The birth and development of the University of North Florida is the realization of an ambitious dream, and the testimony of dedication of a small group of individuals with a vision. The University's history consists of a set of clearly definable developmental high points, with chapters detailing an evolution from a fledgling upper division institution in an isolated woodland to the position it presently occupies in the network of higher educational institutions in Florida. Its progression to four-year status in the 1980s, striking growth from commuter school into a residential campus, major enrollment and building spurts through the 1990s, and its emergence in the twenty-first century as a vibrant educational force sets UNF on a course of realizing its full potential in the decades ahead.
The conception of the University is largely due to the vision and perseverance of Florida State Senator John E. Mathews, Jr. His UNF involvement dates back to 1963, when he introduced the first of three bills to authorize a four-year higher education institution in Duval County. This bill was killed in a legislative committee that same year. Two years later, in April 1965, after calling the Jacksonville area "the most educationally starved community of its size in the nation," Mathews reintroduced a higher education bill authorizing a feasibility study for a Duval County "senior" college. This bill passed and the study, with a positive recommendation for an upper and graduate level Duval County institution emphasizing business administration, education, and the traditional arts and sciences, was published by the Board of Regents in May 1967. Mathews then immediately filed a $2,600,000 appropriations bill to construct the university and a second bill for funding for the planning of facilities and initial staffing. Governor Claude Kirk vetoed the planning bill four times but in 1968 allowed a $225,850 bill to pass.
The next phase in UNF's development was the selection of a permanent location. In April 1968, then Mayor Hans Tanzler named Jacksonville businessman Gert Schmidt chairman of the Site Selection Committee. Schmidt was a logical choice as he was well-versed in higher education issues as a member of the Florida Board of Control and its successor, the Board of Regents (BOR). He stressed the need for a Duval County university due to its "huge population, geographical location, industrial complex and economic potential." Other members of the Site Selection Committee included Hugh Abernathy, Charles Brooks, Kenneth Craig, Justin Montgomery, Jack Quaritius and John Trekell.
From the outset, the site selection process proved to be difficult and contentious, given the BOR requirement of a minimum of 1,000 suitable acres for future growth. Although there were influential and vocal supporters for two urban Jacksonville sites (the Hospital Complex in Springfield and McCoy's Creek), the prohibitive costs of purchasing urban land versus the vast quantities of undeveloped acreage available in the suburbs proved to be the key and deciding element. Four rural sites (1 westside, 3 southside) were selected for further consideration by the Committee on November 17, 1968.
Three months later, on February 3, 1969, after negotiations with the area's landowners involving both the donation and sale of land, a combined Skinner family and Alexander Brest-George Hodges parcel (former Swallows Hopkins tract) was approved by the Board of Regents. Landowners included Alexander Brest, George Hodges Sr. and Associates, Mary Virginia Skinner Jones, A. Chester Skinner, Jr. and C. Brightman Skinner.
The City of Jacksonville still needed to gain title to the land and officially turn it over to the State. The downtown advocates were critical of the choice, their objection being that it was too far from downtown and inaccessible to urban residents. A final and controversial vote by the City Council decided in favor of the rural Deerwood setting and, on September 4, 1969, the BOR accepted the 1,000-acre site in south Jacksonville from the City of Jacksonville for the permanent campus.
“Aerial View of the University of North Florida Site” (1972)
On July 11, 1969, the BOR announced that the new institution would be called the University of North Florida and appointed Dr. Thomas G. Carpenter as its first President. Previous to his UNF appointment, Dr. Carpenter's career included tenure at three other state universities in Florida (UF, FAU, UWF), rising through the ranks from graduate assistant at UF to President of UNF. As the former Academic Vice President and Business Manager for the newly opened (1967) University of West Florida in Pensacola, Dr. Carpenter had already experienced the rigors and difficulties of building an institution from the ground up.
“President Thomas Carpenter at his desk” (1978)
Thirty years later, at the University's 30th anniversary celebration in October 2002, Dr. Carpenter recalled his daunting instructions from that period: "We had no blueprint. We were told that we have found you some property out there. Go find some people to hire. Develop some programs and go at it."
As the founding UNF administrator, Dr. Carpenter personally directed the physical development and initial administrative organization of the University and assembled a team of faculty, administrators, and support staff. With Dr. Carpenter and Dr. Roy L. Lassiter, the newly appointed Vice President of Academic Affairs, providing the inspiration and leadership, they worked feverishly to meet the Fall 1972 opening date.
While the site selection was being finalized and campus development underway, the skeleton University staff established a home in one large room on the sixth floor of the Florida National Bank Building in downtown Jacksonville in 1969. In August 1970, after recruiting and hiring faculty, administrators and staff, the University moved to a second interim location, the former Florida Chamber of Commerce building on the Arlington Expressway.
