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The student body that could

To become a university, ASU students had to first win the hearts and minds of an entire state

Stylized historical photo of ASU students cheering

Students celebrate the victory they helped make possible: Arizona College becoming a university. Image courtesy of University Archives, ASU Library.

March 01, 2024

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Back on July 3, 1958, if you were on campus, you would get a sense that something serious was underway, and indeed it was. 

Army ROTC students stood in uniform, flanking a set of official-looking boxes. Inside those boxes resided pages of signatures gathered by ASU students, soon headed to the state building. Once counted, those signatures would pave the way for Arizona State College to become Arizona State University. 

Back then, ASU was still Arizona State College, having grown from a small, four-room teaching college into a school that offered multiple degrees by 1945. As the Phoenix area’s population exploded, so too did the college’s enrollment. Arizona was on the radar for many Americans looking for a drier, warmer climate, and of the 50,000 annual transplants in 1951, the majority put down roots in Maricopa County. 

As a result, the college saw enrollment grow to over 4,000 by 1954 and nearly 10,000 students by 1958 — a more than doubling in student body size in just four years. 

Then, some people, including then school president Grady Gammage, saw the need to transition from a college to a university and began leading the charge for a name change that many others opposed, wanting to keep ASU a college, leaving a single university in Arizona. 

Before long, students and local residents took up the call. In 1955, a movement was born. 

The push for change 

While changing from a college to a university doesn’t seem like a radical idea now, many state leaders at that time opposed it. The University of Arizona was the state’s land grant university, and many influential people believed it should remain its only university. 

While one brave regent proposed a name change to the board, the other regents, along with most legislators, many of whom were UArizona alumni, pushed back, and the motion dropped. 

This spurred students and Gammage to push for university status. 

“This was something of a national trend at the time,” says ASU’s university archivist Shannon Walker, with a few other state colleges taking steps to do the same. Kansas State, for instance, was moving from college to university around the same time. 

“The advocates for university status had to figure out if it required approval from the Arizona Board of Regents, the state legislature,” Walker says, “or if there was some other way to approach it.”

A student-led movement

Originally, it was the students’ paper, The State Press, that got the overall student body behind the push for a name change and the push to legitimize ASU. Becoming a university would allow ASU to provide more research opportunities and more undergraduate degree programs, as well as graduate degrees. 

“It began with pockets of students in certain programs and grew from there,” says Walker. “I think the opposition coming from UArizona students fed the fire, and ultimately the rivalry, too. 

“They felt passionately about this,” Walker says. 

Gammage and the students had a report on higher education in their corner too, commissioned by the board of regents. Written by Ernest Hollis, federal director of college and university administration at the time, the report concluded that “the state college at Tempe is rapidly becoming a university. This fact might as well be calmly recognized.” 

It also concluded that the college’s nearly 10,000 students “is all the evidence that anyone would want to convince himself that today you are a university.” 

The students organized a rally of more than 2,000 students in 1955, back when they still believed the state legislature would come to see their viewpoint. 

Based on intel from legislature members, Gammage felt optimistic a confirming vote wasn’t far off. He encouraged the students to hold tight and wait for a vote in the legislature. 

When the vote instead turned into the compromise idea of “Tempe University,” the students took matters largely into their own hands.

Part 1: Getting signatures

The students chose to get the question onto a ballot initiative, which became Proposition 200, an official measure to change the school name. 

To get the measure onto the ballot, students, alumni and the local Jaycees went door to door collecting signatures. Far outpacing the necessary 29,000 signatures, the joint efforts led to nearly 64,000 residents inking their names in just a few short months with signatures collected by July.

The question of Arizona State College becoming Arizona State University was going to a statewide vote on Nov. 4, 1958.

Now the students and supporters of the name change had to win over voters across the entire state of Arizona.

Part 2: Campaigning for the “yes” vote

Grady Gammage Jr., only 7 years old in 1958, remembers driving around the state with his mother, Kathryn, to help rally support for the upgrade from a college to a university. 

“She was much freer than my father to support the initiative, and it had to be a statewide campaign if it was going to succeed,” he explains. “She was a good speaker and quite charming.” 

President Gammage had less room to maneuver and had to walk the fine line of an employee whose bosses — the board of regents and the state legislature — disliked the university idea. But Gammage was skillful at managing that delicate balance, regardless. 

“My sense is that my father might have been reluctant to support the initiative at first because he was going against his employers’ directives,” says Gammage Jr. “But he was a good lobbyist and could influence others.” 

The battle to win the hearts and minds of voters caught the attention of the entire state of Arizona. Between gathering the needed signatures in July and the November election, debates, both on campuses and off, permeated the landscape. 

Meanwhile, down in Tucson, UArizona students mobilized against the pro-university movement. Vandalism was in play, too, when someone burned some of the grass in Arizona State College’s newly constructed football field. 

“The rivalry was strong and surprising,” says Walker. “Why couldn’t the state have two strong universities?”

When election day finally arrived, Gammage and the student body had an hour of panic. At first it looked like Proposition 200 had failed. 

Instead, Prop 200 passed overwhelmingly, 101,881 in favor and 51,471 against with a high voter turnout of 72%, according to Barrett, The Honors College faculty member Stephanie R. deLusé and Denise Bates, co-authors of “The Campus History Series: Arizona State University.”

It was the first time in national history that a university had been named under such circumstances, according to the book.

“It happened because of a whole new level of student engagement, still inspiring in so many ways,” Walker says. 

Today, in a world where unity sometimes feels elusive, a look back at that special moment in time demonstrates that pulling together offers a path to greatness. 

Story by Amandin Loudin, a  journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Harvard Medicine and other national media outlets.

The next chapter of the New American University

Today, ASU’s annual enrollment is over 170,000 students. ASU is widely known as the nation’s “most innovative university,” based on the ranking from U.S. News & World Report nine years running. With a globally recognized honors college and the largest engineering school in the nation, ASU has placed above some of the most esteemed universities in the world in rankings related to global impact, sustainability, innovation and more. 

This is all part of the New American University, ASU’s prototype for the American public research university. It’s rooted in the original social contract that a university would provide open access and opportunities to the many gifted students who do not conform to an elite university’s academic profile, as well as to qualified students who lack the financial resources for college.

“Public higher education in the United States during the 20th century produced a level of educational achievement unmatched anywhere in the world,” says ASU President Michael M. Crow.

“Today, the broad accessibility to quality higher education that could once be taken for granted is no longer available to the majority of academically qualified learners. This exclusion frequently deprives individuals from achieving their potential and impoverishes our society,” Crow says. “The shortfall of a highly educated citizenry threatens our national security and prosperity.” 

Higher education must not be limited to merely producing more college graduates, he adds.

“College-educated individuals with advanced skills equal to the demands of the knowledge economy are vital to solving the complex challenges we as a society face and to our national economic competitiveness,” Crow says.

ASU has changed education in Arizona, across the nation and around the world, creating a replicable and scalable model for other public research universities. In fact, it has created the University Design Institute, which has worked with 77 institutions across 20 countries to support their transformation too. Helping to ensure that the state, the country and the world attain a thriving future is the ultimate goal of the New American University, and one ASU is committed to with all of its resources.

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