Interview with Edwin Rugg
Molly Dohrmann: We are recording now. This is Molly Dohrmann for the Peabody Oral History Project, concerning the merger with Vanderbilt in 1979. Today's date is Monday, January 30th, 2006 and the interview today is with Dr. Edwin Rugg who was Executive Dean for Academic Affairs at Peabody at the time of the merger.
Edwin Rugg: That's Assistant Executive.
Dohrmann: I'm sorry, Assistant Executive Dean for Academic Affairs at Peabody. To begin, please talk about your connection with Peabody and the capacity in which you served at the time of the merger with an overview of the Vanderbilt Peabody situation at that time.
Rugg: Very good. I went to Peabody in 1971 as a doctoral student in the psychology department and I completed my Master's in '73 and Ph.D. in '75. And so, I began my experience with Peabody really as a graduate student. While in the throes of completing my doctoral program, Peabody, was preparing for its NATEC and FACSRE (sp?) accreditations and my major professor had been contacted about the possibility of finding a doctoral student who could help with the data analysis and preparations for those two major (inaudible) studies. And my name surfaced and I was invited to take on that role which quickly evolved into a full-time position especially after the new president, John Dunworth, arrived. And he found a need for many of the things that I was doing. To be continued in the new role of Coordinator of Management Information, which moved into a full time role soon afterwards. So part of my doctorate -- doctorate being completed, I was -- I was working as full-time support staff member in that capacity. Following the completion of my doctorate I was invited to teach on the faculty and in special ed. and psychology and the statistics, (inaudible) research ran on a part-time basis while continuing my administrative support role and when Tom Stovall was appointed Executive Dean for Academic Affairs, he asked that I join his team and assist him since much of the work that I had been doing for the president in the capacity of Coordinator of Management Information was academically focused and oriented. So, I served in that capacity from, I believe 1975 through '79 through the merger with Vanderbilt and was one of the principle administrators involved in much of the preparations and discussions and final agreements concerning, not only the merger with Vanderbilt, but the considerations that were ongoing with Tennessee State University at the time and to some degree the earlier considerations with George Washington University.
Dohrmann: OK. Do you want to talk a little about the history of the relationship between Peabody and Vanderbilt prior to the merger?
Rugg: Well, of course my experience with that is limited largely to the -- the time that I was there, the nine -- eight or nine years prior to the merger, although I had heard while there and certainly during the merger discussions of some of the history. So, some of what I have to share is second-hand rather than first-hand. I do know that Peabody had been a partner, if you will, of Vanderbilt for many, many years, decades. Its location across the street from Vanderbilt is alleged to have been decided in part because there were thoughts that the two institutions would one day be one. And, of course, there were manifestations of that partnership that were very deep and real for many years. The Joint University Library was alive and well and, I believe, a model of -- of collaboration. There were strong ties in cross-registration for years, the fact that Vanderbilt had not established a College of Education, but relied instead on the cross-registration availability of Peabody was a signal and a symbol of the partnership that existed. And, of course, there was a joint athletic program operating. Peabody was not involved in intercollegiate athletics, Vanderbilt was because of the (inaudible) of the programs. The SEC had approved Peabody's -- Peabody student participation on the intercollegiate athletic teams of Vanderbilt and so, there was a long-standing history of close working relationships. And it's my understanding also, that there were several attempts over the years, largely from the '60s on, to actually merge the two institutions, but those were -- were failed attempts, sometimes costing the presidents at the time their position and -- and some other fall-out for those who had proposed such things. Prior to President Dunworth's ability to actually bring it to fruition.
Dohrmann: OK. What was the major financial situation that caused the merger or resulted in the merger?
