Although the first faculty members and officers of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College were undoubtedly nervous as they waited for their first student, William Addison Caldwell of Sinking Creek community in Craig County, to “wander in the front door” on Oct. 1, 1872, it was not long before some of them might have wished that no student had ever shown up for classes. By the end of the first year, the student body had grown to 132, but it would take almost 10 years to firmly establish any real disciplinary policy. By that time, student misbehavior had helped cause problems that nearly shut down the college.
Until relatively recent years placed virtually every student behind the wheel of a car, Blacksburg and Virginia Tech were rather isolated from Virginia’s urban entertainment centers. Other than religious-related activities, Blacksburg offered little for students to do in their spare time. Consequently, the student body had to provide most of its own entertainment during much of the university’s first century. Students’ solutions to the problem of what to do when they were not studying often led to even greater problems for officials of both the town and the university.
Although military training has been offered at Virginia Tech since the earliest days, no disciplined cadet structure existed when the school first opened. Two major factors contributed to this situation: many of the students had to live in town because Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College lacked adequate housing on campus, and the first president of the college, Charles L. C. Minor, interpreted the Morrill Land Grant Act’s “military tactics requirement” as merely requiring that such tactics be offered. Minor’s interpretation of the act, while valid, would soon be challenged quite strongly.
Since the early students could find so little to do in town, they created their own pastimes. The Gray Jacket, the first student publication, reported in May 1877 that prevailing student “games” were “marbles, fishing in Tom’s Creek and the New River, baseball, and checkers.” The students also had debating societies and national social fraternities, but these activities did not occur frequently enough to keep them busy during the long afternoons and nights in which they were free to roam.
To help alleviate some of the boredom, most of the students played pranks on each other, the faculty, and the townspeople. One standard student joke was to send a roommate’s belongings home to his girlfriend. Another joke, as reported in the Gray Jacket, was to stage a fake duel between two students and make unsuspecting freshmen believe that one student had killed the other. Students painted Minor’s cow on one occasion and on numerous other occasions “borrowed” carriages from faculty and townspeople, disassembled them, and then reassembled them on the roofs of college buildings.
Students often would engage in noisemaking orgies in the middle of the night, sneaking up on some unsuspecting professor’s or local resident’s house and suddenly letting loose with noise from every conceivable percussion instrument they could acquire or make. Some of these sessions might have been planned in one of the local barrooms over “one too many drinks,” or so the townspeople thought. In May 1877, the Gray Jacket lamented: “A few weeks ago our little town boasted of four bar-rooms in full operation; now, only one is open to the public, and that one against the solemn protest of the people.” Possibly in protest over the demise of so many local pubs, the students (referred to as “a party of persons” in the July 1877 Gray Jacket) proceeded to demolish the kerosene lamps on Blacksburg’s Main Street. “For some minutes the cries of the mob and rattle of smashing glass rendered Main Street hideously musical,” the student publication reported. Since many students were also members of the five national social fraternities that had local chapters at the time, members of these groups received some of the blame for the mischief.
As student behavior increased in severity, the faculty and officers of the college split into two factions. General James H. “Gamecock” Lane, who was in charge of military tactics, wanted the college organized along lines similar to Virginia Military Institute, believing that a military structure would solve the disciplinary problem. President Minor, on the other hand, did not believe that the state legislature had envisioned another military institute in the state, and he strongly disagreed with Lane. The two points of view both had their supporters in the faculty, and the argument came to a head one day when Minor and Lane got into a heated discussion about the subject and even traded punches. The increasing dissension and disciplinary problems at the college became public knowledge throughout the state, causing a loss of confidence in the college and a consequent and drastic decline in enrollment.
The board of visitors finally decided that something had to be done to keep the college from closing its doors, and it ordered a reorganization of the college and replacement of Minor in 1879. The board adopted the “Report of the Committee on Reorganization” on November 13, 1879. Enrollment dropped to 50 in the 1879-80 session, the lowest ever.
