Press "Enter" to skip to content

Could the University of Utah tuition "crisis" of 75 years ago offer a lesson in population growth today?

Editor's note: This article is part of a series that reviews Utah and United States history for the history section of

SALT LAKE CITY – Growth is an issue that has been on the minds of Utah leaders for some time. Ask anyone who oversees planning in the state and they will probably tell you that the highest priority is finding ways to manage it sustainably.

This problem is no different than a growth problem that came up at the University of Utah 75 years ago this year. Front page headlines warned of a growing student enrollment "crisis" after World War I. The crisis became so severe that the president of the university at the time even admitted that they would have to consider moving the school from where it was founded.

Bim Oliver, historian and architect, considers it the most pivotal moment in the university's 171-year history.

"If certain things had not happened, and certain things had not happened during this period, it is very possible that the University of Utah would not exist as we know it today," he said.

Oliver spoke about his research on the subject during an online event hosted by the Utah State Historic Preservation Office on Wednesday.

Here's how the university ended up facing a major enrollment dilemma 75 years ago, and how officials were able to keep the school afloat and help it thrive to become the institution that it is. today.

South of Enrollment and the Land Dilemma

While the University of Utah was founded in 1850, its "first real campus" grew out of 60 acres of land acquired from Fort Douglas in the 1890s, Oliver explained.

"Up until that point, it had been kind of a roving institution, moving through various locations downtown," he said, adding that the state Legislature approved plans to build new structures on the site in 1896 when enrollment was about 200 students.

The buildings that make up the campus Presidents Circle, such as the Alfred Emery Building and the Park Building, were constructed in the decades following that acquisition.

 An image of the construction of the park building at the University of Utah taken on August 27, 1912. The building site was built on was acquired by the university in the 1890s. [1 9459035] </picture></div><figcaption> An image of the construction of the Park Building at the University of Utah taken on August 27, 1912. The land on which the building was constructed was acquired by the university in the 1890s. (Photo: Utah State History) </figcaption></figure><p> The campus experienced growth constant until the 1940s, but most of the university remained concentrated in the Presidents Circle area. Enrollment before WWII had risen to around 3,600.</p><p> Fast forward to after the war, when the license plate spiked out of control. Enrollment at the University of Utah had risen to 4,093 by February 14, 1946. A Utah Daily Chronicle report of the time indicates that this was a 10% increase over the previous year.</p><p> Reports from the time indicated that many of Utah's schools experienced large spikes in enrollment at this time, but the situation at the University of Utah was unique.</p><p> Student enrollment figures would double by the end of the year. Another article from October of that year updated the figure to 8,568 students. At the time, more than half of the students on campus were military veterans who were taking advantage of the military benefits they received from serving in the war.</p><p> Almost 4,800 registrants signed up through the federal rehabilitation bill or the GI. bill, the student newspaper reported in October 1946. Many of the veterans also had spouses and young children.</p><p> Oliver noted that A. Ray Olpin, the president of the university at the time, believed that the university should be open to almost anyone who wanted to attend. That is why the number of enrollments doubled between semesters.</p><p> It also meant that the increase in enrollment did not decrease. Many other newspaper reports in the late 1940s show that enrollment remained stable at about 10,000 students in total, especially when military veterans enrolled in classes.</p><p> The biggest problem is that enrollment occurred before the school could construct new buildings to match the growth. They had a lot of students and nowhere to put them.</p><p> The chaos led to front-page designs in the Salt Lake Tribune, calling it a "crisis," and harsh criticism in the Daily Utah Chronicle. For example, an article from September 1946 roasted the school's class registration system and the office that supervised it.</p><p> "No one has even told us why registration here cannot be handled as simply as in high school, where a" The man indicated his intention to enroll by making an occasional appearance. The natural suspicion is that no one in the registrar's office has even been to high school, "wrote a student reporter.</p><p> These news reports of the time, Oliver said, showed a" clear sense of urgency "On the part of university administrators, students, and the general public alike.</p><p> There was another problem the university ran into. It wasn't like administrators could go to a source and try of buying land for new buildings to account for enrollment that had doubled and tripled in a very short time.</p><p> The military's Fort Douglas was the main landowner near the university at the time, but the Office of Land Administration, Salt Lake City, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the state highway commission also owned land outside the campus.</p><p> The need for land nearly defeated Olpin. He admitted in 1948 that the university needed another 700 to 800 acres or the school would have to move to a new location in the state.</p><p> "So imagine, if you will, in 1950, the University of Utah picking up and moving to say Fillmore or Delta or, God forbid, Provo. But that was, conceptually at least, a possibility," Oliver said, and He added that he believed it was an "idol threat," but it showed exactly the situation the school was in. in.</p><h2> How it led to the campus we know today</h2><p> Obviously we know that the university did not move and expanded beyond the original campus that existed in the 1940s. What happened to Fort Douglas during and after the Second World War is one of the main reasons for this.</p><p> The fort became a sort of processing center for soldiers leaving and returning from war, according to Oliver. Dozens of hastily constructed buildings emerged at the fort during this time west of present-day Mario Capecchi Drive as the fort rapidly expanded in size.</p><p> When the war ended, the university's neighboring US Army. He had a bunch of empty and unwanted buildings in his fort with no one to put them up. As Oliver put it, it led to a "match made in heaven".</p>
class=  An aerial image of Fort Douglas taken in January 1947. The great The road that goes from left to right is what is known as Mario Capecchi Drive. This land would become part of the campus of the University of Utah in 1948.
An aerial image of Fort Douglas taken in January 1947. The great highway that runs to the left on the right is what is known as Mario Capecchi Drive. This land would become part of the University of Utah campus in 1948. (Photo: Utah State History)

