Andrew D. Holt, UT's Sixteenth President (1959-1970)


He was christened Andrew David Holt, but everyone called him "Andy"--trustees, government officials, administrators, faculty, students, and friends. The appellation was not a mark of disrespect, nor did it represent any flippancy with regard to his stature and authority. It rather reflected perfectly the ease with which people came to know him, the familiarity they felt in his presence, the avuncular figure he cut with students and younger colleagues.

Andy Holt seemed destined to become an educator. Both his parents were school teachers in Middle Tennessee, and all of his sisters taught school at one time or other. Here, in the small town of Milan, Andy Holt was born in 1904. His upbringing was that of most small-town boys of that era, centered on home, school, and church. His father stood for no foolishness from his children, but young Andy was hardly restrained in his childhood and youth. He had an irrepressible sense of humor, engaged in the usual school antics, played a trombone at Milan High School and at Emory University, travelled to Europe with the Glee Club, and enjoyed the pleasures of Paris.

Teaching came naturally to Holt, and this was the profession he entered. During the course of the next ten years, Holt served as an elementary school teacher, a high school teacher, a coach, a school principal, a school superintendent, and a college professor. The last position was at West Tennessee State Teachers College (now the University of Memphis), where Holt was appointed, successively, principal of the Training School, director of teacher training, and professor of educational administration. In 1937 Holt completed a Ph.D. degree at Teachers College, Columbia University, and he immediately assumed a new position as executive secretary of the Tennessee Education Association. By then, Holt was already known around West Tennessee for his speeches at innumerable school graduations and to many student and teacher groups. The hallmarks of his later effectiveness as a public speaker were evidenced during these early years: good-natured humor, informality, and enthusiasm.

Holt put all of these virtues as well as an enormous amount of energy into his TEA duties, which he performed for the next thirteen years, interrupted only by two years of military service during World War II. Holt's doctoral dissertation was a study of the struggle for public support of education in Tennessee, and from his research Holt learned of the precarious basis on which the state's school system rested, the heroic efforts of a few leaders to secure public support, and the importance of political tactics to maintain that support, especially from skeptical legislators. This knowledge was put to practical use when Holt became an active leader in the continued struggle for public support of Tennessee's schools and colleges.

Holt learned the art of public relations during his long tenure as executive secretary of the TEA. He recruited teachers who were not already members, kept them informed of legislative issues through the Tennessee Teacher, which he edited, spoke to community groups about the need for additional support for schools, and lobbied the legislature for additional funds. When World War II broke out, Holt took a leave of absence to serve with the Army Service Forces in Washington. His duties were related to his experience, organizing pre- induction training programs for high school students to prepare them for induction if called upon. Holt put his rhetorical talents to good use; he traveled widely and spoke frequently to school and community groups. He also honed his public relations skills, since a large part of his job was to sell the pre-induction program to students and teachers. Indeed, he proved so successful in this field that at the end of the war he was offered a position as director of public relations with the U.S. Office of Education. He declined and returned to Tennessee and the TEA, proudly bearing his last rank as major.

Resuming his job with the TEA, Holt continued the fight for greater support for schools. Apart from enlisting teachers in the campaign, Holt developed close relations with the governor and the state commissioner of education. The result was a teacher retirement plan and a statewide sales tax to help finance public education, a measure for which the TEA had fought over a long period of time. Holt's effectiveness in lobbying for the measure led local newspapermen to label him "among the state's shrewdest politicians" and "one of the most powerful political forces in Tennessee." Friends even suggested he run for governor because of his popularity, an offer he declined then and numerous times thereafter.

Recognition of another sort was not refused, however. In 1948 Holt was elected first vice president of the National Education Association, and the following year he became president, the first time a state association executive secretary had been elevated to that office. In the latter capacity, he was named chairman of the U.S. Delegation to the World Organization of the Teaching Profession meeting in Berne, Switzerland, and the next year he attended as a delegate to the Ottawa meeting.

Late in 1950, Holt left the TEA to begin a twenty-year association with the University of Tennessee, first as executive assistant to President Cloide Brehm, then as his vice president (1953-1959), and ultimately as sixteenth president (1959-1970). When he arrived on the campus, Holt was already nationally known, widely respected by educators, and admired by a host of friends. In the words of Betty Davis, who became his secretary: "His energy was a legend, his wit was a byword, his devotion to public education was extraordinary. He was special. He was unique." Previous UT presidents such as Charles Dabney and Harcourt Morgan had achieved national reputations while in their presidencies, but, certainly, the University had never had anyone in its top leadership position who had achieved this kind of reputation before assuming his presidential duties. It is quite possible that Brehm felt slightly uncomfortable operating in Holt's shadow. On the other hand, Holt did nothing as vice president to weaken Brehm's position, and he made several substantial contributions to the University's improvement. One was the establishment of a faculty retirement system; the other was the creation of a Development Council to organize and promote a development fund.

