The History of CU Denver and CLAS: A Legacy of Struggle and Triumph
The Fraternal Building, home to the Denver Center from 1947 – 1956.
This month's content is excerpted from "The Road to Independence and Beyond: Commemorating the University's 40th Anniversary, 1973–2013." The complete text is available on the CU Denver 40th Anniversary website.
The University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) became an independent institution in 1973, after more than 60 years as an extension of CU Boulder. The road to independence was a long one, and in many ways it stretched far beyond 1973. This story, however, focuses on that signal year and the years immediately before and after. Those were times of rapid, tumultuous change in higher education—in Denver, Colorado, and the nation. When they had passed, the old Denver Center extension was no more, and a new, distinct institution took its first tenuous steps into the future.
The First 40 Years at a Glance
In 1912 CU created a Department of Correspondence and Extension to put its resources, according to the University of Colorado at Denver Master Plan, “at the disposal of individuals who cannot come within the college walls, and communities which are seeking information and guidance in solution of the complex problems of modern life.” That year the CU Extension taught 28 courses in 11 fields—philosophy, music, engineering, business, and more—in locations statewide. The Denver campus hosted its first classes in private homes, churches, offices, and other locations throughout the city. The CU regents authorized up to 90 hours of extension credit toward a Bachelor of Arts degree. After 1923 the Denver Extension Division offered credit and non-credit courses regularly throughout the city. Enrollment grew through 1930 then declined because of the depression until 1935.
In 1939 a renewed surge in enrollment spurred CU to lease space in the C.A. Johnson Building at 509 17th Street, the Denver Extension’s first “permanent” home. One full-time faculty member and part-time teachers taught about 1,500 students—more than half of statewide extension enrollment—in 1940. Enrollment continued to grow through the war years and beyond owing to military training demands and the G.I. Bill. In 1942, for example, the Denver Extension offered courses on aircraft and machine design, explosive chemistry, aerial bombardment protection, and other war-related needs. In 1946 the Bureau of Class Instruction reported that Denver’s number and range of courses made it equivalent to a four-year arts and sciences college. To keep up with increasing enrollment, the Denver Extension moved in 1947 into the Fraternal Building at 1405 Glenarm Place, which housed classes, offices, a library, and a bookstore.
Vying for Denver’s Students
In the 1950s national and state higher-education trends transformed the Denver campus as the era’s growth and economic prosperity pushed enrollment ever higher. From 1951 to 1963, enrollment among all Colorado public and private colleges and universities jumped 51 percent, and the Denver Extension’s enrollment tripled. The five full-time Denver faculty members in 1952 grew to 31 by 1961. In 1956, the CU regents bought the Denver Tramway Corporation Building and accompanying tram car barn at 14th and Arapahoe Streets to accommodate growth. The eight-story Tramway Building housed classrooms as well as academic and administrative offices. From 1960 to 1970 nationwide degree-seeking enrollment grew from 3.2 to 7.1 million, and Denver Extension enrollment reached almost 7,000.
In 1960 the CU Committee for the Study of University Extension recommended expansion and some autonomy for the CU “Denver Center” but recommended against making it a full branch campus. In any case, CU could not legally establish an official branch campus without an amendment to the state constitution. At that time the Denver Extension was the only public higher-education institution in Denver, owing in part to the proximity of CU Boulder and the private University of Denver. In 1963 the Colorado General Assembly changed that dynamic by authorizing creation of the low-tuition, open-admission Metropolitan State College. Many Colorado legislators had been angered by CU’s attitude toward Denver’s higher education during Quigg Newton’s presidency (1956–1963). Newton and others sought to make CU Boulder an elite institution and had no interest in sharing Boulder’s resources with the Denver campus. By creating Metro State, therefore, the legislature not only attempted to meet Denver’s rising demand for higher-education opportunities, but also pointedly circumvented CU’s control over higher education in the city.
Subsequently the CU regents and administration, under president Joseph Smiley, pushed for full degree-granting status for Denver. Unlike his predecessor Quigg Newton, Smiley supported expansion of the Denver campus, as did the regents at this time. The Colorado General Assembly, however, declined the regents’ request to fund a degree-granting university center in Denver or send a constitutional amendment to the voters in 1964 allowing CU to grant degrees outside of Boulder. Although it could not eliminate CU from Denver, the legislature did not make it easy for the university to expand its Denver campus. That same year, the regents changed the name of the Denver Extension Center to the University of Colorado—Denver Center and transferred administration of Denver programs from the Extension Division to individual colleges and schools.