The lack of discipline in the student body was attributed to classes ending at 2 p.m., leaving students on their own until the next day. In the words of the report, “After classes are over the students are masters of their own time, and they would be exceptionally good youths if they did not require [sic] habits of idleness and soon become familiar with the vices which idleness invariably begets and which can be so conveniently supplied in a small village.”
Since the campus could house all students for the first time in 1879, the committee recommended that students be required to live on campus. Another recommendation concerned a decided shift in the prominence of military training: “To be efficient, the military discipline must be rigid, and the penalties for disobedience must be military in their character, and the drill must be made obligatory . . . of all students not specially excepted; . . . a college uniform is essential to the successful establishment of military instruction . . . and the students should be required to wear it except when in their rooms or on detail duty . . . .” Additionally, all students were required to attend church on Sunday mornings and daily religious exercises under the direction of the president of the college. Membership in all secret societies was prohibited.
Although it would take two more years to fully implement the recommendations of the Committee on Reorganization, the student body would closely follow the military pattern established by the 1879 board of visitors for most of the next 75 years. The college would never become entirely military, however, since there were always some students excused from drill and the corps for physical reasons. The military structure did not entirely solve the discipline problem either since the cadets were still bored in their isolated environment and dreamed up new ways to misbehave: hazing freshmen in new and ingenious ways; dropping bags of water on unsuspecting passersby from the barracks windows; stuffing retreat cannons with rocks that went flying everywhere; shooting off dynamite caps; and general destruction following barracks parties fueled with “Brush Mountain Spirits.”
During the Lomax administration (1886-91), discipline deteriorated to such an extent that the board of visitors forced Lomax to resign his office. President John M. McBryde (1891-1907) also had his problems with students. In the fall of 1904 a junior was expelled from college and told his classmates that he had not received fair treatment from the faculty. The junior class became highly incensed over the matter and, without investigating the reasons for their classmate’s dismissal, issued a demand that the faculty reinstate him. While the faculty was taking its time in responding to the demand, the entire junior class, except for 12 students, withdrew from the college. Most of them applied for readmission after the Christmas holidays, but each had to formally “express regret for their hasty action and their intention of giving due recognition to the paramount authority of the governing body.”
Sophomore Night, a later development, became a cadet “tradition” that soon had each succeeding class trying to outdo the preceding one in the amount of mischief and destruction it wreaked. The annual event reached its climax in 1925, when sophomore cadets took cows to the top floor of the barracks; placed a farm wagon, harrows, grain drill, skeleton, and horse-drawn hearse on the roofs of various barracks; took two steam rollers from a highway construction job and brought them to campus for a “bullfight” between two students; headed a grocery truck down a basement stairway; filled the barracks quadrangle with all manner of livestock; and hauled a fully-assembled fire hose reel up a flag pole. President Burruss decided to make the sophomores pay for all the damages before he would let them graduate. That decision and the intervention of Pop Owens, the mess steward, who convinced the sophomores to have a banquet instead, led to a subsidence of the mischievousness.
In 1921 the college admitted women for the first time as full-time students, increasing the size of the full-time non-military student body by five. The corps opposed their admission and made life difficult for them. The Bugle, the college yearbook, accused the women of causing “a wretched condition” and warned that they would “murder our very tradition.” Since the yearbook refused to include them among photographs of students, the women initiated their own yearbook, which they dubbed The Tin Horn, in 1925. They published the yearbook again in 1929, 1930, and 1931. Refused admittance to most clubs and organizations, the women started their own. They also started a basketball team.
In the early 1920s President Burruss and a faculty study committee proposed eliminating the corps of cadets and putting the entire college on a civilian basis. The board of visitors discussed the proposal and then decided to keep the corps, but with one important change. Beginning with the 1924-25 session, only the first two years of the corps would be mandatory for all able-bodied male students; the last two years would be optional.
