Julian Ashby Burruss, 1919-1945:  The First Decade

Julian Ashby Burruss
Julian Ashby Burruss


Julian Ashby Burruss, named president on June 12, 1919, was the first Virginia Tech alumnus to hold that office. An 1898 graduate with a B.S. in civil engineering, Burruss was working on his Ph.D. degree at the University of Chicago (he received the degree in 1921) and serving as the first president of the Normal and Industrial School for Women (now James Madison University) when he was selected to head his alma mater. In addition to his involvement in a number of student organizations as a student at VPI, which had included serving as editor of the Bugle, captain of Battery E, and president of the YMCA, Burruss had taught at Normal College in Waleska, Georgia; Searcy (Arkansas) Female Institute; and Speers-Langford Military Academy and had been a school principal and director of manual arts for Richmond City public schools.

Burruss had already accepted a summer instructorship at the University of Chicago when he was unanimously elected president, and the board of visitors appointed its rector, J. Thompson Brown, to serve as acting president until Burruss could finish his prior commitment. When Burruss reported to work on September 1, he was the first president with experience and professional study in school administration, curriculum, and school finance.

Almost immediately, Burruss succeeded in getting an increased appropriation from the state and in establishing new guidelines for the agriculture and engineering curricula. He also created a business manager office and reorganized the college for both instructional and administrative purposes. The reorganization improved the business management of the college, resulting in financial savings that were used to pay off old debts and to make repairs and improvements.

Other accomplishments under Burruss included organizing a chapter of Phi Kappa Phi, a national honorary scholarship fraternity; raising admission requirements; initiating student orientation and guidance; strengthening summer school and organizing it on a quarter basis to match the remainder of the school calendar; bringing athletics under the supervision of the college authorities; establishing the Engineering Experiment Station and an Engineering Extension Division; organizing a department of business administration; and revising the corps’ constitution and the “rat regulations.” Burruss also created and later abolished a position of dean of students. He developed a long-range plan for the physical development of the campus, and Miles Stadium and a number of buildings were erected, including the World War Memorial Gymnasium. VPI was also heavily involved in creating the Future Farmers of Virginia, which grew into the national Future Farmers of America. The college was fully accredited by the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the Southern States for the first time in 1923-24.

But Burruss’s most significant innovation was persuading the board of visitors to admit women as regular students in 1921. Twelve women registered—five full-time and seven part-time—and all courses except the military were opened to them. But most organizations would not admit them; the yearbook, The Bugle, refused to include them in its pages of students for nearly 20 years; and the corps of cadets opposed their presence on campus, sometimes making life unpleasant for the women.

In 1923 Burruss made another significant move. By modifying the mandatory four-year military requirement to two years and making the last two years optional, he set the stage for a larger civilian student body. The corps, which had embarrassed the college on a number of occasions with its antics, became more disciplined—at least for two years. The 1925 Sophomore Night left, among other surprises, farm animals and a beehive in the barracks, and wagons and farm equipment on a barracks roof. After the sophomore class received the bill for the cleanup and other charges related to the incident, the destructive aspects of Sophomore Night were dropped, and the corps began channeling its energy into more productive activities.

During Burruss’s first decade as president, the number of faculty members doubled, the student body more than doubled, degrees awarded quadrupled, degree programs quadrupled, and instructional departments increased from 23 to 31. The campus had acquired new roadways, new landscaping, park lights with underground wiring, new faculty homes, an enlarged power plant, and an improved college farm with new buildings.

By the end of his first 10 years, Burruss wanted to expand the concept of the school—his “visions and plan for a greater VPI,” he told the board—by offering new courses and attracting outstanding faculty.