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100 Years of Students: A History of CLAS
Few can dispute the central role played by the arts and sciences in any university. Since the earliest incarnation of the university system, the skills offered by study within the realm of the arts and sciences—from rhetoric and grammar to philosophy and astronomy—have played an essential role in the concept of higher learning. Although it might be a cliché to refer to the arts and sciences as representing the heart of the university, there is little doubt that the University of Florida would be an entirely different place without its College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
The history of CLAS stretches back almost as far as the founding of the university itself. It was 157 years ago when the state legislature of Florida, which itself had only been around for six years, voted to set up two institutions of higher learning in Florida: one to the east of the Suwannee River and one to the west. In setting up these institutions, the local government looked to the community to assist with cash or land donations. Although the first-generation of Floridians were not overly enthusiastic in their support of Florida’s fledgling higher education, one property was offered for use: a small private school for children in Ocala called the East Florida Seminary. This was the only proposal that the state of Florida received.
Despite the rather humble beginnings, two years later, in 1853, which is given today as the university’s founding date, Governor Thomas Brown signed off on legislation that enabled the state to provide financial backing for the East Florida Seminary. Essentially, this marks the birth of the University of Florida. Many of the core courses that make up areas of study in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences today—such as history, English, and zoology—began at the seminary. However, the Civil War subsequently interrupted the development of the university and it wasn’t until 1866 that the university moved to Gainesville, starting on the path towards becoming the institution we know now.
By the end of the 1800s, the state of Florida was having some difficulty supporting eight institutions of higher learning. Interviewed by Alumni CLASnotes in 2003, the late Samuel Proctor, who was the University of Florida’s official historian, argued that the number of schools contributed to a weak educational system. “The state was trying to support these institutions and was not doing a very good job at it,” Proctor said. “None of them compared well with other schools in the South, much less the nation.”
That all changed with the passing of the Buckman Act in 1905. Created by Henry H. Buckman, chairman of the Florida House Judiciary Committee, the bill combined the eight institutions in Florida into three: the University of Florida, Florida State, and Florida A&M universities. After UF was established in Gainesville (Lake City had also bid to be the home to state’s future flagship university), arts and sciences classes were taught in the School of Language and Literature and the General Scientific School.
The demarcation of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as a specific entity within the greater university occurred in 1909. It was during that year that the four original colleges were first created—Agriculture, Engineering, Law, and Arts and Sciences. Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of the earliest incarnation of the college is that while there were only 12 staff members, the college offered degrees in 15 separate disciplines. Showing the fluidity of academic definitions, some departments moved in and out of the college, while a number of new departments were added over time: religion, biology, sociology, psychology and speech are just some of the disciplines that came to exist under the arts and sciences banner.
Despite the emphasis on endowments, buildings, budgets, and national rankings, two of the clearest measures of a university’s success are its history and the achievements of its students. On the 100th anniversary of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, it is worth taking a moment to explore the birth of the college and reflect on the lives of those who have helped shape CLAS’ reputation at home and abroad.
Since that time, a number of other significant moments in the college’s history have helped it become what it is today. University College, created in 1935 by UF President John J. Tigert, was an initiative that attempted to bolster the liberal arts education of freshman and sophomores at UF. Through the University College, students could earn an associate’s degree before undertaking a bachelor’s degree in the college of their choice. “Tigert believed you needed less specialization,” Proctor said. “A doctor needed to know more than just medicine; he needed to know about the arts, literature and so on.” There was another major reason behind University College: it allowed poorer students, who might not have had the means to study for four years, a more general education than specializing before dropping out.
Shortly after the end of World War II, UF became a co-educational institution. In 1947, CLAS was the first college to hire a woman faculty member—Dorothy Rethlingshafer joined the psychology department to assist in the development of the Ph.D. program and to teach courses in learning, testing, and motivation. In 1962, UF integrated with the first enrollment of African-American students. Eight years later, UF hired its first African-American staff and faculty members: two of whom, English professors Ronald Foreman and Betty Ingram, became CLAS’ first African-American faculty.
In 1978, University College became a part of CLAS, merging to establish the largest college on campus. Furthermore, the home of CLAS, Turlington Hall, was built at a cost of $5.7 million dollars the same year. Named in honor of the former UF business professor and state education minister Ralph Turlington, the building now serves as the center of the College of liberal Arts and Sciences.