and vigor, as well as his high standing among faculty and staff, specifically the younger generation, made him the easy choice when the former NASA director Bisplinghoff declined consideration. In fact, one of the primary complaints of the faculty and staff when he was president was that he was so open and accessible to students, a fact that reinforced his appeal.

Once Hansen was in control, he installed his interim predecessor as his right hand man and longtime administrator Jamie Anthony as his two vice presidents, while two other vice president positions were eliminated, with the other interim president, Paul Weber, finally retiring. As McMath notes, all three college dean posts were filled with outsiders, “to delineate the late 1960s and early 1970s as a time when institutional leadership consciously, sometimes even enthusiastically, distanced itself from the image and the substance of what Tech had been before. The thirty years of service to which Paul Weber could point with pride had been witnesses to quite a shift. The Georgia Tech to which Weber had come as a young professor in 1927 would have been recognizable to its founders. Despite some underlying continuities, the institution from which he retired in 1969 probably would not have been.”

It is interesting how smoothly McMath transitions into talking about physical campus construction, after spending much time on the academic rebuilding the school was undergoing. The expansion to the west, begun under Harrison, accelerated under Hansen, where Tech, rather than moving into open land, was demolishing an established, though rather poor, neighborhood of predominantly white industrial workers. My favorite instance of construction in a time that saw a lot of it was certainly the pair of buildings built at Atlantic and Fifth, the new homes of Physics and Civil Engineering, each named for a legendary Tech figure, but two men who were quite different in temperament. At the same time, though, chemistry, the graduate addition of the library, the student center, and research facilities were all underway closer to the heart of campus, while west campus residence halls were a hotter topic, due to their extreme distance and removal of a neighborhood. It was from the concerns over Tech’s relationship with the neighborhoods it was demolishing or threatening to demolish that sparked Tech’s deeper involvement in making its surroundings better, and that extreme distance that led to the development of the Transette people mover system. Neither would last.

It was in this time that Tech increasingly diversified its student body, organizations, and major programs. Despite a decade of integration and almost two of co-education, the predominant background of a Tech student was that of a white male from Fulton, DeKalb, or other Atlanta counties, or the likes of Macon, Savannah, Columbus, or Augusta. Until 1968, women were barred from studying industrial management. Fraternities, once the premier (and largely only) social outlet on campus, the ROTC, Tech’s premier involvement, and the YMCA, Tech’s only extracurricular hub, saw their influence decline as non-fraternity and non-military organizations came into vogue while the student center increasingly became, well, existent. However, despite the drop in involvement in traditional organizations, others like intramural sports, cultural, service, and religious organizations, and Tech’s musical and spirit groups waxed in participation. It was the replacement of George Griffin with James Dull as Dean of Students and the retirement of Charlie Commander that cemented the death of the YMCA, but the amenities, staff, and size of the Student Center made that likely a worthy tradeoff, outside of the questionable nature of the outsized reliance on a quasi-religious, private outside group running programming at a prominent state university. When the YMCA took over the off-campus Roswell land and Tech the North Avenue building that is now the Alumni House, per McMath, “the end of the Y’s central place in campus life was representative of a new era in Tech’s institutional history in which formal bureaucratic structures replaced a relaxed, informal network held together by long-standing relationships of friendship and trust,” (McMath, 395).

Meanwhile, it was tough sledding for the Engineering Experiment Station. Though they were, of course, doing fine job on the actual research, it was an ever-increasing reliance on government grant and project awards, rather than ad-hoc and on-call work or private development, that did them in when several rounds of cuts in federal and state funding in the late 1960s and early 1970s rolled in.

It was Hansen with the bold solution: integrate the EES into the academic departments of the Institute. Among other things, this would promote administrative efficiencies, easier justification of state support, student research opportunities, and financial codependencies. Of course, it would be a logistical, legal, political, and administrative nightmare, and was a move opposed by essentially everyone in the EES, so it was guaranteed not to be smooth. When Crawford announced that the Director of the EES, Maurice Long, would now report to the new Dean of Engineering, the backlash was immense.

Though Long was fairly freshly minted as the head of the EES, he was not new to Tech. Having been employed at the organization since 1946, and a Tech man for both his bachelor and doctorate degrees, he quickly pointed to the stated independence of the research arm by grant of the state legislature. Interestingly, his justifications and pleas sounded remarkably similar to the protestations of a young Tech’s leadership when the folks from Athens attempted their hostile takeover in the early days of the Institute. Long protested to the state, namely Governor Jimmy Carter, and it became, as they say, a “whole big thing.”

And that was where it remained when the popular, young, energetic change-maker Hansen announced on April 27th that, less than two years into his presidency, that he was leaving to assume the presidency of his alma mater in West Lafayette.

With the administration and research wings thrown into chaos and Hansen out in a hurry, it would be up to a uniquely qualified interim man, the third president in four years, in the form of James Boyd.

How will Tech respond when, once again, turmoil has found them tied to the tracks? That’s a story for next 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. For the upcoming plan, see the June 1, 2020 column here. The interim presidency of James Boyd and the history of Women’s Basketball are up next.