Robert Cook Edwards

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Robert Cook Edwards (1914-2008), served as Clemson University's eighth and longest-serving president, 1958-1979. Edwards graduated from Clemson in the Class of 1933, the second alumnus to hold the head position.

Early years[edit]

Edwards was born March 25, 1914 in Fountain Inn, South Carolina, the son of John T. and Effie Cook Edwards. He distinguished himself early by his industriousness and won a scholarship to Clemson Agricultural College at the conclusion of his tenth grade school year. During his undergraduate days, he served as a manager for the football team, as well as participating in Phi Psi, Blue Key, Tiger Brotherhood and Scabbard and Blade. (TAPS 1969, Volume 59, page 340.) His classmates called him "Smokey". At age nineteen, he graduated in 1933 with a Bachelor of Science degree in textile engineering and a commission as a second lieutenant through the college's military cadet program. His senior picture in TAPS carried the motto, "Determination makes dreams come true."

Post-college[edit]

Hired after graduation by J.P. Stevens in Greenville, South Carolina, Edwards moved steadily up the corporate ladder in textile manufacturing. He married Louise Odom of Red Springs, North Carolina, May 30, 1935, and they had two children, son, Robert C. Jr., in 1936, and daughter, Nancy Louise, in 1940. Called up for military duty in the United States Army during World War II, he returned to the textiles field in 1946, landing a position as plant manager of Abbeville Mills Corporation, a division of the emerging corporate giant, Deering-Milliken. Two years later, the corporation promoted him to the executive position of treasurer and general manager of the Abbeville group, said The Tiger on April 20, 1979 (page 15). "Through his boss and textile magnate, Roger Milliken, Edwards cultivated a close friendship with Charles E. Daniel, the founder of a large construction company and, beginning in 1949, a life member of the board of trustees of Clemson." (Wainscott, Stephen H., "A Take-Charge Businessman: Robert Cook Edwards, 1958-1979", "Tradition: A History of the Presidency of Clemson University", McKale, Donald M., editor, Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia, 1988, ISBN 0-86554-296-1, page 188.)

Return to Clemson[edit]

While working for Deering-Milliken, Edwards maintained ties with his alma mater, serving as president of IPTAY, 1954-1955. He declined an offer from Clemson to become dean of the school of textiles, but in July 1956 the 42-year-old executive made an abrupt move from textile administration to college administration, his "second career", when he accepted a position more to his liking, that of vice president for development, a newly established position at the college. This office was a direct result of a 1955 report prepared by New York-based consulting firm, Cresap, McCormick, and Paget, which examined the school's administrative and "nonacademic" activities, suggested by such trustees as Charles Daniel and James F. Byrnes. The CMP critique was sweeping and severe, finding numerous significant problems, among them, excessive involvement of the board in administrative details, a surplus of administrators reporting to the president, poor admission and graduation standards, and low faculty salaries. ("Tradition", page 189.)

The report recommended reorganization of the administration, "reducing the number of officers reporting to the president from twenty-five to four, one of whom was the new vice-president for development, the post filled a year later by Edwards. In addition, the CMP report proposed that required military training be discontinued, that the college open its doors to women, that entrance requirements for students be strengthened, and that faculty salaries be increased." ("Minutes of Board", 1 July 1955; and Cresap, McCormick and Paget, "Clemson Agricultural College Survey of Administrative Management," 4 volumes, 30 April 1955, cited in "Tradition", page 189.)

"As vice president for development [Edwards] oversaw fund-raising and supervised public and alumni relations. However, according to the CMP report, his principal responsibility - the one that would have a critical bearing on putting the report into operation - was to 'originate and coordinate all studies affecting the component units in such areas as enrollment, building planning, long-range finance, and the role of each of the component parts of the system.'" Edwards faced resistance from some administration "old guard" including President Robert Franklin Poole and his loyalists, who regarded the impending changes with suspicion and the new vice president as an outsider, even if an alumni. "In those days, [Edwards] maintained, chains of command were not always clear and many administrators considered themselves autonomous. Department heads drove cars furnished by the college and often looked at their departments as their own personal kingdoms. But that would end if the CMP reforms were adopted. Naturally those who felt threatened viewed Edwards with anxiety." ("Tradition", page 190.)

