Named for the small east Alabama city in which it is located, Auburn University is the largest of the state's land-grant universities and the second largest university in the state. The school has undergone numerous name changes and expansions throughout
its history. It enrolls more than 24,000 undergraduates and is a center of research in technology, engineering, veterinary
medicine, and agriculture. It consists of 14 distinct colleges and has been consistently ranked as one of the nation's top 50 public universities since
Auburn University's origins lie in an 1854 proposal from local citizens and community leaders in Auburn and Greensboro that the state Methodist conference locate a college in whichever town first raised pledges of $100,000. By 1856, Auburn had $100,000, but Greensboro had raised $300,000. As a result, the conference leaders rewarded Greensboro with the establishment of Southern College (now Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham). Auburn leaders continued to pursue a college, and the Methodist conference agreed to found East Alabama Male College (EAMC) there. In October 1859, the school opened with one building, the "Old Main," guided by a 51-member board of trustees and Methodist minister and former professor at Oxford College (now Emory University) William J. Sasnett as its president. In the college's first term, six professors taught 193 students, of which 113 were actually in a preparatory department. Most of the college students lived in the area; those who did not boarded at local homes. Attendees studied a classical curriculum, articulated at Yale in 1828, that emphasized the mental discipline afforded by philosophy, Greek, Latin, and modern languages, natural science, and mathematics, supplemented in 1860 with literature and political economy. EAMC awarded its first five bachelor's degrees in July 1860. The college operated until 1861, when it closed because of the Civil War; Old Main served as a Confederate hospital between 1864 and 1865.
East Alabama Male College struggled to remain viable, as did many colleges in the postbellum South. With significantly fewer students, faculty, and funds, it re-opened in 1866 under President James F. Dowdell. Officials tried various schemes to increase enrollment—including considering enrolling women and establishing a school of science and a "commerce department"—and to secure funds until its board of trustees transferred ownership of the school to the state in February 1872. This transfer occurred in 1867 because the Alabama legislature had agreed to the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 that provided the state 240,000 acres—30,000 acres for each U.S. senator and congressman—of federal land, which the state could sell to fund an agricultural and mechanical college. Faced with competing proposals from many colleges across the state, the legislature accepted EAMC as the land-grant school and changed its name to the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College. Unfortunately, the legislature mismanaged the Morrill funds so badly that the college received almost no support.
The Morrill Act required recipients of government funds to offer courses in military science and "the useful arts," which included agriculture and engineering. For a generation after 1872, Alabama A&M presidents Isaac Tichenor, David French Boyd, and William Leroy Broun struggled to implement this new direction over the objections of classicists, who wanted to mold gentlemen and agriculturalists and offer degrees in Letters, Agriculture, Science, and Engineering. Officials also required students to wear cadet-grey woolen uniforms, submit to military-like discipline, march in companies to class, attend church every Sunday, and stand guard at posts on the campus.
In 1882, Tichenor reduced the required curriculum from four to two courses of study—Agriculture and Chemistry, and Mechanics
and Engineering. Presidents Broun (1882–83) and French (1883–84) ran afoul of the board of trustees after trying to implement
more technical courses, but the board relented and rehired Broun, who then served from 1884–1902. Broun introduced distinct
departments for engineering and scientific disciplines, established a curriculum in pharmacy, and oversaw the development
of the Agricultural Experiment Station system in accordance with the federal Hatch Act of 1887. Broun also reintroduced coursework
in general studies. The school's new direction led the state legislature to change its name to Alabama Polytechnic Institute
(API) in 1899.
A Change of Focus
Women first joined the student body in the 1890s. President Tichenor had proposed admitting women as early as 1869 in an effort to improve the college's income, but the board refused until 1892. The number of women applying remained small, in part because of inadequate housing and few majors leading to employment. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which provided federal funds to agricultural and home demonstration agents, led API to introduce a home economics curriculum, thus opening a career track to women students. The housing shortage eased with the 1921 opening of Smith Hall, the school's first women's dormitory. Women students also organized various societies, such as the Women's Student Government Association, and the college created the positions of social director in 1922 and dean of women in 1923.
