Reflections on a pivotal decision at Virginia Tech

Published 9:47 am Friday, January 13, 2012

by Robert Holt

Since its founding in 1872, Virginia Tech has had a number of names. From Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College to Virginia Polytechnic Institute to its current official name of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, this wonderful university in Blacksburg is simply referred to today as Virginia Tech.

The university has also had the good fortune to be led by presidents who made important decisions during difficult periods in Virginia Tech’s history. The first president, Charles Minor, was charged with the task of opening the new Virginia A & M College in 1872 and faced many varied decisions that set the tone for what Virginia Tech was to become. However, he was removed from the presidency in 1879 and replaced by John Buchanan, who also was removed in 1881. President Julian Burruss served the longest, from 1919 to 1945.

Certainly current President Charles Steger led Virginia Tech through the unprecedented April 16, 2007, shooting on campus that resulted in the death of 33 students, including the shooter. Many other students were injured in what is now the largest mass murder shooting in America. President Steger’s involvement, concern and leadership calmed the Virginia Tech community and our nation as a whole. His dealings with the students, parents, state government officials and American citizens will long be remembered as a source of strength and compassion.

I believe the most significant Virginia Tech presidential decision and the one that made the most impact on the university’s future was made by President T. Marshall Hahn Jr. Dr. Hahn was a highly intelligent academic leader who earned a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology at age 23. He had a knack for understanding the “big picture” and for getting people to believe in his decisions. He commanded respect, and co-workers were confident in his leadership. I worked in Burruss Hall (the main administration building) during a portion of President Hahn’s tenure and often witnessed firsthand his brilliance in action. He never forgot a name or a face.

Dr. Hahn began his presidency on July 1, 1962 at the age of 35, the youngest president in the university’s history. He had served as head of the Physics Department at Tech from 1954-1959, so his appointment to the presidency was a homecoming of sorts.

In 1962, membership for two years in the Corps of Cadets was mandatory with few exceptions, mostly medical or for prior national military service. The student body was largely male with only a few hundred females who were mostly enrolled in home economics area courses. If a student wanted to drop out of the Corps, he had to resign from Tech.

Dr. Hahn knew that the military requirement was a major deterrent in attracting many highly qualified students. He also knew that the majority of Tech’s influential alumni were graduates of four years in the Corps and that any recommendation to change the military requirement would lead to dissention and possibly to his dismissal.


Dr. Hahn began his presidency with no preconceived notions regarding the military requirement. Warren Strother and Peter Wallenstein, writing in their 2004 book “From VPI to State University,” indicated that Dr. Hahn was favorably impressed with the cadets during his tenure as head of the Physics Department. He felt they were committed, disciplined and made good students. But he began to notice as he assumed the presidency that many cadets dropped out of college, especially during the early fall quarter of their “rat” (freshman) year.

He was also concerned that the grades of cadets had fallen when compared to those of civilian students. He suggested to Corps leadership that modifications to the system could be made to improve academic performance, but this was a tough sell. Finally, Dr. Hahn decided that the Corps should become voluntary rather than mandatory.

He had a vision that VPI should grow and develop into a comprehensive research state university and to do so would require attracting and competing for the very best students available. VPI needed a pool of student applicants that was larger, broader and more diverse. The Corps requirement was a huge deterrent to accomplishing that goal.

President Hahn presented his formal recommendation to the Board of Visitors at its meeting on May 18, 1964. In preparation for the meeting, he had discussed with each member of the Board his recommendation and the reasons for it. Strother and Wallenstein write that Stuart Cassell, then the senior administrative and finance officer at Tech, was concerned that if Hahn’s recommendation was not approved, it may be the end of his presidency.

From his prior discussions with board members individually, Hahn knew that he had the votes but he also knew that could change. The board voted 8-3 to approve Hahn’s recommendation, and the new requirements would go into effect in September 1964. Students enrolled in ROTC programs were required to remain in the Corps.

(From a personal standpoint, I was nearing the end of my “rat” year in the Corps then and most of us were distressed with the decision. After all, we had just completed what we considered a monumental task and thought that all that followed us should do the same.)

The next day, May 19, President Hahn presented the board’s decision to the Academic Council, composed of deans and senior university officers. The council strongly expressed its support of the decision.

Gov. Harrison received many negative comments from alumni and the general public and requested a public hearing, which was held in Burruss Hall auditorium on June 29, 1964. Speakers both pro and con expressed their views. After the hearing the Alumni Board met and expressed support for the new policies with the provision that a committee be formed to strengthen the Corps program.

Fast forward to today in 2012. Both Virginia Tech and the Corps of Cadets have flourished despite the weakening of the Corps enrollment the first few years after 1964. There are more female than male students at Virginia Tech and the academic reputation of the university seems to be more recognized with each passing year.

The Corps enrollment for 2011-12 is the highest since 1963-64. Cadets, both male and female, continue their strong tradition of leadership on campus and most earn scholarships. I have attended the Fall Corps reunion weekends for two of the last three years and can vouch for the strength of both Virginia Tech and the Corps.

Not only is the Hokie spirit high; it continues to soar!

ROBERT N. “BOB” HOLT, a Franklin native, is a professor of business management and real estate at Southwestern Community College in Sylva, N.C. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Virginia Tech and was a member of the university’s Corps of Cadets from 1963 to 1967. His e-mail address is