Hartwell[edit]

Internecine battles took second place, though, in 1956, to the threat to the Clemson campus by the planned U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' creation of the Hartwell Dam and Reservoir project whose proposed 660 foot MSL level would flood 9,000 acres of land, including the college's priceless bottom lands, and many campus landmarks including Memorial Stadium. "Almost from the outset it was understood that Edwards, not President Poole, would be the coordinator of the strategy to protect Clemson's interests in the Hartwell matter." ("Tradition", page 191.) A publicity campaign was mounted, a congressional delegation touring the campus on November 19, 1956, and in 1957 an agreement was reached that included a diversion of the Seneca River and creation of dams to protect low-lying areas of the campus. Although the project had been approved by the United States Congress in 1950, the delay by the Board of Trustees in reacting to the threat to the campus until 1955 was symptomatic of the disfunction of the board's micromanagement style cited in the CMP report. ("Tradition", page 194.)

New president - New era[edit]

In March 1958, plans were developed by President Poole to seek his successor, although he announced no firm retirement date. Barely had a search committee been formed, when Poole died suddenly of a heart attack during Alumni weekend on June 6, 1958. The trustees named Edwards acting president at a meeting on June 8. At their meeting on April 9, 1959, the board unanimously adopted State Senator and trustee Edgar A. Brown's motion that Edwards be chosen permanent president of the college. ("Tradition", pages 195-196.)

Clemson Agricultural College was remade under Edwards stewardship. At least six of the nine colleges extant when he retired in 1979 were created in this period: the College of Architecture, (1958); the College of Industrial Management and Textile Science, (1962); the College of Nursing, (1968); the College of Liberal Arts, (1969); the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, (also in 1969); and the College of Forest and Recreation Resources, (1970). The first Ph.D. program in in agriculture in the state was offered in 1958; the first Ph.D. program in engineering in the state began in 1965. (The Tiger, April 20, 1979, page 15.)

The first women's dormitory was occupied in 1963, and the school peacefully integrated with the admission of African-American architecture student Harvey Gantt on January 28 of that same year. On March 11, 1964, Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina was formally renamed Clemson University. "What dramatized the school's new status the most was the rapid increase in its enrollment. During the fall semester of the 1964-1965 academic year, 4,588 students attended the university. A decade later the number of students surpassed 10,000." ("Tradition", page 205.) The Tiger reported on April 20, 1979, that "[t]he growth of Clemson over the Edwards' era can be recorded in the number of degrees awarded. Before 1958, a total of 12,847 degrees had been awarded. Since then, 27,563 degrees have been awarded, including all of the 502 doctorates." (Page 15.)

"The rise in the university budget during the Edwards' era has been equally dramatic," said The Tiger. "The 1957-58 budget was $11.2 million; it doubled to $26.2 million in 1967-68; by 1972-73, the budget had nearly doubled again to $47.2 million; even this budget of six years ago doubled again to $94.8 million in 1978-79." (Page 15.)

"During Edwards' tenure at Clemson, at least 58 buildings or building additions have been completed, including major academic, athletic and student facilities." (The Tiger, page 15.) These include the Cook Engineering Laboratory, (1965); Robert Muldrow Cooper Library, (1966); the Low Rises, Mauldin Hall, (1963), Barnett Hall, (1965) and Smith Hall, (1972); the Shoeboxes, Cope Hall, (1965), Geer Hall and Sanders Hall, (1966); the High Rises, Manning Hall, (1967), Lever Hall, (1968) and Byrnes Hall, (1970); Daniel Hall, Littlejohn Coliseum, Rhodes Engineering Research Center and Schilletter Dining Hall, (1968); Redfern Health Center and Strode Tower, (1969); the Alumni Center, (1972); Jervey Athletic Center, (1973); Barre Hall, the Edgar A. Brown University Union, and Jordan Hall, (1976); and Edwards Hall, (1977).

