The Soul of a New College
MSC Forum Building was the first home of Metropolitan state College. It had to win special exceptions from city zoning ordinances. Among other things, the stairways were too narrow and there weren't enough exits.
By Carson Reed ('83)
Reprinted from Metropolitan Magazine, Spring, 1987
Sometime during the 1968 school year, President Ken Phillips arranged a tour of the campus for some of the members of the legislature.
As the school's enrollment had grown, so had its budget requests, and Metropolitan State College was the subject of considerable interest among the politicians, many of whom could hardly believe that one of the state's largest colleges was growing almost invisibly a few hundred yards from the State Capitol.
The group wandered through the sundry office buildings and ancient warehouses the college was accumulating - the Forum Building, designed to hold legal offices; the Student Center on Bannock, which had been converted from a paint store; the YMCA, where physical education classes were being held; and finally, the Cherokee Building, which had formerly been a floral warehouse. There, in the biology labs, the group surprised a student, senior Arthur Adams, hidden alone in a back room surrounded by dozens of empty beer bottles.
"What in the world are you doing?" a legislator asked. Nonplussed, the work study student explained that the biology department didn't have enough money for specimen bottles, so students had been saving the bottles which, because of the quality of brown glass used, were well-suited to that purpose. Adams was in the process of removing the labels and sterilizing the bottles when he was interrupted by the touring guests.
Everyone had a good laugh, and the tour continued without any other notable surprises.
The following year, the school's budget for lab supplies was increased.
The Thundering Herd
Although the trustees had outlined a school without"varsity athletic teams, stadium, marching bands, baton twirlers, dormatories, and social fraternities and sororities," many of the students wanted these "traditional" amenities from the earliest days of the college. Many didn't.
By the fall of 1968, the student headcount at Metropolitan
State College had ballooned to 4,629 students - a four-fold
increase in enrollment in as many years. "We expected
the college to grow," recounts history professor
Steve Leonard, "but not as fast as it did. There
was a huge amount of pent-up demand, and the place just
exploded." People were flocking to the college from
all parts of the city, and for all kinds of reasons -
some of them surprising to the planners of the college.
The so-called "thundering herd from the lower third"
was on the march. As had been expected, about 60 percent
of the Metropolitan State student body came from the lower
third of their high school graduating class, a group excluded
from enrollment at CU and the CU Extension Center, as
well as the city's private colleges and universities.
What was not expected was that MSC students would be significantly
younger than the students of the CU Extension Center,
where the average age was 26. Early enrollments at Metropolitan
State showed that fewer than one in 20 students was over
the age of 26. During the first year of classes, the average
age was 19.
What's more, Metropolitan State was not enrolling the
number of women and minority students it had anticipated.
Dean Keats McKinney reported that the vast majority of
the new students were coming from "the mortgaged
middle class, which already finds education expensive
and becoming more so."
Just about everyone expected that Metropolitan State would
attract a high percentage of students interested in the
two-year vocational and technical programs being offered
by the college. It had been treated almost as a given
that the school would attract eminently practical students
who would opt for eminently practical degrees. During
those first years, however, the students defied all projections.
Over 75 percent of the students who enrolled in the college's
first quarter said they hoped to get a four-year degree,
and enrollments leaned heavily toward a traditional curriculum
of liberal arts and sciences. Together, technical and
vocational training (including business classes) amounted
to less than 25 percent of enrollments - and if you took
the business students out of the picture, only 6 percent
of the total student enrollment was involved in technical
Those members of the legislature who were under the impression
they had created an urban technical college were dismayed
by the trend. The trustees and the college administration
were accused of creating a school substantially different
from the one the state had asked for. Less than three
months after the school had opened, trustee Betty Naugle
found herself reading the Metropolitan State role and
mission statement aloud to the newly formed Colorado Commission
on Higher Education, to remind them that general education
courses were an integral part of what the school was intended
to offer. "If this was not the intention of the legislature,
then what was it?" she asked the group.
With virtually no one realizing what was happening, the character of MSC was being formed in a way that had never occurred to anyone before. The students were becoming the architects of the school
From left to right: Dr. Phillip Boxer, Dr. Keats McKinney, Dr. Harlan Bryant, H. Grant Vest, Dr. Kenneth Phillips, Betty Naugle, Dr. Merle Milligan and Dr. Gail Phares.
But surely even the trustees
were surprised by the students' behavior. The vocational
and technical programs had been about six times less popular
than had been projected. The school was rapidly becoming
a mecca for students who were traditional in every way
but this: The traditional schools that they clearly would
have liked to attend were either financially or academically
out of their reach. The students clearly did not want
to be set apart from their peers at other schools by being
relegated into vocational education. In Denver, students
were shopping for education like real estate, and they
were clearly less concerned about innovative programs
than about the price and location.
Unlike older established schools, Metropolitan State College had the flexibility to respond to the unpredicted demands of Denver's students, as the college curriculum grew, it was heavily influenced by the demands of the students. Out of necessity, the college responded to those demands by hiring more faculty and offering more classes. The unspoken philosophy of the college became reactive, rather than proactive. With virtually no one realizing what was happening, the character of Metropolitan State College was being formed in a way that had never occurred to anyone before: The students were becoming the architects for the school.
