Military Rule Established
Strict military rule, restricted student movement, relentless military drilling, nightly curfews and terrible food proved too much for the student body on the campus of the Rice Institute in January 1918. Chaos erupted. Students confined to their rooms flicked lights off as fast the electrician turned them on. Gunshots rang out from the windows of the dormitories (now Baker College and Will Rice College). Then the students turned their ire on Captain Reagan, who conducted their military drills, when they blasted water from a fire hose down a third-floor chimney to flood his room. It was, as the Houston Chronicle later termed it, open rebellion.
Following the riot, on the morning of Saturday, Jan. 19, copies of an anonymous document titled “Tape” in red ink were placed throughout campus, including in front of each dormitory door. Chief among the document’s complaints was that instead of augmenting the normal Rice curriculum with useful military instruction that might benefit students who would be entering World War I, the Military Committee, which administered the ROTC program, had instated a system of rules and regulations that disrupted the normal workings of the university, actively prevented studying and learning, and ultimately did not prepare students for combat.
The newsletter’s publication outraged the administration, which had banned all petitions and complaints about the Military Committee’s rules. The student body was likewise shocked, and later formally voted to disavow the document’s anonymity and inflammatory language but not the grievances it contained.
“Red Tape” led to a meeting with the board of trustees, including chairman of the board Captain James A. Baker, who expressed alarm at the conditions at the Rice Institute. In a section aptly titled “Things That Are Wrong,” the Houston Chronicle laid out the students’ issues with the administration. Among the nine complaints were “Doctor [Edgar Odell] Lovett’s doctrine of autocratic infallibility instills fear and not confidence in the student, and is ruining the ideals of the Institute” and “The food is bad.” The mass meeting gathered the entire student body (all 368 students) in the Herzstein Amphitheater to make their case to the Board for changes to the military system at Rice.
Rice, only 6 years old, was facing an existential crisis.
Onerous Rules and Regulations
ROTC programs like the one established at Rice in fall 1917 were common at the advent of the United States’ involvement in World War I. Typically, members of the ROTC would participate in drills for several hours per week and follow a curriculum augmented with military courses, according to the University of Illinois archive. The program aimed to prepare students who would soon be joining the armed forces for their tour of duty. However, Rice’s ROTC program was harsher than most, taking the military preparedness pretext too far for the student body at the time. Rice’s mandatory drills for every student were unusual, for example. In The Texan, the University of Texas’ student newspaper, an opinion piece said, “In establishing compulsory drill for all male [and female] students in the University, the authorities must allow themselves to be guided by the obvious unrest and discontent which is tearing Rice Institute into shreds.”
Students complained that the little instruction they did receive was useless. “Red Tape” accused the administration of failing to provide classes on topics such as signaling, cartography, military history and battle tactics. Female students were not instructed in first aid, as they had been promised, but rather participated in military drills, despite the far greater likelihood that they would find themselves working in a Red Cross tent than on a battlefield. Although not allowed to live on campus and under the jurisdiction of a separate dean, female students still took part in drills and had to wear military uniforms. Most of the change had come in the form of strict systems of permits that required students to wear ROTC uniforms every day, request permission to participate in normal activities like borrowing textbooks and write lengthy explanations if they were in violation of one of the 199 rules in the cadet handbook.
Lack of Redress
At the same time the Rice administration established the ROTC program, it also instituted Rule 24, which disallowed petition and assembly to prevent student dissatisfaction with the military regime from spreading and coalescing into resistance. Violators of Rule 24 would be met with immediate expulsion. According to students, the administration attempted to reduce the influence of the Rice Thresher, prevent the formation of a student association, and refuse meetings with students who wanted to implement changes to the military system.
In the meeting with the board of trustees, cadet Jay Alexander claimed Rule 24 was “autocracy pure and simple” meant to “teach the student that the faculty is infallible.” The rift between students and faculty was so wide that many students, according to Alexander, believed the administration had hidden microphones in their rooms to eavesdrop on their conversations.
He described the difficulty of gaining an audience with the administration to the assembly.
“If a student has a wrong to be redressed, he is told to present it to some committee and he is also told that the committee will not have its next meeting until sometime like the fourth pleasant Tuesday of next week,” Alexander said, according to the Rice Thresher.
President Edgar Odell Lovett also reportedly banned any student self-government group from meeting in buildings on campus or Hermann Park. According to Alexander, the threat of expulsion hung over students’ heads.