When Brehm reached the age of seventy, the trustees turned quickly to Holt to replace him. They were eager to have a more energetic president than Brehm. As one trustee put it somewhat snidely, "This place has gone ten years without a real manager." Holt assumed the presidency on July 1, 1959, riding a wave of trustee enthusiasm that rarely waned during the next eleven years. Perhaps symptomatic of the general excitement engendered by Holt's appointment, an elaborate inauguration took place, with a mace and presidential medallion designed especially for the occasion, and honorary degrees--rarely awarded--given to two of Holt's friends.

Holt's presidency was marked by a burst of energy unsurpassed in the University's history. Student enrollment tripled; faculty and staff doubled. Eight new buildings were added on the Knoxville campus; the west side of the campus was developed, doubling the size of the University's physical plant and tripling its value. State appropriations rose over 400 percent, and so did the University's budget. The Martin campus, which had achieved degree-granting status, added graduate programs; the Space Institute was established; the University of Chattanooga, privately owned, became part of a new UT System, created in 1968. The Nashville Center, which had been established in 1947, achieved degree-granting status. The University received a charter for a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1965. A distinguished science program in cooperation with Oak Ridge National Laboratory was initiated with a $750,000 Ford Foundation grant. New academic programs in biomedical sciences, architecture, planning, and ecology were begun. Holt's greatest achievement, however, according to one trustee, was "the amelioration of conflict."

When asked about all these accomplishments upon his retirement, Holt replied, "I have not worked hard enough to develop even a mild case of `tired blood.'" This modesty was somewhat feigned. Holt worked hard at his job, particularly as a publicist for the University, resorting to his old technique of public speaking to almost any group that invited him. He estimated that he had given 150 speeches in one year, and his commencement addresses were renowned, always ending with the administration of a Holt pledge to new graduates to, among other things, "Brag on my alma mater at every opportunity as immodestly as a grandfather brags on his grandson."

But Holt was correct in his modesty in one respect. His achievements were not entirely his own. He often described his leadership role in these words: "Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are; then listen to them; let them spread their wings; then give them credit for what they have accomplished." Holt did precisely that. He surrounded himself with an exceptionally able group of assistants: Herman Spivey, formerly dean of the Graduate School at the University of Kentucky, as vice president for academic affairs; Edward Boling, formerly state commissioner of finance and administration as vice president for development; Harold Read, a longtime member of the business faculty, as vice president for finance; Joseph Johnson, from the governor's staff, as vice president for institutional research; and Hilton Smith, a distinguished chemist, as dean of the Graduate School. And Holt's style of leadership with this team proved extraordinarily effective. As one administrator put it, "Andy could get people to work themselves to death for him. He was forever telling everybody how good they were."

Holt's own role was undoubtedly best played out as the University's publicist and ambassador of good will. He cultivated good relations with public officials, with the faculty, and with students. "He enticed and cajoled and pleaded and conned the state's legislature, and many private citizens, into believing that the University required and deserved their financial support." Such was the explanation of one administrator for Holt's success in his external relations. A UT trustee put it more simply: "He has been able to sell the University to Tennessee and the nation." Holt attended student affairs as often as possible and was a regular spectator at UT basketball and football games, where he sported an orange coat and tie. His kindness to students was legendary. He gave rides to students struggling up the hill to Ayres Hall so frequently that his automobile was called "Holt's taxi service." On one occasion, he purchased groceries out of his own pocket for the family of a student who was temporarily strapped for money.

The Holt presidency did not escape some trials, nor did Holt himself elude criticism. When the UT System was created in 1968, Holt appointed the new administrators of the Knoxville campus without consulting any of the faculty, producing a resolution of protest. Some faculty, students, and even his own staff objected to his leadership role in bringing the Billy Graham Crusade to the Knoxville campus in the spring of 1970. Other faculty and students considered him too conservative, paternalistic, authoritarian, and out-of-touch with respect to the student protest movements of the 1960s on issues such as speakers on campus, residence hall visitation hours, and the Vietnam War.

In some respects, however, Holt was more liberal than his critics appreciated. As TEA secretary, he had fought for the inclusion of African Americans in the state TEA delegations to the NEA convention at a time when separate white and black teacher associations still existed in Tennessee. As UT president, he persuaded the trustees to integrate undergraduate education quietly and smoothly in 1961. He resisted trustee attempts to curtail Vice President Spivey's efforts to open local restaurants to African-American students after the campus was integrated. He stood fast against the trustees in 1961 when they demanded the right to screen future faculty appointments for possible "subversives." He defended History Department head LeRoy Graf when he spoke at the Highlander Center, an organization considered suspect by some trustees because it engaged in labor training programs for blacks and whites.

Holt's retirement in 1970 marked the passing of an era. His successors brought new talents to the presidency, but none could rival the combination of wit, folksiness, glib charm, generosity of spirit, humaneness, kindness, warmth, humility, and mastery of people that characterized "Andy" Holt.

Holt died in Knoxville on August 7, 1987.