CLAS Office of Research and Creative Activities (ORCA)

CU Denver History

The Road to Independence and Beyond
Commemorating the University's 40th Anniversary, 1973–2013

The University of Colorado Denver (CU Denver) became an independent institution in 1973, after more than 60 years as an extension of CU Boulder. The road to independence was a long one, and in many ways it stretched far beyond 1973. This story, however, focuses on that signal year and the years immediately before and after. Those were times of rapid, tumultuous change in higher education—in Denver, Colorado, and the nation. When they had passed, the old Denver Center extension was no more, and a new, distinct institution took its first tenuous steps into the future.


The first section of this website (above tabs)The Road to Independence—chronicles events from the Denver Extension's birth in 1912 to CU Denver's creation in 1973 and the new university's early struggles for survival, with a focus on the 1960s and 1970s. It draws on published histories and documents as well as recent interviews.4 Although far from comprehensive, it depicts major moments leading to CU Denver's formation and provides a glimpse into the spirit of the times.

That is one story. The subsequent CU Denver Stories sample the university's countless additional tales from faculty, administrators, staff, and students over half a century. Finally, the Parting Shots section offers concluding thoughts on CU Denver's history, meaning, and challenges for the future.

A single, complete story of CU Denver can never be told. That is the enigma of history. The events and memories recorded here, however, resurrect a few of the university's beginnings, changes, and meanings. These reflections evoke what CU Denver was at its inception—and what it has become during 40 years of challenge and toil, frustration and triumph.

The University of Colorado (CU) Denver became an independent institution in 1973, after more than 60 years as an extension of CU Boulder.3 The road to independence was a long one, and in many ways it stretched far beyond 1973. This story, however, focuses on that signal year and the years immediately before and after. Those were times of rapid, tumultuous change in higher education—in Denver, Colorado, and the nation. When they had passed, the old Denver Center extension was no more, and a new, distinct institution took its first tenuous steps into the future.

A dozen professors from those early years contributed to this narrative, so it is a story of their beginnings as well. Many were part of that cadre of young academics who, like intrepid explorers, landed in Denver in the 1960s and 1970s to discover a half-formed campus high on excitement and low on resources. The faculty was too small. The CU administration was too ambivalent toward its urban offspring. There was never enough money.

These professors, however, thrived among the privation. They branched into new subjects. They made do with inadequate resources. They labored to build their departments and fought political battles for the university’s survival, sometimes sacrificing years of scholarly achievement in the process. They commiserated and collaborated in the Tramway Building, the Insurance Building, and the Frontier Hotel’s bar. Through their common struggles, their close quarters, and their shared enthusiasm for creating a new institution and teaching Denver’s dedicated students, they built a sense of camaraderie that made it all seem worthwhile. A number of students, administrators, and staff from the early years contributed to this narrative as well, and their personal beginnings also intertwine with the university’s. All these pioneers left their mark on CU Denver, as CU Denver left its mark on them.

CU Denver and its surroundings have changed tremendously over the past half century. Much has been gained, but much has been left behind as well. The growth of public higher education in Denver was a big change, stimulated by surging student demand in the 1950s and 1960s—and in no small part by the competition between CU and Denver's new Metropolitan State College. Indeed much change was driven by the complex and often clashing relationships among CU Boulder, CU Denver, Metro State, Community College of Denver, the Auraria Higher Education Center, and a host of academic and political decision makers.

As its enrollment soared, Denver's "UCLA" (the "University of Colorado between Lawrence and Arapahoe Streets") burst its banks. The Auraria neighborhood gave way to the Auraria campus and a forest of new buildings. Financial and logistical support arrived along with labor-saving personal computers. Professors thought less about propping up a wobbly institution and more about scholarly pursuits. They taught less at night and more during the day. The university became more professional, more competitive, more conventional.

But the changes erased some beloved aspects of the Denver campus. Younger, more traditional students began replacing those older, working-class students who so typified the early years. With increased professionalization came increased bureaucracy. Decisions took longer. Stricter chains of command developed. No longer would a vice president personally order paper towels for the science labs. As the campus grew and spread, the old closeness among faculty, staff, and administrators faded as well. Former history professor Mark Foster recalls from the early days a "feeling of camaraderie, a sense of being a small band of brothers embarked on an exciting experiment in a new urban university." When moving to Auraria, however, he remembers feeling "we had a ‘real' campus, but that intimacy of frequent contact with other faculty and administrators seemed lost."

As the campus expanded, downtown Denver became richer, cleaner, and taller—supplanting the gritty, working-class "dumping ground" once tied to a living Auraria neighborhood. Many people welcomed the new prosperity, but it came at the expense of Denver's old character. As early as 1977 anthropology professor Jack Smith lamented the loss: "Before Urban Renewal got hold of this part of town and turned it into the wasteland of high finance, affluence, and bourgeois decadence that it is today, it was a very alive, exciting, and in so many ways a very appealing part of the city…. I miss the contacts—crazy though they often were—with a neighborhood of real people." For better or worse, CU Denver and its host city were changed in countless ways.

CU Denver has had many meanings to many people. It has been what students wanted it to be. At its root the campus helped nontraditional, employed students pursue degrees, build skills, or simply enrich their lives. It was near where they lived and worked. Classes were taught at night, and the university strived to serve its working population well. Some students just went to class and went home, while others engaged with campus activities and their peers. For some, CU Denver was much more than a school. "It saved my life in a way," says Sally Hekkers, a divorced mother of two who enrolled in 1971 and discovered a sense of belonging, a new vision of herself, and a connection to higher ideals. Today students continue to find their own meanings from CU Denver, whether embracing its academic programs, urban excitement, diversity, affordability, or closeness to home.