Rugg: I think there were two really critical factors that contributed to Peabody needing to merge financially. One was the very fact that the institution, as an institution of higher education, Peabody had really failed to evolve and adapt with the changing times of its environment. In many ways it had remained a normal school long after other normal schools had evolved into comprehensive colleges and universities and so, it was at a particular disadvantage of not having that more comprehensive base from which to operate. Having watched the time of teacher education move from central priority to one of many priorities in colleges and universities, and having also contributed to strong competition from other colleges and universities in teacher education, especially in the public sector, having achieved its mission of bringing education to the south, they were now very high quality and well-heeled public institutions with strong colleges of education that were competing with Peabody, which was charging at the time, I believe, five times the rate of the public sector, locally and, of course, had not only a long history, but older facilities to contend with and other challenges of that nature. So, clearly one of them was the institution's ability to evolve and adapt as times changed. The other, equally important especially for an independent private college, is that Peabody repeatedly failed to build a substantial endowment over its 100 plus years of history and failed to have successful major capital campaigns. At the time of the merger and merger discussions there was basically 10 million left in the endowment. The institution was absorbing somewhere in the neighborhood of two million dollars a year just to meet its budget -- its operating budget, so that the endowment was shrinking rather than growing. Ten million dollars over a 100-year period is not a lot in the bank and, of course, it's last campaign, capital campaign headed by President Dunworth was touted as one of the most successful in the college's history, but a third of the way through the five-year goal there was only 8 million in pledges and committed funds out of the 25 million goal and it was clear to everyone that the next capital campaign would have to be close to double the current one and it looked like Peabody would once again fail to reach this current goal and have little chance of reaching an even higher goal in the next round. So, private institutions are very dependent on their endowment support and their -- their gifts to sustain themselves in their operating budget -- supplement their operating budget to more than just funding for excellence and for extras, it's -- it's often essential funding for operations and Peabody had simply not built that kind of financial safety net.
Dohrmann: OK. What were alternatives to merging with Vanderbilt?
Rugg: Well, the two biggest that got the most attention; once John Dunworth convinced the board and board chair who had been particularly resistant -- convinced them that merger had to be in accordance with somebody. Vanderbilt was obviously the number one option pursued although other options quickly surfaced as alternative pursuits once initial discussions with Vanderbilt were found to be pretty disappointing. Looking outside of state, there were extensive discussions with the leadership at George Washington University over the possibility, in essence, of selling the campus and moving faculty and programs and resources to -- to that institution in D.C. Locally, and the more promising one and the one that was almost fully developed was to merge with Tennessee State University. In fact, that one had actually been developed to the point where the Board of Regents had approved it and it was about to be approved by the Peabody Board before the last-minute change of heart and decision to merge with Vanderbilt. That one would have -- that one would have occurred in '79 at the same time that TSU had been under court order to merge with UT-N, the night school of Tennessee -- the University of Tennessee and there were quite a few very interesting and promising, exciting kinds of plans for bringing a multiple campus or more diverse public university to the capital city and to the needs of central Tennessee. And I believe the Regents were telling us that they were ready to make this new entity their number one unit within the Tennessee State system. The Board of Regents system at that time the (inaudible) system so there was great excitement and enthusiasm for that alternative. It would have meant reducing the tuition from $125 an hour to $25 an hour. I believe everyone would have had a position at Tennessee State merger option.
Dohrmann: OK. We're going to ask about the key people in the merger, both from Vanderbilt and Peabody.
Rugg: Well, the key players in terms of most of the discussions of the -- the agreements, obviously the board leadership were key. Both the former Peabody Board Chair who was resistant, Mr. Hill, and then there's the professors who were supportive were key and likewise, the Vanderbilt Board Chair was key. It is my understanding that he and the Peabody Board Chair agreed on the Sunday before the Monday vote of the Peabody Board to merge with Tennessee State that a merger with Vanderbilt would occur instead, so they were clearly central. The two presidents were central, John Dunworth had finally succeeded where others before him had failed to convince the governing board that merger was essential and he had certainly been a dynamic president, one of the most successful fundraising presidents, but knew that it was either a matter of spending the endowment down in closing the institution or -- or using the existing resources and assets to leverage a future for Peabody and he elected the latter. Obviously, Chief Academic Officer Tom Stovall, the Executive Dean for Academic Affairs was -- was centrally involved as was the Chief Financial Officer and I don't remember his name off the top of my head and myself were four in the central administration who spent many hours deliberating over the details of -- of merger agreements, merger options, and looking at forecasts for what Peabody might be like under different merger conditions. On the Vanderbilt side, clearly the President of Vanderbilt at the time was central. He was, it is my understanding, there was a time when had Peabody been willing to merge, Vanderbilt would have accepted the institution lock, stock, and barrel, but by the time Peabody was finally ready, Vanderbilt wasn't ready. For the first time in Vanderbilt's history, their word (inaudible) was being used and the president had indicated to John Dunworth that this was a hard time to think about merging the College of Education while Vanderbilt was exploring retrenchment issues. And so, there was a very modest merger proposal provided by Vanderbilt at that time, which caused us to pursue these other options with Tennessee State and George Washington. And of course, the key players at Tennessee State, which was the competing alternative clearly the President (inaudible) was -- was central there. Certainly the leadership at the Board of Regents was central there and the degree to which they basically could see and forge a fairly attractive option and had, in essence, maneuvered through the approval processes to a virtual merger decision. It was indicative of just how strong they were as players in all this.