The Groundbreaking Ceremony for the new campus was held on September 18, 1971. President Carpenter welcomed 600 guests, among them keynote speaker Governor Reubin Askew, state and local dignitaries, faculty and staff, and the general public, including prospective students. In his remarks, Dr. Carpenter emphasized the symbolic nature of the event, "This day - this occasion - has been a long time coming. The hope for such an institution was born in Jacksonville many years ago. It began taking form and substance some six years ago through authorization by the Florida Legislature and two years ago when a staff of men and women began to merge ideas, experiences and talent to prepare for that day - one year from now - when students arrive and the dream will have been realized. The start of construction is significant because it provides physical evidence that our school actually does exist and is developing... but the bricks and mortar, the paving, the landscaping, the acres of land are not the real university. They simply mark its headquarters. The real university is people - it is ideas - and ideals - it is a living entity dedicated to the betterment of society. It is a creation by the people of this state to serve the people. It is an investment in the future with a compound rate of return."
Farkas, Andrew, “Groundbreaking Ceremony, Address by President Dr. Thomas G. Carpenter” (1971)
At the time of the Groundbreaking, St. John's Bluff Road was yet unpaved. The majority of guests were bused in from the Florida Junior College South campus on Beach Blvd. to the site of the celebration (now building 4). Given the current Butler Blvd. bustle, the new St. Johns Shopping Center, and booming development on the periphery of the campus, it is hard to imagine the isolated and wild palmetto forest that was then the future UNF campus. Archival photographs of the site in the late summer of 1971 show the area at the beginning of the core campus clearing. In a 1981 interview, Dr. Carpenter recalled the inaccessibility of the tract, with only one dirt logging road favored by poachers and hunters. He relates that after one attempt to visit the campus was thwarted by punctured tires, he relied initially on topographical charts and maps to plan the campus. Coincidentally, on a visit Vice President Lassiter broke the axel of his pickup truck on the same road, and on a later trip to the site, land donor Alexander Brest bogged down in the mud with three flat tires on his Rolls-Royce.
Farkas, Andrew, “Campus Construction Clearing” (1971)
In August 1972, with the construction crew still fully engaged in the completion of the building project, the UNF staff began the move to the new campus. The excitement and anticipation of the first day of classes in early October motivated all concerned. Coming from more urban academic settings, they were unprepared to meet their new neighbors. Betty Crippen Stosberg, UNF's first Registrar, recently recalled, "While working late one night, as I was leaving the building around 1 a.m., a security guard walked on one side of me and one of the members of the staff walked on the other. I was too tired at that point to question the procedure. However, the next morning, I asked why. The answer was: a small black bear had been seen on the campus, a rattlesnake had been killed in the parking lot, and a wild cat had gotten into the building." The small alligators that took up residence in the new man-made lakes were yet to arrive after classes began.
President Carpenter told his charter faculty at its first meeting on September 26, 1972, "On paper we look like a traditional university, but I hope we won't be." He proved to be remarkably prescient because, from the beginning, there was a sense in the local community that UNF was not your traditional university. Physically, the rural campus site was nestled deep in a beautiful woodlands setting with landscaping by the first Director of Physical Facilities, Hilton Meadows (landscape designer of UWF). Architecturally, the initial buildings were designed after a two-story village street concept favored by Dr. Carpenter. Not an ivy-covered building in sight or planned. Academically, the upper division status of the institution and the absence of dormitories and alternative campus housing drew mainly older part-time students, with the average age of the students (31) being higher than that of faculty members (29). In a 1981 interview, charter faculty member Dr. Dale Clifford recalled the high standards of the faculty and, "the backlog of students who were willing to work themselves silly for a college education."
“Campus Construction of Building 1” (1972)
Over the years, with the demographic changes of the clientele it serves, UNF evolved into a more traditional university, but many charter faculty and staff feel the University has kept the special sense of distinctiveness upon which it was founded.
The initial commencements were particularly meaningful for the graduates, their families, and the community. Jacksonville had waited many years for a public institution of higher learning. The opening of UNF in 1972 finally provided Northeast Florida residents the opportunity to learn and complete their education within commuting distance. The majority of the students were part-time and attended school at night, and many of these first alumni recall the challenges faced balancing school and work. A significant number of them also recall, with justifiable pride and emotion, their walk across the commencement stage as the first person in their family to have attended and graduated from college.
June 10, 1973
UNF's first graduating class consisted of 35 students, including 28 baccalaureate degree candidates and seven master of education degree students. Since the University opened in 1972 as an upper-level institution, these first graduates started at UNF as seniors or were already working on master's or second degrees.
