AUBURN – Harry Melvin Philpott, who served as Auburn University’s 11th president from 1965-1980, died early Monday. He was 90 years old.
A memorial service for Philpott will be held Friday, Feb. 1, at 2 p.m. at the Auburn First Baptist Church. A private burial will take place in Memorial Cemetery.
“Dr. Philpott was an inspirational leader and a champion for Auburn’s faculty. His focus on academics is still felt today and represents a substantial part of his legacy,” said AU President Jay Gogue. “Susie and I received our degrees from Dr. Philpott, and we consider that a great honor.”
During his tenure, Philpott led AU through what was up to that time the university’s greatest period of growth. He is credited with broadening AU into a truly comprehensive university in addition to an agricultural and mechanical college. Known for his congenial manner, Philpott was often called a “people person” and friends and colleagues remember him being accessible to all university groups, especially students.
Auburn grew from offering 63 fields of study to offering degrees in more than 140 areas during Philpott’s presidency. The schools of business and nursing were formed, the school of arts and sciences was reorganized and several new departments were created. Another achievement during the Philpott years was the university’s record in awarding degrees. During his presidency, Philpott awarded more than one-half the total number of degrees given by the university in its then 123-year history. Through March 1980, he had awarded 53,806 degrees, or 55 percent of the total 98,316 degrees awarded at AU throughout history to that point.
One of the first accomplishments of Philpott’s administration was the creation of the alumni professorships program designed to retain and attract well-qualified faculty. Fifteen endowed professorships were established in every major area of the university.
Two additional alumni professorships were established by the Auburn Alumni Association to recognize the value of the creative arts and to honor persons who achieve distinction in their fields.
He insisted that faculty embrace a personal style of teaching and said, “The university has recruited some of the best minds in the nation to educate its students, but in particular we have tried to find teachers who are interested in young people and their future.”
During Philpott’s administration, AU’s ROTC program became optional instead of mandatory and the university’s role regarding “in loco parentis” was lessened as the administration dropped curfews for students and allowed female students to live off campus for the first time. AU saw a large increase in the enrollment of female students during Philpott’s tenure; female enrollment was 28 percent in 1965 compared to 42 percent in 1980 and 49 percent today.
Philpott reorganized the administration with the establishment of four vice presidencies and oversaw the creation of Auburn Montgomery, with the first freshman class beginning its studies there in 1969. He was also involved with efforts to desegregate Alabama’s cooperative extension system and fought for greater taxpayer support for higher education, advocating the intelligent use of the state’s dollars.
Philpott expanded a building program that began in the Draughon administration and launched a program of his own. Among the new buildings and changes to AU’s facilities during Philpott’s administration were the completion of Haley Center, Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum, Architecture and Fine Arts Complex (Dudley Hall, Goodwin Music Building and Telfair Peet Theatre), Pharmacy building, complete relocation of veterinary medicine facilities, relocation of the main Agricultural Experiment station to E.V. Smith Research Center in Macon County and completion of the south women’s housing complex (the Hill residence halls).
Philpott served from 1967-69 as chairman of the Education Study Commission, which developed a 10-year plan for education in the state. Through his role with the Education Study Commission, Philpott recommended the creation of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education. He served as chairman of the Southern Regional Education Board in 1972.
Philpott’s influence was also felt on a national level through his efforts on behalf of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, where he was president in 1976-77 and chairman of the executive board in 1977-78. He became the second Alabamian to head the association. Leroy Broun of Auburn served as president in 1891.
Born on May 6, 1917, Philpott received his undergraduate degree from Washington and Lee University in 1938 and subsequently began an administrative career there as director of religious activities. He was a Baptist minister and served as a chaplain in the United States Navy during World War II, seeing action with the Third and Fifth Fleets in the Pacific Theater. In 1947, Philpott earned a Ph.D. from Yale University in religion and higher education.
He taught religion at the University of Florida (1947-1952); served as dean of religious life and head of the religion and philosophy department at Stephens College (1952-1957); and returned to the University of Florida as vice president (1957-1965) before coming to Auburn.
Philpott received an honorary Doctor of Science of Humanities from AU in 1981 and continued to live in Auburn after his retirement.