Metropolitan State College opened in 1965, siphoning off demand for lower-division courses that the Denver Center might otherwise have met. It was still unclear, however, whether Metro State would become a community college or a four-year college. That same year admission requirements at CU Boulder and the Denver Center were made equivalent, which distinguished the Denver Center from open-admission Metro State. “CU saw Metro State as competition and started to build up the Denver Center to compete with Metro,” says retired CU Denver history professor James (Jim) Wolf.
By 1966 the Denver Center, with 3,700 full-time equivalent students, was Colorado’s fourth largest higher-education institution. Compared with traditional college students, Denver Center students were generally older and more likely to be married. Many worked and went to school part time—40 percent attended during the day and 60 percent at night. About a quarter were graduate students, and almost all came from the Denver metropolitan area. As for the campus, in the words of historian Ronald James, “The physical facilities, by any standards, were inadequate with the old Denver Tramway Co. car barn serving as the total campus—classrooms, offices, and library.”
In 1970 the General Assembly passed a bill to purchase land for the controversial Auraria Higher Education Complex (AHEC), a new campus that CU Denver would share with Metro State and the Community College of Denver (CCD). Also in 1970 the North Central Association of College and Secondary Schools placed the Denver Center on academic probation, mainly because of inadequate resources, particularly library and laboratory facilities. North Central also criticized the Denver Center’s dependence on CU Boulder and recommended more autonomy for the Denver faculty and programs. In 1971 the regents authorized a College of Undergraduate Studies (renamed the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences or CLAS in 1975). The college had a dean (Herbert Eldridge was the first) and three divisions: Arts and Humanities, Natural and Physical Sciences (including mathematics), and Social Sciences. When North Central removed the accreditation probation in 1972, it reported being “much impressed with the considerable progress that has been made in the past two years,” lauding the achievement as “remarkable.”
The General Assembly referred a constitutional amendment to the November 1972 ballot providing for CU campuses in Denver and Colorado Springs. Many opposed the amendment, which did much more than authorize the new campuses. It primarily eliminated CU’s constitutional autonomy, placing power instead in the hands of the legislature. Many others, however, supported the amendment, including university alumni groups, the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, and Denver newspapers. In addition to establishing the Denver and Colorado Springs campuses, purported benefits to CU of the amendment included increasing the number of CU regents from six to nine, removing the CU president’s duty to cast a tie-breaking vote in the event of a tie among the regents, and obtaining the right to create other branch campuses as necessary. The amendment passed in November 1972 by a narrow margin.
Early Campus Life
Around the time of independence, the Denver campus still centered on the Tramway Building, and many who worked there during this period remember the iconic structure with affection and wry humor. Jim Wolf remembers teaching on the old car barn’s bottom floor—with its lack of windows and constant ventilation drone—as “the closest you could be to teaching in a submarine.” Mark Foster, who joined the History Department in 1972, discovered an ironic connection between the building and his research: “Since my doctoral dissertation included an analysis of the rise and fall of Los Angeles’ mass transit rail system, I felt an immediate sense of connection since many of my classes were in rooms that had hosted trolley cars.” The Tramway Building’s design had one particularly uplifting aspect: because it was more handicap accessible than many other buildings at the time, it accommodated a population of students not served by some other institutions.
The old student registration process was another particularly memorable part of the Tramway Building’s legacy. “Registration was a real event,” says retired CU Denver geology professor Wesley (Wes) LeMasurier. “The students would line up outside the main entrance on Arapahoe Street, across from where the performing arts complex parking garage is now. The line stretched way down Arapahoe. The students came into a big open area in the Tramway Building, where each department had a table, and took cards from the tables to sign up for the classes they wanted.” This process struck former CLAS dean Dan Fallon as well. “It was astonishing,” he says. “Faculty hawked their classes. Student names went onto the cards, and the cards went to [administrative assistant] Shirley Konkel and others, who counted students and told faculty about how their classes were filling up. Students couldn’t know if their classes would make it until the cards were counted. It was charming, like something out of the nineteenth century.”
