How NOT to Choose a University President

UT Campus.1923.

Above: The University of Texas campus in the early 1920s.

 Thursday, May 15, 1924: Lutcher Stark, Chairman of the Board of Regents, asked the doors to be locked and the windows closed. The board was meeting with the alumni association’s executive council about the selection of the next University president, but Stark was adamant that their discussion should be strictly confidential. “No word must get out to the newspapers,” he instructed. No one knew that an intrepid reporter from The Daily Texan was hiding in the closet, notepad at the ready.

Within 48 hours of the meeting, the board broke their pledge to the alumni, offered the presidency to the governor of Texas, two regents abruptly resigned, and the ambitious fundraising campaign to build the football stadium was almost derailed.

Sometimes, choosing a new UT president doesn’t go smoothly.

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Initially, the University had no president. In the spring of 1881, as the Texas Legislature debated the bill that would create UT, concerns were raised in the House that Governor Oran Roberts would be named to head the University when his term expired.  Though Roberts strongly supported the university bill, opponents argued that asking Roberts to oversee UT would set a precedent and forever politicize the office. The position ought to go to someone academically qualified, not become a retreat for retired politicians.

A compromise was reached between Senator Alexander Terrell and Representative Joseph Hutcheson. Terrell preferred to have a president, but also wanted the university to be open to women as well as men, a progressive idea for its time. Hutcheson believed enrollment should be limited only to male students, and argued that UT be modeled after the University of Virginia – his alma mater – which was then the only university in the country led by a faculty chairman instead of a president. To break the impasse, Terrell agreed to a faculty chair, while Hutcheson conceded to the enrollment of women. Roberts was denied the possibility of serving as UT’s president, but was appointed as one of the two initial law professors.

Leslie WaggenerFor most of UT’s first decade, English Professor Leslie Waggener (photo at left, for whom Waggener Hall is named) served as the faculty chairman, though it became increasingly apparent that an administrator, someone apart from the professors, was needed. In 1895, Waggener was declared president ad interim as the regents began to search for a permanent chief executive. They didn’t have to look far, as an unwitting prime candidate came to them. In June 1896, the faculty invited George Winston, then President of the University of North Carolina, to Austin to deliver the spring commencement address. Winston’s demeanor and speech so impressed the regents, that Winston was immediately recruited. He was named UT’s president before the month was over.

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Perhaps the most difficult selection of a UT president began in February, 1923, when Robert Vinson resigned to take the helm of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Vinson had piloted UT through the 1917 controversy with Governor James Ferguson, as well as a 1921 attempt to relocate the entire campus from its confined 40 acres to the more spacious Brackenridge Tract. (The effort was deemed too costly. Instead, state lawmakers approved funds to purchase land east of the campus. See The Littlefield Gateway for more on the proposed move.)

The board accepted Vinson’s resignation with “deep regret,” voted to award him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and named Will Sutton, the Dean of Education, as President ad interim. Almost immediately, the inevitable speculation began on who would be Vinson’s successor. The most notable came from the Austin Statesman. After the regents’ meeting, Chairman Lutcher Stark met privately with the governor for over an hour. The next day, the Statesman reported a “flock of rumors” in the state capitol “that Governor Pat Neff might resign . . . in order to become president of the University of Texas.”

Will HoggThough it was just a rumor, it persisted with enough frequency to worry Will Hogg and the officers of the University’s Ex-Students’ Association. Hogg, the son of former governor James Hogg, a UT graduate, and a Houston lawyer, had donated a small fortune to promote higher education throughout the state, was instrumental in founding the Alcalde alumni magazine, had served a term on the Board of Regents, and steered the ex-students’ efforts through the political conflict with Governor Ferguson, which prevented the University from being closed and resulted in Ferguson’s impeachment and resignation. (On campus, the W. C. Hogg Building is named for him.) When Will Hogg was concerned, the alumni tended to listen.