The College of Arts and Sciences awarded the majority of bachelor's degrees, with a total of 17 candidates. By virtue of alphabetical standing, Robert Stephen Berry was the first student to graduate from the University. Graduate students receiving master's degrees in education included Betty S. Holzendorf (later Florida Senator) and Bernadine J. Bolden (later UNF professor of education and Vice President of Student Affairs).
“Graduates, First Commencement” (June 10, 1973)
The afternoon ceremony was held in the Courtyard under a hot sun before an audience of approximately 400 persons. As the diplomas were handed out, charter faculty and staff recall the shouts of "'Atta girl, Mom!" UNF President Dr. Thomas G. Carpenter was the commencement speaker. A reception was held in the library lounge.
August 26, 1973
At a Sunday twilight ceremony held in the Courtyard, 62 graduates listened to commencement speaker J. J. Daniel, chairman of the Florida Board of Regents. Daniel stressed the importance of education in our society and told the several hundred persons in the audience: "A human being, born with innate talent, creativity or intellectual power, who does not develop what God has given him, sins against God, sins against himself, and sins against his fellow man." UNF President Carpenter conferred the degrees and recognized three honors students in the class: Antonio Altieri, Albert Glenn Cherry, and Joy Clingman Hardaker. A reception following the ceremony was held in the library.
“Second UNF Commencement” (August 26, 1973)
June 12, 1974
The UNF Charter Class consisted of 685 students, who completed all of their upper-division degree work on the new campus. (Most of the students in the two earlier 1973 graduations had transferred from other schools as upper-level students.) Due to the large number of graduates and the lack of a suitable physical facility on campus to accommodate an event of that size, the ceremony was held in the Jacksonville Civic Auditorium.
“Charter Class Commencement Ceremony” (June 12, 1974)
Allan W. Ostar, Executive Director of The American Association of State Colleges and Universities, was the commencement speaker. Ostar reminded the graduates of their obligation, as alumni and taxpayers, to support their University and public education in general. His remarks were particularly specific to the Class of 1974, "...On this campus there are as many students attending classes at 8 o'clock at night as there are at 9 o'clock in the morning. The average age of the student body is not 19 or 20, it is 29. This graduating class includes not only young adults getting started in life, but a mother with a family of 12. A policeman earning his degree after many years out of school... The University of North Florida has responded to the needs of these older and working students. It has scheduled classes according to the available learning time of students, rather than forcing students to adapt to the University's schedule. The fact that 55 per cent of the students enrolled here are part-time means that the University of North Florida has conquered the clock. The people of Jacksonville have taken a great step forward by providing equal access, and they should be proud of it."
A week of special activities preceded the Charter Class commencement, including a dance at the Riverside Garden Club, and a UNF Open House and Family Day with campus tours, art show, and demonstrations by judo, canoeing, and archery teams. A concert at Riverside Presbyterian Church was held on June 10 in honor of the graduates, conducted by Jack Funkhouser and featuring UNF professors Dr. Gersin Yessin as piano soloist, organist Arthur Bloomer, and tenor Dr. William Brown; baritone Robert Kirkland; and UNF voice majors Cynthia Valentine and Sharon Wright.
August 23, 1974
The fourth commencement was held in a new outdoor venue - the campus quadrangle at the intersection of Buildings 3 and 4. Degrees were conferred on 83 master's candidates and 205 bachelor's students. State Commissioner of Education Ralph Turlington gave the commencement address to the 288 graduating students. He challenged the graduates to take their degrees and go out into the world to fend off the 1970s attitude of "dig in and survive." Speaking to current events, he said the Watergate crisis forced citizens to demand a higher ethic of their public officials and he also urged the graduates to consider becoming politically involved. He warned them not to become disenchanted with the sluggish movement of the country's institutions. He also said UNF would become one of the leading institutions of the South because of its wide diversity of age, skills and backgrounds among its students.
December 16, 1974
A unique non-traditional graduation observance, designed to promote informal, family style gatherings of the graduates and their families, was held for the 196 candidates of the fifth graduating class. Instead of one formal ceremony, separate ceremonies were held for each of the three colleges (Education, Arts and Sciences, Business Administration) and were followed by a combined reception in the library. The ceremonies were staggered so UNF President Dr. Carpenter could participate in each. A total of 167 bachelor's degrees and 29 master's degrees in education and business administration were awarded.
“Commencement Ceremony Site” (1974)
Text by Eileen Brady, University Librarian Emerita.
Sources used: Schafer, Daniel. From Scratchpads and Dreams: a History of the University of North Florida. Miscellaneous newspaper clippings. Board of Regents reports and Site Selection documents. Oral history interviews in University Archives. Commencement announcements and programs.
Much of the material used to research this article is from the UNF University Archives, which is the repository for historical resources relating to the University. Materials in the archives include programs, newspaper clippings, memoranda and announcements, photographs, realia, and other visual / printed items. Donations are welcome to enhance the collection.