About 200 males “out of the military” launched a movement to form a civilian student government, culminating in the formation of the Civilian Student Union in November 1930. The male students did not include female students in their organization because they still considered the women “second class citizens.” In fact, The Bugle did not include the women in its pages until 1939, and the token representation that year consisted of two pages for the Women’s Student Union in the extracurricular club section. The women had formed their own union in September 1934. The following year, male civilians and cadets established a “super student government” to act on matters of common interest to both groups, but each continued to maintain a separate student government as well. This arrangement was dissolved in the fall of 1939 because the civilians believed the cadets had too much power. They did, however, maintain a joint committee to coordinate matters of mutual interest. On Nov. 14, 1939, the male and female civilian student unions united into a single Civilian Student Union in a move by the male civilians to counter the power of the cadets.
The student body was comparatively “at ease” throughout the 1930s, but it hit the headlines again in the early 1940s when unsanitary conditions in the dining hall provoked a mass demonstration and a march on Burruss’s home in July 1942. Concerned about the ensuing unfavorable publicity generated by the demonstration, Gov. Colgate W. Darden Jr. made several trips to Blacksburg to talk with student leaders and college officials. Evidently convinced that Burruss had not devoted enough time to student affairs because of a work overload, Darden called a meeting of the board of visitors to correct the situation. The board then established a Student Life Committee (forerunner of the present Commission on Student Affairs), which would meet with Burruss at least once a month to consider “all matters that affect student life.” In addition, the board named a special committee of faculty and students “with power to act” on the dining hall situation, and a Senior Privileges Committee to study the matter of senior privileges, which had been eliminated following the demonstration. The campus returned to relative normalcy, at least until February 27, 1943, when most of the seniors and juniors left for military duty.
During World War II, the student body declined from a high of 3,582 in 1942-43 to a low of 738 in 1944-45. The college was kept going during most of the war by several special war training programs, including the Army Specialized Training Program, used primarily for Army engineers. At their peak, the various war training programs brought as many as 2,000 soldiers to the campus.
During efforts to merge VPI with Radford College and transfer all female students to the nearby college in 1944, cadets initiated a movement to keep women on campus. The corps passed a resolution urging the retention of female students at VPI and raised money to send a coed committee to Richmond to speak against the merger. Their efforts helped initiate a compromise, which kept some women on the Blacksburg campus.
Following World War II, veterans were excused from participation in the corps, and with the huge influx of returning servicemen, civilians outnumbered cadets in winter 1946 for the first time. Civilian students have been more numerous ever since. Another attempt to merge cadet and civilian student governments was made in the fall of 1946 but was defeated at the polls by a 10-1 margin.
Growth of the corps of cadets remained a problem as many cadets moved into the civilian student body at the end of the mandatory two years in the corps. In 1950 the board of visitors began studying military life on campus, and a controversy developed over the military role. During the 1951-52 academic year, a group of students, mostly veterans, initiated a “The Corps Must Go” movement, but in 1952 the board decided to maintain both the military and civilian student bodies. To strengthen the corps, the board appointed the first full-time commandant of cadets since World War I. The ranking ROTC officer had been acting as commandant.
A highlight for students came in 1951 when the administration gave permission for them to drive cars on campus.
New student life regulations and a basic policy for student life were put into effect in the fall 1952, along with the first official dormitory counselor program. In 1957, recognizing the need to coordinate religious activities on campus, President Newman created the post of coordinator of religious affairs and filled it with Paul Derring, who had served as YMCA executive secretary for 39 years.
In the late 40s and early 50s, female students began moving into positions heretofore “reserved” for males only. In 1946-47 Freda Polansky became the first female student to edit the student newspaper, Doris Tomcyak served a term—1949-50—as editor of The Virginia Tech Engineer, and Thora Elrath was business manager for the 1950 Bugle and managing editor of the 1951 Bugle. In 1953 Betty Delores Strough became he first woman to receive a Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. But the “first woman to” who gained the most public notice was Patricia Ann Miller of Richmond, who, during commissioning exercises in Miles Stadium in June 1959, was awarded her ROTC commission in the Army Women’s Medical Specialist Corps as a dietitian. She had been denied admittance into the corps of cadets throughout her 12 quarters on campus. In another first for women, a group of alumnae gathered in Roanoke in spring 1955 and formally organized an alumnae chapter of the Alumni Association, with Beverly Carper Powley, class of 1938, elected president.