AAS.1923.06.05.Alumni Oppose Neff as UT Prez - CopyAt its annual meeting in June 1923, which coincided with spring commencement, the alumni association approved a resolution in opposition to Pat Neff as UT president. “For Governor Neff as a governor, a friend to the University and as a Christian gentleman, we have only words of commendation and praise,” the resolution stated, “but we do not believe that the qualities which make him an able governor in any way prove his fitness for presidency of the University.” The issue was neither personal nor directly political. The governor, a UT alumnus, was generally popular among the alumni. Hogg and Neff belonged to the same 1897 law school class, where both participated in the University’s first celebration of Texas Independence Day. Echoing their 1881 counterparts in the legislature, the alumni were simply anxious not to let the office of president become politicized.

A copy of the resolution was sent to the Board of Regents and acknowledged by Chairman Lutcher Stark, but the regents took no other action toward finding Vinson’s successor, which only prompted more gossip that the board was deliberately dragging its heels to wait until Neff had completed his term as governor.

In the meantime, attention on campus had turned to a new topic: building a football stadium.

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UT Football Player.1900sBy the 1920s, intercollegiate football had gained a strong national following and developed a competitive parity between teams beyond the traditional “Big Three” of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Improvements in transportation, especially the wildly popular and affordable Model T automobile, along with massive post-World War I improvements to roads, provided rural American families the opportunity to drive in to town on a Saturday and watch a game. With better teams and more fans, college football had become big business.

To accommodate the crowds, impressive stadiums were being constructed across the country, many of them named as memorial tributes to those who had fought in the recent world war. Stanford opened a 65,000-seat venue in 1921, followed closely by Ohio State (63,000), Illinois (67,000), California (73,000), Michigan (84,000), and others. For much of the decade, stadium building was almost a mania.

1924.Clark Field

Above: Part of the west stands of old Clark Field.

At the University of Texas, football had been played on the old Clark Field since the 1890s (at the corner of 24th and Speedway Streets, where the O’Donnell Building and Dell-Gates Complex are today), but by the 1920s, the student-built creaky wooden bleachers were inadequate and always needed repairs. (See The One Week Stadium) A new facility was sorely needed.

United behind Coach “Doc” Stewart’s motto, “For Texas, I Will,” the 1923 Longhorn football team had a banner season. Opponents didn’t score a point through the first six games. Baylor fought hard to a 7-7 tie, which spoiled the undefeated record, but the next week Oklahoma succumbed 26-14. Only the Thanksgiving Day bout against A&M, to be held in College Station, was left on the schedule.

Off the field, the campus chatter was about building a new athletic stadium. Some thought the estimated $500,000 cost was too ambitious a goal. Nothing close to it had been attempted. Others believed a new venue was overdue, and if the team continued its winning ways, alumni support would make the difference. If Texas prevailed over A&M, a stadium campaign was likely. But there was a catch: Texas had never won on Kyle Field since games were first played there in 1915.

On Thanksgiving Day, thousands of UT fans either drove their Model T’s or boarded trains for College Station. Many wore orange and white armbands that read, “Win or Lose, a Stadium by Thanksgiving, 1924.” Walter Hunnicutt collaborated with Longhorn Band director Burnett Pharr to compose a new song. A friendly spoof on A&M’s “Aggie Taps,” the pair called it “Texas Taps.” The band introduced the tune at the game, and it was an instant favorite. (Today, fans know it as “Texas Fight.” Listen to the earliest recording of the song.) Texas won the day 6-0 over the Aggies, and the fundraising campaign to build a stadium wasn’t far behind.

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Feb 25 1924.Stadium Kickoff Rally

Above: With snow falling outside, students launch the fundraising effort for the stadium.

At 2 p.m. on Monday, February 25, 1924, in the midst of a rare Austin snowstorm, almost 2,500 students – out of an enrollment of 4,400 – trudged through icy slush to attend an unprecedented rally in the wooden men’s gymnasium. The goal was to build Memorial Stadium, named to honor Texans who had participated in the recent World War. In just over week, the students hoped to raise $100,000 in pledges on the campus. The citizens of Austin would be called upon for another $100,000, and then the alumni would need to donate the remaining $300,000. The east and west stands would be built first, with the north end zone and overall façade to be completed later. For the stadium to be ready by the 1924 football season, construction needed to begin in June.

