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The Hahn Years (1962-74)

T. Marshall Hahn’s appointment was effective July 1, 1962, and it became quickly evident that Hahn—at 35, the youngest president ever to head Virginia’s land-grant institution—planned to lead the school in new directions and to new heights. In the decade after he took office, Virginia Tech expanded and changed more rapidly in more different areas than in the previous 90 years of its existence. Building on the foundation laid by his predecessor, Hahn guided VPI from college status to a major research university.

Early in his administration, Hahn recommended a philosophy of development to reflect his university-oriented direction for the school. On Oct. 5, 1964, the board of visitors agreed with his vision and issued a statement elaborating on the institution’s new mission. It was the first time in the school’s history that a public commitment had been made toward developing the programs and facilities for a university education rather than a technical one. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia agreed with the philosophy, endorsing the expansion of doctoral programs into non-science, as well as engineering and science, areas. In 1965 the Virginia Higher Education Study Commission suggested that the name of the institution incorporate the word “university.” Five years later, the General Assembly approved a new name for the school—Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University—which became effective June 16, 1970.

In 1966 the state legislature created an institution-wide Research Division, which consolidated the roles of the Virginia Engineering Experiment Station and the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. The legislature also created an Extension Division to consolidate all of the university’s extension activities, including operation and development of programs at the Donaldson Brown Center for Continuing Education (later named Donaldson Brown Hotel & Conference Center and today called the Graduate Life Center at Donaldson Brown). Both divisions became effective July 1. By the end of the 1960s the Research Division could boast annual research funding exceeding $9 million.

To prepare for a major influx of students—the student body increased by about 1,000 students per year during Hahn’s administration, nearly tripling during his tenure—construction began on new dormitories and academic buildings, other buildings were renovated or enlarged (including Burruss), and support facilities enlarged or added. Faculty ranks grew as well; in 1966 alone, more than 100 new professors joined the staff.

Among the major additions to the physical plant during Hahn’s term were Miles, Newman, Johnson, Lee, Pritchard, Ambler Johnston, Slusher, and O’Shaughnessy residence halls; Derring; Continuing Education Center  (see above); Cowgill; Anaerobic Bacteriology Laboratory; Dietrick Dining Hall; Wallace; Field House (now Rector Field House); Whittemore; Cheatham; and the second McBryde. Additionally, in 1963 the VPI Educational Foundation purchased a 140-acre tract on U.S. 460 for development of a University Research Park, providing sites for research and highly technical industrial activity. And Miles Stadium was razed and construction of Lane Stadium commenced.

With Hahn’s support, the airport gained a longer runway, requiring removal of the Norfolk and Western Railway spur to Blacksburg and ending use of the famous Huckleberry train, which had carried members of the corps to and from Blacksburg for years.

During Hahn’s administration, William Walker Lewis Jr. became Tech’s first Rhodes Scholar. Other firsts resulted from the creation of several new administrative positions: dean of women, director of alumni affairs, director of public relations, dean of men, vice president for student affairs (1968), executive vice president (1968), vice president for finance (1968), vice president for administration (1966), and vice president for academic affairs (1966). An administrative reorganization during the summer 1966 established the Offices of Institutional Research, Physical Plant Planning, and University Services and Auxiliary Enterprises and a university-wide Division of Information Services. Among other significant happenings under Hahn’s watch were the gift of the Reynolds homestead and about 700 acres of land in Patrick County; the inauguration of Governor’s Day (1965); Hahn building and moving into a home off-campus; and Virginia Tech winning its first Southern Conference championship in football, with an 8-2-0 record, in 1963, only to withdraw from the conference in the spring 1965 to assume independent status.

In September 1963 a new Virginia Tech branch at Wytheville opened as the Wytheville Community College, and in September 1964 another branch, the Clifton Forge-Covington Area Community College (now Dabney S. Lancaster Community College), opened on a 167-acre site that had been deeded to Virginia Tech in 1963 by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. In 1966 Tech relinquished control of the two schools, and they moved into the state’s new community college system on July 1, 1967.

In 1963 the board of visitors requested that the governor dissolve the 1944 VPI-Radford College merger because of the growing programs of both institutions, which required greater investments of time and energies than was possible by a single governing board. The separation was approved and became effective July 1, 1964, setting the stage for a huge increase in the number of women students at Tech. All courses were opened to women that fall, eliminating some of the former restrictions on liberal arts courses that were also offered at Radford.

