At 140, The University of Akron honors its history and embraces its future

The newly built Buchtel College is seen here in 1872. In the driver's seat of the carriage on the far left is John R. Buchtel. It would stand for 27 years, until being destroyed by fire in 1899.

IN A YEAR when The University of Akron is celebrating both its 140th anniversary and the completion of five important projects on campus, it seems that nothing is impossible. But then, it was the vision of many individuals, always propelling the institution forward, that brought UA to its current prominence as the public research university for Northeast Ohio and an important driver in the region’s economic growth.

Even in the 1920s, parking was at a premium on campus. The rebuilt Buchtel Hall is at left.

UA’s 15th president, Dr.Luis M. Proenza, speaks often of the “excellence, opportunity and energy” that exist on campus. All are components of the comprehensive effort over the past 18 months by 3,500 faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members to create Vision 2020, a strategic plan for UA’s next decade. Now, as the University moves toward its sesquicentennial celebration over the next 10 years, its mission will be focused on student success, global relevance, interdisciplinary distinction, strong community engagement and a vital campus environment.

Today’s University of Akron stands in sharp contrast to Buchtel College, as it was named at its founding in 1870. The original footprint has grown from 6.5 acres with one building, to 88 buildings on 223 acres. The initial three courses of study: a bachelor of arts; a bachelor of philosophy; and a bachelor of science, have grown to more than 300 academic programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

140th celebration

To learn more about the festivities planned for UA's 140th anniversary,  visit Homecoming 2010.

That Akron, a small but steadily growing city of 10,000 along the Ohio Canal, became the setting for the school is a combination of good fortune and persistence.

The Ohio Universalist Convention had voted in January 1870 to establish a school based on religious principals in whatever city could provide $60,000 toward construction, along with the land on which to build it. (The year 1870 also brought another institution of higher education to the state. The Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, now The Ohio State University, was established.)

Seizing an opportunity

It was Akron industrialist and devout Universalist John R. Buchtel, along with other prominent citizens, who raised the needed capital and found a beautiful hilltop setting for the school.

The proposed site? Spicer Hill Cemetery.

Ever wondered …

Why there is a wildly painted rock on Buchtel Common? How UA came to have three founders from different generations? With Australia more than 9,400 miles away, why is our mascot a kangaroo? Here are a few mysteries revealed.

Three Founders

On the first Friday in May, the University celebrates Founders Day and recognizes three individuals with that honor.

Industrialist John R. Buchtel was the key benefactor and proponent of the Ohio Universalist Convention building a college in Akron. Over the course of their lives, Buchtel and his wife, Elizabeth, contributed $500,000 to the college and its students.

Parke R. Kolbe, as its seventh president, led Buchtel College through its transformation in 1913 from private institution to one supported by public tax money as The Municipal University of Akron. Within a year, UA was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Dr. Norman P. Auburn, who served as president from 1951-71, oversaw a tremendous period of growth for the campus. In addition to many new buildings and the formation of five colleges, Auburn guided the institution its status as a state university in 1967.

What’s with the painted rock?

"The Rock", a 7-ton boulder that resides near Crouse Hall, was a gift of the class of 1880. Until the late 19th century, it simply bore the engraved numbers “1880.” Then pranksters began night runs to adorn it with bright paint. The tradition continues today, with students painting the boulder to show school spirit, cheer on a team or welcome pledges to fraternities or sororities.

The Heisman Connection

Legendary college football coach John Heisman, of Heisman Trophy fame, earned a place in UA history very early in his career. Heisman arrived at Buchtel College in 1893 to teach men’s physical education and coach. Under his watch, the football team posted its first winning season ever with a 5-2 record. Before Heisman left in 1894, he gave UA another first — it’s one and only win over Ohio State during a tournament at the state fair in Columbus. He coached and played quarterback, leading UA to a 12-6 victory. Heisman gave the game such innovations as double laterals, the forward pass and the shotgun-style center snap — a move he created right on Buchtel Field.

How the Zips came to be

In 1927, student Margaret Hamlin offered the winning suggestion in a contest to find a nickname for UA athletic teams. “Zippers” seemed appropriate, given that it also was the name of a popular overshoe made locally by the Goodrich Corporation. Eventually, we just became the “Zips.”

