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  • The Village on the Plain: Auburn University, 1856-2006 by Dwayne Cox
  • Kevin B. Sheets
The Village on the Plain: Auburn University, 1856-2006. By Dwayne Cox. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2016. xiv, 334 pp. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-8173-1909-0.

Imagine a mashup of Bill Murray's Groundhog Day and Jane Smiley's Moo: a large A&M university where every president wakes to the same unchanging problems. Dwayne Cox's institutional history of Auburn University could be the inspiration. Cox ably narrates the university's one-hundred-and-fifty-year effort to resolve its core and persisting challenges. Remarkably, it seems like every presidency begins and ends having faced, but not solved, them: an institutional self-doubt regarding its mission, an intrusive Board of Trustees, a rogue agricultural extension program, a parsimonious legislature, and a football program whose seasonal record frequently determines the fate of the university's leadership. In the hands of a gifted novelist or comedic director, the history Cox assembles would be grist for a satire spoofing academia's sundry dysfunctions.

And dysfunction is Cox's leitmotif. The portrait of Auburn that emerges is hardly flattering. Born in 1856 amidst the political jockeying of towns angling to secure the economic and cultural benefits of housing a college, East Alabama Male College never fully escaped controversy and turmoil. Following the Civil War, the college at Auburn secured Morrill Act funds to become the state's land-grant college, reflected in a name change to the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama. A quarter century later, in response to New South shifts in academic purpose and identity, the college rebranded to become the Alabama Polytechnic Institute. API attained some institutional stability though funding remained a perennial problem. Cox summarizes API during this early twentieth century period: "It remained largely a white man's institution devoted to applied science and intercollegiate football" (xi).

Then it went off the cliff. During the 1920s and into the Great Depression era, API's rivalry with the University of Alabama sharpened as both schools tried to outmaneuver the other to secure the [End Page 264] few coins the legislature tossed in higher education's direction. Importantly, API's agricultural extension program, with federal land grant funding and a growing network of allies across the state's rural communities, became its own power base within the university, though it was unconstrained by API's leadership. The student body, largely invisible in Cox's history, roared to life in the efflorescence of the post-World War I era and appears to have embraced alcohol and football in equal measure. Unfortunately, the gridiron was an unforgiving mistress. API's lackluster record angered students and alumni and, incredibly, led to the president's resignation.

API achieved greater stability from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s under the presidencies of Luther Duncan, the former head of agricultural extension, and then Ralph Draughon. Both were strong administrators and they understood the play of Alabama politics. Yet even in these years, API, which became Auburn University in 1960, struggled with old and new problems. Presidents continued to spar with intrusive trustees who appropriately set policy, but who also interfered in administration and management. The faculty, who elsewhere enjoyed greater authority as the research university gained in prestige, suffered at Auburn. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) ranked Auburn near the bottom in a survey on shared governance. AAUP also censored the university for its non-renewal of Bud Hutchinson, a professor who had published a letter in the school newspaper supporting desegregation. Draughon pushed back, claiming that the AAUP simply did not understand the South's racial politics. Draughon hoped to avoid conflict, and though he supported racially separate educational institutions, he cautioned the trustees that the tide had turned. Still, the university resisted admitting black applicants until forced by a November 1963 court order. Harold A. Franklin was admitted to the graduate school the following January. Governor George Wallace, who served as president of Auburn's Board of Trustees, opposed his admission and called him an "agitator." But as Cox points out, the school's integration occurred without violence. [End Page...


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