Considered largely to be the most significant event in its 200-year history, the University of Louisville joined the state system and became a public institution in 1970. The events leading up to that decision, brought forth by Governor Louie B. Nunn '50L, made for exciting-if tumultuous-times. In retrospect, it was a bold yet necessary measure to ensure the future of the university and the welfare of the city. "I recognized the possibilities," Nunn says. "You had the population to support it. If you expanded the programs and made the opportunities available, people would take advantage of them."
During the 1960s, enrollments swelled at colleges and universities across the nation, and U of L was no exception. As a private institution, the university received only 10 percent of its budget from the City of Louisville, and state appropriations aided only the schools of Medicine and Dentistry.
Philip Davidson, U of L president from 1951 to 1968, knew the university needed financial assistance to support its academic programs.
The university's then-staggering $1,050 yearly tuition, more than three times that of most state-supported institutions, also hindered growth. U of L was losing top students from around Kentucky to public schools, and most locals were choosing Jefferson Community College, established as a satellite of the University of Kentucky. Davidson proposed to a state commission on higher education, appointed by Governor Bert T. Combs in 1961, to offer lower tuition through an increase in state funding.
Davidson began working with UK President John Oswald to bring U of L into the state system as a sister school of UK. Subsequently, the two presidents formed a joint committee in 1968 headed by The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times executive vice president Lisle Baker. The committee recommended that U of L and UK become a single university on two campuses, with two chancellors, one president, and one Board of Trustees.
Amid disagreement among U of L trustees‹some felt that the university should be absorbed by UK, others held fast to independence‹Davidson retired, noting his age and his belief that U of L needed new leadership in order to move forward. Woodrow Strickler, who had served as executive vice president under Davidson, became acting president.
The General Assembly had, for many years, largely overlooked Louisville's higher education needs. That neglect seemed lopsided, as more than a third of the state's tax revenues‹and population‹came from Jefferson County. State money had long been poured into UK, notably its medical and dental programs and its satellite community colleges across the state during the 1960s.
"UK was such a strong political force because of attendance all around the state," says Norbert Blume, speaker pro-tem of the House of Representatives and long-time member of the U of L Board of Trustees. "And the legislators out in the state, their logic was that UK was the university. The rest were just satellites as far as they were concerned. But (U of L) was way ahead in medicine, dentistry, and law," he adds, and deserved adequate support to maintain high-quality programs.
Luckily, Governor Nunn (1968-72), recognized the detriment U of L faced, and the importance of a prominent higher education institution in the state's largest metropolitan area. Nunn recalls that Edwin G. Middleton, an attorney who had signed Nunn's declaration to run for governor and whom Nunn later appointed chair of the U of L Board of Trustees, asked Nunn to examine the possibility of bringing U of L into the state system. Middleton spent many evenings with Nunn at the governor's mansion, where the pair would brainstorm over dinner. "When I became governor, the University of Louisville was about to fail," Nunn says. "The city and the county couldn't support it. It was barely surviving as, what was referred to by some, a streetcar college."
Nunn promised support for increased state funds for U of L and recommended that the university remain independent. As one of only two Republican governors in the twentieth century, Nunn's agenda met opposition from Democrats‹the majority in the General Assembly‹who rarely stepped across party lines. "The circumstances under which I had to work were most difficult," says Nunn, as prominent Democrats "threw into the way of this every possible block that they could."
Support for Nunn's initiative came from rural professionals‹U of L law, medicine, dentistry, and business alumni‹who were influential in their communities. The General Assembly's Jefferson County delegation gradually adopted the cause and began drumming up the much-needed local support.
The University of Kentucky continued to rally for "sisterhood" with U of L. Otis Singletary‹who replaced Oswald as UK president when he resigned in 1968‹ recommended merging U of L with UK, placing chancellors at the Louisville and Lexington campuses, retaining the UK Board of Trustees and the University of Kentucky name, and basing financial support for U of L on "the availability of additional funds."
