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The Burruss Administration: 1919-1945


Photograph of Julian A. Burruss

(additional information on Burruss)

Julian Ashby Burruss born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1876, graduated from VPI, in 1898, with a degree in civil engineering. He then did graduate work at Richmond, Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago, earning an MA degree from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1921.

On June 12, 1919, the Board of Visitors elected him president of VPI. Probably as a result of the good will left by Eggleston plus the elation of the alumni at having an alumnus as president, Burruss was the first man during the first half century of the college to assume the presidency with the unanimous backing of all major groups concerned with the welfare of the college. He was also the first president with a background of experience and professional study in school administration, curriculum, and school finance. Invaluable information was also acquired at the University of Chicago as he completed his doctoral dissertation with the lengthy title of "A Study of the Business Administration of Colleges Based on Examination of the Practices of Land-Grant Colleges in the Making and Using Budgets." He openly admitted his compelling interests in these areas. VPI needed help in all the aforementioned professional areas.

In contrast to the ebullient Eggleston, Burruss was more of an introvert who was happiest when in his office, working with statistics, figures, and budgets. When he did appear in public or face to face with students, he was forthright, at ease and quoting, a student, "every inch the courteous gentleman."

Since Burruss served as president longer than any other president in the first century of the college, and since he also had a vision of what the land- grant college as part of the state system of higher education could do, and should do, his administration, with the assistance of the faculty whom he largely saluted, had many significant achievements; such as,

  1. the admittance of women to VPI, beginning in September, 1921;
  2. a dramatic increase in staff and the number of courses added;
  3. a plan to offer the first one or two years of engineering work at various places in the state;
  4. approval of the budget by the Engineering Council for Regional Development;
  5. the acquisition of a grant from the General Education Board for advancing teaching and research in agricultural economics and rural sociology;
  6. curricular added for industrial physics, conservation in forestry, general agriculture, general science, poultry husbandry, rural sociology, ceramic engineering, an option in aeronautics, research in wildlife conservation;
  7. a graduate program in power and fuel engineering;
  8. Ph.D. Degree begun in agricultural economics, biology, chemical engineering, and chemistry;
  9. flight instruction offered as part of CAA program;
  10. the reorganization of student government;
  11. the creation of a senate representing both the corps and the civilian students;
  12. the merger of civilian and women governments into one;
  13. the establishment of national honorary fraternities to include Pi Delta Epsilon (journalism), Alpha Zeta (agriculture), Tau Beta Pi (engineering), Scabbard and Blade (military), Sigma Delta Psi (athletics), Sigmi Xi (research), Alpha Kappa Psi (professional commerce and business administration);
  14. a daily broadcasting program from a studio in Memorial Hall in technical topics and information about activities at VPI;
  15. the initiation of a soil survey in 1930 that carried VPI personnel into nearly every county of the state.

Such a list of achievements, though incomplete, does present some idea of the direction of the college under Burruss.

As the administration's responsibility for programs that led to a multiplicity of achievements accelerated, Burruss became more and more confined to the paper work of his office and was seen less and less by the students. This development was unfortunate, since it created the impression with some students and faculty that Burruss was cold and aloof and devoid of genuine interest in their welfare and opinions. These individuals could not have been more mistaken. The Bugle of 1933, which was dedicated to Burruss, more nearly expressed the opinion of those who knew him when it described him as "alumnus president, scholar, gentlemen, administrator whose guiding hand placed VPI at her present high status, who through unerring effort as president has done more to the development of the institute than any other man-" The record more than supports the high acclaim.

On a number of occasions, Burruss wrote, "We have no fear of the facts, but the trouble it seems is to get folks to recognize and accept facts." Perhaps his greatest weakness was that he never did develop an understanding of the role of emotion a motivator of behavior or a factor in the development of attitudes.

Burruss's success as president in directing VPI's progress began to attract more and more favorable attention, and he increasingly was called upon to serve in an advisory capacity on state and national committees and organizations. In November, 1935, he was elected president of the National Association of Land-Grant Colleges. The faculty and the Alumni Association, happy about this honor and with the faculty leading the way, planned a celebration of Burruss's first year as president of the Association of Land-Grant Colleges to coincide with the beginning of his twentieth year at VPI. With the cooperation of the United States Department of Agriculture, this celebration was broadcast for one hour coast to coast over the NBC Broadcasting Company network. Startled listeners and delighted alumni by radio heard "Tech Triumph," "Hokies" bits of college history, praise for Dr. Burruss, description of work being done at VPI, and selections from the college glee club and the Highty-Tighties.

Reaction to the broadcast was highly favorable. Douglas Freeman, distinguished editor of the Richmond News Leader and representative of the General Education Board was especially complimentary to Burruss when he wrote, "As I have observed the growth of VPI and its growing services to the state, every year it seems to me, you have grown in stature and understanding."

VPI did continue to grow during the first decades of the forties, by now the tremendous growth outstripped the size of the effective administrative organization Burruss had set up in the twenties. Burruss himself was in his sixties, and many of his administrators and deans were in their seventies. Burruss apparently never thought of any administrative changes to solve his problems. As the war effort in campus intensified, moreover, Burruss buried himself deeper in his office under an ever increasing work load. He did notify his faculty that he probably would assign them some responsibilities but then failed to do so.

On July 27, 1942, the Corps of Cadets believing that it had been shamefully treated by Dr. Burruss with respect to his handling of their complaints about the "Mess Hall," organized a demonstration of protest. This demonstration created a sensation. The United States was at war, and some interpreted the demonstration as a rebellion of the corps against the war.

Governor Darden, as wartime governor, visited the campus and did his own private investigation. He was appalled at the load Burruss was carrying and immediately informed the board that as governor he would approve an additional position for administrative help for the president.

Before the board acted on Darden's offers, several changes occurred in the campus, some of which were caused by the war and some were not. Burruss, although president, remained somewhat indifferent in his reaction, unless finances were involved.

In February, 1943, the college was selected for an Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), through which 3,387 men were processed. Later, five other units were assigned to campus: a Specialized Training and Reassignment Unit (STAR) and a Naval pre-flight unit.

During the war 7,000 alumni were in service, 4,500 of them being officers. In the Army and Marine Corps there were 5 Major Generals, 10 Brigadier Generals, 220 Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels. In the Navy, the Coast Guard, and the Merchant Marines there were 1 Rear Admiral, 8 Captains, 11 Commanders, 31 Lieutenant Commanders, 125 Lieutenants, and 385 Lieutenant Junior Grade Ensigns. Three hundred were killed in battle, 755 were decorated, and 3 were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and later were honored by having Femoyer Dormitory, Monteith Hall, and Thomas Hall named for them.

On June 27 at a dinner held to honor Dr. Burruss's splendid achievements, Colonel J. P. Woods, Rector of the Board of Visitors, announced that by a unanimous vote the Board of Visitors had named the Teaching and Administration Building the Julian A. Burruss Hall in honor of Dr. Burruss.

On the following January 10, before Dr. Burruss could really savor the honor bestowed upon him, he suffered a fractured vertebra in an automobile accident from which he never fully recovered. He died on January 14, 1947 at the president's home in Blacksburg.