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Warren Brandt, VCU’s president in a time of transition and turmoil, dies at 93

First president helped unify two campuses while overseeing rapid growth.

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Warren Brandt. Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, VCU Libraries.

Warren Brandt, the first president of Virginia Commonwealth University, died this week at the age of 93. Brandt served as university president from June 1969 through October 1974 after Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia merged to form VCU. He presided over a period of rapid growth and steep operational challenges associated with the charge to unite two distinct institutions with their own administrations, facilities, processes and traditions.

Eugene Trani, Ph.D., who served as president of VCU from 1990 to 2009, said at the 2005 dedication of Brandt Hall, a 17-story dormitory named to honor Brandt’s critical role in the history of the university, that Brandt deftly managed the difficult transition.

“As with any change of that magnitude, there were many pressing issues to handle, from setting up a new governance system to addressing budgetary issues to dealing with faculty concerns — including considerable resistance to the merger on the part of some faculty,” said Trani, now a president emeritus and university distinguished professor. “Dr. Brandt skillfully combined his knowledge and abilities as a researcher, professor and administrator to successfully lead Virginia Commonwealth University as its first president from 1969 to 1974. He set the stage and created a strong foundation for the tremendous growth that we have experienced since his time here.”

Brandt and former VCU President Eugene Trani at the 2005 dedication of Brandt Hall.
Brandt and former VCU President Eugene Trani at the 2005 dedication of Brandt Hall.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said Brandt’s “profound legacy is everlasting.”

“Warren Brandt served VCU at a pivotal moment in its history and through a time of great social and cultural change in our nation,” Rao said. “His wisdom, calm demeanor and commitment to inclusion helped create the VCU we know today: one of America’s premier urban research universities. He was an extraordinary scholar and the ultimate leader to build and unify VCU around a common mission. He was the consummate gentleman from whom I learned much and enjoyed getting to know. I am grateful for his leadership, vision, compassion and friendship.”

He was an extraordinary scholar and the ultimate leader to build and unify VCU around a common mission. 

Brandt was executive vice president at Virginia Tech when he was selected after a national search to become VCU’s president. During his time at VCU, the university added 32 degree programs and two new schools — the School of Allied Health Professions and the School of Community Services. He oversaw the completion or launch of more than $20 million of new construction, including the James Branch Cabell Library, Rhoads Hall, the School of Business building (now Grace Harris Hall), the Larrick Student Center and a large addition to Sanger Hall. The student body grew to more than 17,000 under Brandt, making VCU for a time the largest university in the state.

John Kneebone, Ph.D., chair of the Department of History in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is co-authoring a history of VCU with Trani. He said Brandt faced stiff opposition from a number of parties to the MCV-RPI merger, and his attempts to unify the institutions into a single university encountered particularly strong resistance from some members of the medical school’s community. Brandt sometimes referred to being caught in a “Noah’s Ark,” in which there seemed to be two of everything.

“I think bringing them together ended up being more difficult than he had expected,” Kneebone said.

Still, Trani said, Brandt was ultimately excited by the challenge and tackled it head on “with distinction and vision.”

“The relationship of the two campuses — MCV and RPI under one nomenclature and organizing Virginia Commonwealth University as one university — was a major focus of his presidency,” Trani said. “His inauguration speech in 1970 was titled, ‘Why an Urban University,’ which set the stage for all of VCU's presidents to follow.”

William Blake, Ph.D., professor emeritus of history, worked closely with Brandt, first as the chair of what was then called the Academic Senate and then as president of the university’s first Faculty Senate. Blake was among many who collaborated with Brandt to develop the policies, structures and processes that would serve as the new university’s foundation.

Blake recalled working with Brandt on writing tenure and grievance policies and forming the plans for a University Assembly, which was a group of faculty, administrators and students that would help govern the university and would later become the University Council. “These were all the foundational programs and structures that allowed the university to get a firm footing to move ahead,” Blake said.

 Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, VCU Libraries.
Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, VCU Libraries.

“He was a president who was interested in faculty participation and representation and working cooperatively with each other,” Blake said. “Sort of a model for working in our contemporary society. We sought compromise, we worked together and we tried to hammer out what was best for everybody. We may not have all gotten exactly what we wanted but we got a workable institution.”

At the Brandt Hall dedication, Brandt remembered the startup nature of his responsibilities in the president’s office. 

“There was no central administration when we started, no vice presidents,” he said. “All that had to be put in place.”

Kneebone said Brandt was known as tough and stubborn but also willing to work with people. Blake said Brandt was a reliable colleague who “always had a certain grin, but to some extent was skeptical and at the same time receptive.”

“He was always a gentleman and respectful. I would see him decades later — and I guess as recently as a couple years ago, when we had a gathering at the Jefferson Hotel,” Blake said. “Over the years, he always referred to me as ‘the leader of the loyal opposition.’ That was his phrase for me. At that gathering, he looked up and sees me and says, ‘OK, you guys be careful. Here comes the leader of the loyal opposition.’”

VCU and other college campuses faced turmoil in the late 1960s and early 1970s with widespread student protests related to the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Brandt recalled in 2005 that the unrest occasionally took center stage for his administration.

“Students were protesting on college campuses all over the country, and we had some of that, too,” he said. “I spent a lot of nights on the streets because of student protests.”

Kneebone said the most dramatic instance came in May 1970 in the aftermath of the National Guard killing of four student protestors at Kent State University. VCU students attempted to force Brandt to close the university, Kneebone said. The president met with students, heard their concerns and lowered the flags to half-staff in recognition of the deaths, but he did not cancel classes.

“He kept VCU open while maintaining the high standards of the university for discussion and open debate, giving students a chance to speak about their concerns,” Kneebone said. “That was not an easy thing to do.”

At the time of Brandt’s resignation from VCU, he said he was proud that faculty at the university were establishing increasingly high standards for both their colleagues and their students. He also expressed optimism about the growth he had seen in the ranks of minority faculty and students. Wyndham Blanton Jr., M.D., rector of the Board of Visitors, celebrated Brandt’s “dynamic and innovative achievements,” including improvements in faculty, academics, facilities and enrollment. The journalist and historian Virginius Dabney, who served as rector during part of Brandt’s tenure, wrote in his book, “Virginia Commonwealth University: A Sesquicentennial History,” that “Warren Brandt left Virginia Commonwealth University a distinctly better institution than it was when he became its first president.”

 Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, VCU Libraries.
Image courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, VCU Libraries.

Kneebone said Brandt’s impact on today’s VCU is clear.

“In many ways he set us on the road that we’re still following,” he said.

Brandt, who was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1923, earned his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Michigan State University in 1944, spent two years in the U.S. Army and received a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1949. He then taught analytical chemistry at Purdue, rising to the rank of associate professor and spending a year as a Guggenheim Fellow at Oxford University, before becoming the head of the Department of Chemistry at Kansas State University. In 1964, he was named vice president at Virginia Tech and later became executive vice president, before coming to VCU.

Following his tenure at VCU, Brandt served as president at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, vice president at the University of Maryland and vice president for academic affairs at Auburn University, where he retired.

Trani said Brandt continued to attend VCU activities in his retirement, especially graduation ceremonies.

“It was always great to see him and talk about the university we both cared so much about,” he said.

Brandt was married to the former Esther Cass, who died in 2014. The couple had two children.

Brandt, in dark suit, at the dedication ceremony for Brandt Hall in 2005.
Brandt, in dark suit, at the dedication ceremony for Brandt Hall in 2005.