Then, in 1948, Fort Douglas transferred about 300 acres that had more than 100 buildings to the University. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would become President of the United States soon after, even had a role in getting the land transfer done.

"This was really the critical piece in all of this," Oliver said. . "It's not the 700 to 800 acres that President Olpin was dreaming of, but it's enough to get the university where it needs to go in a very short time … It basically tripled the land area of ​​the university."

Other buildings were also brought in from different areas of the state, including a former Camp Kearns building that became the university bookstore in 1949. The university also made good use of the buildings it received from Fort Douglas. For example, the school converted a former Army barracks into a radiological technology laboratory.

One facility, called The Annex, became the most versatile because it expanded the university's stock of buildings by 30% on its own. The 90,000-square-foot building was used for all kinds of classes and academic department offices; Oliver said it once even housed the world's largest turtle collection.

 An undated photo of The Annex, a building that the University of Utah acquired in 1948 and that became a critical structure for its expanded campus.
An undated photo of The Annex, a University of Utah building acquired in 1948 that became a fundamental structure for its expanded campus. (Photo: Utah State History)

At the same time, the new space created a new problem. The expanded campus essentially became two campuses, with buildings a mile apart. And since there were so many new students, campus administrators tried to make sure class schedules were tight.

That meant more students had to drive to one side of campus or the other if they wanted to get to the next class on time.

"As time went on … one of the main problems for campus planners was traffic. People didn't want to go up the hill, so they got into their car," Oliver said. "You now have a traffic jam and there is no parking to accommodate it."

So new roads were paved to address the traffic problems, but it's also a problem that was never fully resolved, Oliver said.

Still, the land ended up being the most important item. The university gradually moved from buildings constructed during World War II to newer and larger buildings on campus. More than 75 buildings were constructed from the 1950s to the 1970s on land acquired in the land transfer, including the Jon Huntsman Center.

The university also acquired more land over time as it expanded. The Utah System of Higher Education listed total college enrollment at just over 32,000 during the 2020-21 school year.

None of this could have been achieved without decision-making in the 1940s.

The End of an Era and the Lessons It Taught

About half a dozen buildings remain from the 1948 land transfer, but the number is shrinking. The annex is scheduled to be demolished later this year. Oliver regretted that decision because the building quietly played such an important role during a pivotal moment in the university's history.

Other attendees at Wednesday's event gave testimony of the building's history. Julie Myers said that her parents attended college in the 1950s, and her father joked "he didn't graduate from the University of Utah, he graduated from The Annex."

"I'm also sad to see The Annex go," he said.

However, the history of the 1940s is not entirely different from the situations emerging today on the Wasatch Front as Utah's population expands. The decisions made by the university 75 years ago are essentially the decisions that Utah government leaders and planners are working on today.

Vineyard's population boom is the result of land that was once owned by the Geneva Steel Mill and planning is already underway for what will happen to the land at the Utah State Prison in Draper once a new prison opens. in Salt Lake City next year. They both share similar stories about how the University of Utah found land to expand.

Meanwhile, there are countless examples of companies and governments rehabilitating old buildings and turning them into something new, just as the university did after its crisis began 75 years ago.

"I think the real theme here that comes out of this narrative is how remarkably resourceful, creative and innovative university administrators, planners and workers were in adapting these buildings to their uses as university buildings," Oliver said. "They were totally and completely unsuitable for those purposes, and yet the university was able to get by with these buildings."

More stories that may interest you

Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *