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The Barringer Years (1907-1913)

When Paul Branndon Barringer assumed the duties of his office, agitation for better public education and particularly for agricultural education, was at a fever pitch in Virginia. The state superintendent of public instruction, Joseph Dupuy Eggleston Jr., did not think that VPI’s program in agricultural education was reaching enough people or was involved enough in improving rural life. Barringer himself did not believe that VPI’s program was on a college level and immediately announced his intention to build up the agricultural side of the college, thereby alienating the engineering side. In carrying out this intention, however, he still supported the engineering department, sometimes in the face of demands to eliminate the department altogether from the college offerings.

During Barringer’s first year in office, he held a livestock reduction sale, which created a number of problems for VPI, including lawsuits, when diseased cattle were sold. The following year, another sale, this time including diseased hogs, created similar difficulties. Added to these public relations nightmares was a decision by the state legislature to move the state geological survey from VPI to the University of Virginia, initiating alumni hostility toward Barringer, who had not made known his opposition to the move.

In other actions, Barringer worked to reorganize VPI into an industrial institute, dropped the preparatory department, added a one-month winter course for farmers and a short course for young farmers, placed the graduate program on the same administrative level as the other departments, dropped the general science degree, raised entrance requirements from four to 14 units, established a new class schedule, set up field experiment stations, established a professorship in forestry, and added programs in chemical and agricultural engineering.

He also extended self-government to students, encouraged formulation of an honor code, unsuccessfully proposed limiting the military component to freshmen and sophomores, authorized changes in the cadet uniforms, and saw basketball added to the athletic program.

Campus improvements during his tenure included expanding and upgrading the athletic field, installing several cement walks, and erecting a model dairy barn and four smaller buildings for individual animals. He also added a powerful whistle on campus to encourage professors to dismiss classes in time for students to arrive on time for their next classes.

Barringer’s tenure, however, was not a happy one. In 1909 Lawrence Priddy, chair of the Alumni Association’s Welfare Committee and later president of the association, became dissatisfied with what he considered lack of progress at the college. Fed by rumors from a few other unhappy alumni and certain disgruntled former faculty members, Priddy attempted to have Barringer removed. The board of visitors refused to do so but ordered an investigation and hearing to clear the air of the rumors that had spread throughout the state. A public hearing was held on campus on March 25, 1910. Priddy’s charges were heard and dismissed by the board as “unwarranted,” “inaccurate,” “mere difference of opinion,” “trivial,” and “to a large extent based upon statements of persons who . . . had been discharged” from the college. Most of the charges were extremely petty, e.g., that Barringer had claimed that the college had more dairy cows than it actually did have.

Peace returned to the campus only for a short time. In the fall 1911, a former commandant of cadets accused Barringer of “countenancing immorality” on the campus, and the board quickly called for an investigation, which concluded that the charge was “without foundation.”

In addition to these hearings, Barringer’s blunt responses to a number of queries about various situations that arose during his term angered many factions. He even ran afoul of Virginia’s Gov. Mann over the value of agricultural demonstration work. In late 1911 he began to hear rumors that he was being persecuted to push him out of office so that Eggleston could move in. Believing that the governor was appointing new members to the board of visitors who would get rid of him, Barringer decided to resign “for the sake of the college and of the state, and also for my own peace of mind.” He tendered his resignation on July 12, 1912. The board unanimously accepted it but asked him to remain in office for another year in order to give them time to select a new president. At the board’s March 13, 1913, meeting, members elected Eggleston to be the college’s seventh president.

During Barringer’s last commencement exercises, fire destroyed the Preston and Olin Building, the sole building in which Virginia Tech had begun.