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People & Leaders


Achievement and Change in the Bunker Decades: The Atwood Years

Sanford Soverhill Atwood

President 1963-1977
sanford soverhill atwood

If the long, hard quest for Goodrich White's successor had its perils, the year of searching for White's successor's successor was no less interesting. When Walter Martin stepped down from the presidency at the end of June 1962, the trustees appointed three men to run the University until the trustees could find a new president. Comprising Henry Bowden, the chair of the board; Judson Ward, the executive vice president and dean of the faculties; and Chancellor White, the threesome became known as "The Troika." It was the heyday of the Cold War; students dubbed the Administration Building "The Kremlin." They would soon see other edifices even more bunker-like.

While the administrative arrangement may have been unorthodox, the interim year bore some good fruit. Through the spring and summer of 1962, the University successfully carried its suit to the Supreme Court of Georgia to overturn a statute impeding Emory's enrollment of black students. With a ruling in Emory's favor on September 15 of that year, the first African-American student enrolled in the School of Dentistry. Bowden, who along with Law School Dean Ben F. Johnson Jr. had led the charge, was awarded the Alexander Meiklejohn Award by the American Association of University Professors.

Opening the doors of the University to African-Americans would not be Bowden's only coup that year. By the end of the Troika's reign, he had also lured to Emory its next president. And he did it in a way that has become an Emory legend. As the presidential search narrowed to a handful of candidates, one in particular seemed to stand out: Sanford Soverhill Atwood, provost of Cornell University.

Atwood was born in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1912 and earned all three of his degrees from the University of Wisconsin before he was twenty-six. A plant cytologist, he spent seven years at the United States Regional Pasture Research Laboratory in State College, Pennsylvania, then moved to Cornell as a faculty member in the department of plant breeding. Within three years he had been promoted to full professor, and the next year he became department chair. In 1955, seven years after arriving at Ithaca, he became Cornell's provost.

Courted by Emory's search committee, Atwood had not succumbed to the wooing by the time Henry Bowden and his wife, Ellen, appeared at the Cornell campus on a Saturday morning in June, 1963. They were on their way to Canada in a pick-up truck camper for a brief vacation and had decided to call on the chief candidate for Emory's top job. Asking where he could find the office of the "PRO-vost," Bowden found himself stymied for a moment by a difference in Yankee inflection, when the person he asked pointed him in the direction of the "PRAH-vist." At any rate, by the time the Bowdens were on their way to the border, the courtship had become mutual, and Atwood was headed south. The editor of the Atlanta Constitution, Eugene Patterson, remarked later that "the Trojan truck and the departure of Dr. Atwood waked the Ivy League to the realization that you can't always judge a Southerner by his chassis."

Shortly after the board approved Atwood's appointment on July 8, Time magazine took note of the fact:

Atlanta's ambitious Emory University, which had searched for a year for a new president, last week snagged just the man. He is Sanford Soverhill Atwood, 50, pipe-smoking provost of Cornell University.

Emory may need $100 million in the next decade to win the rank it wants—a place among the nation's top 20 universities. To get the university moving, President Atwood probably will boost Emory's already good graduate training and research. Last week he began by jolting the faculty with a needed dose of self-esteem. Said he as they beamed: "You people are twice as good as you think you are." (Time, 19 July 1963)

The honeymoon lasted at least through the inauguration, on November 15th, when the ginkgo trees near the Quadrangle shed their golden leaves as if in tribute. Held on the Quadrangle, the ceremony began a procession of some 265 delegates, including sixty-eight college and university presidents, of whom five were Emory alumni. Cornell's president-emeritus, Deane W. Malott, delivered an address and received an honorary degree, the first degree Atwood awarded.

Atwood's own address foreshadowed his intention to launch a capital campaign as soon as possible. While noting that Emory had all the foundation stones of a great university—a reputable faculty, ideals of service and academic freedom, and good friends in the Candler and Woodruff families—he said that the "real hope that bridges the present and the future . . . is found in the potential backing of the trustees, the Church, the alumni and other friends of the University. These groups are demanding that Emory continue to be developed as one of the best institutions to be found anywhere."

Atwood had arrived at Emory only to find a large cumulative deficit in the budget, an inadequate endowment, and an undergraduate college in danger of being overshadowed by its surrounding graduate and professional schools. Announcing his intention to compete nationally for the best faculty, he reported that doing so would require raising tuition to the levels of the institutions with which Emory would compete. Atwood asked, rhetorically, "Is it enough to have one outstanding University in this country? Or two? Or even twenty?" For Atwood the answer was, clearly, "no!"

Determined to raise Emory's profile both nationally and locally, Atwood spent a great deal of his first year traveling and making speeches—seventy-two speeches in the first ten months, from a YMCA Youth Assembly to a Salesman Week gathering. He met with alumni in twelve cities and had dinner with each of the fraternities and sororities. Having thus enlarged Emory's claims on friends around the country, he guided the trustees in launching the MERIT Program in October 1965. Standing for Mobiling Educational Resources and Ideas for Tomorrow, the MERIT Program had a goal of raising $25 million in four years. William Bowdoin, an Atlanta banker and prominent civic leader who was an Emory trustee, served as chair of the campaign.

