John Lee Buchanan, 1880-82

John Lee Buchanan
John Lee Buchanan

"In, out, in, out" could best describe the VAMC presidency—or presidencies—of John Lee Buchanan, a native Southwest Virginian and former president of Emory and Henry College. He was offered the job as VAMC’s second president after the board of visitors removed Minor from the post.

Buchanan moved into the job March 1, 1880, to begin directing the fledgling college under new directives from the board of visitors, which had granted his office additional supervisory and administrative authority. But the turmoil that had begun under his predecessor continued, with one researcher even suggesting that the college be turned into an asylum.

Montgomery County’s state senator, J. E. Eskridge, initiated a movement in the General Assembly to have the college’s affairs investigated, and the brouhaha that resulted focused attention on the political control of the school rather than on the education of its students. Buchanan scarcely had time to warm his chair when the legislature approved a resolution removing the board of visitors, effective June 4, 1880, and directing a new board to meet three days later for the sole purpose of removing all faculty and officers of the college. The clean sweep was effective on June 12.

Offered the job as president once again by the new board, Buchanan refused, and Lt. Col. Scott Shipp (he added the second p to his name around 1883), commandant of cadets and a professor of various branches of military tactics at Virginia Military Institute (VMI), was elected to the position and designated professor of mental and moral philosophy. A graduate of VMI and Washington College (today’s Washington and Lee College), he had led the VMI cadets in the Battle of New Market during the Civil War.

Shipp, who had been interested in the VAMC position in 1872, accepted the offer. But when he realized during his first meeting with the executive committee that the board and not the new faculty would handle details of the college’s organization, he immediately resigned. His “tenure” as the third president had lasted less than two weeks, August 12-25, 1880; reports differ on whether he spent the last four of those days or just the last day on campus.

Shipp returned to his job at VMI and became the school’s second superintendent—his rank was brigadier-general—in 1890. About the same time, he was appointed to the board of visitors of the United States Military Academy, and he later served as president of the board of the United States Naval Academy. He resigned as VMI’s superintendent in 1907 and died in 1917.

Because his term of office was too short for him to leave any mark on the school, he is not listed as a president of the university.

The position was then offered, unsuccessfully, to Ruffner, whereupon the reluctant Professor John Hart was named acting president. Hart directed VAMC for the entire session of 1880-81, a dark time when funds were scarce and all the controversy surrounding the school had dramatically reduced enrollment—a record low of 50 students had attended the previous year. In September and again in November 1880, the board of visitors offered the presidency to Ruffner. Still worried about the political situation in which the school was enmeshed, he declined.

In a May 1881 meeting, the board turned once more to Buchanan. Apparently convinced that the operation of the college would be left to him and that the General Assembly would now leave VAMC alone, he accepted the offer and re-assumed the presidency on August 14, 1881, just over a year after being removed from the position. But Buchanan was to have a déjà vu experience.

When a new governor learned that the state Senate had not approved the members of the board of visitors, as required by the resolution the previous year, he nominated a new board, which was confirmed by the Senate on January 17, 1882. In a meeting the same day, the board removed the president, professors, and other officers and filled the vacancies with new people. Buchanan was out again, prevented by politics from making his mark on the college as its second and fourth presidents (his two terms are counted as one in the list of presidents).

But politics also kept Buchanan associated with VAMC. In 1885 the General Assembly elected him state superintendent of public instruction. On March 15, 1886, he became an ex-officio member of the VAMC Board of Visitors, which voted a week later to oust Buchanan’s successor, Thomas N. Conrad, from the presidency.