Auburn University History:

The Presidencies of Spright Dowell and Bradford Knapp, 1920-1932


The thirteen years between 1920 and 1932 may have been the most turbulent in Auburnís history. They began with the controversial resignation of a long-term popular president and the appointment of a successor who never enjoyed the wholehearted support of the college community. They included unsuccessful football seasons, an attempt to move the school from Auburn to Montgomery, the forced resignation of one president, political warfare with the University of Alabama, and charges that the Extension Service had formed an evil alliance with the Alabama Farm Bureau Federation. They ended with the onset of the Great Depression, state revenue shortfalls that crippled the college, and the downfall of a second president who simply lacked the resources to cope with the financial emergency.

Speculation regarding Thachís successor began well before the ailing president actually resigned. Governor Thomas M. Kilby publicly disavowed any plans to replace him, but privately feared that it might become necessary. William F. Feagin, an Auburn graduate and board member, desperately sought the position, but the president of the alumni association advised Kilby against his appointment and even discouraged the candidate himself. Eventually, the trustees appointed Spright Dowell, state superintendent of education, who also served on the board by virtue of that position. Kilby said that Dowellís appointment was "the wisest thing the trustees could have done."1

Following his first year in office, Dowell reported to the board of trustees that the long and distinguished service of President Thach had made the job of his successor "delicate and difficult." The situation was made worse by the disrepair of buildings and equipment, the college debt, and meager faculty salaries paid in quarterly installments. Dowell repeated a statement made in his inaugural address: Auburn faced "the slow disintegration" that inevitably followed "a long period of undernourishment." He called upon the state to appropriate $2 million for a building program during the next quadrennium, plus comparable increases in other areas of the budget. The president based his request upon APIís contribution, past and present, to the stateís industrial development; the stateís relative lack of support for the institution in the past; and the collegeís responsibility not only for teaching, but also for research and extension. In conclusion, he admitted that the work of the past year had "fallen somewhat below the standard" he had set, but the college community had progressed in their attitudes toward each other and toward their work.2

By the end of the next year, API faced a major challenge, not to its life but to its location. On December 6, 1922, the executive committee of the board met in Governor Kilbyís office to open bids for various construction projects. The governor reported that a group called the Montgomery Committee, Jack Thorington, chair, wished to meet with the board before they undertook any new construction in Auburn. Thorington and his group urged the executive committee to consider moving the school to Montgomery, a motion which Kilby apparently supported. Later that month, the group met with Thorington, who produced a bill which he intended to introduce to the upcoming session of the legislature. It called for moving API to Montgomery, but not before the city provided land and buildings for the campus. The trustees, led by Thomas D. Samford, rejected the proposal and urged that all-further agitation on the issue stop. Dowell had not been in attendance at the first meeting and his seemingly weak response to Thoringtonís proposal cost him support.3

Dowell met again with the trustees early the following year, after the newly elected Governor William V. Brandon had taken office. Although the school had had a successful football season (eight wins and two losses), the popular head coach, Mike Donahue, had resigned, which Dowell said was "viewed with alarm by practically the entire student body and a large majority of the alumni." The president caused further alarm when he recommended that all athletic funds reside in the college treasury. Three months later, Dowell complained that Governor Brandonís proposed millage tax would substitute for, rather than be in addition to, APIís current appropriation. He was "unwilling to accept the responsibility for the continuance of the present deplorable situation" that confronted the college without making the strongest possible protest regarding Auburnís financial relationship with state government. Furthermore, he complained of the "constant difficulty and unpleasantness" involved in dividing the stateís resources for higher education among competing institutions.4

