Auburn University History:

The Presidency of Charles Coleman Thach, 1902-1920

Shortly before API President William Leroy Brounís death, the United States Congress considered a bill to establish mining engineering programs at the land-grant colleges. The Association of Land-Grant Colleges supported the measure, but universities in ten states opposed it, among them the University of Alabama. These schools sought to amend the bill either to acquire a portion of the appropriation directly or to divert a portion to their state legislature. The board of trustees sent Professor Charles C. Thach to Washington to negotiate a compromise with the representative of the University of Alabama, by which the funds for the state would be divided equally between the two schools. Following Brounís death, the board elected Thach, an Auburn graduate who had spent his entire professional career at the school, to succeed to the presidentís office.1

Thach immediately began to plan for the upcoming session of the state legislature: he distributed copies of an address that called attention to Auburnís financial needs; he asked Governor William D. Jelks to appoint a board committee to lobby the legislature; and, at the suggestion of board member Thomas D. Samford, who also served on the legislative committee, he prepared a statement comparing what Alabama and other states were doing in support of their land-grant colleges. During the course of the session, he wrote more than one letter like the message to C.B. Glenn of Birmingham, which urged the recipient to lobby members of the local delegation and "stir up the other boys" to do the same.2

When Thach took office, APIís only income from the state came from approximately one-sixth of the fertilizer tax that had been passed during Brounís administration. As of 1903, this had amounted to between $10,000 and $11,000 per annum for the past five years. According to Thach, more than half of the revenue received from this fund went into the actual chemical analysis of fertilizer, which was Auburnís responsibility under the law. The remainder went into the schoolís agricultural programs, which provided a ready justification for not decreasing Auburnís share. The 1903 legislature, probably under pressure from fertilizer distributors, reduced the tax from $0.50 to $0.30 per ton, but raised Auburnís share from one-sixth to one-third, which the president predicted would increase college revenue, provided fertilizer sales remained steady. At the same time, the president sought a new source of state revenue, which he found in a similar tax on illuminating oil sold in Alabama.3

At this time, illuminating oil, not gasoline, constituted the nationís most significant petroleum product. Neighboring states had passed laws for the inspection of kerosene to ensure that it would not ignite at temperatures less than 120 degrees. Alabama passed such a law prior to the 1903 session of the legislature, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. Early in the 1903 session, Thach received an inquiry from W.B. Clay, president of the Dixie Oil Company, who had been instrumental in that ruling because he believed that the law discriminated in favor of the Standard Oil Company. Now, Clay believed, he could craft a bill that would meet the constitutional test. If Thach were interested, Clay proposed to have the bill prepared by former Governor Thomas Goode Jones, who had served as his attorney in the earlier case and was thoroughly familiar with the constitutional clause under which the previous bill had been overruled. If successful, Clay asked that he "be taken care of" and given a post as the assistant state chemist at an annual salary of $2,000. Thach replied that API would be willing to undertake the analysis of oil, but warned that any tax in excess of "a reasonable cost" would be declared unconstitutional by the federal courts if Standard Oil brought suit, which they would.4

The argument in favor of the oil tax was that without it companies would dump inferior grades in Alabama. The bill that passed the 1903 legislature worked much like the fertilizer tax: oil distributors sent samples of their product to API for analysis, the state collected a one-half cent tax on each gallon sold, and Auburn received one-fourth of the levy. Shortly after passage, however, President Thach complained to Attorney-General Massey Wilson that Standard Oil considered the law a penal statute and refused to comply for the time being. Within a few months, that company again brought the matter before the Supreme Court, which declared the law unconstitutional. Meanwhile, other companies, following Standard Oilís example, were "ignoring the law entirely."5

Following this failure, state revenue from the fertilizer tax took on an even greater significance, but in October of 1904, Commissioner of Agriculture R.R. Poole informed President Thach not to expect any revenue from this source for the quarters ending June 30 and September 30, as most of the fertilizer sales took place from December through March. During the other quarters, the tax did not generate enough revenue to justify the expense of distributing the funds. The following spring, Thach complained to Governor Jelks regarding Attorney-General Wilsonís interpretation of the law. Sales for the past year had been 1,000 tons more than the previous year, yet Auburnís appropriation was $1,300 less. Thach later complained that the fertilizer tax generated revenue well in excess of the amount Auburn received for performing the only duties prescribed under the act.6

Early in 1906, President Thach began to lay the foundation for his appeal to the next quadrennial session of the legislature, which would convene the following year. In January, he wrote to a member of the legislature warning that API could not, in justice, accept any more students than currently enrolled for lack of facilities to accommodate growth. In March, he heard from W.B. Clay, author of the failed oil tax bill, reporting that he was "in Montgomery again" preparing for "the next legislature battle" on the issue. Clay had reviewed the old bill, the Supreme Courtís decision regarding it, and believed it could be passed. As the session approached, the president distributed a mass mailing, probably to alumni and members of the legislature, informing them that the only revenue that API currently derived directly from the state was one-third of the fertilizer tax. The schoolís remaining income came from funds appropriated to the state by the federal government. Among other things, Auburn needed new buildings for agriculture, mechanics, and the library.7