Yet another significant first occurred in 1953 when the first black student ever admitted to the college—Irving L. Peddrew III—was allowed to enroll. Peddrew was not the first African American to apply to VPI. Everett Pierce Raney applied in 1951 to study business but was denied admission because Virginia State, by then the state’s black land-grant institution, offered a program in business. But Peddrew wanted to study electrical engineering, a subject not taught at any black college in the commonwealth. When he enrolled, he was the only African American among 3,322 students; he was also the first black undergraduate student to attend an historically white, land-grant institution in the 11 states formerly comprising the Confederacy. College officials required that Peddrew fulfill the two-year military requirement but forced him to live and eat off campus. Disgruntled, he left after three years.
In 1954 Virginia Tech admitted three additional black male students—Lindsay Cherry, Floyd Wilson, and Charlie Yates—to study engineering. They, too, had to participate in the corps of cadets and live and eat off campus. Cherry and Wilson left before completing their studies, but Yates was one of six honors graduates in mechanical engineering in 1958. Not only was he the first African American to graduate from Virginia Tech, but he was also the first one to earn an undergraduate degree at an historically white land-grant school in the former Confederacy. Yates went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees at Cal Tech and Johns Hopkins, respectively. He returned to his alma mater in 1979 to teach mechanical engineering, leaving in 1983 to teach at schools in eastern Virginia for four years. During that period, he served on Tech’s board of visitors. He returned to Tech in 1987 to teach aerospace engineering and retired in 2000, when he was named professor emeritus.
Conditions changed for black students after VPI accepted the application of James Whitehurst, an electrical engineering major, in 1959. Whitehurst decided to remain in the corps of cadets after the required two years and filed an injunction to live on campus. He was assigned an entire bay of Lane Hall and was allowed to eat with the corps on campus. He ignored Newman’s request that he not attend the junior-year Ring Dance, and when he stepped onto the dance floor, his classmates cheered him. After Whitehurst broke through the race barriers, the college allowed all black students who followed to live and eat on campus. They could also choose any program of study, not just programs unavailable at the state’s black colleges.
Blacksburg and VPI nearly came to blows, via the student body, when the town announced plans in 1957 to annex the campus into the corporate town limits. The students, fearing they would have to buy Blacksburg town automobile tags, staged a six-hour demonstration on May 31, 1957, and boycotted all downtown stores for one day. Police had to use tear gas to break up the demonstration and arrested two students who had let air out of the tires of patrol cars. College officials also, but more mildly, opposed the annexation, and the town council later voted to drop the plan. It would be 12 years before Blacksburg would again attempt to turn campus students into town residents and an additional two more years after that (1971) before the town would win court approval to do so.
As Virginia Tech began its real surge from college to university status in the 1960s, it soon became evident that many excellent male students were not considering enrollment at Tech because of the mandatory two-year corps requirement. In addition, the failure rate of freshman cadets was higher than that for civilian freshmen. After considerable study, the board of visitors finally decided on May 18, 1964, to make participation in the corps of cadets voluntary for all male students; however, it left standing a requirement for two years of enrollment in ROTC for freshmen and sophomores. Their decision caused an avalanche of criticism from pro-corps alumni who believed that the move would mean the demise of the corps. To clear the air, Gov. Albertis S. Harrison Jr. requested that the board of visitors hold an open meeting on campus for all sides to be heard. After listening to 64 people express their opinions, the board went into executive session on June 29 and reaffirmed the voluntary corps concept with one important change: participation in ROTC would be restricted to members of the corps. Effective in the fall 1964, Virginia Tech returned to the original founders’ concept that military tactics merely be offered, not required.
From the time the first women had been admitted to Tech in 1921 to the late 1960s, their numbers had seen little growth because of the limited offerings of programs that traditionally appealed to their sex. With the 1944 merger with Radford College, which became the “Women’s Division of VPI,” most women had to enroll there except when the courses they wanted were available only at Blacksburg—agriculture, engineering, applied science, business administration, and the last two years of home economics courses. Women enrolling in advanced degree programs had also studied on the Blacksburg campus. With the rapid growth of both institutions in the early 1960s, it became increasingly difficult to have both the state’s largest university and its largest women’s college under a single board of visitors and single top administration. The board of visitors requested a separation of the two institutions, and a bill to that effect was introduced in the General Assembly in January 1964. The legislature approved the measure, which became effective on July 1, 1964.
