Auburn University History:

The Presidency of Isaac Taylor Tichenor, 1872-1882

On March 20, 1872, the board of trustees of the newly chartered Agricultural & Mechanical College of Alabama gathered for their first meeting. They adopted a committee report which called for a faculty chair in each of the following areas: president and professor of moral philosophy, logic, history, rhetoric, and political economy; pure mathematics; natural sciences, including astronomy, metallurgy, mechanic arts, and civil engineering; chemistry, including agricultural and analytical geology and mineralogy; ancient and modern languages; mental philosophy, English language, and literature; agriculture, horticulture, and pomology; and commandant and teacher of military tactics and engineering. The presidentís salary would be $2,500 per year and each of the other professors $1,500. Two days later, the board elected Isaac Taylor Tichenor, a Baptist minister and Confederate veteran, as the institutionís first president.1

The following summer, President Tichenor made his first annual report to the board of trustees. The second session of the college, which had just closed, had begun "under circumstances of peculiar discouragement." The school was in debt, the faculty unpaid, and financial resources uncertain. The board had managed to purchase land for the college farm and President Tichenor urged them to employ a full-time professor of agriculture. The president went on to say that "men of letters" often had "little taste for agricultural pursuits," so a danger existed that the agricultural departments in land-grant colleges would be "strangled or starved." Furthermore, many of those involved in agricultural pursuits were suspicious of "book farming," which placed an additional burden on the college. The president urged the board to give an agricultural scholarship to one student from every county in the state, a move which he viewed as crucial for recruitment, economic development, and public relations.2

The schoolís financial problems continued. Tichenor attributed this, in large part, to the stateís failure to invest all the funds that had been generated through sale of the federal lands that formed the initial endowment. Consequently, the interest payments had been less than anticipated. Deprived of its rightful endowment, the college had been denied adequate support from the state and threatened with unfriendly legislation. He called for state attention to "the wants of the college," which included funds sufficient to train students who could exploit Alabamaís natural resources. Auburn was the only institution in Alabama with a mission to impart the agricultural and mechanical skills to do this. Tichenor predicted that if the state failed to provide leadership in this area, the resources would remain undeveloped or would be exploited by outsiders, a code word for Yankees.3

In January, 1877, Tichenor reported to the board that the past year had been disappointing for several reasons, including the action of the University of Alabama in lowering tuition. He also complained that Alabama had lowered its graduation standards, both actions apparently directed at Auburn. The president predicted that this "struggle for patronage between the different colleges of the state" would continue for years to come. The University of Alabama had the advantage of being older and better-established, but Auburnís emphasis on agricultural and mechanical arts would be essential to creating the New South. Not to be outdone by Alabama, the president recommended the elimination of tuition charges and the creation of a boarding department to lower other expenses.4

Later that year, Tichenor speculated on the nature of higher learning in the United States, comparing the roles of Auburn and the University of Alabama, with the former emerging in the better light. Land-grant colleges had been created to prepare people for work in agricultural and mechanical arts, occupations that employed the greatest proportion of the population. Nevertheless, other state colleges and denominational institutions seemed to receive more financial support. Why should an institution, designed to provide vocational training for the masses, receive less support than one designed to train a relative few for the learned professions? Why should this new education, so obviously relevant, be relegated to an inferior status? Tichenor replied that most of the nationís educational leaders had been trained under the old system. Ironically, the old system was "born of the necessities of an established church and a hereditary nobility" and did not suit "the interests of republican institutions." The new education, in contrast, sought to remove "a crushing weight" from "the heads and hearts" of "children of sorrow" and to "cheer them in their humble habitations." Its ends were pure, its methods wise, and "its ultimate triumph assured." The University of Alabama was "among the noblest, although not the most famous," of the old type institutions, but it had failed to train leaders who could have built the Southís industrial might and enabled it to win the Civil War. Time enough remained, however, to win the peace, provided that the state produced leaders not "consumed with the spirits of the mighty dead and ancient times," such as those turned out at the University of Alabama.5

Several years later Tichenor claimed that of all the land-grant colleges in the South, none were better than Auburn. Furthermore, only two in the United States, New York and Illinois, were "decidedly superior to it." The greatest problem the school faced was money, in part because it had been "plunged into debt by the unfaithfulness of a state official," a reference to the misuse of funds derived from the original federal grant, and "paid for years in a depreciated currency." The president urged the board to have the state "do something for the college." He wished that the state would appropriate the same amount of money for Auburn as it did for the University of Alabama. He hoped for the passage of a tax on commercial fertilizer, the proceeds of which might fund that stateís land-grant college.6

Tichenorís fertilizer tax passed the legislature, but was vetoed by the governor. In response, he said that "every other political community in the limits of the civilized world" where commercial fertilizers were sold had passed a similar law. Toward the end of the same presentation, he returned to the theme of competition among between Auburn and the University of Alabama and proposed a solution. Tichenor suggested the creation of one college in each congressional district, which would feed into a grand university, the departments possibly located in different parts of the state. Instruction in the congressional district colleges would carry students through the sophomore year. Then they would move into the university, which would have schools of medicine, law, agriculture, chemistry, geology, natural history, engineering, and, finally, literature. Tichenor hoped that "the University at Tuscaloosa" would also support this plan, for he believed that the New South was "rapidly coming forward" and that his scheme would further that end.7

Shortly thereafter, Tichenor resigned. A strong argument could be made that he did as well as could have been expected under the circumstances. The state was financially embarrassed, the funds derived from the original federal land grant used improperly, and the University of Alabama naturally suspicious of the new land-grant college. Tichenor demonstrated keen insight into the nature of educational politics and a sense for the judicious use of Alabamaís limited educational resources. At the same time, while he spoke of a new type of education, Tichenor was not himself schooled in that realm. The same could not be said of his successor.


1Board of Trusteeís Minutes, March 20, 22, 1872, Auburn University Archives.   [Back]

2Board Minutes, July 30, 1873.  [Back]

3Board Minutes, July 14, 1875, October 10, 1876.  [Back]

4Board Minutes, January 11, 1877.  [Back]

5Board Minutes, June 25, 1877.  [Back]

6Board Minutes, June 29, November 13, 1880.  [Back]

7Board Minutes, June 27, 1881.  [Back]