To no one’s surprise, the leader of the stadium drive was Regent Lutcher Stark. “I will make you this proposition,” he announced to the crowd, “Lutcher Stark will donate to the stadium 10 per cent of what is raised on campus by the students.”

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Lutcher StarkBorn, perhaps appropriately, in the East Texas town of Orange, Stark was the heir to a vast lumber and oil fortune. He arrived at the University in 1905 as the first student to own a car, graduated in 1910, and became a whirlwind of business activity, involved in banking, real estate, insurance, manufacturing, and petroleum. His family home has been preserved as a museum, along with the Stark Museum of Art just across the street.

Texas Longhorn Blankets 1915Outside of business, Stark’s great interest was the University of Texas sports program, and was its first super-booster. A Saturday Evening Post article would dub him the “Archangel” of UT athletics. Though the football team had been called “Longhorns” since 1904, Stark provided the 1915 squad with blankets embroidered with “Texas Longhorns,”
the first time the team had publicly sported its name. A generous donor, Stark also found summer jobs for many student-athletes. (Stark’s mother, Miriam, was also a contributor to the University, including the valuable Stark Library, located in the president’s suite in the Main Building.) In 1919, Governor William Hobby appointed the 31-year old Stark to the Board of Regents, where he would remain for 24 years.

But as Chairman of the Board of Regents, his passions sometimes led to controversy. At the July 1923 regents’ meeting, Stark oversaw the creation of a new College of Physical Activities, which would coordinate men’s and women’s intramural sports, P.T. classes, and offer a degree in physical education. It was no secret that Stark wanted to promote Athletic Director Theo Bellmont to Dean of the college, but this was controversial with the alumni, who thought it placed too much emphasis on athletics. As Bellmont had no advanced degree, the idea didn’t sit well with the faculty, either. (Two years later, the college was reorganized as a subsidiary of the School of Education and is now the Department of Kinesiology.)

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For Texas I Will.Stadium Drive.Lunch Meeting Above: A 500-member student committee held daily lunch meetings in the gym.

With the stadium drive underway, 500 students were divided into 68 teams to solicit anyone and everyone on campus. The group met for lunch daily at the men’s gym, under an enormous “For Texas, I Will” banner hung on the east wall, and reported on pledges from the previous day. Each morning, The Daily Texan published a different slogan above its masthead, while the contributor won a pair of tickets to a local movie theater. Among the refrains:

Fall in Line! Don’t Lag Behind – This is Stadium Time!

Let’s Give our Roll to Build that Bowl

Don’t Pass the Buck – Pass Several Bucks to the Stadium

Come, Chum, with a Maximum Sum for the Stadium

DT Headline.1924.02.16.

Above: Before and through the student pledge drive, The Daily Texan published stadium slogans above its masthead.

The campus drive ended March 4th and exceeded all expectations. The students, faculty, and staff had together pledged $166,000, and Lutcher Stark promptly wrote a check for $16,600.

Alcalde.April 1924A month later, from April 4–11, it was Austin’s turn to take up the project. With the help of a 300-person organizing committee, and rallied by a parade of UT students down Congress Avenue (unfortunately in a downpour), the city contributed $115,000. The crucial alumni pledge drive was set to begin in mid-May.

To prime the ex-students, the Alcalde alumni magazine published a special stadium edition in April. It featured articles on the successful campus pledge drive, and was filled with supportive letters from faculty, coaches, and prominent alumni. The back cover compared building the stadium to the construction of the Roman Coliseum. “Our Memorial Stadium,” the magazine predicted, “will command the admiration of generations unborn. Like a mantle of ivy, time will weave o’er its beloved walls a soft halo of tradition.”

