Chronicling Tulane's boom years

February 23, 2001

Arthur Nead

Protests and sit-ins, modernization and growing pains-this was Tulane in the second half of the 20th century. As the close of the century approached, two veterans of the Tulane community took on the daunting task of writing a history of Tulane during those tumultuous years.

Ten years ago, Joseph Gordon, dean emeritus of the College of Arts and Sciences (now Tulane College), and Clarence Mohr, at the time an associate professor of history at Tulane, began assembling the nuts and bolts of Tulane's recent past. The book is promised out this spring by the publisher, Louisiana State University Press.

"The last history of Tulane, and the only one that had been done, is by John Dyer," says Gordon. Despite its title, Dyer's book, Tulane: The Biography of a University, 1834-1965, brought the Tulane story to only just past the middle of the century.

"Dyer devoted most of his attention to Paul Tulane and the earlier days of the university," says Gordon. "I would have to say he gave fairly scant treatment to things that happened in the post-World War II era."

In 1991, then Tulane President Eamon Kelly called upon Gordon to consider writing a book on the recent history of Tulane. "Kelly thought we needed a serious update of that history," says Gordon. "I thought about it and told him I was not a historian, but I would do it if he would allow me to find a professional historian who would be co-author with me of the work."

Gordon persuaded Mohr, a scholar of Southern history, to work on the project. Mohr, who is now professor and chair in the Department of History at the University of South Alabama, is author of On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia and edited the Frederic Douglass Papers.

Gordon was in a excellent position to write about Tulane's recent past. He arrived at Tulane in 1954, and throughout that time he was an active participant in university affairs. Primarily involved in the university's administration, Gordon first came to Tulane as assistant dean of University College.

In 1957, he became the associate director of admission and remained in the admission office until 1964, at which time President Longenecker appointed him interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He was appointed permanent dean in October 1964 and remained in that position until 1984. Gordon then retired, becoming dean emeritus. For a while he worked part time with the development office, helping to raise funds for the university. At this juncture, Gordon and Mohr began their historical research.

"There was one thing we decided right off the bat," said Gordon. "The period of Tulane's main growth began after World War II, with the influx of veterans coming back from the war. We decided that was where we wanted to start-1945-and we brought it up to 1990."

Mohr and Gordon split up the labors of research. Mohr researched the years under the administration of Rufus Harris and Herbert Longenecker, and Gordon dug into the files of the Sheldon Hackney and Eamon Kelly years. "We helped each other out," said Gordon, "both doing research and rough drafts. I'd been around so long I knew where some of the bodies were buried."

The writing went on continuously for almost five years, recalls Gordon. "The university was very good," he says. "It gave us access to all the minutes of the board of administrators for the period of 1945 right up to the present day. We had wonderful archives on the second floor of Jones Hall to work with. That was invaluable to us."

The two also interviewed all surviving past presidents and many others who had been active in Tulane affairs. With the bulk of the research completed, Mohr took over the rough drafts and put together the final version, according to Gordon. "I suggested that he should be the lead author, because of that," he says. "He did a first-rate job of putting everything into context-not only what was happening at Tulane, but what was happening in the South and in the country at large."

Where Dyer's book relates the heroic story of the founding of Tulane, Mohr and Gordon's history examines an established institution going through dramatic and sometimes difficult changes. They analyze the rapid growth of Tulane in the postwar period, fueled by government funds for defense-related research and a boom in attendance.

They also treat a number of controversial issues that faced the university. These include the integration of Tulane, student resistance to the Vietnam War, the status of the athletics program and the chronic lack of money. "I have enjoyed this, I have to say," says Gordon: "I've learned a lot. I thought I knew everything since I've been here so long, but I found out so many things I wasn't cognizant of."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000