It might have snuck up on a lot of Tulsans, for whom the University of Tulsa has always been a fixture back there somewhere between the fairgrounds and downtown, and often overshadowed by the more flashy and headline-grabbing ORU, but Tulsa's oldest university has gone through quite a renaissance in the past decade.
What once was a well-respected liberal arts institution with highly regarded programs in engineering, nursing and literature, TU has rocketed to recognition on the radar of mainstream America as one of the top schools in the nation during the past 10 years.
"There's been a cultural transformation of the university," said TU spokesman David Hamby about the school's sudden appearance on the national academic and athletic map.
As the hometown university of a booming oil town, the University of Tulsa enjoyed some worldwide recognition after 1928 with the opening of its School of Petroleum Engineering, which was the first time the university had really distinguished itself on a larger stage since it began in 1907.
Or, at least, the statehood year was when it began a distinctly Tulsa university, although not yet in name.
The institution had originally been founded in Muskogee in 1882 as a small boarding school--the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls.
Twelve years later, the school was promoted in status and chartered anew as the Henry Kendall College, named after the first general secretary of the Presbyterian Church's Home Missions Board.
In 1907, school officials decided to transplant the college to Tulsa as a way to mend the school's financial struggles.
A few years later, though, another college was pitched for the city, to be named after oilman Robert M. McFarlin.
Since they didn't think the city was large enough to support two competing universities, Kendall College officials recommended a merger of the two, which would be called the "University of Tulsa," which it became in 1920.
Naturally, the staple of the region's economic fortunes was an obvious subject for specialized study, hence the Petroleum Engineering School's opening and success, followed soon after by the College of Business Administration in 1935, and then the incorporation of the downtown law school in 1943.
A New Vision
As the decades passed, other programs were added and millions of dollars in endowments came in, but the University of Tulsa's inertia as a world-class institute of higher learning eventually wound down.
That is, until comparatively recently.
"Approximately 10 years ago, the leadership at the time--the administration and the board of trustees--determined that TU was not making the most of its resources and facilities," said Hamby.
"We were a third-tier school at the time," he noted.
With the recognition that TU was falling short of its potential came a resolution among school officials to become a top 100 university.
The TU spokesman said each of the 24 members of the school's Board of Trustees had a part to play in TU's renaissance of recent years, but Board Chairman Fulton Collins "played a significant role" having "been at the head of a group that has collectively moved it forward."
One of the initial steps in that progress, the university claims, came with the hiring of Bob Lawless as the school's president.
"His arrival and the actions of the board were really the catalyst for the transformation," said Hamby.
"His selection was a bit outside the box," he continued.
The "box" in question is one traditionally made of academic credentials as prerequisites for such a post. While Lawless had his share of such credentials, Hamby said his industry background as an executive for Southwest Airlines was one of his strengths in leading the TU transformation.
"He looked at university operations from a different perspective, which he brought in at a time when we needed a transition," he said.
Lawless succeeded Dr. Bob Donaldson as president, who currently remains on the TU faculty in the Political Science Department.
As Hamby explained, Lawless provided both business acumen and motivation for the school's rebirth.
"At every step, our president said, 'We will be a top 100 university; we will be a top 100 university,'" he recounted.
Of course, self-assurances of "I think I can" can only carry a vision so far, so repeating that prophecy didn't assure its fulfillment.
"You've got to believe in the product you're representing, and make others aware, and then you have to back it up with resources," Hamby explained as the philosophy behind the plan.
He said Lawless and the Board of Trustees then "came up with a vision to allocate resources to be able to move that vision forward."
Hey, Big Spender
For resources to be allocated, they first had to be acquired, which TU managed to do to the tune of more than $174 million in the past decade, the bulk of which came in the form of private contributions from the likes of Mike Case (see sidebar), Donald W. Reynolds, Roger Hardesty and numerous other donors.
What wasn't covered by private donations was funded through the sale of bonds, Hamby said.
Obviously, that's a whole lot of money, which begs the question of how the university was able to elicit so much from private contributors.
"We have an active development office," answered Hamby.
"They work very closely with alumni and local business leaders and show them the good things going on here; they showed them that their donations are a positive investment in the city and the community," he continued.
The big bucks went toward the acquisition of more than a million square feet of new real estate for the campus in the past decade, which has been used for the addition of new athletic and academic facilities and residential apartments.
While the $10 million Michael D. Case Tennis Center and other sports facilities have made the most noticeable waves, Hamby said the construction of new on-campus student housing is the most important aspect of the university's transition of recent years.
