May 12, 2006

The Presidential Tradition: Thomas V. Neal, 1932-1939

"...The trustees found no evidence of communist infiltration of the college, but nevertheless rejected the calls for Neal's resignation..."

Thomas V. NealThomas V. Neal accepted the presidency of Howard College at an especially precarious moment. The previous president, mindful of the deepening economic depression, recognized that Howard needed new ideas and expertise if it was to survive the crisis. Neal seemed the perfect match for that brief.

Born in west Georgia, Neal was raised on a farm and worked his way through school, serving as a laundry boy at Howard College to pay his tuition. After graduating from Howard in 1902 Neal attended seminary and spent over two decades in Texas as a pastor and educator. He had already proved his fundraising and institutional growth expertise as an administrator at Oklahoma Baptist University when Howard called him home to his Alma Mater.

Neal's first year as president was consumed by simply saving the college from the effects of the depression. He undertook extensive recruiting efforts and called a halt to construction of a multipurpose amphitheater he had inherited, recognizing that the college had more pressing uses for that money, material and energy. The faculty simply worked without pay during this period of crisis. By late 1933, Howard had reduced expenses enough that it was slowly emerging from its financial crisis.

Neal not only managed to save Howard, he actually expanded its curriculum and faculty and significantly improved its facilities. Federal aid increased enrollment and Neal even managed to raise faculty salaries. Not forgetting the students, he apparently declined to enforce the strict anti-dancing policies of his predecessor and built a new house for every Howard sorority.

Even in the darkest days of the depression, Neal kept faith in what Howard could become. "It is doubtful whether any college in the state or immediate region has weathered the economic storm as well as Howard," he said in 1934. Howard, he predicted, would soon enjoy an unprecedented "broadening and deepening of academic work."

Neal's optimism was justified. Howard seems to have been amazingly healthy by the middle of the decade, and in 1936 the Crimson proclaimed that, "happy days are here again." As evidence of this it offered, among other things, the observation that the faculty had bought more new cars in that year than in the entire previous decade.

By 1936 Howard had become the second largest college in the SBC system and even had some hope of soon being largely out of debt. Clearly, Neal had justified the trustee's faith in him to save the college. Yet only a few chaotic years later Neal would be forced out of office.

It seems that Neal's success also was his doom. He accrued to himself a great deal of power over college affairs, and although his decisions often served the college well, his unilateral decision-making alienated many students, faculty and alumni. Even some trustees feared to oppose Neal.

Tension over Neal's management style erupted into public view in 1938 when he clashed with the students over control of student activities fees. Threatened by increasing student dissent, Neal dug in, suspending some students who criticized the college. This brought conflict with a faculty that had sacrificed much to keep the college operating during the worst years of the depression.

When students called for the creation of a scholarship to benefit the president of the student body, with funds to be raised from student fees, Neal opposed the idea on the grounds that it was "opposed to the college's principles." Neal had recently fought to require ministerial students to pay tuition (after a tradition of full scholarships) and his opposition to the scholarship proposal pushed student opinion past the tipping point. Faculty allegedly urged students to "cut classes...and weave among the student body for a poll on student feeling." A student government committee concluded that Neal should resign.

A Howard professor temporarily calmed the students, but Neal pressed the issue by expelling the president of the student body. Faculty successfully intervened again, this time on behalf of the student. The immediate crisis had been averted, but the students soon voted to create the scholarship for the student body president, in spite of Neal's opposition. The students again called on Neal to resign, and alumni and faculty now joined the campaign, formally requesting that the trustees remove the president.

Neal responded to the increasing pressure by charging that communists were behind the movement against him. The trustees found no evidence of communist infiltration of the college, but nevertheless rejected the calls for Neal's resignation. Neal won the battle, but lost the war.

Recognizing that his position was untenable, Neal announced his resignation in January 1939. He finished the academic year and departed at the end of June, a few months after the president of Howard's alumni association claimed that Neal and a trustee had conspired to fire, on the pretext of cost savings, some of the faculty who had dared to oppose the president. To make matters worse, Howard's accreditation status was now in jeopardy. It was an unfortunate end for a president who had shepherded the college through the grave dangers of the depression.

Those dangers continued to threaten Howard and were compounded by another world war, but a veteran of war and state politics would lead the college through two decades of impressive growth and cultural change.

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