Although nearly derailed at the start by the announcement by Time (once again) that God was "dead" at Emory, the campaign was a success and began a growth spurt for the University. By the end of 1969, the University had raised $35 million, the largest fund-raising campaign in the history of Georgia to that point. On this foundation, before his retirement in 1977, Atwood doubled the size of the faculty, increased the student body by 63 percent to 7,334, and broke ground for $150 million in construction—three times the cost of all construction at Emory to 1963. Facilities added to the campus during his tenure included a new gymnasium at Oxford College; the first buildings at Yerkes Primate Research Center; the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing; the Robert W. Woodruff Library; the sorority lodges; the Dental School Building; the Center for Rehabilitation Medicine; Gambrell Hall; the Woodruff Health Sciences Center Administration Building (WHSCAB); Goodrich C. White Hall; and the Chemistry Center, completed in 1974 and renamed for Atwood in 1991.

(To be sure, many of these buildings, designed in the "Brutalistic" style then fashionable on many campuses—lots of concrete, roughly finished—resembled bunkers. The design may have reflected the sense that campuses were under siege during much of this period.)

Notwithstanding the remarkable advances during the fourteen years of Atwood's leadership, the University also endured many of the slings and arrows suffered by other campuses in that era of discontent. At the end of the decade now referred to with mixed nostalgia and cynicism as "The Sixties," a commission appointed by President Richard Nixon reported on the origins of some of the fury that Sanford Atwood and other university presidents faced during the decade.

Known officially as the President's Commission on Campus Unrest, it was called unofficially the Scranton Commission for its chairman, former Pennsylvania Governor William S. Scranton. In its report, issued in 1970, the Scranton Commission concluded that the roots of student discontent were very deep in American history. The report noted, for instance, that American colleges throughout the early nineteenth century experienced disorder and riot over such matters as "poor food, primitive living conditions, and harsh regulations." Thomas Jefferson, the great champion of the democracy, had had to quell a student rebellion against rules at the University of Virginia shortly after its opening in 1825.

But the Scranton Commission noted that, while these early campus disturbances sometimes reflected a chafing under the Puritan ethic of the day, student discontent in America, unlike that of Europe, was rarely political. This pattern began to change during the early years of the twentieth century, as some students reacted against America's growing imperialism and became enamored of socialist thinking, giving rise to the first important radical political movement among American college students--the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. "Thus, concluded the Scranton Report, "it is not so much the unrest of the past half-dozen years that is exceptional as it is the quiet of the 20 years which preceded them."

No doubt, as the Scranton Report pointed out, the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and the shortcomings of the universities themselves helped to focus the unrest of the decade. But equally important, perhaps, was the country's accelerating transition from an industrial to a postindustrial age, the growing affluence—and, thus, leisure—of the middle class, and the formation of a new youth culture define by idealism and individualism.

Emory was hardly exempt from the angst of the decade, and clear targets were readily at hand. Of more than symbolic importance, the Board of Trustees in 1969 was 100 percent white, male, and Protestant. According to an Emory Magazine article that year, the trustees included thirteen business executives, seven Methodist clergy, four bankers, four attorneys, two doctors, one foundation executive, an accountant, and a federal judge. All were Southerners, and two-thirds were from Atlanta.

However entrenched the board profile may have been, Atwood presided over the greatest diversification of the campus to that point in Emory's history. At his invitation, Benjamin E. Mays, the renowned president of Morehouse College, became the first African-American to deliver the Emory commencement address. He was followed the next year by the first woman to deliver Emory's Commencement address, Rosemary Park, a professor of education at UCLA. Still more remarkable, the year 1968-69 brought to Emory speakers as radically different as Georgia's segregationist governor Lester Maddox and "black power" activist Stokely Carmichael.

In the spring of 1969, Atwood launched the University's first Affirmative Action program in response to a federal mandate. Despite this, students interrupted University Worship on Sunday, May 25, to protest alleged discrimination against black workers on campus. They later moved to Cox Hall, blocking entrances for two days, until Atwood, in consultation with the deans, sought a restraining order from the State Superior Court. After a long meeting with students on Tuesday, the President asked for a recession of the court order. At a mass meeting on Wednesday morning, the students pledged reconciliation, while the administration pledged to work for an end to racism. Among the results of the incident were the appointment of a full-time African-American adviser to the President on matters affecting black students and the establishment of the Employee Relations Council in the fall of 1970. For the first time the nonfaculty staff had a formal means to have a say in campus governance. (The University would build on these steps in 1976 with the creation of the President's Commission on the Status of Women. A similar commission, on the status of minorities was founded in 1978 and one on lesbian/gay/bisexual concerns in 1995.)

By April 1976, when Atwood announced his intention to retire the next year, the mood of the campus as well as the country had changed remarkably. Although Emory students still enjoyed the midweek break of Wonderful Wednesday, higher education in America, and at Emory in particular, had become a bit of a grind for many. The mood in the wider nation was not much better. Despite the difficulties that had set in, President Atwood remained optimistic in his last annual report to the trustees in the fall of 1976: "Emory can only be as great as we have faith to believe. My faith was never stronger. We have only begun to stir the imagination and generosity of Emory's constituency. I am certain Emory is destined to be one of the great universities of this country."

The next few years would test the validity of Atwood's faith.



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