Auburn University History:

The Presidency of William Leroy Broun, 1882-1883, 1884-1902


On June 28, 1882, the board of trustees accepted the resignation of Isaac Taylor Tichenor and appointed William LeRoy Broun as president of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama. In Broun the trustees had tapped a career educator, with a background in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, who during the Civil War had commanded the Confederate arsenal at Richmond, Virginia. As president, Broun would focus the college curriculum on agriculture and mechanic arts; win additional state support for the institution; and solidify Auburn's place within Alabama higher education.1

Within a year of Broun's taking office, the state legislature established a state Department of Agriculture. This legislation provided that one-third of the net proceeds from the sale of commercial fertilizer tags be transferred to Auburn for use by its mechanical and agricultural departments. In return, the college performed a chemical analysis upon all brands of commercial fertilizer sold within the state. The legislature further directed that a portion of the funds so appropriated be used for creation of an agricultural experiment station that would furnish information to the Commissioner of Agriculture for publication in monthly bulletins and annual reports. On June 26, 1883, the board of trustees agreed to accept the provisions of this act and to implement their responsibilities under it.2

Two days later, the board passed a resolution of appreciation for President Broun, who had resigned to accept another position. Earlier that month, Broun had issued his annual report, where he made recommendations regarding the future of the college and provided some indication of the reasons for his departure. The president urged the board to concentrate the curriculum on a few courses, rather than diffuse their efforts into many. By doing so, he believed Auburn could provide something the state desperately needed, "an Institute distinct for teaching science and its application." Later that year, the board hired a new president, David French Boyd, and resolved that the school's mission was to operate an agricultural and mechanical college "to fit young men for the practical duties of life in these two departments of industry." The board also directed the faculty to teach Latin, French, and German for those students who wished to study these subjects, which were "not to conflict with the regular course or to be so subordinated as to be excluded."3

Like his predecessor, Boyd found problems at Auburn. He also showed little hesitancy to express his opinion regarding the situation. Among other things, he complained of a glaring lack of "the necessary appliances for instruction." Furthermore, he urged the board not to refuse requests for such tools "out of mistaken notions of school economy." If they did so, the result would be a college in name only. He went on to say that the board should not elect a faculty and then "let them do nothing for the want of means to do something." Good faculty members would not remain content under such arrangements. The faculty were on hand "day in and day out…thinking of what [was] best for the college." The board could "be here but seldom and then only for a few days." Consequently, it was reasonable to expect that the faculty knew more about the college than did the board. Regarding Auburn's rivalry with the University of Alabama, Boyd wrote: "To Tuscaloosa let the student of general culture go, and here let the young man come who wishes to fit himself for a special scientific or industrial pursuit." In less than a year, Boyd had submitted his resignation, saying that he saw a bright future for the college, if the board would hire a president "with proper authority to carry it out." Among other things, he believed that the board was continuing to resist concentrating the college curriculum on scientific and industrial education, which was the school's primary mission. On June 25, 1884, the board unanimously re-elected William LeRoy Broun as president, a position which he held until his death.4

Broun moved quickly and effectively to solidify the position of agriculture and mechanical arts within the school's curriculum. In less than a year, he recommended the employment of a professor of practical mechanics, which would bring the college "in more perfect accord with the educational demands of the age." He further recommended changing the institution's name to the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, which would signify an "enlarged sphere of educational work." In response to the first request, the board appropriated $5000 for the creation of a mechanical department. Shortly thereafter, the college catalog listed three courses of study, two technical and one general. Broun believed that study of the general course should occupy "a portion of the time" of those engaged in one of the two technical courses.5

Broun knew that none of his plans could be implemented without money. One problem he faced was convincing the legislature and the board that the school's experimental farm existed to make agricultural experiments, needed an annual appropriation, and could not be expected to turn a profit. He was further plagued by the notion that the college had failed if it failed to graduate large numbers of farmers. In the first place, many college graduates lacked the necessary capital to become farmers. An equally important aspect of the school's mission was the education of existing farmers through bulletins issued by the experiment station. Broun also continued to bewail the state's mishandling of the original college endowment provided by the federal land grant. In 1885 he prepared a detailed financial history of the school that addressed this matter.6

Under the terms of the Morrill Act, Alabama had been entitled to federal land script amounting to 240,000 acres. On October 10, 1868, the state legislature empowered the governor to secure the script and later that year accepted the benefits of the Morrill Act. On December 15, 1871, the legislature authorized the governor to issue state bonds for $1 million, with the funds generated from selling the land script to be invested in the bonds. This gave the Agricultural and Mechancial College an endowment of $253,000 in Alabama state bonds, with an annual interest of eight percent. Unfortunately, the state paid the interest in a series of depreciated certificates. Because Alabama recently had been redeemed "from the worst carpetbag and radical misrule," the board accepted the depreciated certificates and trusted the state to make good the rest, as it was required to do under federal law. Broun believed that the college had lost approximately $20,000 as a result.7

In 1887, the United States Congress passed the Hatch Act, which appropriated $15,000 per year to each state for the establishment of an agricultural experiment station in connection with the land-grant college. Meanwhile, the legislature had appropriated $12,500 for the college, beyond the funds generated through the fertilizer tax, for use during the coming two years. In the summer of 1888, the president reported that the Department of Mechanic Arts had been well-equipped through the earlier state appropriation and urged the officers of the experiment station to begin a series of farmer's institutes, in addition to the bulletins they already produced. At the same time, he called for a $75,000 state appropriation for use over a two-year period. In 1890 Broun reported that the college enrollment had doubled during the past five years, which he attributed to the board's efforts "to establish in conformity with the legislation creating the institution, a school of science and its applications adapted to the wants and necessities of the growth of the state."8

Broun continued to face disagreements regarding the school's mission and misunderstandings regarding it's sources of income. He frequently reminded the board of that the Morrill Act required instruction in agriculture and mechanic arts, though it did not specifically exclude other branches of learning, including the classics. Furthermore, the funds provided by the Hatch Act were devoted exclusively to the agricultural experiment station and could not be appropriated for any other purpose. State funds generated by the sale of fertilizer went, by law, to agriculture and mechanic arts. He insisted that state support for building programs should support these curricula, as well, and reminded the board that none of these monies were available for instruction in ancient and modern languages.9

Despite Broun's success in gaining state support and focusing the curriculum on the areas required by law, he continued to face financial uncertainty. Eventually, the legislature cut the amount of money the college received through the fertilizer tax. Congress required that each school receive at least a five percent return on its original Morrill Act endowment and Auburn received eight, but Broun feared that the legislature might decide to keep the other three percent. A nationwide depression during the mid-1890s further undermined his efforts to place the school on more sound financial footing. Toward the end of his administration, however, Broun succeeded in persuading the legislature to change the school's name to the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, a goal which the president had articulated shortly after coming to Auburn.10

William LeRoy Broun died in office after two decades of service as president. On that occasion, the board passed a resolution which praised his leadership, charter, and devotion to "scientific and technical education." He had not only articulated that mission, but also established it in fact. He was undoubtedly one of the more influential presidents the school would ever have.11



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