Today in NC State History: Cutting classes OK for top students

February 15, 2013
By Bill Krueger

blog_series6There was a time when cutting classes was not an option for students at NC State. It was no different from high school, in that class attendance was compulsory.

That is until a group of engineering students set out to change that in 1939, following a period of student unrest over how Chancellor J.W. Harrelson treated them. “Sensitive to outside criticism, and determined that he knew what was good for the students even when they did not, Harrelson promoted policies at the college that many students compared to high school or military regulations,” according to North Carolina State University: A Narrative History, by Alice Elizabeth Reagan.

So on this day in 1939, the Student Welfare Committee went on record as “being heartily in favor” of a proposal by Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honor society, to establish something known as a Dean’s List at State College, according to an account in the Technician. The Dean’s List would recognize all juniors and seniors with a cumulative average of a “B” or better, and exempt them from the rule requiring compulsory class attendance. (There were apparently rules in place that allowed for a limited number of class cuts for all students, regardless of their scholastic standing.)

But the proposal needed the approval of the faculty before it could go into effect.

The proposal made sense to B.R. Van Leer, who was then dean of the School of Engineering: “I have always looked upon the Engineering School as an institution of  higher learning and not as a penitentiary. It has always seemed to me that after a man has been here for two years, if he does not have enough sense to attend his classes regularly, we are spending our time trying to educate some rather worthless material.”

B.R. Van Leer, second from left, with engineering students in 1937 (Photo courtesy of Historical State)

B.R. Van Leer, second from left, with engineering students in 1937 (Photo courtesy of Historical State)

Apparently Van Leer’s colleagues in the faculty agreed, as they approved the proposal about five weeks later, saying that students who maintained an 85 average would be placed on a new Dean’s List and allowed unlimited class cuts.

Students may have been surprised when they heard Harrelson’s take on the shift. “This new ruling should not affect State College scholastically,” he said in the Technician, “and I believe that it is a very good thing because I do not think that all college men should be subjected to high school regulations.”

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