This month we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day Gov. Abraham Ribicoff signed a special act creating the University of Hartford. From its very beginning, the university has had a clearly defined mission: to be a private university with a public purpose.
Let's go back 50 years to February 1957 and consider the events that gave rise to the founding of the university. The return of World War II GIs and the beginning of the baby boom generation made it clear that America needed more schools, colleges and universities. Citizens of rapidly expanding cities in the Sun Belt went time and time again to their legislatures and said, "Give us a public university." As a result, the past 50 years have been characterized by the rise of public higher education.
But not so in Hartford. When Hartford's civic leaders decided the time had come for their city to have a university, they resorted to hardy New England self-reliance. They said, "We will create and finance a university ourselves."
It just so happened that three small private schools and colleges in the Hartford area needed new homes: Hartford Art School, Hillyer College and Hartt College of Music. But it wasn't just physical needs that the new university would satisfy. There was also a sense that Hartford needed a university to complete its notion of what it meant to be an American city in the 20th century.
Fortunately, Atwood Collins, one of the university founders, knew that the last farm left in Hartford was available, and shortly before the charter was signed, Hillyer College purchased that land on Bloomfield Avenue.
Buildings began to sprout on the former farmland. Schools of the performing and visual arts stood - both literally and figuratively - at the very center of the university and gave it a distinguishing characteristic that continues to this day.
In the 1970s, the university began to construct residence halls and make the transition from a commuter school to a residential one. That transition was completed with characteristic flair by President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who oversaw the rapid development of residence halls and academic buildings in the 1980s.
Trachtenberg's successor, Humphrey Tonkin, reconnected the university with its local community in the 1990s with the Hartford Scholars program, which provides half-tuition scholarships for graduates of Hartford public schools, and Educational Main Street, a program in which university students tutor pupils in nine Hartford schools.
During the past nine years, the university has recommitted itself to the mission its founders envisioned. We have renovated facilities and created important new academic buildings (for example, the Integrated Science, Engineering and Technology complex and the Renée Samuels Center of the Hartford Art School). At the same time, the university has become more financially secure and more selective in admissions than at any time in its history.
Two of the most important initiatives of the past nine years have been the two new public magnet schools on campus: the University of Hartford Magnet School and the University High School of Science and Engineering. The university is now more directly connected with the region's public schools than is any other private university in the country.
Nothing speaks more dramatically to our founders' vision than the university's future Performing Arts Center at Albany Avenue and Westbourne Parkway. When Gov. M. Jodi Rell committed $4 million in bonding last month to enable the first stage of construction to begin in the spring, she was continuing a long-standing legacy of commitment by Connecticut governors.
Our hope is that the Performing Arts Center, along with the Artists Collective (the creation of the late Hartt School faculty member Jackie McLean and his wife, Dollie), will act as a catalyst to responsible growth and development in that vital neighborhood.
A private university with a public purpose has much to celebrate on its 50th birthday: the vision of its founders, the support and encouragement of its local supporters and donors, the commitment of its staff and faculty, and the success of its alumni. But most of all, it celebrates the energy and vitality of its student body - from preschool to graduate school, from all races and backgrounds, and from every corner of the globe.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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