The year 1923 brought to a head a festering controversy regarding the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service. Upon taking office, Dowell had appointed Luther N. Duncan, an Auburn graduate and extension veteran, as director of that agency. Early in his tenure, Duncan organized the Alabama Farm Bureau Federation, a state branch of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which provided a cooperative purchasing and marketing mechanism for farmers. An older and more militant farm organization, the Farmerís Union, complained that, under Duncan, the Extension Service gave favorable treatment to the Farm Bureau, with county farm and home demonstration agents actually taking part in the organization of the Farm Bureau on the county level. This charge came to the surface when the Farmerís Union and the Farm Bureau organized rival cotton-marketing cooperatives, with the former complaining that Duncan and the Extension Service favored the Farm Bureau cooperative, which was undoubtedly true. Meanwhile, Duncan consolidated his control over the Alabama Farm Bureau Federation by engineering the election of his friend and political ally, E.A. OíNeal, to the presidency of the organization. Duncanís critics charged that he wanted "absolute control and management" of the Farm Bureau so he could "pop the whip" over the legislature, with OíNeal wielding the instrument. Auburnís board of trustees investigated the situation, but found no wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Duncan had established himself as a political figure to be reckoned with.5

Auburn ended the 1924 football season with four wins, four losses, and one tie. On December 4, a group of Jefferson County alumni held a mass meeting in which they called for the presidentís resignation for several relatively vague reasons. Victor Hansen, a member of the board of trustees and publisher of the Birmingham News, responded that the group was motivated by the unsuccessful football season and the president of the state normal college at Jacksonville made the same charge. Meanwhile, Joel F. Webb, associate counsel for the Jefferson County alumni group, called for Dowell to be "tried before the board of trustees" and summoned all faculty and students, except freshmen, to appear as witnesses against the president.6

On January 12, 1925, Governor Brandon called a special meeting of the board of trustees in his office. He read a letter from Victor Hanson, which called the governorís attention to a newspaper statement by Attorney Webb, who questioned President Dowellís ability to continue in office. Webb also challenged Hansonís ability to judge the president because of a pro-Dowell editorial that had appeared in the Birmingham News. Hanson admitted that the News had covered the criticism of Dowell and expressed an editorial on the subject, but that was the purpose of a newspaper. He further argued that it was his duty as board member to stay informed regarding the college and to formulate opinions as to policies. He denied, however, that this made him unfit to judge President Dowellís case, but offered to submit the question to the full board. The board affirmed its confidence in Hanson and called upon Webb to appear before them and specify his charges in writing.

Webb then presented his case: Dowell lacked experience in higher education; he lacked respect among the students, who hanged him in effigy, hissed when he spoke, and covered the town signs saying "To Hell with Spright;" he had failed to inspire the faculty, at least one of whom left Auburn complaining that office clerks inflicted "petty, irritating tyrannies" upon him; he had lost alumni support; under him, enrollment lagged significantly behind other Alabama schools in percent of increase; the buildings and grounds were poorly managed; and the president had not kept pace with developments at land-grant colleges in neighboring states.7

Haygood Patterson, representing a group of Montgomery County alumni, also presented a letter containing charges against President Dowell. The president, they conceded, possessed high moral character, but lacked all of the other qualities demanded by his position: intellectual attainments, undaunted courage, love for youth, freedom from political entanglements, diplomacy, and the ability to impose discipline and still maintain respect. Specifically, they charged Dowell with not being ""big enough" for the Auburn presidency; for his failure to resolve "jealousies" among some of the college departments; and for failure to act on his statement that API suffered from "dry rot." Patterson claimed that Auburn alumni were not typically involved in politics, but they responded when a crisis arose. They did so five years ago, when President Thach stepped down. They did so less than five years ago, when the school was struggling financially. They did so less than three years ago, when a move to Montgomery threatened. And they had come forward again to meet the fourth crisis in five years. A month later, the board met to hear a committee report regarding the charges against Dowell and found no grounds for pursuing the investigation.8

In the fall of 1927, however, an well-organized group of students began to discuss tactics for Dowellís removal. What occurred was likened to "a Bolsheviki uprising," which began on Sunday, October 2, following Auburnís football loss to Clemson the day before. On Sunday night, "ten outstanding men on campus" met to discuss the Dowell situation. On Monday night, they called a meeting of twenty-four male students, the Double Dozen, who represented the junior and senior classes. This group sent representatives to Montgomery, Birmingham, and Columbus, Georgia, to interview alumni. Trustee T.D. Samford suggested that the senior class pick a representative to meet with the boardís executive committee, which he chaired. Subsequently, Whitten and Samford discussed the matter with Governor Bibb Graves. The Double Dozen also called a mass meeting of students, which endorsed Dowellís removal.9

