Interview with Hal Ramer
Molly Dohrmann: This is Molly Dohrmann with the Peabody College oral history project concerning the merger with Vanderbilt in 1979. Today's date is July 7, 2005, and the interview today is with Dr. Hal Ramer in the Wyatt Center of the Peabody Campus. To begin, Dr. Ramer please talk about your connection with Peabody and the capacity in which you served at the time of the merger.
Hal Ramer: Thank you, Ms. Dohrmann, I'm glad to be here and I appreciate your invitation. I started as a Peabody student in 1940. It's hard to realize that it's been 65 years ago, and I was here until '42 and I went into the military service, World War II, and then in '45 came back and graduated from Peabody in 1947. I've had a career in higher education administration. During my term as president of Volunteer State College, Dr. J.E. Windrow, who was, at that time, a major administrator at Peabody College in charge of alumni and development, put my name up for national alumni president of Peabody. And somehow I was elected. At the time, the Peabody College policies provided that the national alumni president would become a member of the Peabody board of trustees during the term of the alumni presidency. And so I went on the board in that capacity and then when my term as alumni president expired, the board itself extended my membership in a new term as a member of the Peabody board of trustees. So I served for several more years on the board. In fact, up until the time of the merger with Vanderbilt in 1979 -- it's hard to realize that that's been 26 years ago -- but I was a trustee during the final meeting of the board in which the decision was made to merge with Vanderbilt.
Dohrmann: How did Peabody get to the stage of having to do something as drastic as merging? In other words, what caused the financial situation that resulted in the merger?
Ramer: Well, actually, Peabody College had had many financial crises in previous decades and so the contingency that existed in '79 was not necessarily a new situation for Peabody. Peabody had about a $12 million dollar endowment. It had a campus with the buildings and facilities and equipment worth well over $100 million dollars. It owned Knapp Farm, which was a big farm to be developed. It had owned the University School, formerly known as the Demonstration School. So, actually, Peabody could have weathered the storm, financially. It had virtually a balanced budget at the time of the merger, but President Dunworth and some of his advisors were concerned about the integrity of the operation, and so they explored the possibilities of mergers. They looked at the possibility of a merger with Duke, with several other institutions of higher learning, including Tennessee State University in Nashville. In fact, Dr. Stovall was involved with the doctor -- with President Dunworth, with Chancellor Roy Nicks out of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which is the governing board of Tennessee State University relative to the merger with TSU. And so President Dunworth just felt that for the long-term stability of Peabody, it would be better to merge with a larger, more comprehensive university. Pragmatically, I think that Peabody could have survived without the merger, but the merger has turned out to be a very fine thing for Peabody and Vanderbilt, and historically, was the proper thing to have been done.
Dohrmann: Did all the board members agree about the decision to merge?
Ramer: No. There was quite a bit on that final board meeting in '79 -- it was quite a dynamic meeting. A lot of different divergent views about the status of Peabody and its future. The executive committee of the board had met prior to the board meeting and was recommending the merger, and Mr. H.G. Hill, who had been a chairman of the executive committee, was not in favor of the merger, and he resigned as the chairman of the executive committee, and Mr. Gable, from Kentucky, a prominent businessman, who had been on the Peabody Board of Trustees, became chairman of the executive committee. I think, technically, Mr. Hill continued to be chairman of the board itself, but in any event, the executive committee had arranged for Chancellor Alexander Heard to come over to this final Peabody trustee board meeting and make a presentation about Vanderbilt's interest in acquiring Peabody. And what it would do in terms of preserving the integrity of Peabody as a college of education, of teacher education, and related professions institution. He made a very fine presentation. There was discussion, in that board meeting -- there were, as I recall, four or five votes against the merger among the Peabody trustees. Statements were read from former presidents, Dr. Claunch, who at that time lived in Texas, had retired as president; and Dr. Felix Robb, from Atlanta, former president. Both of whom were supporting the merger. Now, those statements were read, and that of course had a profound influence on the vote and the trustees. And so after the vote and it was clear that the merger was going to come about and that the board had voted with the large majority in favor of the merger, it was moved that the merger vote be made unanimous, and another vote was taken, and it was an unanimous vote in favor of the merger, so that there would not be a split decision on the board, so it would show unity and continuity on the part of the board in terms of its affiliation with Vanderbilt. So, that's pretty much the background there.