Photos above: The front and back cover of the April, 1924 Alcalde magazine; a color rendition of the proposed stadium by Dallas architect Herbert Greene. Click on image for a larger view.

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 The same edition of the Alcalde also issued a complaint: “Month after month there is talk of the election of a President of the University by the Board of Regents, but month after month nothing is done.” As the spring continued, questions arose about the board’s lack of progress. The Students’ Assembly approved a measure in favor of Dr. Sutton as the permanent chief executive. Alumni around the state started petitions for other candidates, including one for Lutcher Stark, and rumors persisted that the board still planned to name Governor Neff. To press the matter, the executive council of the alumni association requested a conference with the regents. The meeting was scheduled for the evening of May 15th.

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1923 Board of Regents

Above: The UT Board of Regents in President Sutton’s office, spring 1924.

On a warm Thursday morning, May 15, 1924, the Board of Regents convened in President Sutton’s office in the Education Building. (Today, it’s the architecture graduate student lounge on the ground floor of Sutton Hall.) The regents spent the day discussing University business, and then adjourned for dinner. They planned to return in about an hour to meet with the alumni executive council, though the engagement was to be in executive session and not open to the public.

Biological Labs.1924While the office was empty, a freshman reporter from The Daily Texan quietly entered and hid in a closet that adjoined the room. Notepad at the ready, he concealed himself among the architectural drawings for the Biological Sciences Building, then under construction (photo at right), and plans for the new stadium.

An hour later, the alumni joined the regents for a closed-door conference. Chairman Stark asked the details of their conversation not be made public, and all agreed. Will Hogg spoke on behalf of the alumni, and outlined the objections for appointing Governor Neff as UT president.

“Well, you have sufficient confidence in us to believe that we won’t select Neff, haven’t you?” responded Regent Frank Jones. “Well, Neff is not the first governor of Texas who has wanted the presidency of the University. We won’t give it to him.”

The alumni were assured that Neff wouldn’t be selected, and the conversation turned to the board’s two “real” candidates:  Guy Stanton Ford, then head of the Graduate School at the University of Minnesota, and Herbert Bolton, a previous member of the UT faculty who was then a history professor at the University of California in Berkeley. The regents were leaning toward Bolton. With the alumni satisfied, the regents retired for the night, set to continue their official meeting the next afternoon. The Texan reporter, who had recorded the entire discussion, waited until the building was quiet before he made his escape, but not before he helped himself to a few of the regents’ cigars.

DT.1924.05.16.Bolton to be Elected

Friday morning, the Texan printed a complete account of the meeting and predicted that Dr. Guy Ford would be UT’s next president. The identity of the reporter was never revealed “for the sake of his university career,” though the Texan added that the regents smoked “bum cigars.”

That afternoon, the board reconvened as scheduled, promoted Theo Bellmont to Dean of the new College of Physical Activities, and then, contrary to their verbal pledge to the alumni the previous evening, promptly voted 7-2 to tender Governor Pat Neff the position of UT president. Stark telephoned Neff, who was then in the town of Eastland, and informed the governor.

Regents Sam Cochran and Frank Jones, who had voted no, immediately resigned from the board. A statement to explain their position was included in the minutes: “We believe it contrary to the best interests of the University and of the State, and wrong in principal, to select as the President of that institution the Governor of the State, who holds the appointive power with respect to the Board of Regents.”

“No, Neff’s election was not a complimentary one,” Stark later explained. “We wanted him to be president of the University.” Within an hour of the vote, the board received a telegram from Neff, who politely and tactfully declined.

The seven remaining regents went into executive session and unanimously elected Ford as president, with a $10,000 annual salary and a house. A telegram was sent to Minnesota before the board adjourned.