On October 14, Governor Graves called a special board meeting, where Whitten presented the studentsí case. Whitten claimed that football was not "the cause of the unrest or disorder." Under questioning from the board, he stated that Dowell probably was a good business manager, but neglected the human side of relations with students. He also spoke of an inability on the part of the faculty to maintain classroom order. Finally, he mentioned the ill will created by "the Tuxworth affair," a reference to the suspension of quarterback Frank E. Tuxworth for drinking. Other students claimed that the drop in freshman enrollment had undermined confidence in Dowell, but Samford pointed out that the stateís agricultural depression, not the president, was to blame for that. Subsequently, student witnesses mentioned a lack of cooperation among the president, faculty, and alumni. One board member suggested that certain alumni had instigated the student rebellion. 10

Dowell responded to the board of trustees, saying that he possibly should have spent "more time on the ball field, in the streets, or in social situations," but his primary energies had gone into resolving the schoolís financial crisis. He also contended that local merchants had criticized new business practices, which stressed wholesale purchases and the letting of bids, because this undermined their vested interests. He definitely saw athletics as the major factor behind the criticism of his administration: the dismissal of Tuxworth from the team, his preference for holding pep rallies outside or in the gymnasium rather in the Langdon Hall auditorium, and the recent and dramatic resignation of Dave Morey, head football coach. On November 5, 1927, President Spright Dowell submitted his resignation.11

The board selected Bradford Knapp, son of the distinguished agricultural reformer Seaman A. Knapp and president of Oklahoma A&M College, as Dowellís successor. Victor Hanson, vice chair of the search committee, presented Knappís name to the board, saying the committee had conducted a broad search and assumed that Auburn needed a president who possessed a national reputation as an academic administrator. At the same meeting, Trustee Samford presented a resolution regarding the Alabama Teacher Training Equalization Fund, in which he complained that the state Board of Education had appropriated $20,000 from this source for API and $65,000 for the University of Alabama. He feared that, over the long run, this would give the University of Alabama a disproportionate influence over the stateís primary and secondary schools.12

State support and Auburnís rivalry with the University of Alabama occupied much of Knappís time during his first two years in office. Shortly after he arrived in Auburn, Samford presented the report of a special board committee appointed to investigate the Teacher Training Equalization Fund. R.E. Tidwell, state superintendent of education, reasoned that if Auburn continued with its plans for academic expansion, the net result would be the expensive duplication of programs throughout the state. Though Tidwell stressed cooperation and coordination, the tone of the Samford committee report was that this was a deliberate attempt to give the University of Alabama an unfair advantage in programs to train teachers in primary and secondary education. The committee also noted that this move coincided with a transitional period in Auburnís history, the implication being that Tidwell and his allies at the University of Alabama believed API would be too weak to challenge the decision. Meanwhile, Governor Bibb Graves advised President Knapp that Auburn was "qualified and fitted" to give teacher training in agriculture, but that Alabama was "better fitted and qualified to do graduate teacher training work."13

Knapp and other Auburn supporters found still more to criticize regarding the stateís position in the education war with the University of Alabama. In 1927 the state legislature had approved a funding ratio between Auburn, Alabama, and the stateís womenís college at Montevallo: Auburn received 39 percent, Alabama the same amount, and Montevallo 22 percent. This appeared to give Auburn and Alabama equivalent amounts, but Knapp complained that 25 percent of Auburnís appropriation was earmarked for the Extension Service and the Experiment Station. The legislature likewise earmarked 25 percent of Alabamaís appropriation for medicine, extension, and research, but, according to Knapp, gave Tuscaloosa greater flexibility in using these funds. The result was a comparative loss for Auburn.14