A board of visitors decision in 1964—to make all participation in military programs optional—made it possible, for the first time in school history, for an able-bodied, undergraduate male to attend VPI for four years without participating in any military program. The decision was followed by a rapid decline of membership in the corps of cadets and an accompanying, rapid increase in the number of male Virginians who chose VPI for their college education. Later that same year, the board changed its original ROTC provision and restricted participation in ROTC to those who had chosen corps membership. The voluntary corps decision caused considerable dissension in the pro-military alumni ranks at the time.

In the academic arena, engineering and architecture were separated in 1964 into two schools (now called colleges), and the School of Architecture initiated a joint venture with George Washington University for graduate residence work in the Washington area in urban and regional planning. The following year, VPI reinstated the bachelor of arts degree, last awarded in 1886; replaced the 3.0 grading system with a 4.0 system; extended the Cooperative Education Program to the graduate level (in industrial engineering); and inaugurated a special honors program for outstanding freshmen. In 1970 the university extended the honors program throughout four years, allowing students who complete requirements in the program to earn a bachelor degree “in honors.” At the same time, an existing recognition “with honors” (based on grade average) was changed to “with distinction” (effective at 1971 commencement). A seventh academic college, the College of Education, was formed on July 1, 1971, from Arts and Sciences, and “and Life Sciences” was added to the name of the College of Agriculture. A five-day class week replaced the former six-day week effective in the fall.            Each academic college held its own commencement program, in addition to an all-university commencement, for the first time in June 1971.

A new academic title, “University Professor,” was established in 1969 “to honor certain outstanding faculty members whose international reputations in their respective fields have added to the stature of the university.” Also in 1969 the board of visitors approved the creation of a Faculty Senate, mainly to articulate faculty views on campus policies and procedures.

With increasing numbers of their cohorts drafted to fight in Vietnam, students became more aware of national and international issues. Recognizing the impact of these issues on their own lives, they sought more involvement in decisions affecting them. Sit-ins and teach-ins became commonplace in the late 1960s, and the student unrest, which pervaded campuses throughout the country, culminated in a student occupation of Cowgill and Williams Halls in 1970. After being forcibly removed from Williams Hall, more than a hundred were arrested on trespassing charges and were handed two-quarter suspensions as police escorted them from the building. But demonstrations continued into the early 1970s, the latter ones often reflecting dissatisfaction with student-life policies.

The university’s largest and most violent student demonstrations took place in the spring 1971, following a University Council decision requiring residence hall room doors to remain open at least six inches when a student was entertaining a member of the opposite sex. A protest rally of 500-1,000 students and a few non-students was held on campus May 24, followed by a march to downtown Blacksburg, where a few store windows were broken. Another demonstration, attended by about 2,000, was held the following day, and later that night several more windows downtown were broken. The next day a large group marched on the women’s section of Ambler Johnston Residence Hall, and a few students pushed their way into the living areas. State troopers were called to the scene, but the intruders had left by the time they arrived. Several bomb threats were made over the next few days, necessitating the closing of Williams Hall for about two hours; no explosives were found. About 3 a.m. on the morning of May 29, a fire burned Bldg. 253 (old Extension Apartment House); arson was suspected but never proved. On May 30, a homemade tear-gas bomb was detonated under a table in the snack bar in Squires, and 70 students had to be evacuated. Most of the students who had been demonstrating were shocked by the burning of Bldg. 253 and the other acts of destruction and, wanting no part of such events, stopped participating in demonstrations. The campus then returned to relative normalcy.

Concerned about the severity of student unrest, Hahn built a house off-campus, and the home where presidents had lived since the early part of the 20th century was converted into office spaces.

In 1974, citing the university’s need for a “periodic infusion of new ideas and new approaches,” Hahn resigned, effective at the end of the year, to join the management of Georgia-Pacific Corporation. The board of visitors named him president emeritus in 1975 and two years later conferred an honorary doctor of science degree upon him. A new chemistry laboratory was named for him in 1991.

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    Thomas Marshall Hahn Jr.

Thomas Marshall Hahn Jr.