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Marching Through Time:
The Citadel 1842-2006
Warrior With A Mission: General Charles P. Summerall and His Citadel Legacy
Professor of History
General Charles P. Summerall was a warrior with a mission. He won an appointment to West Point on a mission to escape the poverty of Reconstruction in Florida. He rose to command the U.S. Corps of Cadets at West Point, and set out on a military mission to inspire his men to heroic performance in peacetime and wartime through his courage and expertise.
In World War I he led the First Division and the V Corps on their triumphant mission to defeat the army of the German Empire and returned home to guide the army in its postwar mission to adapt to the future demands of warfare.
When he became president of The Citadel in 1931, he embarked on a mission to rescue the college from the clutches of the Great Depression. He succeeded, not only in his fight to rescue the college, but also in establishing the college as a model for the education of citizens and soldiers whose missions in life would be as worthy and inspiring as those which he himself had followed. It was a magnificent achievement, and the result of a fortuitous combination of his leadership as an officer and an educator.
At the same time, Summerall established at The Citadel a command and control style of leadership that institutionalized an authoritarian presidency that demanded obedience, not only of the Corps of Cadets, but also from the faculty and staff.
On occasion, the Board of Visitors – all Citadel graduates – overruled Summerall, but his authority over the faculty remained absolute. Dialogue and debate, the hallmarks of faculty participation in college decision making, was not possible, and many faculty members were more intimidated than inspired by his authority. Yet, Summerall obtained funds to enable faculty members to pursue advanced degrees and gained their respect and gratitude for his encouragement and support. They also were pleased that he led the college to full accreditation, found donors for cadet scholarships, and secured generous support from respectful and admiring state legislatures.
His legacy of what can be considered an imperial presidency paved the way for a similar style of leadership under his successor, General Mark W. Clark. Together, their impact would make difficult the participation of the faculty in forging the mission of The Citadel in the years that lay ahead.
Yet Summerall came to believe that his mission to save and preserve the special realm of The Citadel was the most important and most highly cherished mission of all those he had pursued over the course of his long and fruitful life. That the college enjoys the respect and admiration of so many is evidence of his success.
Gary Nichols is the author of “The General as President: Charles P. Summerall and Mark W. Clark as Presidents of The Citadel” and of a forthcoming biography of Summerall.