The entire city of Belton was aghast! The Belton Chamber of Commerce was sputtering angry! The gaggle of dignified college alumnae was apoplectic.
How would the city of Belton survive without its flagship college?
How could the college erase more than a century of distinguished Texas history and obliterate the name and legacy of this renowned women’s college?
After all, who does he think he is, anyway?
Simply put, he was Dr. Gordon Grady Singleton (1890-1977), president of Mary Hardin-Baylor College from 1938 to 1952. Singleton’s plan in 1950 to save the school by effectively killing its identity was a public relations disaster.
Singleton succeeded John Crumpton Hardy, LL.D. (1864-1938), president of Baylor Female College from 1912 until his death. Hardy guided and transformed the college into one of the foremost in the nation, carefully piloting it through tumultuous years. The Great Depression, plus a disastrous 1929 fire, brought the college to the edge of bankruptcy. A generous gift from Mary and John G. Hardin saved the school. In gratitude, the college changed its name to Mary Hardin-Baylor College in 1934.
Even as the economy improved by the 1940s, the college still had financial troubles.
Although Hardy hand-picked Singleton to succeed him, the two men had differing views on the college’s goals. Where Hardy had been a welcoming fatherly presence on campus, Singleton was coolly cordial, but all business.
“Dr. Hardy was democratic in his views on education. Every girl who wanted an education and would work for it was welcome,” said Eleanor James (1912-2004), former MHB professor and author of “Forth From Her Portals: The first 100 years in Belton” (University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, 1986). “Mary Hardin-Baylor College could do much for the girl of even average intelligence. She could learn values in attending college; she would improve herself and potentially her family-to-be.”
Hardy was fond of saying, “Educate a woman, you educate a family, a generation.” He also strived to increase enrollment because increasing the number of students meant Baptist donors would increase financial support for the college.
Singleton “was not a democrat about education,” said James. “He resolved to make the college independent of enrollment vicissitudes and to broaden the fiscal base. This meant he had to achieve a balanced budget, to liquidate the college’s debt and to increase the endowment.”
Singleton had one major flaw that impeded his progress: Failure to communicate, especially with the college’s trustees. He also failed to consider the college’s well-organized and politically powerful alumnae who were loyal to the school and influential with trustees.
Singleton’s tenure is well-documented in James’ history and in statewide newspapers.
Sharply veering from Hardy’s policy of expanding enrollment and welcoming any young woman, Singleton proposed restrained growth, ending aggressive student recruitment and keeping a tight rein on finances. The college in 1893 had established the first work-study program for women in a college west of the Mississippi, thus allowing coeds from modest-income families to earn degrees.
Disregarding that, Singleton wanted the college to become an elite “finishing” school for women from families who could afford to pay full tuition up front and in full.
Singleton reorganized academic departments, reduced class offerings and staff. Through the World War II years, Singleton held down finances while trying to keep students engaged and faculty at ease. He attempted to fill the college’s board of trustees with a majority of like-minded Baptist ministers.
By 1949, Singleton announced that the college faced serious declining enrollment and rising costs just as it marked its centennial. In 1940, newspapers reported that the college had more than 1,000 coeds enrolled; nine years later, it had barely 200.
Temple and Belton’s business and government leaders became deeply concerned.
News of the financial crisis leaked out to newspapers, thus deepening the crisis and ire of alumnae and Baptists in general.
“It is ironic that the president who had attempted to avoid controversy among his faculty … had managed to create the only serious rupture of affairs in the long history of the college,” James said.
In a clandestine meeting, a Belton Chamber of Commerce select committee conferred in Dallas with the executive secretary of the Baptist General Convention of Texas to discuss the college’s dire circumstances.
Singleton shifted blame to Belton’s business community for its lackadaisical support, but Belton’s business leaders hit back hard at his accusations, providing documentation of how the community had more than surpassed fund-raising quotas and student support.
In May 1951, Singleton — without warning — announced to the college trustees that he proposed moving Mary Hardin-Baylor College to another city, where it would merge with a larger institution. He had been negotiating with other Baptist-affiliated institutions. High on his list was the financially troubled University of Corpus Christi and other unnamed schools in Dallas and Houston.
The incendiary issue split the state’s two million Baptists — pro-Singleton and pro-Belton, according to The Dallas Morning News. The college’s well-organized alumnae refused to donate to the school and worked behind the scenes to sway trustees to retain the school in Belton. Finally, in June 1951, the college’s trustees voted that the venerable women’s college would stay in Belton, would institute several cost-cutting measures and keep the school solvent.
Singleton’s grand plan to save the school by killing it was indeed dead.
The Dallas Morning News summed up the controversy, “The legions of lovers of strife torn old Mary Hardin-Baylor College for Women may not agree on the answer to the school’s latest troubles, but all will join in one thing. She has weathered many problems, and she’ll come through this one with her ivy-shrouded traditions strong as ever. … But everybody on both sides of her latest family feud is aiming at the same goal — to keep the oldest women’s college west of the Mississippi a great institution.”
A few months later, Singleton accepted a new job as a professor at Baylor University, where he completed his career.
Despite the Singleton hubbub, the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor has never merged with any other college and continues to operate under its original 1845 charter.