Fifty years ago, VCU’s predecessor, Richmond Professional Institute, endured a reputation as a college for working stiffs, bohemians and funky art students. Still, in this eccentric melting pot of starched business majors and black turtleneck bohemians, administration took student grooming very seriously, with one case nearly reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.
Around May 25, 1965, Eric Bowman was dismissed from RPI because he refused to cut his long hair. A junior English major named Norman Marshall returned a Student Government Association scholarship in protest, then abruptly resigned as editor of the student literary magazine, The Image.
Marshall grew a goatee over the summer and at the fall registrations in September 1965, he and two other students, Robert Shoffner, a senior drama student, and Salvatore Federico, a senior art student, were denied admission because of their collar-length hair, sideburns and goatee. They were told they could clean up and re-apply.
Claiming the college was denying their fundamental rights as individuals, all three decided to take action in Richmond Circuit Court. Attorney and Richmond City Councilman Howard Carwile questioned the school’s rights to make students shave and cut their beards, while assistant Attorney General Richard Harris argued for RPI that “no citizen has a right, inherent or otherwise, to acquire an education at public expense.”
About thirty students, including a few sympathetic University of Richmond students and fan residents, picketed the registration denial in front RPI’s administration building at 901 W. Franklin St. At a later rally at the First Unitarian Church, about 180 students heard a sermon by Dr. William Gold entitled “Could Jesus get into RPI?”
In 1966, Judge John W. Knowles found no denial of any rights possessed by the plaintiffs, and that the rule of RPI was reasonable.
“The court holds that the prayer of the amended petition for a permanent injunction will be denied,” ruled Knowles.
Before the court order was even issued, Shoffner and Federico had shaved and cut their hair. They were subsequently admitted.
Still refusing to comply, Norman Marshall partnered with Carwile and several other RPI students to form an organization called Students for Individual Rights, or SIR.
A flier defined SIR as a “non-political, non-profit organization that supported college students exercising full rights as adult citizens.” Its purpose was to give last-resort “financial, legal and moral support” to any person who needed litigation involving their freedom as a citizen.
Howard Carwile told the RPI student newspaper, The Proscript, that he supported SIR and was acting as its legal advisor because “it is a good constitutional test as to how far a school can go in invasion of privacy.”
The Proscript sided with the college:
“ … (RPI) is an urban institution and is an ‘open book’ to the Richmond public,” warned an anti-beard editorial in the September 24, 1965 issue. “Society demands propriety and decorum … There is room for individuality here, but it need not be expressed only by outward, physical signs. Whatever happened to plain thinking? Has it been replaced by cheap theatrics and publicity stunts?”
National media also took notice.
“The simple fact is RPI seems to have no sense of history,” stated an article about the controversy in the January 1966 issue of The Progressive magazine. “It seems to believe the world began with King C. Gillette.”
In April 1966 the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld the lower court ruling. Marshall vowed to fight on.
On Sept. 23, the American Civil Liberties Union asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case under Marshall’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression. They also contended in a letter to outgoing RPI president George Oliver that the college’s “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable” action in refusing Marshall’s registration violated his constitutional rights of free expression, due process of law and protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Marshall’s appeal, sustaining the decision of the Virginia court. “I was disappointed by the decision, but not particularly surprised,” Howard Carwile told The Proscript.
Salvation was on the horizon. Incoming RPI president Roland H. Nelson, Jr. said upon his arrival in 1967 that beards “did not, per se, hinder the progress of education.” Then, during that “summer of love” the college administration rescinded its views on long hair and beards, stating that “a person’s dress and general appearance are considered to be a matter of personal taste.”
Marshall never returned to RPI. Today, as an actor, producer and director, he has participated in more than 300 productions for stage, film, television and radio.
While Shoffner’s whereabouts today are unknown, Federico is a well-respected New York artist. When contacted for this story, his response was a friendly “No comment.”