Why our mascot is a kangaroo

A mascot search committee was formed in 1953 to consider several choices, and settled on the Australian marsupial. Committee chairman, Bob Savoy, a student council member and All-American diver, said of the committee’s choice, “It is fast, agile and powerful with undying determination — all the necessary qualifications of an athlete.” The Zippy we know today is more cuddly than fearsome, but definitely a champion! Zippy beat all comers to become the 2008 Capital One Mascot of the Year.

Mystery of the TKE house tombstone

For years an old tombstone, which served as a step, could be found behind the TKE house on Fir Hill. It read, “Harriet M … Born Jan. 4, 1850, Died Feb. 1, 1865. Harriet’s identity remained a mystery until alumnus Michael Elliott of the Akron-Summit County Public Library discovered that her full name was Harriet Maria Wilson, and she was one of eight children of Julia AnnSamuel Beatty Wilson. The tombstone is now in the University Archives.

A boulder sliced down the middle?

You can’t miss the Century Rock as you walk by Ayer Hall. The huge granite boulder is sliced down the middle, a rubber mat lies between the halves and the interior faces have been polished smooth. Installed on Founders Day in 1991, the Century Rock, designed to commemorate the impending turn of the century, symbolizes the passage from one era to another and the material itself reflects Akron’s history as the Rubber Capital of the World.

Walk on the Mayan side

Take a trek past Schrank Hall South and you might think you’ve discovered a trace of the ancient Mayas. The maze of rectangles that wraps around the north side originated in the mid-60s in the imagination of architect Rudy Tichy. Looking to give interest to the otherwise stark façade, he started doodling. Tichy’s design, composed of concrete panels, is now known as the “Mayan Wall.”

Knock on wood

At the Wayne College campus in nearby Orrville, the exposed wood at the entrance of Wayne main building has special meaning. It is from the barn, circa 1818, that sat on the property until construction began in 1971. The purchase agreement stipulated that the barn would be utilized in some way in the new structure.

As it turns out, the rocky subsoil had proved unsuitable for a cemetery. So its two acres were sold to the Universalists for $1 per acre, and the interred bodies were moved to what is now Glendale Cemetery. Buchtel then purchased additional acreage to ensure sufficient space for a campus.

In honor of Buchtel’s efforts and continuing support — he contributed at least $500,000 to the school over his lifetime — Buchtel College was named for him and he became president of the school’s first board of trustees.

And so it was with great fanfare that the cornerstone for the building that would come to be known as “Old Buchtel” was laid on July 4, 1871. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune and a Universalist, gave the principal address. (That cornerstone is now preserved inside the entrance of Buchtel Hall.)

Co-educational from the start

Buchtel College opened its doors to 46 students and seven faculty members in September 1872. The single, five–story building at 240 feet long, was imposing indeed.

For the first 27 years, all of Buchtel College’s academic and social activities took place within its walls, which contained dormitory rooms for men, women and unmarried faculty members, a chapel and dining room, in addition to classrooms, a library and labs. Tuition was $30, rent just $10 a year, and board — which included utilities and laundry — was $5 a week. Students who could not afford the room and board were often taken in by Buchtel, and his wife, Elizabeth, who had no children of their own.

UA students rally for the 1936 Republican vice presidential candidate.

It did not take long for fraternities and sororities to form, along with a variety of clubs for such interests as drama, music and bicycling. An intercollegiate baseball team formed in 1873, and a football team began in 1891.

In those early decades, the school was led by Universalist ministers, from its first president, Sullivan H. McCollester, through its sixth, Augustus B. Church. The only exception during this period was Charles M. Knight, a professor of chemistry and physics who agreed to serve only on an interim basis, as it was his wish to return to the classroom.

Knight’s role in University history is significant for far more than his year as president, from 1896 to 1897.

Making history

With the institution’s location centered in the midst of America’s burgeoning rubber industry, it was Knight who taught the world’s first courses in rubber chemistry, beginning in 1909. Those classes evolved into the world’s first College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering in 1988, and now Akron, once known as the Rubber Capital of the World, is an international center of polymer research.

Buchtel College struggled financially through its early decades, and when a fire destroyed the original building in 1899, its very existence was threatened. But local entrepreneurs who had pioneered and prospered in such industries as cereals, clay products and rubber, repeatedly came to the rescue of the young institution.