Dohrmann: You've mentioned a little bit about the possibility of merging with TSU, could you talk a little bit more about that?
Ramer: Well, I was not privy to all of the details on that, and by the way, there was not unanimity of opinion at Tennessee State University about the desirability of that merger, because they already had a college of education, and there was a great quandary about what would happen to that college of education at Tennessee State with Peabody coming in as the college of education for Tennessee State. But the powers that be, both from the board of regents and the administration of Tennessee State, thought that they could work out those conditions and make it a congenial merger. But there was a great deal of opposition on the part of Peabody faculty and alumni on that merger, or that proposed merger.
Dohrmann: When the merger was at last announced, what was the reaction in the various quarters of interests?
Ramer: It was a mixed reaction. Generally, in the Vanderbilt community, a very favorable reaction because Vanderbilt was expanding their curriculum by acquiring an internationally preeminent college of education as one of their colleges of education. One that was -- Peabody was internationally known, but truth be known, probably Peabody was better known nationally and internationally that Vanderbilt at the time. But among the Peabody community, there was mixed opinion -- some opposition, some in favor. Of course there was a great quandary among Peabody faculty and administration as to job security after the merger, whether their programs would be continued and their employment continued. So that was a factor. In the general community, I think that there was broad acceptance of the merger. There was some wonderment and concern among Peabody College alumni about what the destiny of Peabody would become. And of course closure was fairly soon broad on that, and when it was obvious that Vanderbilt was going to treat Peabody with a great deal of respect and encouragement for future prospects.
Dohrmann: Do you have a reading on how the students at Peabody felt about the merger?
Ramer: I don't really have a valid reading on that, but my impression was that there was general favor, although that was a mixed reaction also. Some in favor. Some opposed. Some maybe neutral, in the students.
Dohrmann: Now, you've already touched on this somewhat, but again, what are the central issues in the merger -- the well-being of Peabody over the long-term?
Ramer: Yes. The future of Peabody as a viable institution with international prestige and what the course of history would be relative to its various programs and I believe you have a question on this down the road, but of course after the merger, there was a considerable dislocation of Peabody faculty. Some were eligible for retirement and took their retirement. Some were not continued. There was a great disappointment on the Peabody campus that Vanderbilt did not continue the college of music, the school of music I should say, the school of library science, and many of the undergraduate liberal arts programs -- geography, chemistry, mathematics -- all of which Vanderbilt had, but many of these elements of the Peabody curriculum were discontinued by Vanderbilt, and that was a cause of dislocation of faculty.
Dohrmann: So would you say that that was a major fallout or casualty of the merger?
Ramer: I think so. And of course that was not a permanent negative, but it certainly, at the time, caused great consternation. And I remember one Peabody faculty member was very bitter about it. He was one who was negatively affected by the merger and his job discontinued -- by the way, he was in the school of art, that was another program at Peabody which was preeminent which Vanderbilt did not continue. But he called Vanderbilt a 900-pound gorilla. But his job was terminated. He is not deceased. So when you take into account Vanderbilt's discontinuation of the Peabody school of music, the school of art, the school of library science, and a good many of the Peabody preeminent academic programs that Vanderbilt did not continue -- for example, geography, Peabody had a nationally known department of geography. In fact, during World War II, several of our geography faculty were called to Washington to advise on weather and geological situations relative to invasion of North Africa and Europe. But there was a -- and of course, we had a nationally known music school, too. And a nationally known library school.
Dohrmann: And that was later -- that was in '87 when the library school was discontinued -- but the music school was discontinued right away and then Blair was started up, right soon after that.
