Monday, February 11, 2013

RICHARD GREENE: UTA’s emergence an example of prevailing against forces of NO

Editor’s note: This column is one in an occasional series that former Mayor Greene calls “How our community was shaped by ten things that didn’t happen.” Today’s commentary is about the third of those ten things.

With the announcement last week of a new record enrollment of more than 33,800 students at UT Arlington, it seems like a good time to review what didn’t happen to make such an achievement possible.

More than half the states in the country do not have a college with an enrollment as large as ours here in Arlington.

The origins of UT Arlington date back to the city’s earliest days. Civic leaders recognized the need for an educational facility and raised the money to build a modest four-room school building that opened in 1895 with an enrollment of about 75 students spanning from the elementary grades to the high school level. It was located on the current site of the university’s student center.

Arlington itself had been in existence for only eleven years so it would be accurate to say that the city and the university have grown up together.

Trying to imagine what Arlington would be like without the university is impossible. But, to conclude that the city would be but a fraction of itself without UT Arlington is obvious.
Richard Greene

Without the university, the community would be absent its largest single economic engine. Without the university the city would not count among its residents some of the country’s finest educators, scientists, and engineers, doing major research that may change the world.

Without the university, downtown Arlington would be but another revitalization plan collecting dust on a shelf somewhere.

The school transitioned from its humble beginnings through to its emergence as a military training school by the end of the First World War.

Then it became a branch of the predecessor to Texas A&M with the focus on agricultural, mechanical and industrial trades. A name change to Grubbs Vocational College took place in honor of the leader of the campaign to advance the school’s role in the community. That period saw the completion of what is now the oldest standing building on the campus, Ransom Hall that opened in 1919.

According to the university’s official records, in 1923 the school was renamed North Texas Agricultural College to reflect its transition to a public institution with a liberal arts curriculum.

And that’s what it remained, as a two-year junior college, when the modern era of Arlington was launched at the beginning of the decade of the 1950s. The photo at the top of this column is how it looked then.

There had already been unsuccessful efforts by the administration to petition Texas A&M’s board to elevate the Arlington campus to senior college status. The city was growing, its future seemed to some to be unlimited as local leaders recognized the importance of elevating the school to a degree-granting, four-year institution of higher learning.

The school had become the largest state-supported junior college in the Southwest and had developed into a comprehensive academic institution. So, under the leadership of the town’s tireless young mayor, the fight was taken to the Texas legislature to gain the four-year status too long denied.

It wasn’t as though nothing else was going on in the life of the city that was to become the shining star of the region. The General Motors plant had started producing automobiles, a new lake was developed to serve the needs of a rapidly expanding population, the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike had opened, the Great Southwest Industrial Park was underway, and a Disney-like entertainment center was being imagined.

There was even talk of turning the town’s minor league baseball stadium into something more. As quixotic as that notion seemed at the time, it too would become a dream that wouldn’t die.

Many would think that was quite enough for the place that was transforming itself from a water stop between the two big cities east and west, but the possibility of having a full fledged college along with all the rest was a compelling opportunity not to be missed.

The 1959 session of the Texas Legislature would mark the third time in six years that a bill would be introduced to promote the school to a four-year college. Previous such proposals had all met with defeat.

This time it would be different. Mayor Tom Vandergriff resolved to spend all the time it would take, returning over and over to Austin, working with supporters and pursuing reluctant lawmakers – an effort that would finally achieve the objective.

The difficulty had always been the opposition from legislators representing areas of the state where colleges and universities already existed and none of them wanted to see the limited funding that supported them to be divided any further.

There was also the matter of area colleges worried about the competition for students should Arlington became a place where you could earn a degree. Such concerns had to be countered and overcome. Those folks would later be seen as lacking vision that the kind of growth that was to come would mean students enough for them all.

When it looked like votes were being lined up behind Arlington’s initiatives, all kinds of political shenanigans and procedural maneuvering were thrown in the path of the bill. Damaging amendments sprung up and had to be dispatched. It was a classic, full pitched battle to the finish.

What happened in the end was that a majority of Texas legislators didn’t follow those working so hard to again block the conversion.

Arlington State College was born from that struggle and set on a path forward that would later lead to the institution being transferred to the University of Texas System and in 1967 become The University of Texas at Arlington.

Now the city had another powerful force to propel its future toward a destination that could be reached only by those who didn’t give up when the going got tough.

(Interested in knowing more about the history of UT Arlington? You should get O. K. Carter’s Caddos, Cotton and Cowboysand discover not only the university’s long journey but that of all of Arlington. Pick up a copy at the Fielder Museum.)

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor, served as an appointee of Pres. George W. Bush as Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and currently is an adjunct professor in UT Arlington’s Graduate School of Urban and Public Affairs.

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