By 1913, the college had grown to six buildings and had formed such strong ties to the community that trustees transferred its assets to the city — Buchtel College became The Municipal University of Akron. The liberal arts department was renamed the Buchtel College of Liberal Arts (now the Buchtel College of Arts and Sciences) and tuition in that college was made free to any student whose parents lived in Akron.

Beneficial partnerships form early

In 1914, the College of Engineering, the second of the University’s 14 colleges, was formed. That same year, it pioneered one of the country’s first cooperative education programs, sending engineering students to work in nearby factories to learn to apply what they had been taught in class.

As the decades progressed, The Municipal University of Akron continued to receive its principal support from city tax funds, bringing a college education within the financial reach of many more young people. During those years, enrollment swelled from 198 to nearly 10,000.

With fuel and tires rationed during World War II, bikes were the way to travel.

The growth of the University paralleled the remarkable expansion of the community around it. Between 1910 and 1920, Akron was the fastest-growing city in the country, with its population rising from 70,000 to 208,000. People were drawn to Akron — by then a major manufacturing center — with the promise of jobs. With such companies as Goodyear, Firestone and Goodrich headquartered in Akron, the city became known as the Rubber Capital of the World.

During World War II, University researchers helped fill a critical need in the U.S. war effort by contributing to the development of synthetic rubber. In fact, alumnus Hezzleton E. Simmons, then UA’s president and a longtime chemistry professor, also served as associate chief of the Rubber Branch of the War Production Board from 1942-44, requiring him to spend his weeks in Washington, D.C., and his weekends on campus.

President Norman Auburn, who launched UA's first large campus expansion in the 1950s, takes a ceremonial turn in a bulldozer.

In the peacetime years that followed World War II, enrollment exploded at the University, as large numbers of veterans enrolled in classes under the G.I. Bill. It also brought on a long era of expansion, as nearby land and buildings were purchased for University use and new buildings were constructed.

UA goes state!

Overseeing much of this growth was the University’s 10th president, Norman P. Auburn. During his 20-year tenure, the longest of any University president, Auburn also led the institution through a different type of transition. In 1963, the receipt of state tax monies made the University a state-assisted municipal university. On July 1, 1967, The University of Akron officially became one of Ohio’s 13 state universities.

There have been many milestones in the University’s history in the decades since.

In 1973, for example, The University of Akron joined a consortium with Kent State and Youngstown State universities to build the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine and Pharmacy in nearby Rootstown (Cleveland State University joined in 2008).

This 1970s view shows Buchtel Avenue before it was closed to traffic and renamed Buchtel Common. The student looking over his shoulder is headed into Bierce Library.

That same year, E.J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall opened its doors on the west side of campus, strengthening the town and gown ties between the University and the city. The cultural center and architectural masterpiece has long been considered one of Ohio’s premier venues, featuring everything from student recitals to major Broadway shows.

In 2000, the University embarked on the New Landscape for Learning campus enhancement program. To date, UA has added 16 new buildings, 17 major additions and 34 acres of green spaced to the campus on the hilltop. The latest additions are the National Polymer Innovation Center, Spicer Residence Hall, Center for the History of Psychology, South Campus Parking Deck and a reconstructed Lee Jackson Soccer field.

Institutional renown

Today, research, innovation and creativity continue to take many forms at The University of Akron, which now boasts an enrollment of 28,000 students from 44 states and 84 countries.

UA is a partner in many important endeavors, such as the University Park Alliance, which is revitalizing and transforming the diverse, 50-block neighborhood area immediately surrounding the University. Another is the Austen BioInnovation Institute, a unique collaboration of complementary research, education and health institutions pioneering the next generation of life-enhancing and life-saving biomedical innovation.

Just this year, the state of Ohio named The University of Akron as both an Ohio Center of Excellence in Biomedicine and Health Care, and as an Ohio Center of Excellence in Enabling Technologies: Advanced Materials and Sensors.

Such recognition means that, “The University of Akron will continue to be a magnet for talent and a leader in innovation and entrepreneurial activity in Northeast Ohio,” notes its president, Dr. Luis M. Proenza.