“Every member of the Board of Trustees was a Tuscaloosa graduate. They all wore crimson. They’d never had this (UAH) campus’ welfare in mind.”
— Dr. Benjamin B. Graves, the first president of the University of Alabama in Huntsville
In a previous Storyboard, I surveyed the unimpressive first seven decades of the University of Alabama’s history and the role its board of trustees played in this snatching of mediocrity from the jaws of excellence.
But the UA System Board of Trustees (UABOT) didn’t just oversee the creation of what is arguably the weakest flagship university in the nation. The UABOT has also played a key role in trying to thwart excellence at other younger UA System universities.
This brings us to the University of Alabama in Huntsville and its fascinating history, made all the more impressive by the obstacles UAH has had to overcome. And you cannot spell “obstacle” without B-O-T. This history is found in Shaping History: The University of Alabama Huntsville Foundation, published in 2008 by Michael D. Ward, a graduate of UA and a Huntsville native. I summarize from Ward’s history below.
In 1949 Huntsville was only the 13th-largest city in the state of Alabama behind Phenix City among others, but the locals were determined to move the city forward. Progress occurred on at least three fronts that eventually converged to create UAH as we know it today:
- As early as 1944, local Huntsvillian businessmen convened to plan for the post-World War II downsizing that was looming that would leave the city a dying cotton town. The outgrowth of this was the 100-member Huntsville Industrial Expansion Committee.
- The mothballed-after-WWII Redstone Arsenal was converted into the American Peenemunde, i.e. the center of rocket research in the United States. Wernher von Braun and the other 500 rocket scientists arrived in Huntsville on April 15, 1950, from dusty Texas, and von Braun was immediately smitten with the place.
- Patrick Richardson, a Huntsville native and UA law student, campaigned for three years to open a branch of the University of Alabama in his hometown. On January 6, 1950, a two-year “University Center” was opened in Huntsville with 137 students.
It should be noted that this last development was not yet UAH. It “was not envisioned as a technical or engineering school.” This center focused only on basic introductory-level coursework for those who were unable to attend classes in Tuscaloosa, the “mother campus.” UA opened the center reluctantly, and the Huntsville community was stuck with the costs for classroom space and student recruitment.
UA could try to rein in higher education in Huntsville. What UA couldn’t do was slow down the Space Race, or dampen Huntsville’s desire for a “full-blown university.”
Huntsville took off like a rocket in the ‘50s — the cliché is fully justified. Its population soared 340 percent during that one decade, and another 70.7 percent from 1960-1964. This phenomenal growth was powered not only by the feverish expansion of space efforts at Redstone Arsenal, but also by savvy recruitment of industry by HIEC and other related organizations in Huntsville. The businessmen created a strategy of buying land, selling it at a profit to industries relocating to booming Huntsville and then investing the proceeds in even more land. (This part of the story stands in the sharpest contrast to the Alabama Legislature/UABOT mishandling of land sales that hurt UA for its entire early history, as I chronicled in my last Storyboard.)
The Huntsvillians were so successful that they needed a tax shelter, supporting a nonprofit cause. This led to the creation of the University of Alabama Huntsville Foundation (UAHF) in October 1965.
It bears emphasis that the UAHF grew out of successful recruitment of industry by local business interests. This is an extraordinarily unusual history for a university foundation, which are usually created by already-long-established universities via charitable donations from alumni and other donors, patent royalties and the like. Instead, UAH did not formally exist as a full-fledged branch campus of the University of Alabama until 1966, after the UAHF’s creation.
Making a University
Community pressure for “greater autonomy” plus local fundraising and expanded higher-level coursework helped lead to the elevation of the Huntsville Center to “campus” status in May 1964. The first-ever state appropriation for what would become UAH came from the state legislature in 1965.
Ward notes a bit pointedly that, “Until then, the University Center had functioned almost as a private school might, using only funds raised through registration fees and tuitions for its operations.”
As the proto-UAH raised itself up by its own bootstraps, its “mother campus” was held down by beliefs and attitudes held over from its early history. The Huntsville center admitted its first black student without incident in June 1963, just two days after George Wallace’s “Schoolhouse Door” stand at the Tuscaloosa campus.
Finally, on September 4, 1969, the decades-old dream of Huntsville became a reality: UAH was christened as a fully independent, autonomous institution in the University of Alabama System.
Dancing with von Braun
The story of UAH’s founding is incomplete without highlighting the role played by the charismatic and famous rocket man, Wernher von Braun. One of the few men in Alabama who could match Wallace rhetorically, von Braun addressed a joint session of the Alabama Legislature on June 21, 1961 — an occasion engineered by HIEC leaders, less than one month after President Kennedy’s call to go to the moon. Von Braun’s subject: his vision for Huntsville. If the results of his speech are any indication, von Braun hit it completely out of the park.