Dohrmann: OK. Other central issues in the merger?
Rugg: Well, there were a number of central issues. Obviously, the survival of Peabody was driving Peabody's interest. As I said, the institution could have spent the endowment down to zero and then ultimately faced bankruptcy or closure or what have you. And that would have been a comfortable way for the central administration to spend their few remaining years before retirement and leave the -- leave the mess behind. But they elected a harder road. The road that was pursued was very stressful and quite complex and -- but the future of Peabody was seen as a higher calling. Costs for merger were clearly variable. For Vanderbilt it looked like this would be a particularly costly thing for the institution to do at that time with retrenchment needs at hand. The least costly seemed to be with the Tennessee State option. Actually, the most costly was trying to move the campus to D.C. Selling a campus and wondering how many people could actually make such a move and what kind of program really was mobile enough to physically move halfway across the country was probably the most -- put that particular option out of play fairly early in the game. Whereas the two local options were more viable in terms of their ability to maintain the institution's history and support that Peabody had built in Nashville over all those years.
Rugg: Reduction in force was a big issue. The question of how many faculty would lose their jobs, the initial proposal from Vanderbilt president was that all but about a dozen of them would be let go out of 100, 10 to 20, maybe 12 would be kept. And we would have doctoral program and a policy study initiative and other things would be done with the assets that (inaudible) to go into the other business, which is why the institution pursued the other options at Tennessee State, the ultimate agreement was that everyone would have a job who wanted one and, although Peabody administrators would not be in control in any way, the Tennessee State Administration was -- was in charge, so to speak, under the merger agreement. There were a combinations plan for everyone who wanted to be a part of the new institution. So, we ran that gamut. Ultimately, as you know or may not (inaudible) the actual reduction of force that was negotiated at the last minute between the two board chairs, Vanderbilt's and Peabody's called for a -- about a two thirds retention of faculty and one third reduction in the faculty ranks, mainly along lines of duplicating disciplinary interests. Although some disciplines were duplicated, they were not perceived to be so for the merger, so they were maintained.
Dohrmann: OK. What about the reaction on both Peabody and Vanderbilt campuses?
Rugg: On the Peabody side, I am fairly familiar, I can't really speak to the Vanderbilt side as much. I know the emotions ran the gamut. You saw it all from surprise after getting so close to merging with Tennessee State that it was suddenly Vanderbilt again. Relief, for some and disbelief for others and frankly a lot of anger and anxiety. I remember marches on the Administration Building during the negotiations once it was discovered that so many tenured faculty would lose their positions. I believe it was 26 with tenure, 40 some total. And, of course, some of these tenured faculty had been in the community for 30 years or more and it was disheartening to them and to their colleagues that were told the merger would be so devastating to them personally and professionally. And so we had threats of litigation and literally, protests of one sort or another that caused great tension prior to the actual merger coming in to play. The -- I think that pretty much covers the emotional gamut.
Dohrmann: OK. What were the main negatives of the merger?
