Skip to main content

The College history: A look at 66 years of academic excellence

Over the years, change has been a constant for The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; student success is the focus for the future

Aerial photograph of Tempe campus toward the northeast
February 27, 2019

Today, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences boasts the most students, courses and — as of fiscal year 2018 — the most externally funded research expenditures at Arizona State University.

But it wasn’t always that way. While liberal arts courses at ASU date back to 1934 and a liberal arts and sciences program was approved in 1946, a formal liberal arts degree wasn’t created until May 16, 1953, when the Arizona Board of Regents established The College of Arts and Sciences. Over the years, The College went through a number of name changes and periods of growth.

Creating a presence within a newly formed university

The College’s growth and development between the 1950s and 1970s created the foundation for the university and college that we know today. In the early 1950s, then-President Grady Gammage began the push to change the school’s name from the Arizona State College to Arizona State University.

During the same time as the president’s efforts, The College of Arts and Sciences was established, offering two degrees: A Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Science. The Bachelor of Arts offered concentration areas in departments including art, biological sciences, English, foreign languages, mathematics, music, physical sciences and social studies, while the Bachelor of Science offered concentration areas in agriculture, biological science, business administration, psychology, home economics, industrial arts, mathematics, health education and physical education, physical sciences and social studies.

As the degree options widened, so did opportunities for students and faculty. The 1950s marked the beginning of research in the field of life sciences. 

“The earliest — and I think most fun — example of that would be Herb Stahnke and the establishment of the Poisonous Animals Research Laboratory,” said university archivist Robert Spindler. “The purpose of the laboratory was to create antivenom for scorpion and rattlesnake bites. It was the only lab of its kind in Arizona at the time. University Archives has a thick book of letters from parents of children who were saved by the antivenom produced at this university.”

According to Spindler, the life sciences became an important part of The College and allowed the university to begin attracting research dollars. In the late ’50s and ’60s, a number of centers were established, including the Center for Meteorite Studies.

In 1961, Dr. H. H. Nininger sold his collection containing 1,220 cataloged samples from 684 meteorite falls to ASU. An interview in the New York Times shortly after the collection’s dedication shows the scholarly impact these samples had and serves as a foreshadowing of the technology and research to come later in The College. 

“It will probably be several years before man is able to duplicate with artificial vehicles the travels of meteorites with respect to both time and space. Until he does, the study of meteorites will provide a major source of information about extra-terrestrial conditions,” said Carleton Moore, then-director of the Nininger Meteorite Laboratory. The lab was renamed the Center for Meteorite Studies in 1965.

Establishing a future of impact

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, The College established its size and importance in the university system.

“By 1980, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences was the second greatest producer of undergraduate degrees behind the College of Business, but by 1990, liberal arts and sciences had overtaken business as the greatest producer of undergraduate degrees,” Spindler said.

This time period brought about new research endeavors, including the management of the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory when the lab’s co-founder Professor George Cowgill joined The College’s Department of Anthropology (which later became a part of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change) in 1990.

Spindler, who has worked at the university since 1988, recalls that while ASU was finding its footing as a research university, the campus itself was beginning to feel outdated with dark, wooden signs outside university buildings, a mix of modern elements throughout and landscaping that was a bit overgrown. As the university and college entered the new millennium, the appearance of the Tempe campus began to change, indicating more than just an aesthetic shift.

“The sort of cleaning and greening of campus is emblematic of this effort in the ’90s and 2000s to mature as a research university,” Spindler said. “And to break away from the past of simply teaching as many undergraduates as we could possibly get out the door and get through their degree programs, to a place that had a longer and more consistent continuum of education through undergraduate school into graduate programs. This creation and expansion of graduate programs created employment opportunities for faculty and those that held advanced degrees and it was responsive to the needs of Arizona businesses.”

While physical changes were being made on campus, psychological and attitudinal shifts were occurring as well within staff and faculty in The College.

Patrick Kenney, current dean of The College, has worked at ASU for more than three decades, starting as an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in 1986. Kenney said the biggest change he’s witnessed while working at The College was the shift in focus from faculty to the success of students.

“Now, we look at problems through the eyes of students and families; in the ’80s and ’90s, everyone was working hard in the classroom but we were not thinking about what actions were best for the student, what the best pedagogy was for the student or how to get students involved in extra activities. The biggest change has been coming at The College mission through the eyes of the students as a framework rather than through the eyes of the faculty,” he said.

Transforming into an innovative college, university

The College had a pivotal year in 2001 when it set into motion changes that created the divisional setup and numerous schools that make up The College today. David Young, dean of The College from 2001 to 2007, was hired, and one of his tasks was to look at the organizational structure of the life sciences. When Young was hired, The College had three life science departments: biology, botany/microbiology and zoology.

