The 1919 Student Petition Against President Riddick

In 1919, NC State students signed a petition to remove President Wallace Riddick.

In 1919, NC State students signed a petition to remove President Wallace Riddick.

One hundred years ago in May 1919, NC State University (then State College) was recovering from the most tumultuous period in university history up to that time.  The previous fall, enrollment skyrocketed as the university became a military training school for soldiers preparing for battle in World War I.  To add to the turmoil, Spanish influenza raged through campus, killing thirteen students and sickening hundreds.  After the Armistice, enrollment plunged as the government no longer covered tuition for training soldiers.  One can imagine the issues caused by these dramatic changes - overcrowded student housing, tight food supplies, overloaded courses for professors, unsanitary conditions due to insufficient janitorial staff.

Upheaval Caused by the War

Dr. Wallace Carl Riddick, president of State College, felt the stress.  He reports in his 1918-1919 Annual Report that "I feel sure [this session] has been the busiest, most strenuous, and in many respects the most trying year in the history of the college."  He later continues, ". . . we were practically commandeered by the Government for war purposes.  Since that time, we have had the confusion incident to reorganizing and getting back to our pre-war courses of study."

First Page of President's Report, 1918-1919, from Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes, Legal box 5, Folder 17
First page of 1918-1919 Annual Report, describing chaotic conditions on campus, which led to student grievances.

The students also felt the stress with great changes occurring in the span of a few months.  In September 1918, the college replaced normal instruction and the R.O.T.C. program with the federally-directed Student Army Training Corps (S.A.T.C.), which brought a more regimented, disciplined structure to campus.  When the war ended in November, S.A.T.C. was terminated.  Finally in January 1919, State College re-established the R.O.T.C. program.  The transition was not smooth, as reported in the "Senior History" (page 38) of the 1919 Agromeck:

"Upon arriving on the hill in the fall of 1918 for the last year and climax of our college career, we found that we were to be Seniors in name only and not in reality.  We were shorn of our Senior privileges and liberties and anticipations which we had cherished for three long years.  The introduction and establishment of the S.A.T.C. in our colleges and universities, necessitated by the world war, destroyed to some extent our aggressiveness along collegiate lines . . . . The military authorities, and part of the faculty members, insisted that the R.O.T.C., in time of peace, should be operated with the same rigid discipline, although not required by the Government, as was the S.A.T.C. in time of war.  The students, naturally, strenuously protested."

The Petition

These frustrations culminated in a petition, signed by 425 students, demanding President Riddick's removal from office.  Their grievances were as follows, as reported in the Raleigh News and Observer of April 16, 1919:

1. The abolition of the honor system.

2. Actions resulting in the withdrawal of various members of the faculty and curtailment in several of the college departments.

3. Absence of any policy looking toward the development of the college and the extension of collegiate activity.

4. Lack of diplomacy and tact in dealing with students.

5. Unsatisfactory conditions in the mess hall with respect to quality of food and its service, poor sanitation due to inadequate janitor service.

In the petition, students said that while they had the utmost confidence in Riddick as an engineer, they "do not feel that he is fitted by nature or training for the presidency of North Carolina's leading technical institution."

The historic record unfortunately does not shed light on most of the grievances, although Riddick's Annual Report mentions insufficient staffing that certainly contributed to the "unsatisfactory conditions in the mess hall."  However the "withdrawal of various members of the faculty" likely concerns an arrangement Riddick made with the Federal Board of Vocational Education.  He recommended temporary leaves of absences from State College for three professors - Cliff Lewis Newman, Guy Alexander Roberts, and Donald McClure - for Atlanta-based jobs.  Students considered this as permanent setbacks to the College's agricultural programs.  In fact, they discussed their demands with Newman prior to presenting their petition.  While Newman later insisted that he urged the students not to go forward with the petition, the Board of Trustees came to another understanding.  Some board members believed that Newman encouraged the unrest, and his employment with State College was terminated.  In a letter to Board Secretary Charles Gold, Newman laments "I could not bring myself to believe that the Board of Trustees would lynch an innocent and even inaccused citizen of the Old North State."

C.L. Newman
C.L. Newman, Professor of Agriculture, was terminated after his involvement with the student petition 

Withdrawal of the Petition

On April 17, after presenting their petition, a student committee met with the Board of Trustees executive committee.  After discussing their grievances and being assured of a proper investigation, students withdrew the petition.  As reported in the Raleigh News and Observer, students released a letter which read:

"We have been assured by the executive committee that the trustees will always be glad to hear the views of the student body upon any conditions in, or policy of, the college or upon the qualifications of the president or any member of the faculty; and we, representing the students, reserve the right to lay before the trustees our views upon any question touching the welfare of the college whenever we may deem it wise and proper to do so."

For its part, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution during their May 27 meeting that stated:

"The Trustees have gone carefully into the matter, interviewing the student's committee severally and as a body, members of the faculty and instructors and other students, and have found nothing in the evidence tending to show any maladministration . . . . Therefore, be it resolved, that it is the opinion of the Trustees that the difficulties have arisen from the fact that a portion of the student body has failed to appreciate the unsettled conditions incident to the fact that the college was practically commandeered by the Government during the war, and to the changes necessitated thereby."

The "Senior History" of the 1919 Agromeck suggests some student demands were met:

"The students appointed a committee to restore the old regime, which they did.  So once again before we graduate, we get a real taste of old college life; we enjoy the prestige of 'Senior privileges' and unrestricted liberties."

While it remains unclear what exactly ensued during the meeting, the issue was dropped by students and administration.  Riddick continued as president of the College until 1923 without further challenges to his presidency.

Wallace Carl Riddick remained president of State College after calls for his resignation
Wallace Carl Riddick remained president of State College despite calls for his resignation in 1919.

Most of the source material for this blog post (including the Board of Trustees resolution, Riddick's 1918-1919 Annual Report, the student petition, and Cliff Lewis Newman's correspondence) can be found in the North Carolina State University Board of Trustees Meeting Minutes (UA 001.001), Legal Box 5, Folder 17.  To request these materials, please contact the Special Collections Research Center.  Additional information was found in the Raleigh News and Observer (NC State students and faculty can access these through Newspapers.com)