Controversy[edit]

There were two areas in which controversy occurred during the Edwards administration, however, the first small, the second not so small. During the 1960s, as American involvement in the war in Southeast Asia grew, national campus unrest and activism against the war led to protests at several institutions of higher learning. Although Clemson "was in many ways a conservative institution in a traditionally conservative state," ("Tradition", pages 205-206) and the few disturbances resembled pranks rather than rebellions, the board of trustees and administration were keen to keep it that way. Edwards adopted a policy, ratified by the board, that students involved in such protests would be given a "one-way ticket home." He further denied a request for a regional "peace moratorium" to be held on campus in November 1969, the decision for which was upheld by local courts.

In the wake of four students being slain by Ohio Army National Guard troops at Kent State University in May 1971, Edwards attended the conference of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, held in Chicago. "Edwards, who administered a relatively tranquil institution, found the testimony offered by several of his fellow university presidents unsettling. The meeting crystallized even further his fears regarding the relationship between campus disorder and uncontrolled growth of enrollment and confirmed his belief that Clemson should limit its student numbers." ("Tradition", page 206.) This led to a cap of 10,000 students, an enrollment that was reached in 1974.

The other area of controversy and concern had to do with control of the sports programs, and which had larger consequences. Possibly as a result of his status as an alumnus, President Edwards drew great pleasure from Clemson sports. This had the direct effect of allowing both the basketball and football programs to expand without sufficient controls such that both ended up with NCAA sanctions in the 1970s and 1980s.

Edwards was such a fan of Tiger football that he only missed one game of the 242 played during his presidency, and it was his appearance at a pep rally with his nose painted orange that led to the now traditional painting of tiger paws on faces for gameday. In Edwards' view, "Clemson's athletic prominence deserved applause rather than apologies. Even in times of trouble with athletics, he maintained that both he and Clemson kept athletics and academics in proper balance." ("Tradition", page 207.)

After decades of misery in basketball (only three winning records between 1953 and 1970), the administration felt it was time for a coaching change, and hired Tates Locke, formerly of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and Miami University of Ohio. In 1973-1974, Locke's Tigers produced the first winning record in seven years, followed the next season by a 17-11 outcome, only the third time in Clemson history that the roundball team had achieved seventeen wins. Unfortunately, this rise in fortunes was also accompanied by allegations that were made public in July 1974, that several high school stars had been offered illegal inducements to sign athletic grant-in-aid with Clemson. An Atlantic Coast Conference and an NCAA investigation ensued, and despite Locke's denials and attempts by the administration to blame jealous ACC opponents and an irresponsible press for the troubles, the truth came out, and on March 20, 1975, Locke submitted his resignation to Clemson athletic director H.C. "Bill" McLellan. In October 1975, the Tigers were placed on three-years probation for a variety of offenses, the most egregious of which was an offer by Locke to purchase a house for the mother of eventual NBA star Moses Malone, as well as an offer to pay her utility bills for the duration of his enrollment. As it turned out, Malone, an outstanding high school athlete in Petersburg, Virginia, by-passed college ball entirely and went straight to the pro game. ("Tradition", page 209.) After the scandal had become public, a call for a house-cleaning ended at one - Locke, while Bill McLellan endured to help oversee the next sports mess, trouble with football. Locke, it should be noted, eventually published his own account of the scandal, titled "Caught in the Net", in which he admitted that "I didn't cheat because the Joneses did or because it made me a big man. I did it because I was tired of losing." ("Tradition", page 210.)

The saga of Clemson's rise and fall in football fortunes is well-reported and widely known. Suffice it to say here that Coach Charlie Pell brought unforeseen success in the 1977-1979 era, with the first bowl appearances by the Tigers since 1959, but also NCAA scrutiny over recruiting violations that continued into the leadership of Danny Ford. This culminated with the Clemson football program being placed on two-years' NCAA and three-years' ACC probation in 1981, just after the first-ever Tiger gridiron national championship was secured. How much Edwards' lack of control in the interest of the win contributed to these two scandals can be debated, but there is no getting around the fact that both occurred on his watch.