“When you try to do anything out here, you have got to look in front of you and look behind you, so as not to be caught,” he said. “If the lightning strikes, you are gone.”
When the Thresher published several letters to the editor complaining about the conditions on campus prior to that year’s winter break, the administration had threatened that the paper would be “summarily squelched” if any more letters were published, according to cadet J.P. Coleman. In an editorial titled “An Explanation,” the Thresher staff members described their reasoning for printing the letters of discontent. Accused by the administration of riling up negative student sentiment where none existed before, the editorial claimed that the newspaper had attempted to “bring about greater concord” between the administration and students. It also offered an explanation for the pushback from the students against the military rules.
“The students have questioned [a swooping absolute reversal of life set unto effect at one fell stroke] not because they are unpatriotic by any means, for that is refuted by the members who are now enlisting with the colors, but rather because they cannot see the necessity of the deprivation of the freedom of life which they feel is theirs,” the editorial said.
In his book “University Builder,” a biography of Lovett, Rice history professor John Boles pointed out that many of the students who participated in the ROTC program went to war in the fall of 1918, shrinking the senior class to just 33 students.
“The issue had never been a lack of student patriotism or disapproval of the war but rather a critique of the inappropriateness of the excessive military regulation under the direction of Captain Reagan,” Boles wrote. “Rice students were fully prepared to serve their nation in its time of need.”
The publication of “Red Tape” on Jan. 19, 1918 galvanized the student body and administration to confront the unrest that had been brewing on campus since the institution of the ROTC program in fall 1917.
The newsletter was filled with short articles outlining student grievances as well as several parody poems about the cadets’ military officers and tongue-in-cheek definitions of military terms. For example, “cadet” was defined as “a university student who receives (together with semi-efficient instruction in military drill) more suspicious watching than a life term criminal, and more old-maidish care-taking than an invalid in a kindergarten.”
In a letter to parents, J.T. McCants, secretary to President Lovett, labeled “Red Tape” a “scurrilous document.” The Thresher called it “lampoonery” and decried the anonymity of the publication.
The language in the newsletter was vitriolic, and the author or authors promised that students would not acquiesce to the regulations.
“To err is but human; but to remain in error is diabolical,” the document said. “The student body will continue to regard the system for what it is — a ghastly joke; to appraise its directors for what they are — a bunch of hypocrites; and to afford them no more co-operation than we have in the past.”
In a letter to the editor published in the Rice Thresher on Dec. 14, 1917, the writer summed up student sentiment about the regulations with a pithy example.
“Once I asked a student about the general Rice opinion on some subject, and the student replied, ‘Opinion? Why we don’t have opinions at Rice. We have rules and regulations,’” she wrote.
The writer also said that to get a suit laundered, one student had to write five permits: “the two ordinarily required, a third for a slight inaccuracy of form, and two more because the laundry didn’t bring the suit back till the next day.”
The “massive and intricate machinery of permits and explanations,” according to another letter to the editor, complicated normal student life. Permits were required for simple activities like going to Fondren, answering a phone call or mailing a letter, and the permission was frequently denied. All this record-keeping and form writing took time away from studying and other activities that improved the “welfare and life of our student body,” the student complained.
“Red Tape” alleged that navigating the regulations had taken away so much time from students that academic performance was suffering.
“We know that the whole school is behind in its academic schedule; that we have not completed as much work as we accomplished within the same period last year; that the whole student body is discouraged; that the same feeling has crept into the hearts of our instructors, who realize that we cannot do our best work under existing conditions,” the document said.
The author of “Red Tape” was particularly enraged by regulations for women.
“Among all the iniquitous ramifications of the domineering, farcical militaristic system now obtaining at the Rice Institute, those applying to the women students are probably the worst,” the document said.
In speaking to the board of trustees, two cadets, Camille Waggaman and Elsbeth Rowe, described “useless” drills that provided no physical benefits, lack of a “uniform uniform,” and the “arbitrary rule” of Dean for Women Sarah Stratford. The evidently unflattering uniform was made of a thin, brown-green cloth.
“We are told that the wife of the President planned these things,” the document said. “If so, the good wife is about equally as good in designing clothes as her husband is in planning an intelligent military regime.”
The low quality of the food was a frequent theme in this controversy, arising in both serious and joking contexts.
