The History Of Universities In Arizona


Recently I read my latest issue of ASU Magazine. As a proud ASU alum and member of the ASU Alumni Association, this is a magazine that I regularly receive. This issue's focus? ASU celebrating 50 years as a university. The whole issue was focused on this celebration. It featured a wonderfully written article by the Payson Roundup's Peter Aleshire. It got me thinking that this would be a great time to look at higher education history in Arizona and the history of Arizona State University.

The placement of higher education institutions in Tempe and Tucson came about in 1885. The way it occurred is the stuff of legend. The 13th Legislature had some big ticket items to consider, amongst them a mental health facility, a university, and a normal school, the latter, being a teachers' college. The big prize was the mental health facility. It carried a big appropriation of funding and would bring some good jobs to a community and mental folks, well, they aren't thought to cause a whole lot of problems, at least not back in those days. The least of the prizes was the university. Young whipper-snappers were thought to be rowdy and potential problem-causers. One story about how Tucson ended up with the university that I heard growing up went like this: The delegation from Tucson was late getting up to the legislative session in Prescott because the Agua Fria River was high and they could not cross. By the time they got to Prescott, the juicier prizes were already given out. Based on a quick search of stories on the Web though, I'd say this is untrue. Tucson's delegation was mainly looking to get the capital moved back to Tucson and as far as I can tell, they ended up with the university because their delegation was smaller. Meanwhile, through some skillful negotiations by John Armstrong, Tempe got the normal school and Phoenix got the mental health facility.

ASU actually opened before the University of Arizona, as they were able to acquire land quicker than Tucson. Arizona's first institution of higher education opened on Feb. 8, 1886 in Tempe. The land, 20 acres of pasture, was provided by George and Martha Wilson of Tempe in exchange for $500. Meanwhile, it took the folks in Tucson a little longer to get things in order. The University of Arizona did not open until 1891.

Through the years there have been many name changes for what is now Arizona State University. It started off as Tempe Normal School. It became Tempe State Teachers College in 1925 and in 1936 became known as Arizona State Teachers College at Tempe. In 1945 the final name change before becoming a university occurred, when it became Arizona State College at Tempe.

Now to the story of ASU becoming a university, and I'll note that I'm pulling highlights from Aleshire's terrific article. In many respects, 1945 was the beginning of the end of the University of Arizona being Arizona's only university. Arizona State College was authorized at that point to issue a few liberal arts degrees, taking the institution away from being just a teachers college. Obviously, some other key factors played a role. The Phoenix metropolitan area experienced significant growth during that time and President Grady Gammage properly positioned the university to take advantage of the opportunities that came with so many GIs coming home following World War II. By the mid-1950s efforts to rename Arizona State College as Arizona State University began to pick up some momentum. But this was no slam dunk. Tucson and the University of Arizona had lots to protect. They were not going to give up their status as home to Arizona's only university without a fight. Year after year there was wrangling over a possible name change in the state legislature. Year after year, efforts failed. Finally in 1958, Grady Gammage and his supporters decided to take their fight to the people. On April 25, 1958 a ballot initiative campaign was unveiled. James Creasman was appointed by Grady Gammage to head the campaign. Those of you who attended ASU football games in the past might recognize that name. Creasman was the announcer for the Sun Devil marching band's pre-game and halftime shows until his death in 1999. On July 1, 1958, 63,956 signatures were delivered to the state capitol in support of the name change ballot initiative. Throughout the summer, ASU supporters vigorously campaigned for the name change. On Nov. 4, 1958 it passed by a vote of 101,811 to 51,471. The measure passed by an 11-2 margin in Maricopa County and lost only in Pima and Cochise counties.

Since becoming a university 50 years ago ASU has gone through many changes. It wasn't until 1978 that it joined the Pac-10 Conference for athletics and there have been many changes even since I graduated five years ago. Some may ask what ASU has to do with Payson, but the fact is that we are very influenced by them. Many people who graduate from Payson High School have gone on to school there and many ASU alums have found their way to Rim Country on a full- or part-time basis. ASU football has been practicing at Camp Tontozona east of Payson almost as long as ASU has been a university. For about a week in August the area still transforms as the Sun Devils head up the hill for practice, and given where Coach Dennis Erickson has the program headed, it would not be a surprise to see a national reporter or two from outlets such as ESPN. This is Sun Devil Country and it is something that we should be proud of.

A couple links that you might find interesting:

ASU has a tremendous online exhibit of photos documenting its history. That can be found at:

The ASU alumni association can be found at:

If you're catching a case of Sun Devil sports fever, with so many sports doing so well, visit

At the present time, Aleshire's great article is not online, but I suspect that it will be in the future. Make sure you check back in a future article of mine for a link if it becomes available.

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