From VPI to State University: President T. Marshall Hahn, Jr. and the Transformation of Virginia Tech, 1962-1974

By Geiger, Roger L. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

From VPI to State University: President T. Marshall Hahn, Jr. and the Transformation of Virginia Tech, 1962-1974


Geiger, Roger L., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


From VPI to State University: President T. Marshall Hahn, Jr. and the Transformation of Virginia Tech, 1962-1974 * Warren H. Strother and Peter Wallenstein * Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2004 * xx, 444 pp. * $35.00

Reviewed by Roger L. Geiger, Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of Knowledge and Money: Universities and the Paradox of the Marketplace (2004).

Many land-grant universities, particularly in the South, were somewhat belated participants in the explosion of graduate education and federally supported research that produced the postwar academic revolution. Their eventual transformation into robust and comprehensive research universities may appear inevitable in retrospect but in fact required the exertions of countless individuals to overcome the dead hand of political inertia and dysfunctional traditions. At Virginia Tech, that transformation was inspired and largely led by T. Marshall Hahn, Jr., during the twelve years of his presidency.

Southern states were less than enthusiastic about establishing land-grant colleges in the first place but ultimately could not refuse a federal gift. Although existing Virginia schools sought the money, if not the mission, the town of Blacksburg secured the land grant by offering the premises of a defunct boys school and $20,000 in cash. Virginia followed a policy of specialization in its institutions of higher education, by gender, by race, and by function. As late as 1960, the state's only full university was in Charlottesville, and Virginia Polytechnic Institute was a school for engineering and agriculture that enrolled fewer than 6,000 students and graduated fewer than 1,000.

Marshall Hahn was a fast learner-as a student and an academic. Earning a doctorate in physics at MIT (1951) in just two years, he apparently set his sights on academic administration early on. He rose to full professor in just four years at the University of Kentucky, then moved to WI to chair the physics department and launch its doctoral program. Lured to the University of Kansas to be dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, he gladly returned to VPI when the presidency opened. Only thirty-five when inaugurated in 1962, Hahn had experienced the scientific fast track at MIT and understood the new conditions for university building in the postwar era.

The institution he returned to in 1962 certainly faced challenges. Its actions were constricted by being joined with Radford College since 1944. Women could only enroll in Blacksburg for curricula unavailable at Radford, and VPI could not offer humanities and social science courses taught at the women's college. VPI required all its male students to join the corps of cadets for their first two years, and the corps set the tone for campus life. …

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