The two actions concerning the corps and Radford College changed the student body composition enormously. Enrollment in the fall of 1963 totaled approximately 6,000, of which 274 were women and about 2,000 were cadets. Eight years later, enrollment was 13,282, including almost 4,000 women and fewer than 600 cadets. Total enrollment more than doubled, but the enrollment of women increased 13 times. At the same time, cadet enrollment declined to less than one-third of its 1963 strength, making it the smallest corps in more than 50 years.
In September 1964 a joint committee of civilians and cadets was organized to frame a constitution that would try once again to unite the two groups under one student government. The constitution was defeated by the cadets in a referendum the following March, even though the civilians had supported the unification overwhelmingly. A slightly revised constitution, eliminating some cadet objections, was brought up for a vote on Feb. 22, 1966, and was passed overwhelmingly by both groups. The constitution, which established a Unified Student Body of all Virginia Tech students, became effective on April 19, 1966. The name of the organization was changed to the Student Government Association during the 1967-68 session. Civilians and cadets continued to maintain separate Honor Courts, however. A single Honor Court, established in January 1935, had tried both civilians and cadets for violations of the honor code until fall 1939, when the civilians established their own court. VPI students officially adopted an Honor System in the 1908-09 session, although they had started the system unofficially at least two years earlier.
Another milestone in the history of Virginia Tech was recorded in 1966, when six black women enrolled as students: Linda Edmonds, Freddi Hairston, Marguerite Harper, Jackie Butler, Linda Paulette Adams, and Chiquita Hudson. Adams, who transferred from a community college, became the first black woman to graduate from Virginia Tech in 1968.
With increasing numbers of civilian students—especially increasing numbers of women students—enrolling in the mid -1960s, the make-up of the student body changed dramatically. By 1968, for the first time, women students outnumbered cadets 1,250 to 1,100.
The rapid shift in the composition of the student body was accompanied by a shift in many student attitudes—both nationally and at Virginia Tech—in the mid-1960s. It became a national student fetish to challenge college administrations’ concepts on practically everything, and when an administration was too slow to change its concepts or refused to accede to unreasonable demands, the students quite often became violent. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, a vocal minority of Virginia Tech students held both peaceful and disruptive demonstrations and occasionally engaged in destructive activities. The basis for their complaints ranged from assertions that the university was not doing its part to relieve the ills of the world to a demand that students be allowed to conduct their lives in the campus residence halls without university supervision or regulation.
A student who had been denied readmission to the university because of his participation in a peaceful demonstration at Commencement won a legal battle against the university in 1969 when the Circuit Court of Appeals directed the university to readmit him. The court, in effect, upheld the rights of students to express peaceful on-campus dissent “as long as it does not disrupt or obstruct normal activities.”
During spring 1970 considerable disturbance erupted on campus when a group of students and two faculty members interfered with a cadet drill, forcing the university to seek an injunction against further disruptive activities by the individuals involved. The injunction provoked another demonstration by about 300 students in front of Burruss Hall. About a month later Virginia state troopers had to be called to forcibly evict a group of about 100 students who had locked themselves in Williams Hall. The students were arrested as the police escorted them from the building.
Although the campus had returned to relative normalcy in 1971, an anti-war rally was held in May 1972, resulting in scuffling and arrests, but an impromptu address about the Vietnam War by U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, on campus to speak to a forestry and wildlife sciences group, helped dissipate the tension.