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Telegram

The regents’ actions were public knowledge by 4 p.m. that afternoon, and Will Hogg was furious. At 6:30 that evening, Hogg fired off a caustic telegram to Stark on behalf of the entire alumni council. Still preserved in the UT Archives, Hogg wrote, in part: “All here feel that while Neff’s declination on that evidently framed honorary election does his common sense a puny mite of credit, the contumely of that smear will be justly heaped on all of you … for as Ex-Students you failed to defend the constitutional sanctity and tritest ideals of your Alma Mater … If you truly desire to serve the University, you should at least resign from the Stadium Drive, or complete it out of your own pocket as a trifling tribute from a contrite conscience for the shameful thing you have done, for you as Chairman of the Board and leader of the Stadium effort can’t get a sou marque from Houston … until this personal and official obloquy is totally erased by your abject personal abasement.” The text of Hogg’s telegram found its way into the newspapers.

DT.1924.05.17.Headlines

In what might best be described as a great family quarrel, the entire University community was suddenly in an uproar. Alumni demanded Stark’s resignation from the Board of Regents and the stadium drive. The students, more interested in completing the stadium to which they’d just pledged $166,000, rushed to defend Stark. The faculty openly criticized the regents’ choices and called Bellmont’s promotion to dean “absurd.” Bellmont, who was content being the athletic director, learned the news of his new title by reading about it in the Texan, and found himself in an awkward situation. Meanwhile, Guy Ford wanted nothing to do with the University of Texas. Less than 24-hours after his selection, Ford sent his wife to tell reporters that he planned to stay in Minnesota.

1924.Stadium Site

As steam shovels cleared the site for the stadium and horse-drawn carts carried off excess rocks and soil, alumni pledges slowed to a trickle throughout the state and ceased entirely in all-important Houston. Contract work was to begin June 1st. If the situation wasn’t resolved quickly, the stadium effort would unravel and be delayed at least a year.

A few days after the regents meeting, Stark issued a 1,500 word statement to the press, and blamed the controversy on a small group in Houston. University graduate Maury Maverick of San Antonio (a future U.S. Congressman) countered to the Associated Press that Stark’s claim was a “smoke screen” and thought Stark still wanted Pat Neff. In the Dallas Morning News, Richard Fleming, president of the Houston chapter of the alumni association, said Stark’s claim was “unfounded,” and explained, “The opposition of the ex-students has not been directed personally toward Neff, but it has been solely directed toward the proposition of the selection of a man not fitted by education or training for the presidency.”

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On Sunday, June 1st, after two weeks of dispute, and as alumni gathered in Austin for spring commencement and the ex-students’ annual meeting, Lutcher Stark, Will Hogg, and several members of the alumni council met at the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin. After three hours of discussion and negotiation, differences were put aside. Stark resigned from the stadium project, but remained Chairman of the Board of Regents. Hogg pledged to promote the stadium drive in Houston and throughout the state to ensure its success.

AAS.1924.06.13.Bolton tells off ReportersThe regents also announced their selection of Herbert Bolton as University president. Bolton, on the history faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, had tentatively accepted, and planned to visit Austin in two weeks to finalize the details.

Any celebration that UT finally had a new leader, though, was premature. Bolton arrived in Austin and met with the regents on June 12th, but when later asked by a reporter from the Austin Statesman as to whether he would formally accept the presidency, Bolton responded, “Go to hell.” (What was discussed with the regents is unknown. Unfortunately, no Texan reporter was hiding in the closet.) Ultimately, Bolton returned to California. The regents went to their next choice: Walter Splawn.

Walter SplawnAn outstanding UT economics professor and an expert in transportation and labor, the 41-year old Splawn (photo at right) had been on a leave of absence since 1923 after Governor Neff appointed him to the Texas Railroad Commission. Splawn accepted the position in July, which ended 17 months of uncertainty, and served as UT’s president for three years.

 

 

Meanwhile, Texas Memorial Stadium opened on time for the fall 1924 football season, and in 1932, Pat Neff was appointed president of Baylor University, his undergraduate alma mater, and held the position for 15 years. Baylor’s main administrative building was named for him.

1924.Texas Memorial Stadium

A reminder: The UT History Corner is not an official publication of the University of Texas. The views expressed are those of the author.

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