The Buchanan-Shipp-Hart-Buchanan Years (1880-1882)
Dr. John Lee Buchanan delayed accepting the presidency until the winter of 1880 and did not assume his duties until about March 1. One week after taking office he announced that he would enforce the requirement that students “not be allowed to leave the college limits except at a certain hour in the morning and a certain hour in the afternoon.” The 1879 board had also adopted several other rules and regulations that Buchanan had to enforce. One of the regulations helped put an end to the existence of the four national social fraternities then on the campus, a ban on fraternities that lasted for nearly a century. It stated: “No student, during his connection with the college, shall belong to any secret college society, nor an association, except such as shall have been approved by the faculty; nor shall any assembly of students be held for any purpose whatever without the express permission of the president.” Students were also required to subscribe to the following: “We acquiesce in the laws of this college and acknowledge our obligation to obey the same.”
Montgomery County’s state senator, J. E. Eskridge, had initiated a movement in the General Assembly on Dec. 18, 1879, to have the college’s affairs investigated, and the brouhaha that resulted focused attention on the political control of the school rather than on the education of its students. On March 3, two days after Buchanan assumed the presidency, the state legislature, in a politically motivated move, approved a resolution removing all members of the board of visitors, effective June 4, 1880, and directing that a new board be appointed. Gov. F. W. M. Holliday, a Democrat, waited to make his appointments until it was too late for the Readjusters in the Senate to approve or disapprove them, as was required. The resolution also directed that the new board meet on June 7, 1880, to remove all faculty members. At that meeting, the unconfirmed board declared all college offices to be vacant at the end of the school year, which the board set as June 12.
The board met again on June 30, 1880, to reorganize the college. At this meeting it reversed the direction of the 1879 board and said, “This board conceives that it was not the design of the Assembly, or of Congress, to establish here a military school, an academic college, or a university, but an institution whose primary function should be to turn out scientific farmers and mechanics . . . .” The military feature was to be reduced “within the narrowest limits consistent with federal law.” The board thus returned the college to the philosophy of the Minor years, but it was not to last for long.
At its Aug. 12 meeting, the board offered Buchanan the presidency again, but he declined. The board then offered the presidency to Col. Scott Shipp, commandant of cadets at Virginia Military Institute since 1862 and professor of various branches of military tactics. A graduate of VMI and Washington College (today’s Washington and Lee University), he had led the VMI cadets in the Battle of New Market during the Civil War. Shipp (he added the second “p” to his name around 1883), who had been interested in the VAMC position in 1872, accepted the offer and journeyed to Blacksburg to meet with the board’s executive committee on Aug. 25. At this meeting he apparently realized that the board—not he and his faculty—would be running the college, so he resigned “before entering upon his duties.” It is also possible that he had just learned of the board’s earlier action to return the college to a non-military philosophy. His tenure as the third president had lasted less than two weeks, Aug. 12-25, and because of its short duration, he is not listed among the school’s presidents. Reports differ on whether he spent the last four of those days or just the last day on campus. He returned to VMI, where he became that school’s second superintendent in 1890 and served on the boards of both the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy.
At the next meeting of the board on September 10, William H. Ruffner, Virginia’s first superintendent of instruction who played a critical role in organizing and establishing the curriculum of the fledgling college, was offered the presidency. He declined the offer, then said he would reconsider and give the board his final answer at its Nov. 20 meeting. But at that meeting he turned down the offer again, probably because he feared that the political interference would be intolerable. Meanwhile, Prof. John Hart had been appointed as acting president, a job he apparently did not want. Prof. Hart presided over the college during the entire 1880-81 session.
The board held its next meeting in Blacksburg in May 1881, and the presidency was again offered to Buchanan. Thinking that the operation of the college would be left to him and that the General Assembly would now leave VAMC alone, he accepted but did not begin his duties until Aug. 14, just over a year after being removed from the position. But Buchanan was destined to have a déjà vu experience.
William E. Cameron, a Readjuster, was elected governor in November 1881. When he learned that the state Senate had not approved the members of the board of visitors, as required by the resolution the previous year, he nominated a new board, which was confirmed by the Senate on Jan. 17, 1882. In a meeting on the same day, the board removed the president, professors, and other officers and filled the vacancies with new people. Buchanan was out again, prevented by politics from making his mark on the college as its second and fourth presidents (because of the brevity of his two terms and the fact that Shipp is not counted, he is listed as being the second president only). The board elected as president Thomas Nelson Conrad, a Readjuster who had actively participated in the movement to get the state’s white land-grant institution located in Blacksburg. But Buchanan had not finished his association with VAMC. In 1885 the state legislature elected him as state superintendent of public instruction. When he assumed his new duties on March 15, 1886, he became an ex officio member of the VAMC Board of Visitors.