During this same era, social organizations replaced the severe military discipline of earlier years as more prosperous students attended the college. Greek letter fraternities began operating unofficially in 1878, and President Broun officially recognized their existence in 1885. By 1903, at least seven fraternities operated on campus. In some ways, such organizations were problematic. In 1901, tension between fraternities and independent students led the latter to publish a separate student yearbook, and by 1911 API recognized fraternity hazing as a problem. Nevertheless, Lambda Chi Alpha built the first fraternity house in 1916, and women formed the Panhellenic Council in 1923 to coordinate sorority activities.
President Charles Coleman Thach (1902–20) expanded the Experiment Station system and opened what later became the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service (ACES). The stations conducted agricultural research that it reported in published bulletins in cooperation with the state commissioner of agriculture. Cooperative extension work began in earnest in 1909, when Luther Noble Duncan, later the director of ACES and one of the founders of the Farm Bureau, and others formed "Boys Corn Clubs" and "Girls Canning Clubs" in rural Alabama. By 1911, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the API College of Agriculture agreed to create the Department of Agricultural Extension. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 provided federal matching funds to support extension efforts through county-level agricultural and home demonstration agents.
Such funds were vital to API, which had operated under severe financial restraints throughout its history. Tuition was kept low to attract a higher volume of students, endowments were small and often uncollected, and the funds provided by the state were miniscule. Beginning in 1902, President Thach had lobbied for more state support, gaining from the progressive 1907 legislature a direct appropriation as well as a fee for testing illuminating oil similar to that for testing fertilizer. After the 1915 legislature allocated only half its appropriation, API accepted funds through the federal Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, requiring it to prepare high school agriculture teachers. (This led API to create a Department of Agricultural Education, which by 1922 grew into the School—and later College—of Education.) In 1917 and 1918, Auburn students responded to World War I by enlisting in great numbers. President Thach reported in 1918 that 1,100 students and alumni had entered the armed forces, including almost the entire class of 1917 who enlisted en masse. API boasted 500 officers, including one major general and provided training for the Army in electronics, auto mechanics, and general mechanics to 200 men in the summer of 1918. The College of Agriculture aided the homefront by organizing 10,000 youngsters into canning and livestock clubs and assisting the various "War Kitchens" established in Alabama.
In 1920, with the death of Thach, Spright Dowell stepped down as Alabama Superintendent of Education to accept the API presidency. Dowell inherited a $2 million debt. Among his challenges were a failed capital campaign, a threat to move the college to Montgomery, and a dismal football program. Dowell's efforts, however, modernized the institution, establishing by 1929 the schools of chemistry and pharmacy, home economics, and agriculture. Student leaders, however, raised alumni support for his ouster. Although the causes are obscure, they appear to have hinged on Dowell's inattention to football, his application of prohibition, and his contempt of state politics and non-academic services provided by the college. After more than a year-long battle, he left in 1928 to serve as president of Mercer University.
API trustee and publisher of the Birmingham News Victor Hansen offered the presidency to Bradford Knapp, then-president of Oklahoma A&M College. Knapp built the Electrical Engineering Experiment Station, established the School of Science and Literature, and added textile, aeronautical, and industrial engineering curricula. He did not, however, have the connections or experience to fight for funds in the legislature. By the end of 1932, API had not paid salaries for 10 months, even though professors, administrators, and staff members continued to work. In 1932, Knapp resigned.
After a brief period in which the board of trustees appointed a three-person committee to lead the institution, Luther Noble Duncan was appointed president. During his 12-year tenure, he used his political connections to bring federal Works Progress Administration funds to erect a number of badly needed buildings, secure appropriations from the legislature, and expand enrollment. World War II brought many changes. In 1941, API enrolled 3,752 students. By 1943, that number fell to 1,710, and President Duncan responded by bringing military technical training programs to API that trained more than 39,000 military personnel directly (10,000 on the API campus). The school switched from a semester to a quarter schedule of classes in June 1942 to accelerate baccalaureate education for military-bound students.
