Of Regents and Women

Combing through the minutes of the UT Board of Regents can be a tedious process. They’re a great resource for University history, though all too often, what had to be some lively and animated debates are either boiled down to a few dry sentences, or only the final decision was recorded. But sometimes, there’s a peek into the manner and attitudes of the regents, and of their times.

On July 12, 1917, the regents met in Austin to, among other things, meticulously review the University’s budget. The United States had entered World War I the previous April, and the Board was looking to financially trim what it could to help with the war effort. Most salary raises were placed on hold for the duration. Before the war was over, UT would partner with the War Department to host three military schools. The School for Military Aeronautics (SMA) was stationed at the Little Campus. Hargis Hall and the Nowotny Building just north of the Erwin Center are all that’s left of a larger complex. The SMA was called the “West Point of the Air,” and was a prototype for the Air Force Academy. The School of Automobile Mechanics was stationed at Camp Mabry, where instructors included members of the UT faculty. And the School of Radio Operators was located on campus and set up shop in rows of canvas army tents that lined what is today the South Mall.

While meeting in the old Main Building – in an Austin summer and without air conditioning – the regents’ review came to the Department of Home Economics, today’s School of Human Ecology. The department’s proposed budget for the 1917-18 school year was $13,800, most of which went to faculty salaries. (Department chair Mary Gearing was to be paid $3,000.) Two of the regents, John Mathis and William Love, moved to eliminate the department outright. Regent George Littlefield spoke up to defend it, but thought “the salaries were too high for women.” His fellow regents must have agreed. As a compromise, the Board decided to reduce all of the teaching slaries by 20 per cent.

Four years later, Governor Pat Neff appointed Mary McLellan O’Hair as the first woman regent. A vocal supporter of women’s suffrage, and an active member of both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, Mrs. O’Hair would likely have had her own opinion on how much women should be paid.

Photo above: The 1923 Board of Regents meets on campus. Mary McLellan O’Hair, the first woman on the Board, is fourth from left. UT President William Sutton is seated on the far left.

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