By 1968, many of these early surprises had passed away. Gradually, vocational enrollments increased, and would continue to increase right up until Metropolitan State divested itself of two-year programs in 1976. The student body grew statistically older, to a mean age of 27. Women and minorities enrolled at the school in larger numbers.
What did not change was the dynamics of institutional growth. Those early days of crisis, when the "thundering herd" showed up demanding something other than what the social planners had expected them to want, inverted the pyramid that traditional higher education had always been based on. Metropolitan State College survived its early years by anticipating and then providing for the demands of the students, rather than trying to shove an educational concept down their throats.
One of the most interesting results of this reactive approach to education is that today the school is rife with literally hundreds of formal and in-formal networks: Boards, committees, task forces, study groups, bull sessions, you name it. It is the stuff of administrative nightmares.
The Colfax Student Activities Center. the MSC seal still hung above the door of this building until recently.
The Pioneer Spirit
When you sit down and talk to some of the original faculty
about the early years of Metropolitan State College, there
is a common thread of emotion that runs through the conversation.
The combination of hardship and adventure created a bond
among faculty and students that was unique in most of
the educators' experiences.
''There was a definite pioneer spirit at the school,"
says Steve Leonard. "Everyone had a good attitude
"The students saw us as colleagues and friends,"
agrees technical communications professor Joy Yunker.
"It was very familiar, very informal."
Faculty feeling runs high that during the early years
of the college their relationships with students were
as good as any they have ever enjoyed. This is all the
more remarkable when you stop to consider that these comments
were made about a period between 1965 and 1968 when student
protests were closing schools all over the country. Things
were so bad at other schools in 1968, Colorado's law-makers
wanted to give campus administrators emergency police
powers to arrest students. It was a time when groups like
the Students For a Democratic Society were being barred
from college campuses and students were less likely to
be described as "bright and ambitious" than
they were "angry and disaffected."
Not that Metropolitan State College squeaked through the
Gwen Thomas, then an English department faculty member,
recalls a student meeting "where they talked seriously
about blowing up the Forum Building." Between the
civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests, "those
years were no picnic," says Thomas, who acted as
a liaison between the administration and some of the student
organizations during that period.
The combination of hardship and adventure created a bond between faculty and students.
Still, student opinions found
a forum through established academic channels more frequently
than not. Speech professor Thomas Cook remembers one of
his star students burning his draft card as a visual aid
in Speech 101.
The war was problematic for faculty. Says English professor Charles Allbee, "It was a terrible burden placed on us. Many times I was faced with the prospect that if I failed a male in freshman comp, I was participating in a series of events that could be, in effect, a death sentence.”
The Three Ring Circus
The Auraria campus was approved by voters in 1969, but by 1973 ground had still not been broken in the decaying Auraria neighborhood.
When Ken Phillips handed over
the reins of the college in 1971, he noted that administering
the college was among the hardest things he had ever done.
"I'm a little worn out," he told a Denver Post
reporter. He likened his job to that of ringmaster, and
explained that the administration of Metropolitan State
College had come to include three distinct "rings,"
each one a full-time job in itself. Number one, Phillips
said, was the creation of a new college, which included
building leases, basic equipment purchases, curriculum
design, and an endless sea of publications to be created
and printed. His previous job, supervising the creation
of San Bernadino State College, had taken all his time
for nearly three and a half years. But here, the college
had to be operational in less than five months, and whatever
was left undone had to be completed while the college
was in operation, which was Phillips' second full-time
position. Administering the fastest growing college in
the state, including trying to anticipate those fickle
students, was no piece of cake (during the first three
years, enrollment projections were the full-time job of
Bob O'Dell, then dean of administra-tive services). Phillips'
third full-time job was supervising the master-planning
of a campus for Metropolitan State College. The way enrollments
had been increasing, the school would have no trouble
reaching its projected enrollment of 11,000 students by
1972 and 30,000 students by 1982. In deference to this
rather overwhelming prediction, planners began looking
in early 1966 for a permanent home for the college.
There's No Place Like
That Metropolitan State College
would someday need its own campus was duly noted in the
"Green Report" in 1963. There was never a time
in the college's history when the acquisition of a permanent
site for the school was not among its top priorities.
By 1968, it had become perfectly clear to Phillips and
others that a col-lege could not survive as a tenant for
very long. Metropolitan State was quickly running out
of suitable build-ings to lease, and with each new lease
the distances that faculty and students had to walk were
getting longer and longer. It was already impossible to
get from, say, the Double A Building or the Glenarm Building
over to a class in the Cherokee Building in the allotted
ten minutes. Then, too, the cost of renting prime office
space was prohibitive and by 1968 was running over a million
The college approached the legislature with a site picked and more than $12 million in hand. But 1968 was a bad year to be asking for a new campus.
