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Life & Times of Virginia Tech Presidents

Thomas Marshall Hahn Jr., 1962-74

   

Thomas Marshall Hahn Jr. Thomas Marshall Hahn Jr.

 

Thomas Marshall Hahn Jr. joined the Virginia Tech community in 1954 as head of the physics department. In 1959 he left for Kansas State University, where he was dean of arts and sciences until Tech’s board of visitors asked him to succeed Newman as president on July 1, 1962. The new president—at age 35, Virginia Tech’s youngest—was an experienced physicist, teacher, and administrator.

Hahn presided over a period of exciting, rapid changes, guiding VPI from college status to a major research university. From the beginning of his tenure, he referred to VPI as “the university,” and in 1970 the state followed suit, officially changing Tech’s name to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

To reflect the rapid changes in social, political, and economic conditions occurring in Virginia, Hahn successfully recommended a philosophy of development to reflect his university-oriented direction for the school. For the first time, VPI made a public commitment toward a university education rather than a technical one. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia agreed with the philosophy, endorsing the expansion of doctoral programs into non-science, as well as engineering and science areas.

In 1966 the legislature created an institution-wide research division, which consolidated the role of the Virginia Engineering Experiment Station and the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station. The legislature also created an Extension Division to consolidate all of the institution’s extension activities, including operation and development of programs at the Donaldson Brown Center for Continuing Education. By the end of the 1960s the research division could boast annual research funding exceeding $9 million.

To prepare for a major influx of students—the student body increased by about 1,000 students per year during Hahn’s administration, nearly tripling during his tenure—construction began on new dormitories and academic buildings, other buildings were renovated or enlarged, and support facilities enlarged or added. The coliseum received 600 additional seats; Miles Stadium was razed, replaced in a different location by Lane Stadium; and all-weather tennis courts and a new track were added. The airport gained a longer runway, requiring removal of the Norfolk and Western Railway spur to Blacksburg and ending use of the famous Huckleberry train, which had carried members of the corps to and from Blacksburg for years. Faculty ranks grew as well. In 1966 alone, more than 100 new professors joined the staff.

Also during Hahn’s administration, the VPI Educational Foundation acquired 140 acres for the development of a university research park, which later became the Blacksburg Industrial Park; the school boasted its first Rhodes Scholar; the college created dean of women, director of alumni affairs, director of public relations, and dean of men positions, with the board of visitors adding vice president for student affairs, executive vice president, and vice president for finance positions; Wytheville Community College and the Clifton Forge-Covington Area Community College (now Dabney S. Lancaster Community College) opened as VPI branch schools (in 1966 they moved into the state’s new community college system); Tech received the Reynolds homestead and about 700 acres in Patrick County; Hahn built a home off-campus; and the school won the Southern Conference championship in football for the first time, only to withdraw from the conference a couple of years later to assume independent status.

Hahn initiated two moves that had a major impact on Virginia Tech’s future. The merger with Radford College was dissolved, effective July 1, 1964, and membership in the corps of cadets became voluntary, effective the 1964-65 session, arousing the ire of many alumni. Four years later, the corps and the civilian student body joined forces to create a single student government. Student demands, now issued from a unified voice, increased. In 1973 the corps accepted women into its ranks, preceding the service academies in doing so.

Growth continued, spurred by the dissolution of ties with Radford and the change in the military requirement. The university added numerous undergraduate and graduate courses and degree programs. Graduate programs sprang up at centers in various parts of the state, and off-campus credit enrollment grew dramatically. By 1971 the university had 61 master’s level programs and 31 doctoral programs. International study and travel became a regular part of many academic programs, and the grading system was changed from a three-point to a four-point system. Colleges of architecture and education were added, and the groundwork was laid for a college of veterinary medicine.

As the school grew, the student body assumed a different profile. With increasing numbers of their cohorts drafted to fight in Vietnam, the students became more aware of national and international issues. As their awareness grew, so did their demands to participate in decisions affecting them and their willingness to speak out on various issues. Sit-ins and teach-ins became commonplace in the late 1960s, and student unrest culminated in a student occupation of Cowgill and Williams halls. After being forcibly removed from Williams Hall, more than a hundred were arrested on trespassing charges and were handed two-quarter suspensions as police escorted them from the building.

In 1974, citing the need for a “periodic infusion of new ideas and new approaches,” Hahn resigned to join the management of Georgia-Pacific Corporation. The corporation purchased his home on Rainbow Ridge and gave it to the university to use as its permanent president’s residence.

In 1975 the board of visitors named Hahn president emeritus, in 1987 the university conferred an honorary doctor of science degree upon him, and in 1991 a new chemistry laboratory building was named for him.