Rugg: Well, the main negatives -- I probably have to say that the broken relationships, divided friendships and colleagues that occurred during the merger negotiations. There were camps that were established those pro and con, obviously, the disappointment of losing some colleagues, some of them late in their careers with few options. Either retiring early or leaving to pursue other positions elsewhere very late in life. The difficulty of that -- what that caused for them personally and professionally related to that after the merger those who stayed -- I know there was -- I was not one who stayed. I elected to leave and went to the University of Mississippi for several years in a different capacity. I was not on the list of people who were scheduled to leave, but I elected to leave after -- after the process had been brought to fruition. The shunning of good people who remained was hard to take. Some of my good friends and colleagues like Tom Stovall who did stay, apparently went through quite a -- quite an experience with their colleagues being shunned for their role in facilitating this merger and the way in which the merger was ultimately resolved. The, you know, obviously the price of this -- for tuition jumped dramatically, although that was offset I think by the larger comprehensiveness of Vanderbilt and, of course, Vanderbilt's history and traditions and -- and firm foundations with endowments and what have you to sustain the -- what ended up being a true reduction of the -- of the Peabody enterprise over time to accommodate itself to this new reality within the Vanderbilt collection of colleges. Most of the negatives were personal and their professional applications for the people involved in the process.
Dohrmann: OK. And what have been the most positive outcomes of the merger?
Rugg: Well clearly, Peabody did survive it -- it for all intents and purposes was Vanderbilt's College of Ed. during all those years during the collaborative times, the joint enrollment times, and so forth, and so on. And it was now officially the College of Ed. for Vanderbilt and so in that sense, it was a positive outcome for all concerned in that regard. The marriage was finally consummated. You know, I guess the (pause) -- I think that in it's (inaudible) role Peabody has been able to emphasize and build upon its real strengths. It had some real strengths, obviously in the Kennedy Center institutes and those have continued on (inaudible) and done well and Vanderbilt's niche in teacher education under -- in the Peabody realm has become much more focused and much more visible and stronger, frankly than the more comprehensive niche that Peabody was trying to fill. And all those were probably good and healthy for a viable Peabody as a college within the Vanderbilt collection of colleges.
Dohrmann: OK. And do you have other stories about Peabody and the merger?
Rugg: Well, there are some different things that probably are worth noting. They are important to add to the mix for the historical record. The initial proposal from the Vanderbilt President was really disheartening that we were faced for so long with so little of Peabody left and then finally settled on a compromise position very late in the game. The compromise was somewhat safe -- face-saving in the sense that a good number of faculty did, in fact, lose their positions. It is unfortunate that, in some of those instances (inaudible) is that compromise had to be reached. I recall having to -- two colleagues in history who were let go. Both of them with 30 years of service and clearly an organization as large as Vanderbilt could have found a way to absorb colleagues with that kind of commitment to the community -- through the remaining years until their retirement, but that just was not part of -- part of the deal at the very end. And there was a lot of positioning and to some degree face-saving going on in that process that is unfortunate. I think the future of Peabody or the future of Peabody as part of Tennessee State would have been very different from the future of Peabody as part of Vanderbilt. Not necessarily butter, but certainly different. It would have been, instead of a focus on -- on a truly distinctive niche programming as is now the case at Vanderbilt, a very high-level, high-quality, focused niche, Peabody probably would have been back in the business of broadly conceived public teacher education preparation of professionals. The committee was gearing for a doctoral level program, in fact, Tennessee State was expecting (inaudible) Peabody's doctoral education programs, its (inaudible) activities supporting doctoral programs and the fact that campus in Nashville to really launch into a much higher level of contribution to the community served in that whole central region, so it would have been a very different kind of role for Peabody at Tennessee State. More of a return to Peabody's original mission perhaps of bringing education to the south, in this case, bringing public higher education to another level of service, delivering it to local areas. The, in fact, part of the consolidation or consolation to Tennessee State over the last minute shift in decision of the merger involved, I believe, leasing several faculty from Peabody to Tennessee State, so they could mount a competing program or, at least, mount a program (inaudible) education, whether it's comp -- competitive or simply complementary is probably a better term since the mission at Tennessee State would have been very different than the mission at Peabody as part of Vanderbilt. And, of course, the last thing which is a little humorous (inaudible) I don't really know how much of this is actually true or just folklore, but I guess the merger with Vanderbilt ended all (inaudible) in the SEC, but here comes (inaudible). The joint athletic teams nicknames in terms of the special relationship that existed between the two colleges before the merger and the intercollegiate athletic team activity that was involved. (inaudible)
Dohrmann: OK. Thank you very much.
Rugg: A rich and challenging experience to have and valuable in many ways and despite its difficulties, I still appreciate having had the opportunity to be a part of both the Peabody experience and the Vanderbilt experience as well.
Dohrmann: Thank you very much.
Rugg: Thank you.