Department of Development

1913-1966: The Municipal University of Akron

The fundraising shortfall actually paved the way for the transition of the church-affiliated Buchtel College to that of a municipal college.

Although Akron had benefited a great deal from the College, local residents were not always enamored by its presence. The city began to thrive, thanks to the rubber industry, and its population had swelled to 100,000 by 1913. An increased demand for city services seemed to push the priorities of the College into the background.

When an urgent $300,000 fundraising effort by College President Parke R. Kolbe was disrupted by Akron's first rubber strike and a disastrous regional flood, Kolbe realized that city assistance would be the key to the school's survival. Municipally supported universities were not unprecedented in Ohio. Cincinnati and Toledo had tried the idea with success. So, with support from the charter commission and the Akron Beacon Journal, Kolbe orchestrated the transformation. The school began to call itself a university, as well, in recognition of its expanded course offerings.

City ownership meant Akron's sons and daughters could enjoy the benefits of tax-supported higher education. The year 1913 launched a 50-year era of growth and development unimagined by the school's founders, with enrollment growing year after year and the College contributing greatly to northeastern Ohio's economic development.

For a number of years, the Municipal University of Akron provided tuition-free education to Akron residents. Though primarily tax-supported, the University continued to receive occasional gifts from the philanthropic community. Isabel MacRoy Pixley bequeathed a sizeable sum for arts scholarships, in memory of her husband Frank, a noted author and playwright. The University also gratefully acknowledged a past gift by naming its Home Economics School the "Curtis School of Home Economics," in honor of William P. Curtis' gift in 1904. It was the first "named" school or college since the College of Arts and Sciences was named after John R. Buchtel.

Because of Akron's rapid growth in the 1920s, all city institutions had an enormous need for money. But churches, the YMCA and the YWCA, a tuberculosis sanitarium, and public services seemed to have priority over the needs of the local university. One of the few projects involving public giving to the University was the erection of the Akron Memorial Stadium at Buchtel Field, a 6,000-seat grandstand to memorialize World War I victims.

In 1926, the University created the Endowment Fund Association to solicit gifts from wealthy individuals, with Charles W. Seiberling as president and a young Akron lawyer named Wendell Wilke as an early member. Priorities being what they were, however, the endowment effort was not very successful and income was small.

By the mid-1920s, the University had truly pressing needs. It had outgrown its centralized campus (inner-city construction had boxed it in) and there were proposals that a new campus be built. J. Edward Good had donated a 180-acre farm on the city's western outskirts to the city, and it seemed like an ideal location.

Students and faculty raised $25,000 for a new gymnasium on the Good farm site. Many of the city's more munificent individuals, including Bert Polsky, scion of the department store family, John Thomas, and Paul W. Litchfield, superintendent of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., accepted President George Zook's challenge to raise $200,000 for a new Buchtel Hall.

Frank Mason, who had contributed to both the reconstruction of Buchtel Hall in 1900 and the erection of a new library in the 1920s, also made a major contribution. More than $175,000 was raised within a relatively short time.

Tragically for planners, however, the stock market crashed just two weeks before Election Day and a vote on a $3 million campus construction bond issue. The levy failed miserably, and the idea of moving the campus was abandoned forever.

Then came the Great Depression and a renewed struggle to survive. Enrollment began to drop, but overhead did not. In 1931, the Guggenheim Foundation's grant for the Guggenheim Airship Institute provided some monetary relief, as did the creation of the Charles S. Knight Scholarship Fund, which benefited numerous students. Equally uplifting was support from the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, which opened its shops to ensure the survival of the University's cooperative engineering program — one of the nation's first.

Even with city tax support, student tuition was providing more than half the University's income in 1938. There were further calls for the creation of a "liberal endowment," but they fell on ears that were literally unable to help.

World War II renewed Old Buchtel's tradition of giving, however. In 1943, area rubber companies sponsored the creation of the Institute for Rubber Research. The same year, a substantial grant from the Rubber Reserve Company provided Dr. George S. Whitby with seed money for the first synthetic rubber research laboratory in the world.

The investment proved vital to the war effort and introduced the University to a new type of donor: the corporation. With individuals and foundations, corporate donors helped the University immensely in the form of scholarships, professorships, and equipment.

The first post-war example of corporate largess came in 1945. Nearly 1,600 companies came together to form the Akron Memorial Foundation, which contributed $1 million to build the Memorial Hall athletic building, constructed in memory of those from Akron who died in the war. Not erected until 1952, Memorial Hall became the first new building in the so-called "second cycle" of major construction on the campus.

Corporate donations also helped pay for an addition to the student center and a new arts and sciences building, later named Kolbe Hall.

Personal and foundation gifting also accelerated. A 1952 gift from the Harvey S. Firestone family created the Firestone Conservatory of Music via the acquisition of the Episcopal Church building.

Signaling, perhaps, a bit of rubber baron rivalry, P.W. Litchfield, the president of Goodyear who had served as a University trustee for many years, donated his home to the University as a residence for its president.

In 1952, the Ford Foundation's Fund for Adult Education helped establish the independent Akron Adult Education Foundation, which came under University control later as the Institute for Civic Education. The Institute offered a wide variety of courses for "non-traditional" students, including housewives and retirees.

Post-war prosperity brought plenty of well-paying jobs for college graduates. President Norman P. Auburn often noted that new graduates were commanding salaries higher than those of their professors and called for an increase in private giving at nearly every opportunity.

In 1956, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Foundation heard the plea and established a professorship in chemistry, the first chair supported by outside funds since city affiliation. University board members also spearheaded the creation of the AU Associates, a group of local firms that agreed to donate to the University annually and consider it a long-term investment.

Supported by annual grants from Goodyear Tire and Goodyear Aircraft, the University began an evening graduate engineering program in 1957.

In 1958, the Firestone Foundation contributed funds for a Conservatory pipe organ, and a major gift from Akron attorney C. Blake McDowell helped acquire the previously private Akron Law School and integrate it into the University. His gift helped ensure eventual American Bar Association accreditation for the School.

In the 1960s, the second cycle of construction accelerated as University planners prepared for a huge wave of "baby boomers." These second-wave buildings form the core of the main campus as it exists today. Among the projects were a new library, a science building, and an education building.

The University expanded its borders, as well as its curriculum, in the 1960s. A large federal urban renewal grant and a gift of $250,000 from Firestone yielded Lee Jackson Field, the 23-acre athletic complex south of Buchtel Hall. The site was named after Firestone's former president, a longtime University trustee. The same year, the Ernest Alessio Construction Co., The Timken Co., and the Timken Foundation gave generously to the University, as did the Beacon Journal and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In 1963, more than 1,200 donors joined the campaign for a new Business Administration building. Longtime University figure Caroline Pardee, prominent attorney C. Blake McDowell, and the Beacon Journal were major benefactors. A year later, the University library established a rare book room thanks to a gift from the Herman Muehlstein Foundation and its New York founder.

The family of Dr. Charles A. Knight continued its devotion to the University, too, in 1964. Robert C. Iredell '09, the grandson of Akron's first mayor, a co-founder of General Tire and Rubber Co., and the son-in-law of Dr. Knight, established a fund that led to the endowment of the Robert Iredell Chair in Chemical Engineering, one of the University's first named chairs.

The campus' first modern dormitories were erected later in the decade thanks to the generosity of trucking company founder Owen Orr, the Sisler McFawn Foundation, and the Charles and Mable Ritchie Foundation. The buildings provided housing for out-of-state and foreign students, as well as a cosmopolitan climate for learning.

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