Even though students were apparently divided in their sentiments in the early 1970s, student leaders seemed more inclined to work with rather than against the administration, although the transition was fuzzy at best. In 1972 the Student Government Association was reorganized, and students, more interested in the quality of academic programs, developed a method for evaluating professors. It was also in 1972 that student pressure to change student life policies partly succeeded as the board of visitors established three dormitory lifestyles—closed door visitation, open door visitation, and visitation restricted to the lounge area—the choice of which required written approval from parents. The students also gained extended hours for room visitation. For the first time, sophomores were allowed to live off campus, but in 1973 the university received more requests from upper-class students for on-campus housing than could be accommodated.
The ’70s brought several other significant changes within the student body. In 1972 the class of 1974 elected a female as its president, the first time a woman had held the position. That same year, fearing a “Big Brother” scenario, students became concerned when Tech announced that it was 14 months into a project to computerize student records for the University Student Enrollment Records System. Students also began a concerted effort to lobby for the addition of a non-voting student member on the board of visitors by supporting a federal amendment to the Higher Education Act that would allow institutions of higher learning to seat at least one student on their governing boards. Their battle would be long lasting, with success finally achieved in 1983 (see below). In the mid ’70s students pushed for legislation to control companies selling term papers, succeeding in getting the Virginia General Assembly to pass a bill making such action a misdemeanor.
The question of recognition for social fraternities continued during 1970 when Sigma Phi Epsilon chartered a local group living in town and the Cotillion Club voted itself out of existence—after 57 years of on-campus recognition—to affiliate with Pi Kappa Alpha. The student senate introduced legislation in the fall calling for recognition of the fraternities, and the question was put through channels for action.
By the end of the ’70s, students were working within the system to initiate a variety of changes that would affect them. In 1978 the SGA encouraged students to vote for a bond referendum that would provide funds to expand Newman Library and construct a new animal science building. The following year, students turned their attention to university policy, pushing for changes in the policy that prohibited the infirmary from prescribing birth control pills.
Significant changes continued in the 1980s. In 1982 the SGA established a course evaluation program and published The Virginia Tech Course Evaluation Guide in 1985 for students to review before registering for courses. The ’80s also brought attention to students housed off-campus, with the formation in 1981 of a Tenants Union and initiation of a housing fair.
In 1983, following passage of a bill by the General Assembly in 1982 and an 8-2 vote by the board of visitors to allow a non-voting student representative, students succeeded in getting one of their own on the board of visitors. The first student board member, SGA candidate James Stroh, had undergone a two-month application procedure with four other students.
That same year, the Blacksburg Transit System began operating. Students were charged $4 as part of student fees, and the buses made designated stops on campus.
In 1984 student Ann Marie DiGregorio filed suit to become a registered voter in Montgomery County, winning a preliminary injunction from a federal judge allowing her to vote in the presidential election. At the suggestion of the judge, her battle became a class-action suit for all present and future Tech students living in Montgomery County and considering themselves residents.
That same year, students in the College of Engineering were required to purchase, at a discount, one of three personal computers selected by the college.
One of the big issues for students in the 1980s was a proposal to raise the drinking age, which they opposed. In 1983 the Student Government Association sent about 2,000 letters signed by students and opposing a bill to raise the drinking age to 21 to various state senators, and the Senate killed the bill under consideration. The following year, the SGA, working with the Residence Hall Federation, gathered signatures of some 4,000 students and was getting students to sign postcard-sized statements for presentation to the Senate after the House of Delegates passed a bill to raise the legal drinking age to 21. The SGA urged better education about responsible drinking instead.
Other significant milestones occurred in 1985 when architecture student Derek Jeffries became the first black regimental commander of the corps and first-year students entering the university’s computer science department were required to purchase Apple Macintosh L computers.
The same year, several candidates running for SGA offices filed election complaints when more than one site for the distribution of ballots exhausted their supplies and were not able to obtain new supplies for up to 20 minutes. The complaints put the election results on hold until the Elections Committee could approve the results.
The ’80s also saw silent demonstrations by students, who joined with local residents in front of the Blacksburg Post Office on Main Street for a number of months to attract attention to a growing crisis in Central America. Students expressed concern about substandard diets for 75 percent of the population there. In another demonstration, students opposing the country’s nuclear arms buildup held a rally that was supported by the Central America protesters.