The University at 125
Every Sooner worthy of wearing crimson and cream knows the legend of David Ross Boyd’s arrival in the barren prairie town of Norman during the summer of 1892 and exclaiming, “What possibilities!” But as the University of Oklahoma prepares to celebrate its 125th anniversary, even the most die-hard Soonerphile may have trouble comprehending how a school begun by a handful of faculty and 57 “dead earnest” pioneer students became today’s world-class academic and research institution.
With the help of a drone Oklahoma Daily staffer Christopher Michie captured the South Oval in all its autumnal splendor.
From its earliest days, optimism and a belief in the transformative power of education have ruled at OU, which quite literally rose from the ashes – not once, but twice. But neither flames nor political dramas that led to the resignations of Presidents Boyd, Evans and Brooks deterred OU from its mission.
Even the devastating effects of World War I failed to dampen the spirit of a university expanding on two campuses or OU’s “Roaring ’20s” students, who were wild for football and pranks between law and engineering students.
The university matured and spread its influence despite the Great Depression, thanks to the guiding hand of President William Bennett Bizzell. It’s no secret that Bizzell’s passion for books led to the library in his name, but OU’s doctoral programs, the OU Press, World Literature Today and OU Outreach also are his legacy.
World War II revolutionized OU, as female students outnumbered males three to one and the university became home to the bustling U.S. Naval Air Station and Naval Technical Training Center. But the real tidal wave of troops arrived when the war ended and President Cross faced a student population that had suddenly doubled.
The fight for racial desegregation and real or imagined battles against Communism came to OU in the late 1940s along with the tragedy of the BOQ fire. Heartbreak struck again in 1953 with the Naval ROTC plane crash. Still, the 1950s brought a calmer, idyllic student life highlighted by Coach Bud Wilkinson’s three national championships and 47-game winning streak.
Cultural change swept OU in the 1960s and 1970s, crescendoing with the 1970 Field Day demonstration and the 1973 firebombing of President Paul Sharp’s home. Yet the era’s activism also shaped a generation of students who became state and national leaders.
The 1980s meant oil booms and busts, and President William S. Banowsky led OU to survive this dynamic period “bloodied but not bowed.” The decade ended with OU bloodied again; this time by a series of athletic scandals that made national headlines rivaling football coach Barry Switzer’s three national championships.
OU’s Centennial celebration kicked off the 1990s in style, and that period saw the dawn of OU’s emergence as a research and weather superpower.
When the Boren era began in 1994, OU reveled in a renaissance that generated a head-spinning tally of achievements, including record-breaking private fundraising, a six-fold increase in endowed faculty positions, three thriving campuses transformed by $2 billion in construction projects, and an internationalized education attracting the nation’s finest students – including the largest class of National Merit Scholars in U.S. public higher education.
Today, OU eagerly looks to a future made even brighter by the forthcoming Stephenson School of Biomedical Engineering and two new Residential Colleges. Yet, for the 300,000 alumni who have called OU home during the past century and a quarter, one reality stays constant: the University of Oklahoma will always live on to teach, inspire and serve.
Editor’s Note: To commemorate OU’s 125th anniversary, the OU Press is publishing three new books this fall: The Sooner Story; Path to Excellence; and The University of Oklahoma: A History, Vol II. For more on OU’s history, visit the Western History Collections special exhibit, “A History of OU: 125 Years of Excellence” in Monnet Hall, Room 300.