But the plans were well in
the works. In 1966, the college had surveyed 25 possible
sites for a new campus, and eventually narrowed the field
down to four sites within the Denver area. Those, too,
were quickly narrowed down, and Phillips later asserted
bluntly: "The Auraria site was the only site that
was feasible." The Denver Planning Board agreed and
on July 20, 1966, added its endorsement to those of the
Downtown Improvement Associ-ation and the Denver Downtown
Master Plan Committee.
Auraria, the decaying remnants of our first Front Range settlement, was ripe for the picking. The area was potentially available for urban renewal funds, and the potential acreage and accessibility to roads made it a tempting package.
In 1967, the college had applied to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for urban renewal money to help with the acquisition of land, demolition of the neigh-borhood, and relocation of the some 400 residents and 249 businesses still surviving in the Auraria neighborhood. Metropolitan State worked hand-in-hand with the Denver Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) on researching and submitting the proposal, which also had the support of Denver under both the Currigan and McNichols administrations.
But ill winds were blowing in 1968. State student enrollment topped 100,000 for the first time, and the same budget-conscious legislature was screaming under the pinch. It was a bad year to be asking for a new campus.
Joe Shoemaker was chairman of the Joint Budget Committee in 1968, and he says that the huge amount of money involved in building an urban college campus made the proposal "more of a Joint Budget Committee concern than an Education Committee concern." In addition, The CU Extension Center (cramped into the shell of the old Denver Tramway Building) and the new Community College of Denver/Auraria (renting old warehouses a little north-east of Metropolitan State's old warehouses) were looking for a permanent campus. No one realistically expected the legislature to even enter-tain the idea of building campuses for all three. As Shoemaker says: "The very first political debate arose because of the amount of money the three institutions were after. Every other institution in the state was concerned that, if we appropriated something like $100 million to the three Denver schools for new campuses, it would completely eliminate capital construc-tion projects at the other schools for years to come.
"Those budgetary concerns had to be overcome because that's the only way we could sell it to the legislature," Shoemaker .says. "If we couldn't cut those costs and develop a solid consolidated campus plan, then nobody was going to get a new campus, and they'd all have been working out of rented offices forever."
Where did the idea for the shared campus come from? Both Shoemaker and trustee Betty Naugle credit Frank Abbott, then the executive director of the CCHE.
Naugle, then representing MSC on a CCHE task force, remembers that Abbott had a flash of inspiration walk-ing from the CU Extension Center to the Forum Building. "It seems so logical," Naugle remembers Abbott telling the task force, "and it's the only way we're ever going to get HUD to approve this thing."
In November of 1968, HUD okayed the proposal, to the tune of $12.3 million in urban renewal assistance money. It was among the last of such major grants by HUD, which tightened considerably under the coming Nixon administration. It was a victory of major proportions, since it meant the three colleges could approach the legislature about capital construction funding with a site picked and more than $12 million in hand.
Not that the idea went down easily with either the trustees or the MSC staff. Bob O'Dell, along with many others on the staff, had invested years of work into site selection, architectural design, the HUD grant, and a mammoth public relations campaign to interest the city and others in the idea. For 0' Dell, turning the work over to help create Auraria felt a little like shooting himself in the foot. "We felt, and many of us still feel," said O'Dell, "that the three-institution Auraria concept hurt Metro because we didn't have an individual identity."
Mother Ship College
In 1971, Phillips looked back on the gradual development
of a base of cooperation among the three colleges, and
said that it was a question of taking off the institutional
blinders and realizing how badly Denver needed all three
"I think we evolved into the position psychologically
that says, we realize that the education problems of an
urban area are so big that it isn't a question of who
is going to give the service. There [was] too much to
In 1969 Denver property owners passed by a narrow margin
a $5.8 million bond issue for Auraria (a HUD requirement
for funding), bringing the ante to $18 million dollars,
and making the Auraria project one of the most irresistible
The legislature could not resist. Slowly, a stream of
state funding trickled in for the project, and the planning
began for the clearing of a neighborhood and the building
of a campus.
By 1971, however, the ground had not been broken at Auraria,
and the staff of Metropolitan State College was admittedly
"a little worn out." Metropolitan State College
had kept grow-ing, to a fall headcount of 8,201. The college
sprawled to a total of 13 rented buildings, and the students
were getting a little worn out themselves, scrambling
across innumerable busy downtown streets in a vain effort
to get to class on time. Ken Phillips predicted that the
college would reach its maximum allowable enrollment for
the new shared campus (16,000) before it even opened,
and he would turn out to be nearly right. It was an era
of dreams created around unforeseeable realities.
Ken Phillips, backed by his adventurous crew, was the
closest thing to a Chuck Yeager that could be found in
higher education. Phillips had piloted an experimental
college by the seat of his pants, and sure enough, the
damn thing worked. It did better than just work. By following
the lead of its stu-dents, the college became a prototype
that would be widely emulated (and sometimes poorly imitated)
through the '70s and into the '80s.
At the time of his retirement, Phillips said, "I
have a great deal of confidence that Metropolitan State
College will become an outstanding urban-oriented college.
I think it has gone further down that road than any other
institution of its kind in the United States."