In June 1906, Thach devoted much of the annual board meeting to preparing the trustees for the upcoming legislative session. He called their attention to the relative expense of scientific as opposed to classical education. He argued that Alabama had a choice of either allowing its natural resources to be developed by men trained in state or by outsiders, a euphemism for Yankees. Endowing institutions that could provide this training was not "a mere gratuity," but an investment in students who could turn the stateís unexploited resources into "taxable wealth." The president informed that board that other southern land-grant colleges trained comparable members of students, but had more income and operated with physical plants of greater value than Auburnís. Finally, he urged the board to ask the legislature to fund several major construction projects.8

In 1907 legislative session began on a threatening note with a proposal to move API from Auburn to Birmingham, but ended as perhaps the greatest triumph of the Thach administration. The president requested more than $200,000 to be paid in four annual installments for expansion of facilities. He also called for a minimum annual appropriation of $40,000 for other purposes, either through an increase in the fertilizer tax, direct funding, or a combination of the two. The legislature filled both requests after the president had spent two months "right down at it in a personal canvas" of the members. In 1911 the legislature appropriated another $200,000, payable in four annual installments, for the Alabama Polytechnic Institute.9

The legislature also passed the oil tax bill, giving APIís professor of chemistry responsibility for conducting the inspections and the school one-fourth of the revenue generated by one-half cent tax on each gallon sold. Unfortunately, the state experienced difficulties in enforcement. In November, 1908, Thach wrote to Governor Braxton B. Comer requesting an inspection of tax records because he had heard reports of "dereliction in certain quarters." Subsequently, he informed Comer of specific violations by the Wofford Oil Company and the Alabama Oil Company, both located in Birmingham, and the Marine Oil Company in Mobile. In the latter case, Thach received constant reports that the company failed to pay tax on its shipments of oil into Alabama. Consequently, returns in Alabama were nowhere near the amounts generated in neighboring states that had similar laws. In October, 1909, the president reported that Auburn had received only $8,000 return on the oil tax during the past year. Standard Oil paid the most under the law, outdistancing all the other companies combined.10

At the same time, Thach faced a renewed political challenge from the University of Alabama, where George H. Denny had taken over the presidentís office in 1912. Later that year, J. Lister Hill, president of the Montgomery Alumni Association of the University of Alabama, distributed copies of the Carnegie Foundation's 1912 annual report to prospective college students in the area. The report noted that the University of Alabama required four years of high school for admission, but Auburn required less than two. This may have been fitting for agricultural students, but these comprised only a portion of Auburnís enrollment. API also had an engineering school and an academic college, where the majority of its students were enrolled. The report saw "no reason why the State of Alabama should offerÖat the same time college work of the first grade and college work of the second grade, engineering training of standard excellence and engineering training of an inferior degree." As long as this went on, "the larger number of students [would] gravitate toward the easier and lower plane."11

Later, an employee of the Montgomery Advertiser forwarded to Auburn a draft article that President Denny had submitted for publication in that paper, which the informant believed contained thinly veiled attacks on Auburn. Among other things, Denny wrote that the "choice young men and women" of the state wanted to attend the University of Alabama because it was known throughout the country, not within the "narrow confines" of a single state. Some of these "so-called colleges" had been accepting students without adequate high school preparation. The commentator went on to say that Denny referred again and again to "institutions calling themselves Ďcollegesí" and harped on their low admission standards "in a childlikeÖmanner." Shortly thereafter, however, Auburn began to require the standard fourteen units of high school work for unconditional admission to the freshman class.12

The president and board made financial plans based upon the 1911 appropriation of $200,000, but the funds never materialized. In 1915, when the next quadrennial session of the legislature met, Auburn supporters were still petitioning Governor Emmet OíNeal to release the funds that had been appropriated for Auburn and her sister institutions. In February, a committee of alumni petitioned the Speaker of the Alabama House to except Auburn and the Alabama College in Montevallo from the pending bill that would repeal all appropriations of the 1911 legislature. The 1911 appropriations for some "sister institutions," presumably the University of Alabama, had been released in full, which Auburn and Montevallo had received only half. Thach also raised the issue in his annual report to the board of trustees, which was distributed throughout the state. In a cover letter, he warned that the college was "in urgent and imperative need of buildings," but had received only half of the $200,000 approved in 1911. As late as 1918, Thach reported that API still had not received the balance of the money promised by the legislature seven years earlier. This, coupled with a decline in tuition revenue during World War I, produced a financial shortfall from which the Thach administration never recovered.13

Shortly after World War I, Auburn, Alabama, and Montevallo reached a cooperative agreement under pressure from the Alabama Education Commission. The report that the three presidents submitted to the commission provided that Montevallo would remain a junior college with the exception of home economics, which would be a four-year course. Auburn agreed to drop mining engineering in deference to a comparable program at Alabama and Alabama agreed to drop highway engineering in deference to Auburn. Under a unified budget, Auburn and Alabama received comparable appropriations for the next quadriennum.14

On December 4, 1919, the boardís executive committee met to approve a leave-of-absence for President Thach, who needed "a rest for an indeterminate period." The next June, Thachís wife and son suggested that the board declare the post vacant and search for a successor. The president died the following October 15. Thach had been a politically astute president. He made skillful use of the alumni, many of whom had gone to school with him or studied under him at Auburn. He cultivated members of the legislature, particularly those he knew to be sympathetic to his case. Finally, he kept the board of trustees well informed regarding the schoolís political agenda. Unfortunately, shortfalls in state revenue resulted in a weak conclusion to the Thach administration and created problems that were, inevitably, inherited by his successor.15