Becoming Auburn University
During World War II, enrollments shrank by almost two-thirds, but the GI Bill and the end of the war suddenly and dramatically reversed that trend. API awarded more degrees in the first decade after the war than it had in its entire history to 1945. Enrollments rose from almost 2,300 in 1945 to more than 8,000 in 1947, straining resources. In response, API hired new professors, increased class sizes, and even housed students in tugboat cabins purchased as war surplus. The school also tapped a prisoner of war camp in nearby Opelika to house students, who were transported by bus. After Duncan's sudden death in 1947, Ralph Brown Draughon oversaw API's growth into a true university. Increasing enrollments led him to streamline and modernize administration and academic structure, reorganize schools and departments, establish new offices, and bring faculty into university governance. In 1947, for example, API created a separate Athletics Department divided into structural units, initiated the policy-making Graduate Council, published the first graduate catalog, and expanded the professorial staff and the library holdings. For this effort, API won accreditation from the Association of American Universities. Under Draughon's guidance, API, and after its name change in 1960, Auburn University, handed out more than 27,000 degrees, many in new master's and doctoral programs.
During this era, two unrelated but important social changes occurred on campus that are linchpins of the modern Auburn University. The first was the revival of football both as a sport and as a signifier of institutional importance. Introduced in 1892, football had become exceptionally popular both on-campus and throughout the state. Since 1922, however, API rarely had a winning season. That began to change when Ralph "Shug" Jordan became head football coach in 1951. By 1957, API had laid claim to a national championship, though it was marred by probation for recruiting violations. Renewal of the cross-state rivalry against the University of Alabama (UA) in 1948 had preceded Jordan's arrival. The annual meeting between them, the Iron Bowl, gained new intensity with the arrival of Paul "Bear" Bryant at UA and remains a centerpiece of social life in the state during the fall.
Far more important—and more just—was the second change: racial desegregation. Draughon had worked hard to keep the school segregated, but found himself unable to prevent African American graduate student Harold Franklin from enrolling on January 4, 1964. Draughon then worked just as hard to make the day run as smoothly as possible, keeping potential white violence and reprisals in check and parrying threats from the legislature to withhold appropriations if he gave in too easily to federal court orders. Fortunately, Franklin enrolled without incident. Furthermore, because Auburn's student body had been politically and socially conservative for generations, the antiwar and radical campus turmoil of the 1960s affected the school in only a minor way.
Harry M. Philpott took the helm in 1965 and continued Draughon's efforts to modernize and enlarge the institution. Philpott professionalized the university's administration by severing it from academics and creating five vice-presidencies. He also enlarged the School of Arts and Sciences, created the School of Business, instituted a new core curriculum that emphasized many of the traditional liberal arts, and tripled extramural research funding. One of Auburn's most significant achievements under Philpott was to open a branch campus, Auburn University at Montgomery (AUM) in 1969, which in 1973 was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) as a separately operating campus. More than most modern Auburn presidents, Philpott interacted with students directly in weekly meetings, which also helped keep the political turmoil of the 1960s at bay. Philpott did reject a student attempt to host radical speaker William Sloane Coffin, and in 1971 students staged a day of anti-war protests. But the most significant social change was the liberation of female students from strict dorm rules, such as curfews, in 1976. Eventually, however, conflicts with Governor Forrest "Fob" James and former head football coach Jordan (after 1977 a member of the board of trustees) led Philpott to retire in 1980.
Auburn then entered an era of discontent and acrimony, even as it grew in size and stature. Between 1980 and 2007, as enrollment grew by more than 30 percent and standards and tuition rose, Auburn had six full or interim presidents, at least four of whom experienced serious governance or athletic controversies. In 1980, AUM Chancellor Hanley Funderburk was installed as president under pressure from Fob James but resigned in 1983 after failing to win faculty support. The board of trustees replaced him with Interim President Wilford S. Bailey, a long-time and highly respected faculty member.