"The most significant feature is the transformation from a commuter campus to a heavily residential campus," he said, noting that seven out of ten undergraduates now live on campus.
When 400 brand-spanking-new apartments were completed and made available last fall, Hamby said they filled up within three weeks.
"That speaks pretty well to the demand for on-campus housing," he said.
"Student housing is really what makes the difference between it being a school and being a campus," commented Case, who is best known for having donated funds for the tennis center and athletic complex bearing his name, but also heads the company hired to build many of the apartments, Case and Associates Properties.
Sporting a New Look
Of course, having top-notch facilities doesn't hurt, either.
The first of the structures comprising the "new" University of Tulsa was the Donald W. Reynolds Center, which was completed in 1999.
"That was definitely a catalyst in the physical transformation of the campus," said Hamby.
The $28 million, 138,000-square foot stadium seats 8,000 people, and provides a welcomed change from the school's previous athletic venues.
Before the stadium opened, Hamby said, TU's home basketball games were held at the downtown convention center, and local high schools' facilities were used for practice.
Having basketball, volleyball and other contests on the premises, he said, "makes the difference between students just showing up, or showing up in a spirited manner."
In January of 2000, the $10.5 million Mabee Legal Information Center was completed, and Hamby said it's "one of the top 35 law libraries in the nation."
In 2001, the courts of the Case Tennis Center were christened by tennis giant John McEnroe, who was quoted in the New York Times calling it "the nicest college tennis facility in the nation," and "for its size, the best in the world."
The NCAA Division I men's and women's championships were held at the center in 2004, and will be again this year.
"You don't bring an event like that to campus unless you have the facilities to back it up," said Hamby.
The Case Tennis Center was part of TU's westward expansion, which continued until 2004.
It included the Collins Fitness Center and the Hardesty Sports Complex, among other additions.
"All of these work together to support our intercollegiate athletics," said Hamby.
"These facilities provided the first-time opportunity for student athletes to train and compete on campus," he added.
"It's pretty significant that we have the athletic offerings that we do," Hamby continued, noting that TU has the smallest enrollement among the nation's 120-some-odd Division I universities.
The athletics might be what draw the big crowds, but TU also has its share of smart kids, too.
Of its approximately 2,900 undergraduates enrolled at TU, about 10 percent are National Merit Scholars. Also, in its 2008 edition of "America's Best Colleges," U.S. News and World Report ranked TU No. 91, calling it "one of the sleeper gems of the Great Plains."
That's actually down from its previous ranking, though, of 88th. Current university President Steadman Upham, though, said the apparent slide is no indication of a lapse at TU.
"Our overall relative position in the field has not changed, but because of the way ranking ties are reported, the numbers fall out slightly differently this year," he said during his 2007 convocation.
Hamby said much of TU's strength in attracting talented students comes from its particular academic approach of "drawing upon multidisciplinary efforts," according to which "each student is able to build their own degree program."
For instance, he said, "instead of a planned program in 'business,'" confined solely to the College of Business Administration, there is an "energy management program" drawing from instruction in law, engineering, natural sciences and other disciplines.
You might think with all that pressure to achieve the more than 4,000 students (about 2,900 undergrads and 1,200 graduate and law students) at TU would be running themselves ragged to keep up, but that isn't the tale told by the Princeton Review.
The college prep company ranked TU ninth in the nation for students' quality of life, and sixth for student happiness.
And, as donors and potential donors are apprised, Hamby explained that what's good for TU is good for Tulsa.
"We bring in outstanding students and faculty, many of whom put down roots here who wouldn't otherwise," he said.
Also, according to an internal economic impact study conducted in 2005, with its more than 1,000 employees, TU's annual economic impact on the city of Tulsa is about $300 million.
"We are one of the largest employers in Tulsa," said Hamby.
Also, the student, faculty and staff of the university contribute more than 100,000 volunteer hours each year in the community, he said.
There's no indication that school officials plan to coast on their newfound success, though.
The last phase of the new construction is still underway, which includes the construction of a "front door" to the school, a new south entrance from 11th Street, between Delaware and Florence Avenues.
The five-acre space within the Tucker Drive oval will include an extensively landscaped "park-like area" called Chapman Commons, and the Genaveve King Rogers Fountain.
"This allows TU to have a 'front door,'" Hamby said.
Meanwhile, the mantra of "we will be a top 100 university" is apparently due for retirement in favor of a new one.
In his latest convocation address, Upham said, "From our place as a third-tier institution a few short years ago, we have now risen into the Top 100 and are moving toward our ultimate berth within the exclusive ranks of the Top 50."
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