Many professors recall a strong feeling of camaraderie during CU Denver’s early years. “Because we all taught in one building, you got to know everybody,” says Wolf. “We ate at Woolworth’s. The Frontier Hotel’s bar was the faculty and student club. That made CU Denver special. We lost that when we moved to Auraria and the departments split up.” Suzie Helburn, who joined the Economics faculty in 1971, emphasizes the importance of a common cause in building camaraderie. “Because we had to fight for existence, we acted as a cohesive whole,” she says. “We looked out after each other. Most academics are competitive. We weren’t for the first five years or so. That was a major thing I liked about the place.” Foster remembers, “There was definitely a feeling of camaraderie, a sense of being a small band of brothers embarked on an exciting experiment in a new urban university. When we moved to Auraria later we began to feel like we had a ‘real’ campus, but that intimacy of frequent contact with other faculty and administrators seemed lost.”
Solving the Auraria Enigma
In 1974 the General Assembly established the AHEC Board of Directors as Auraria campus landlord and specified the responsibilities of each of the three educational institutions: for example, CU Denver was tasked with managing the library, Metro State with athletics and the bookstore, and CCD with the media center. AHEC was responsible for operational aspects such as the land, buildings, parking, and security. In January 1977 CU Denver students joined students from Metro State and CCD on the new campus. This early campus was very different than today’s. According to historian Rosemary Fetter, Auraria was an “asphalt maze in 1977, with two major thoroughfares, Larimer and Lawrence Streets, funneling 34,000 cars a day through the campus core.” Conditions indoors were difficult as well. A governor’s order during the 1973 energy crisis meant air conditioning was not included in many Auraria buildings at first, including the library, where temperatures could rise above 100 degrees and threaten archival films.
Besides working out the operational kinks of the new campus, college personnel and policy makers struggled to cope with the very concept of Auraria. “Auraria was a very complicated animal that nobody understood,” says Fallon, who became CLAS dean in 1976. “The idea that there could be complete integration at Auraria with Metro, CCD, and CU Denver was extremely scary to academic policy thinkers on the established campuses.”
Although the Auraria campus has proven to be highly cost efficient, at the beginning state policymakers perceived fat that could be trimmed to the benefit of taxpayers. Statewide higher-education enrollment was declining, and the state was looking to streamline. Merging the two seemingly most similar institutions—CU Denver and Metro State, which were deemed to have 38 duplicative academic programs—was the most obvious target. Thus began a long struggle to define the conditions of existence for both young institutions.
The battle lines blurred and shifted. In 1978 CU Denver chancellor Harold Haak proposed merging CU Denver and Metro State under the CU system. In 1979 the General Assembly began taking the matter into its hands. The Joint Budget Committee recommended transferring all duplicative freshman and sophomore programs from CU Denver to Metro State in the 1979–1980 fiscal year, possibly followed by the transfer of all remaining duplicative undergraduate programs to Metro during 1980–1981. This would have slashed about two thirds of CU Denver’s enrollment, with corresponding staff and faculty cuts. CU Denver faculty, students, and alumni launched a “Save UCD” campaign to protest the proposed cuts. In addition to urging friends of CU Denver to voice their concerns to policy makers, the campaign included a series of “teach-ins” organized by the student government and a climactic protest march. That campaign was successful, but the merger idea resurfaced repeatedly in the ensuing decades. To some, the idea did not fully die until CU Denver’s 2004 merger with the CU Health Sciences Center (now the CU Anschutz Medical Campus). Drawing on his knowledge of ancient drama, retired CU Denver English professor Dick Dillon calls the Health Sciences merger a deus ex machina—a sudden plot twist that unexpectedly solves a seemingly unsolvable problem. “It ended the possibility of merging with Metro and gave CU Denver strength to stand on its own,” he says.
CU Denver Now
Today this strong, stand-alone university is far from the institution that took its first shaky steps in 1973. It is bigger, better equipped, more confident, and more professional. Its students are younger and more traditional. In standing on its own, however, today’s CU Denver also stands upon a century of history. Since 1912 countless students have prized the opportunity for excellent, public higher education—accessible to working people—in the heart of Denver. Exactly how that education should be provided has provoked much controversy over the years. Fortunately, numerous champions have seen the university through good times and bad. These include the faculty, staff, and administrators who midwifed the Denver Center and CU Denver in the 1960s and 1970s. They did not agree on everything, but they did agree on the value of the campus and its students. They navigated a byzantine academic environment contorted by politics and the competing interests of numerous stakeholders. They devoted large swaths of their careers to creating a new institution and shoring up its foundations. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, but always they kept striving and building. Whatever CU Denver is today, it owes much to their abilities, perseverance, and dedication.
Jarett Zuboy is a CU Denver graduate student in history and a freelance technical writer.