“After a year of study and discussion, the decision was made to disestablish the departments and create the School of Life Sciences,” Young said. “Faculties were created within the school, not departments, and the only criterion was that names of the old departments could not be used as names for the new faculties. Faculty had to reorganize themselves into coherent, theme-based units as opposed to a traditional departmental structure.”

Young preceded President Michael Crow by one year; when Crow arrived, Young said the structure of The College was given a new look based on what was done with the School of Life Sciences.

“We embarked on a major transformation of The College, eliminating some departments and creating transdisciplinary schools. We began restructuring the way we were going to deal with research and education in The College. It was a time of significant change and upheaval,” Young said.

That transformation is documented in the university’s catalogs. In the 2004-05 general catalog, The College had a number of departments but only one school, the School of Life Sciences. The following year, the School of Global Studies (known today as the School of Politics and Global Studies), the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and the School of Justice and Social Inquiry (now the School of Social Transformation) were established. The restructuring of departments and schools continued, resulting in 23 academic units after the creation of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership in 2016.

Another important change that Young implemented during this time of transformation was the establishment of The College’s unique divisional breakdown into the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences.

When Young joined, The College had three associate deans: one for student services, one for personnel and one for research.

“We were the largest college and after a couple of years it became clear that the old structure wasn’t working well given the scope of the changes that we were implementing,” he said.

After researching how other large colleges at peer institutions were organized, The College was restructured to put into place a number of associate deans, including one at each divisional level. The new divisional structure allowed for more time and attention to be dedicated to student success, faculty promotions and research innovations.

“All of this was happening at the same time that President Crow was emphasizing innovation,” Young said. “That’s when we really started pushing hard.”

Kenney echoed Young’s sentiment on how Crow’s presidency positively impacted The College and university's innovation.

“If you think of it as a slow, positive progression throughout our history, everything speeds up dramatically with President Crow’s presidency; after him, it has really been a logarithmic change. Everything has improved: across the student front, philanthropic front, and academic scholarly achievement side.”’

The president’s influence was demonstrated in a number of interdisciplinary initiatives created in The College during the early aughts, including the establishment of the Institute for Humanities Research (IHR) in 2004.

Spindler, who has participated in IHR activities previously, said the institute allows faculty from different campuses and programs to look at challenges and issues in the humanities and think about how the different disciplines speak to the different topics and challenges.

“I think IHR really supports President’s Crow’s ideas about intellectual fusion and transdisciplinary research that adds value to the community,” he said.

The future

Looking to the future of The College, Kenney is focused on balance, specifically, how The College can continue to offer online education at a very high level while simultaneously improving the lives of students who are on campus.  

“Trying to balance that will be a real challenge, but it is really important for us to balance it because that is where higher education is moving so we need to figure out how to continue doing that and doing it well,” he said.

Kenney shared that while the technology and experience of learning has changed dramatically over the years — he typed his dissertation on a typewriter in the early ’80s — and will continue to change in the future, he anticipates one aspect will remain the same: The central nature and importance of liberal arts and sciences curriculum.

“The basic elements of young people who are coming out with these degrees has not changed. I think their curiosity in these various areas, their adjustability in the workforce, that is still the same,” he said. “How we do it, how we educate them, how they learn is different but the idea that people are going to come out with a well-rounded education and with a lot of experience with things like writing and critical thinking, understanding experimental method, that is just as critical now as it was previously and will continue to be in the future.”

Note: Dates and information for this story originated from a number of sources including personal interviews, course catalogs and online archives. If you have a story from The College's history that you'd like to share, please reach out to their team

Top photo: Aerial photograph of Tempe campus taken in 1970. Armstrong Hall, pictured near the curve in McAllister Avenue, was dedicated two years prior in 1968. University Archives

More Arts, humanities and education


Designer Bruce Mau stands in front of a slide reading "Design is leadership. The capacity to change the world. It is not constrained to the visual."

Designer behind ASU’s brand named newest Herberger Institute Professor

Bruce Mau, co-founder and CEO of the Chicago-based holistic design consultancy Massive Change Network, has joined Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts as its newest…

A hang sorting through papers sitting on a printing press

Small presses dealt big blow

A mighty rumble reverberated throughout the publishing industry late last month with the abrupt closure of a well-known book distributor. Small Press Distribution, which has distributed books for…

Students walk on a fashion show runway

'Living dress' wins Eco-Chic sustainable fashion contest

When Elena Marshall is done showing off her award-winning “living dress,” she’ll bury it in her backyard. The dress, a chic design with a strapless bodice and flouncy skirt, is made of recycled…