U of L officials quickly turned down the plan, which Strickler said would compromise U of L's integrity. Singletary announced to the press that the two institutions were too far apart on too many issues to negotiate a merger.
Strickler suffered a heart attack in the fall of 1967, but still agreed in March 1968 to accept his presidency permanently. He came to U of L as a business and economics professor, and understood both the academic and business side of running a university. He had tough competitors, however, from around the state.
"Strickler was a fine man, but he was no match for... the people who had come out of the political process," Nunn notes. "At that time, university presidents came out of the legislature. They would work for governors who would then appoint them college presidents. "You had all the other colleges, in addition to the democratic legislature, trying to keep U of L out of the state system," he continues. "They felt it would cut into their budget and that they would get less money when it was appropriated out among all the state universities." Dee Ashley Akers, a U of L law professor with a background in lobbying, began acting on the university's behalf in Frankfort. Akers "lived and breathed politics and well understood the psychology of rural legislators, and spent most of his time lobbying" them, according to William Ekstrom, who served two terms as acting president of U of L.
Blume says Akers never got the credit he was due. "(He) was really the prime mover for U of L," he says. "He was in Frankfort every day pushing for this."
By this time, the university was pursuing state affiliation independent of UK. Nunn diligently worked to push it through the General Assembly; Blume took the lead on the resolution in the House while Gene Stewart, another member of the Jefferson County delegation, handled it in the Senate.
Opposition seemed to be coming from all sides‹including home. The Courier-Journal criticized U of L for acting alone, while three trustees‹Archibald Cochran, Eli Brown, and Charles Farnsley‹traveled to Frankfort to lobby against state affiliation for U of L. Some felt that the university should remain a small, private institution. Farnsley considered the state affiliation "the most disastrous thing" that could ever happen to the City of Louisville, and the first step in making U of L a satellite of UK.
Nonetheless, passage of Senate Bill 117 and its approval by the governor on March 30, 1970 ensured that the university would enter the state system on July 1, 1970. All programs would remain intact.
Once U of L's fate was sealed, budget appropriations became the central issue. In the first biennial budget, the university was appropriated $13.2 million‹less than requested but more than Nunn originally promised.
The Courier-Journal reacted scathingly on January 9, 1970: "(U of L) will enter the system as the most deprived of stepchildren... if Gov. Louie B. Nunn's budget recommendations are allowed to stand."
Nunn insists that U of L and the Louisville community at large had difficulty understanding the reasoning behind that paltry budget. "The University of Louisville was not prepared to be fully funded in the first years," Nunn says. "I got them in the system and kept them alive... According to our budget they couldn't come in at full funding because it would have taken away from the other schools. "The only way that I could overcome the opposition was to write a budget that gave the other universities more money than they'd ever had before. I was also using (college presidents') influence to get enacted an increase in the sales tax so there would be more money for higher education."
That sales tax was, in fact, a blessing for Kentucky's higher education budget. In 1972, when Wendell Ford was elected governor and Blume became Speaker of the House, U of L came under the funding formula established by the Council on Higher Education. The university's academic programs got a considerable boost, and tuition rates were reduced by more than 50 percent. Nunn continued to be a friend to the university. When the School of Law was in danger of losing its accreditation due to inadequate library resources, the governor secured the funds needed to update the library and keep the school running.
Of course, the university's problems didn't cease on July 1, 1970. U of L would continue to compete with UK for funding and both schools accused the other of playing politics. Some members of the U of L community, faculty in particular, missed the close-knit family atmosphere that the campus formerly possessed as a private school.
But at the same time, state affiliation brought with it greater cooperation with other Kentucky schools and a more cordial relationship with the Common-wealth's decision makers, which paid big dividends. Under the university's next president, James Grier Miller, U of L's state appropriation increased by almost 400 percent.
With state affiliation, the University of Louisville could now better serve as an urban center for higher learning. And perhaps U of L could not now lay claim to its distinguished graduates, excellent faculty, top students, and academic prominence, had it not made that bold move nearly thirty years ago.