For some professors, administrators, and staff, CU Denver was merely a career way station. For others, it was a life's work. Although frustrated by hurdles unknown at established institutions, this dedicated group loved working with Denver's unique students, and they took pride in creating CU Denver with their own hands and minds. "We were told to come help build a university, and I think we did," says former English professor Rex Burns. In retrospect the struggles of the new university helped create meaning. Says longtime political science professor Michael Cummings, "The challenges we have faced at CU Denver have made us tougher and more willing to fight for our beliefs." CU Denver meant a lot to its builders. Many still care about its history—and its legacy.

Timeline of University's History

YearEvents & Changes
1883 School of Medicine opens at CU Boulder.
1912 Denver campus originates as extension of CU Boulder.
1939 Denver Extension moves into C.A. Johnson Building, 509 17th St., with one full-time faculty member.
1947 Denver Extension Division moves into Fraternal Building at 1405 Glenarm Pl.
1956 Denver Extension Division moves into Denver Tramway Co. Building at 14th and Arapahoe Sts.
1964 CU Regents promote “Denver Extension Center” to University of Colorado—Denver Center. Associate dean of faculties Roland Rautenstraus charged with coordinating Denver and Colorado Springs centers.
1965 Admissions standards at Denver Center made equivalent to those at CU Boulder. Metropolitan State College (Metro State) opens in rented buildings with 1,189 students. Colorado General Assembly creates Colorado Commission on Higher Education to coordinate and provide long-range planning for all the state’s higher-education institutions.
1968 Colorado Department of Higher Education organized to oversee state’s higher education institutions. Auraria site in Denver chosen for a three-college campus. Community College of Denver (CCD) opens the first of three campuses, the North Campus at 62nd Ave. and Downing St.
1969 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designates Auraria an urban renewal area, allocates $12.6 million for site acquisition and relocation. Denver voters approve $6 million Auraria bond issue. Auraria residents paid to relocate. College of Environmental Design established (with graduate programs in Denver, undergraduate programs in Boulder).
1970 General Assembly authorizes funds to purchase land for Auraria Higher Education Complex. Denver Center placed on academic probation by North Central Association of College and Secondary Schools due mainly to poor library and lab facilities (probation would be removed in 1972), but also accredited to the bachelor’s degree as “operationally separate.” Regents define role of Denver Center on new Auraria campus as primarily providing graduate and professional education and helping students prepare for graduate and professional education.
1971 Regents authorize College of Undergraduate Studies at Denver Center (renamed the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1975). Herbert Eldridge becomes first dean.
1972 Colorado General Assembly approves $40 million for Auraria construction. Presidents of CU, Metro State, and CCD agree to a plan for the shared campus: CU offering graduate and pre-professional programs, Metro State undergraduate degrees, and CCD occupational programs. Voters approve state constitutional amendment providing for CU campuses in Denver and Colorado Springs.
1973 Constitutional amendment establishing additional CU campuses becomes effective. Regents rename the Denver Center the University of Colorado at Denver (CU Denver). CU Denver faculty opposes plan to phase out CU lower-division courses that duplicate Metro State courses at the Denver campus, bring protests to Faculty Senate. CU faculty, staff, and students vote no-confidence in President Thieme. Regents reject plan to phase out lower-division courses. Groundbreaking ceremony for Auraria campus takes place. CU Denver School of Education formally established (becomes the School of Education and Human Development in 2004). CU Graduate School of Public Affairs established (becomes the CU Denver School of Public Affairs in 2007).
1974 Regents establish CU System, with a president and chancellors at four campuses: Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver, and the Health Sciences Center. Harold Haak becomes first CU Denver chancellor (he had become vice president in 1973). Regents vote to dismiss President Thieme, name Roland Rautenstraus as acting CU president.
1975 CU faculty (which voted for unionization in 1974) fails to select a union agent and thus fails to unionize. Alumni and Friends of the University of Colorado at Denver meet for the first time.
1977 CU Denver students join CCD and Metro State students at Auraria.
1978 Chancellor Haak proposes merging CU Denver and Metro State under the CU system.
1979 General Assembly’s Joint Budget Committee recommends transferring duplicative programs from CU Denver to Metro State. CU Denver faculty, students, and alumni launch “Save UCD” campaign and march on State Capitol. State Senator Hugh Fowler proposes merging CU Denver and Metro State into Metropolitan University of Colorado. Ultimately no merger occurs and CU Denver keeps undergraduate programs intact.
1985 CU Denver Business School separates from CU Boulder Business School.
1988 CU Denver moves into the North Classroom Building, its first custom-made building. Separate CU Denver College of Engineering and Applied Science established.
1989 CU Denver School of the Arts created under administration of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (becomes the self-directed College of Arts and Media in 1997).
1990 CU Denver acquires CU Denver Building (also called the Dravo Building) at 14th and Larimer Sts.
1994 CU Denver introduces New Urban University Initiative. Tivoli Student Union opens in the former Tivoli Brewery at Auraria.
2004 CU Denver and Health Sciences Center (later Anschutz) campuses consolidate by order of the Regents.