Legacy[edit]

During the 1976-1977 academic year, Edwards announced that he was looking forward to retirement in three years, when he turned sixty-five. "He was soon showered with awards, plaques, and other honors celebrating his service to Clemson." ("Tradition", page 212.) R.C. Edwards Junior High School in Central had already been named for him in 1971. "Although many of the major developments and events at Clemson during the Edwards years would have occurred, if in altered form, no matter who had occupied the presidency, Edwards' personality and philosophy significantly influenced their course. To the casual observer he appeared to be a caricature often found in popular images of the South. In addition to his characteristic drawl, his handshakes were frequently accompanied by a zestful slap on the back. In his relations with others, he eschewed bureacracy and formal procedure, preferring instead to settle his differences with people face-to-face." ("Tradition", page 210.)

On the other hand, his personality was not that of the stereotypical Southerner, possessing boundless energy, and although trained in the textile business' hard, impersonal profit and loss world, "Edwards nevertheless displayed emotions that seemed incongruous with the mentality of a business manager, particularly when asked what Clemson meant to him." ("Tradition", page 210.) Edwards exhibited "a fearlessness of the future that one would not expect of a person who held such traditional and conservative values," part of which may have come from his unusually close and harmonious relations with the Board of Trustees. ("Tradition", page 211.) He also developed a positive relationship with leaders of state government. Historian and author Wright Bryan observed that "[t]he presidential automobile was on the road between Clemson and Columbia as much as it was on the campus itself." (Bryan, Wright, "Clemson: An Informal History of the University 1889-1979", The R.L. Bryan Company, Columbia, South Carolina, 1979, ISBN 0-934870-01-2, page 143.) Bryan also notes that Edwards "led in fund raising to rebuild his church after a fire and in statewide drives for health organizations."

"But no honor could have pleased him more than the establishment by the Board of Trustees and the Clemson University Foundation of the Robert Cook Edwards Endowment for Excellence in Science and Technology, and the raising of $1,654,705 for this purpose." (Bryan, page 144.)

During Edwards' tenure, "Clemson had become a university with a vastly larger and more diversified student body, faculty, and curriculum. Edwards, despite charges by his critics that he possessed neither a scholarly background nor image and that he placed too much emphasis on athletics, had made a vital imprint on both Clemson's human and physical resources. By 1979 the school had come of age." ("Tradition", page 212.)

Death[edit]

Robert Cook Edwards, 94, president of Clemson University for 21 years, died December 4, 2008, at Cottingham House, a Seneca residence operated by Hospice of the Foothills.

Edwards, the eighth and longest-serving chief executive of Clemson, and his wife, Louise Odom Edwards, who died in July, served the university during a time of phenomenal growth and monumental events that shaped the future of the institution, such as the graduation of Clemson’s first female students and the enrollment of its first black students.

“R.C. Edwards was a giant in the history of Clemson University. No president will ever surpass his dedicated service to his alma mater nor his impact on all aspects of life at Clemson,” said current Clemson President James F. Barker.

“Dr. Edwards was my President and he has always been a part of my Clemson experience, from the day I first walked onto campus to today. When he shook my hand at graduation in 1970, it was one of the proudest days of my life. I still stand in awe of all that he accomplished as president. He led Clemson through the transition from a small, all-male military college to a major co-educational, integrated university. He presided over an era of enormous, much-needed change with strong, steady and visionary leadership. He will always be remembered.”

See also: President Edwards farewell letter

References[edit]

  • Bryan, Wright, "Clemson: An Informal History of the University 1889-1979", The R.L. Bryan Company, Columbia, South Carolina, 1979, ISBN 0-934870-01-2.
  • Editors, "The Tiger", April 20, 1979, Volume 72, Number 25.
  • Wainscott, Stephen H., "A Take-Charge Businessman: Robert Cook Edwards, 1958-1979", "Tradition: A History of the Presidency of Clemson University", McKale, Donald M., editor, Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia, 1988, ISBN 0-86554-296-1.


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Preceded by: Robert Franklin Poole Presidents of Clemson Succeeded by: Bill Lee Atchley