A year later, James E. Martin became Auburn's president, but he too ran into faculty opposition after overturning a tenure decision involving Charles Curran, Goodwin-Philpott Eminent Scholar in Religion, and resigned in 1991. William Muse assumed the presidency that year and regained faculty trust, but his management style lost favor with the board of trustees. After the board informed Muse that it would not renew his contract after 2001, he accepted the presidency of East Carolina University. The board immediately appointed William Walker, dean of the College of Engineering and Provost, as interim president and named him president in June 2003. For months, unhappy faculty and students rallied against what they perceived as high-handedness, and 10 large and small organizations called for the trustees to resign. It was Walker who resigned less than eight months after his full presidential appointment over a clandestine attempt to replace head football coach Tommy Tuberville. In the meantime, SACS had placed Auburn on accreditation probation after an investigation of a university senate complaint about governance.
On January 20, 2004, three days after Walker resigned, the board appointed Alabama Superintendent of Education and ex-officio Auburn Trustee Ed Richardson as interim president. On September 1, 2006, again without conducting a search, the Auburn trustees elevated Richardson to the university presidency. Although Richardson oversaw significant successes at Auburn (removal from academic probation, advancement of Auburn's research park project, creation of a joint Doctor of Pharmacy degree with the University of South Alabama, and creation of the Institute for Natural Resources), friction continued among faculty, the administration, and the board of trustees.
Beginning in mid-2006, Auburn opened a presidential search in earnest. The selection committee settled upon Auburn graduate Jay Gogue, chancellor and president of the University of Houston, who was installed as Auburn president in July 2007.
Entering the twenty-first century, Auburn University and its faculty and graduates continue to earn a strong reputation in many fields, particularly aerospace engineering, aviation, and architecture, and numerous subfields in agriculture, biology, and engineering. Although the university is best known for its agricultural and science programs, the largest college is actually the College of Liberal Arts, and in 2001 the university was awarded a chapter of the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society. The College of Business is consistently ranked in the top 50 in the nation among public institutions. The university may also boast that it has graduated six National Aeronautics and Space Administration astronauts. Hundreds of Auburn students travel abroad yearly to study and perform research, while the school hosts a growing number of foreign students who take advantage of the school's strong academic programs. The recent openings of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art and the Ag Heritage Park have provided students and residents of the surrounding community with additional educational and cultural opportunities.
In the modern era, Auburn University athletic teams—most notably baseball, basketball, equestrian, football, golf, swimming and diving, and soccer—have been perennial NCAA Division I contenders, with the men's and women's swim teams winning multiple national
championships. Numerous Auburn athletes have gone on to compete in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National
Basketball Association, and the Olympic Games. The athletic teams sport uniforms of navy blue and burnt orange, while spectators
cheer on the school's tiger mascot "Aubie" and sing its praises in the school's fight song. After all football and some other athletic victories, crowds gather in the city's downtown crossroads at Toomer's Corner to
"roll" the oak trees with toilet paper in celebration. In addition, the school has a multitude of Greek, foreign, and minority
student organizations that collectively enrich student life on campus.
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Auburn University. Auburn's First 100 Years. Auburn: The Institute [API], 1956.
———. A Brief History. Auburn, Ala.: Auburn University, 1980.
Bolton, Clyde. War Eagle: A Story of Auburn Football. Huntsville, Ala.: Strode Publishers, 1973.
Hollifield, Mollie. Auburn: Loveliest Village Of The Plain. Auburn, Ala.: np, 1955.
McMillan, Malcolm Cook, and Allen Jones. Through The Years: Auburn from 1856. Auburn, Ala.: np, 1977.
Rogers, William Warren. "The Establishment of Alabama's Land Grant College." Alabama Review 13 (January 1960): 5-20.
Yeager, Joe, and Gene Stevenson. Inside Ag Hill: The People and Events that Shaped Auburn's Agricultural History from 1872 through 1999. Chelsea, Mich.: Sheridan Books for AU College of Agriculture, 2000.
Martin T. Olliff
Published August 18, 2008
Last updated September 12, 2014