The Great Depression furthered the financial problems that had faced President Knapp when he took office. In 1930-31, the schoolís enrollment reached an all-time high, which placed greater stress on an aging physical plant and faculty workloads. From July 1930 through February 1931, API received no state funds, but Knapp praised the cooperation of the faculty and local business people during the emergency. He also complained to Governor Miller that the University of Alabama received a higher percentage of its quarterly appropriations than did Auburn. By June 13, 1931, the college had applied for a $300,000 loan to offset the financial crisis created by the stateís inability to pay warrants from the building fund that had been approved four years earlier. In December of 1931, Trustee Samford informed Governor Miller that something should be done quickly to save Auburn from "a disastrous experience."15

Around the same time, Victor Hansenís Birmingham News began to attack a cooperative grain purchasing agreement instituted by the Alabama Farm Bureau Federation and strongly supported by Luther N. Duncan and the Cooperative Extension Service. Hansonís paper called Duncan "a master of political trickeryÖprobably without a peer, certainly without a superior, in Alabama." In May of 1931, when the Alabama Senate held hearings on a bill that would have killed the Farm Bureau cooperative, the Extension Service and the Farm Bureau mustered such a turnout that the committee meeting was moved to Montgomeryís Crampton Bowl. Knapp consistently supported Duncan and the Extension Service during this controversy, arguing that the bill proposed was not so much anti-extension as it was opposed to cooperation among farmers, who had a right to buy and sell cooperatively.16

In February of 1932, Knapp reported to the board that the difficulties began the previous summer. They had nothing to do with mismanagement and everything to do with the stateís failure to pay appropriations. For the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1931, the college had received its full state appropriation only for the first quarter. In effect, the school was operating on money borrowed from its employees, so Knapp urged the board to consider paying interest on back salaries. The alumni account was overdrawn by more than $18,000 and the athletic account by more than $81,000. These circumstances rendered financial planning extremely difficult. The president predicted that unless the school found another source of financial support, it might be forced to close for the 1932-33 academic year.17

Unfortunately, Knapp faced yet another blow in the form of a 1932 Brookings Institution report on state and local government in Alabama. According to the authors of the report, API spent approximately twice as much per student as the University of Alabama. The authors speculated that perhaps Alabama received too little state money or that Auburn received too much. In any event, they recommended a unified administration for the stateís institutions of higher learning. Auburn officials contended that Alabamaís significantly higher out-of-state enrollment distorted the comparison. With this factored into the equation, Alabama spent 20.8 percent more than Auburn per in-state student. This also meant that scarce Alabama tax dollars were being used to educate out-of-state students on the Tuscaloosa campus. Furthermore, Alabama had a higher percentage of students enrolled in relatively inexpensive liberal arts courses, whereas Auburn had greater numbers in more expensive scientific programs.18

On July 28, 1933, Knapp reported to the board that he had been operating under severe stress. The board granted him a leave of absence for the month of August, which he accepted, and offered to pay his salary for that time, but he refused to accept preferential treatment. Shortly thereafter, Knapp resigned the presidency of the Alabama Polytechnic Institute. Governor B.M. Miller urged the appointment of an administrative committee rather than an acting president and suggested that George Petrie, dean of the Graduate School, Luther N. Duncan, director of the Extension Service, and J.J. Wilmore, dean of the Engineering School, serve as members.19

Both Dowell and Knapp went on to successful academic careers after they left Auburn. Dowell became president of Mercer University, where he remained in office for twenty-five years. Knapp became president of Texas Technological College, a position in which he held until his death. Undoubtedly, both men had only a slim chance of success at Auburn. Dowell lacked a strong academic background and had not been an overwhelmingly popular choice in the first place. Rightly or not, he took the blame for an unsuccessful football team and Auburnís relatively weak political showing when compared with the University of Alabama. Knapp had stronger academic credentials, but showed no more skill than Dowell in the political arena. Under different circumstances, he may have fared better, but the financial emergency he faced from 1930 through the end of his administration was overwhelming. Critics attributed numerous failings to his eventual successor, but a lack of political acumen was not among them.


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