“Our friend [President] Hoover urges the observation of meatless and wheatless days,” an anonymous writer said in the “Jazz” section of the Jan. 19 Thresher issue. “Some of the dormitory boys say that this is easy. They will have it that Eetless days are not uncommon in the mess hall, particularly on those occasions that the famous Institute chili is served.”
In the meeting with the board of trustees, cadet Alexander told an anecdote about how a student had confronted McCants with a plate of food. According to Alexander, McCants waved the plate away, saying he “did not wish to be made sick.”
Meeting with the Trustees
Although the riot of Jan. 22 was described by the Houston Chronicle as “open rebellion,” students downplayed the incident.
A Rice Thresher article dated Feb. 2 stated “the disorder was not open and premeditated rebellion as the newspaper put it, but just the natural human resultant overflow of feelings of the students.”
At the meeting with the board of trustees, ROTC student Major Alston Duggan asserted that the incident was “a mere outbreak of youthful spirits.”
Regardless, the incident meant that the three men responsible for starting the riot were arrested and confined to their rooms for several days. They were given relief from their solitary confinement a week after the publication of “Red Tape,” when a crowd of approximately 30 men, along with a jazz band, crowded into a dorm room, the Houston Chronicle reported. The freshman had put on a dance, but upon hearing that the three instigators wanted to join in and were unable to, decided to move the dance to them.
“The steps of [a square dance], intended for some lightsome damsel and her dashing cavalier were attuned to the consciously loud beat of the army shoes of the cadets as they thumped over the floor of the improvised hall,” the article said.
The same day, Jan. 26, the board of trustees was meeting with several cadet officers to hear their complaints and to understand the conditions that led to the “overflow of feelings” that had happened on the previous Tuesday night. The group determined that a meeting with the entire student body should be held so that all students could air their grievances and the board could resolve the underlying issues that were leading to disorder on campus.
On Monday, Jan. 28, the whole student body of the Rice Institute, along with faculty, the board of trustees and President Lovett, gathered in the amphitheater of Herzstein Hall — then known only as the Physics Building. The student body had selected five men and two women to speak for them at the meeting, all seven of them ROTC cadets.
“The time has come for the trustees and the students to save Rice Institute,” ROTC cadet J.P. Markham said at the meeting.
The students raised each of the main points covered in “Red Tape”: over-the-top regulations, the complex and needless permit system, unhelpful instruction for female cadets and subpar food.
Duggan emphasized that the students saw themselves as rebels, not reformers.
“We are not insurrectionists,” Duggan said, according to the Rice Thresher. “We are students who are working for the bettering of Rice Institute and the perpetuation of an Institution that has had five years of almost phenomenal success.”
Captain James A. Baker, speaking for the board of trustees, expressed surprise that conditions were so Spartan at Rice. This incident was the first time the board of trustees had occasion to “investigate the affairs” of Rice, according to the Thresher in the Feb. 2 issue. He said that Rule 24, which prevented students from complaining about their conditions, had been misinterpreted. He also said that the point students had made about quality of food was unlikely to be resolved as the “food conditions, while apparently bad, represent the best that can be done under the circumstances,” the Houston Chronicle reported.
In the End
The student body sent a formal petition to the board of trustees for their consideration at the next board meeting on Feb. 6. At that meeting, the trustees accepted every recommendation made by students, including replacing the physical drill for women with Red Cross training and eliminating unnecessary procedures like guard duty and roll call at meals. A student association consisting of four student representatives, one from each class, was also formally approved to meet with President Lovett. The student association that we know today was formed later that year in December 1918 by a popular vote of the student body.
President Lovett offered an olive branch to students at another student-body meeting on Feb. 9.
“May I not ask you to take the hand I extend and ask you to help bridge the gulf?” he said.
The Rice Thresher was hopeful about the outcome of the revolt, and praised the cooperation between students, faculty, President Lovett, and the board of trustees.
“The tide has ebbed, the storm has passed and the sun is out,” it said.
An article in the Houston Chronicle proclaimed the meeting a success.
“The Institute is again going to stand for something more deep, more real, than Prussianized obedience in matters great and small,” the article said.
Markham, who spoke at the first board of trustees meeting, expressed his hope for the university.
“Something which stirs everyone, which cannot be expressed, fills our hearts,” Markham said. “This meeting is happier than any we have had here at Rice.”