This week marks the beginning of the 45th academic year at the University of West Florida. If UWF were a human, at 45 we might expect it to buy a convertible or dye its hair as part of its inevitable mid-life crisis. The university is certainly pondering questions about its identity and aspirations as it nears 50 years of age, but it is not the first time UWF has questioned its own direction. Over the past five decades UWF has undergone notable transformations that changed the original characteristics of the school.
When UWF opened 45 years ago, it was not a four-year institution. At that time, the state legislature was opening two-year upper level universities for juniors and seniors that were designed to work with the expanding system of “junior,” later community colleges (many of which, including Pensacola’s, have recently been branded “state colleges,” having added one or more Bachelor’s degree programs). Among those was Pensacola Junior College, established in 1948. Washington Junior College opened in 1949 and, under segregation, provided educational opportunities for African-American students in this area.
In 1955, the Florida Legislature authorized plans to build a university in Escambia County, the sixth university in the state. UWF was approved for construction just as the University of South Florida, opened in 1960, and Florida Atlantic University, opened in 1964, were drawing funds, as was the construction of 28 community colleges. The state approved the first funding for UWF’s construction in 1963. By 1964 the 1,000-acre site on the Escambia River had been selected and construction began in 1965.
The natural beauty of the campus was, and continues to be, a major selling point.
Original campus planner John Jarvis stated, “We have and are trying to retain the site, rather than deny it.” Rolling hills, the presence of Thompson’s Bayou, and the view of the Escambia River were assets to maximize and made UWF “unexcelled in the state university system for its natural beauty,” one state architect believed.
Plans for the Edward Ball Nature Trail were part of the original vision and development of the campus, as was its status as a nature preserve and living biology laboratory. Buildings were constructed on a scale that complemented, rather than competed with the landscape; worn paths were common on the hilly campus and sidewalks were kept to a minimum to avoid creating large expanses of concrete. Even today, worn footpaths are present on campus, evidence of preferred routes between buildings.
In addition to its unique landscape, at its inception UWF was also quite non-traditional academically. The university’s academic programs were not arranged in traditional discipline-specific colleges, but rather in “cluster colleges.” The first students arriving in fall 1967 studied in one of three cluster colleges (named Alpha, Gamma, and Omega) that housed a mixture of disparate majors. Gamma College, for instance, housed the Accounting, Biology, History, and Elementary Education programs among others. The arrangement was designed to encourage inter-disciplinary communication and collaboration, and was implemented in other universities across the country in the 1960s.
For 12 years, the cluster college model remained in place. UWF added graduate programs in 1969 and continued to grow throughout the 1970s. As it expanded and associated with other universities, professional and accrediting organizations, some felt the arrangement was confusing. In 1979, the colleges were rearranged into the more familiar colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business, and Education.
The early 1980s saw the move to make UWF a four-year university. In 1982, the presidents of UWF and PJC (Washington Junior College merged with PJC in the 1960s) considered merging the two schools and lobbied the state to do so. After a bit of political back and forth, the state approved UWF as a four-year university on its own. The first freshman class arrived in fall of 1983. The rest (and there is much more!), as they say, is history, as will be whatever happens next at UWF.
Jessica is a Pensacola resident with a Master’s degree in Public History. When she’s not digging up history facts, you can find her at Music Box Pensacola.