Ramer: Right. And Blair has done quite well and is quite a fine music school. I had momentarily forgotten that it was some years later that the library school was phased out.
Dohrmann: What do you think has been the happiest outcome of this merger?
Ramer: Well, it's worked quite well and it's turned out to be a great boon for Peabody College. So, it was the right thing historically in every respect. It was the right thing to do. It -- Peabody still has national and international preeminence. In fact, Peabody College is the -- under national standards of evaluation -- US News and World Report among them -- Peabody College is the highest-ranking college in the Vanderbilt University System, in quality and national prestige. So, you know, we've had many Peabody people who have published and done extensive research and education and learning and teaching and been published widely; appeared on many conferences as the keynote speaker; been involved in national leadership in the US Department of Education -- so I think Peabody has come forward real well under the aegis of Vanderbilt, and has a bright future.
Dohrmann: We've already talked a little bit about this also, but let's talk about the main players in the merger and how they'll be remembered.
Ramer: Well, Peabody College President John Dunnworth. Vanderbilt Chancellor Alexander Heard. Dr. Tom Stovall, who was the Peabody dean at the time. Mr. Gable from Kentucky, who was on the Peabody College trustee board and executive committee, and who was a major player in the negotiations for the merger. Those were some of the key people. Of course, Mr. H.G. Hill, who was the chairman of the board, and he was not in favor of the merger. In fact, he and his family had been a very generous benefactor of Peabody through the years, helping with the operating budget as well as the endowment, but those were some of the major players. And I'm sure there were some others in the background who had a part, but I'm not acquainted with all of the background and discussion that went on at the time.
Dohrmann: Do you have any other stories about Peabody or the merger, or special anecdotes that might be personal, or things that you want to have remembered?
Ramer: Well, I'm grateful for my own connection to Peabody. Peabody was mighty good to me as a student, and later as alumni president and trustee. We used to have -- I'm talking about many years ago now -- but we used to have a wonderful intramural program, very active, and we had some really great athletes who were participating in touch football and basketball and softball and track & field, and we used to not only play internally within Peabody, but we would actually reach out and play other universities and colleges, their intramural teams. President Garrison was president of Peabody when I started in 1940, and the Depression was still on. Nobody had any money. And of course tuition was very cheap back then. But even so, people needed help, so President Garrison gave me a work-study fellowship to Peabody if I would work with the industrial arts department. By the way, that's another department that Vanderbilt didn't continue. But we had a great industrial arts and crafts department, and my job was to look after the shop and keep it clean and put up the equipment and all that under Professor Lawton Gore. For that, which was very minimal work, I got my tuition paid, and that really helped a lot. Of course, after I came back from the war and service in the Army, I had the GI Bill in 1945, so that enabled me to graduate in '47. But Peabody has always had a wonderful family-type atmosphere. A lot of friendship and camaraderie. We had good relationships with the faculty and the administration. There was a strong feeling of mentorship among faculty and administrators toward students, and following up with them and their careers, and helping them find jobs, we had a very fine placement office at the time also that helped people, graduates, find jobs. And of course, when the war came, World War II came on, all of us -- all of the men who were enrolled, mostly had to go in the service. There were some who were overage or maybe physically not qualified, but that caused quite a dent in the enrollment at Peabody, so Peabody contracted with the military for cadets to be here. So, we had a large contingent of military cadets. I believe they were either Army or Air Corp on the campus. And that helped sustain Peabody financially and give jobs to the faculty until the war was over and the veterans returned. We had a big surge of World War II veterans come to Peabody, from 1945 on, to early 1950s. In fact, we had a veterans club on the campus for the service veterans, but Peabody has always been a very congenial atmosphere for learning and teaching and a very warm and friendly environment for students.
Dohrmann: Thank you very much Dr. Ramer.
Ramer: Well thank you for interviewing me. And I'm sure later I'll think of other things I'll wish I said.
Dohrmann: You can add them.