After dazzling the legislators with slides of rockets, von Braun made his pitch:
He rhetorically asked what brought the aviation industry to Los Angeles — “The desert and smog? No, it was UCLA and Cal Tech and the Art Institute and St. Mary’s and the University of Southern California. … Was it beans that brought…industries to Boston? It was the Educational Triangle of Boston University, Harvard, and MIT. … Let’s be honest with ourselves about it: it’s not water or real estate, or labor, or power, or cheap taxes that brings industry to a state or city. It’s brainpower.”
The legislature, “overcome” by von Braun’s superior salesmanship, immediately and unanimously voted to approve a proposal to invest $3 million in the Research Institute in Huntsville, a predecessor to the science and engineering research efforts at UAH. Later, von Braun’s only regret was he hadn’t asked for $15 million instead.
Von Braun left Huntsville in 1970 after winning the Space Race, providing one last word of inspiration to the citizens of his adopted city:
“My friends, there was dancing in the streets of Huntsville when our first satellite orbited the earth. There was dancing again when the first Americans landed on the moon. I’d like to ask you, don’t hang up your dancing slippers.”
Was von Braun talking about Viennese-waltzing into a new era of space exploration? Or was he hustling Huntsville into the next stage of its new era, transformed from a wilting cotton town into a booming city with a major university of its own? Probably both. From his arrival in Huntsville, von Braun envisioned the two dances as one and the same.
UABOT inhibits the Dream
Founding UAH President Benjamin Graves, personally recruited by von Braun, brought a Wernheresque vision to the school: “You can have a great university without having a great city, but I don’t think you’ll ever have the opposite: you won’t have a great city without a great university.” By 1970 UAH served nearly 3,000 students and crafted a statement of purpose emphasizing the “total University.” Graves seems to have modeled the early UAH after Millsaps College, the Mississippi analog of Birmingham-Southern where he had served previously as president. Those who today try to pigeonhole UAH as “just” a “technological university” would be wise to remember its early liberal-arts roots.
Graves encountered resistance early and often from the UABOT and UA President David Mathews. Ward recounts, with details that are relevant to the UAB situation in 2015:
Graves recalled an early retreat with the members of the UA Board of Trustees when Tuscaloosa campus President F. David Matthews [sic] proposed several resolutions designed to hobble the development of the Huntsville and Birmingham campuses by limiting on-campus housing, athletic programs and prohibiting post-master’s degrees. “We graduate more Ph.D.s in engineering and physics now than either Tuscaloosa or Auburn [University]. [Matthews’s] proposals would have been a death blow to this campus.” The proposals were tabled.
Graves’s blunt assessment of the UABOT vis-à-vis (or, better yet, versus) UAH is given in the quote at the top of this essay.
Graves’s successor, chemist John Wright, was successful in creating the modern research university that is UAH. It wasn’t easy; as he later observed, “the [Alabama] university system really supports a sort of third-rate university education in terms of the money they put in. But you have to be first-rate in research if you’re going to compete for funding.”
Like Graves, Wright did not look to the UABOT as supporters: “The Board of Trustees governed us, but the [Foundation] Board here was the one that I regarded as looking out specifically for UAH. And they were comparable in stature…” This questioning of support of the UABOT for UAH, by multiple presidents of UAH, contradicts in a historical sense recent statements on al.com made by UA graduate and current UABOT member Ron Gray that UABOT support for UAH and Huntsville is “unquestioned” and that UAH’s interests are “well-served” by the UABOT.
The UAHF and/or its members and spouses stepped in repeatedly to fill the gaps in support created by legislative parsimony and UABOT resistance, including major support for residential dorms, Greek housing, and athletics.
Ward ends his history in the mid-2000s, discussing the long tenure of UAH president Frank Franz and his efforts “to transform UAH from a predominantly part-time transient commuter campus to a student-oriented traditional research university of excellence, a destination of choice rather than one of convenience.”
Since the publication of Ward’s book, however, this vision for UAH has been narrowed considerably.
Given the resistance from Tuscaloosa and Montgomery, the progress of UAH from branch campus to research university in the same amount of time that UA crumbled from its chartering to burning down to the ground, both figuratively and literally, is nothing short of amazing. But there is also a what-if factor. How high could UAH have soared if the UABOT and the Legislature had provided support and adequate resources instead of resistance? We’ll never know.
We do know that, as it stands today, UAH brings in almost twice as much research funding as the “mother campus” in Tuscaloosa, and it is nationally recognized in selected areas of science and engineering. It’s a minor miracle, with Huntsville’s leaders getting the major share of the credit.
What would make this story even better is this: what if another new university grew to be 2.5 times the size of UAH, amassed a research portfolio 4.5 times larger than UAH’s, and attained national leadership in multiple disciplines while fighting the same UA/UABOT opposition just 50 miles down the road instead of 150? That would be a major-league miracle.
The UAB miracle, in the contexts of its sister institutions’ histories, will be the subject of my next Storyboard.
Dr. John Knox is an associate professor of geography at the University of Georgia, a native of Birmingham, and a 1988 graduate of UAB.