A couple of months ago I posted something that was atypical in that it wasn’t a college campus at all - the Georgia Tech Transette. The Transette post was different for a few reasons. First, it was a post about a transit system. Second, it was different because it was a transit system that was never placed into service. I happened across the last remaining Transette car by accident and had never heard of the proposed system or it’s testing. Today’s post is also a reminder of something that never was, at least in the physical sense. Some very atypical and brutally cold winter weather hit just before Christmas, and I found myself stuck inside. I did some reading and then went online to check the forecast. As is frequently the case, this led to some random surfing on the web, and I found myself on eBay. That’s where I found the spark for today’s post – a lapel pin for the College of Oak Ridge. I had never heard of the college. Having spent years in Knoxville, TN, I am quite familiar with Oak Ridge. Since I had never heard of the College of Oak Ridge, I assumed it was in another town with the same name, or perhaps a college that simply had the same name as the city in East Tennessee. Turns out I was not as familiar with the city as I had believed.
The College of Oak Ridge (CoOR) was, or was supposed to be, in the city I thought I knew. Some internet digging led me to an institution that mostly existed on paper, although it did have a board, a president, and an endowment. The story begins in the 1960’s.
Oak Ridge had grown enormously during World War II as the site of the uranium enrichment facility for the Manhattan Project. The Cold War and the nuclear build up thereafter ensured an on-going presence of high-tech industry, a sizeable and growing populace, and an increasing need for supports as the Baby Boom generation came into existence. The people of Oak Ridge had the prescience to think ahead. Although the flagship campus of the University of Tennessee was twenty miles (as the crow flies) away in Knoxville, a plan was developed to create a private college in Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge was a growing town and had achieved status as an incorporated city in 1960. The city’s leaders – both elected officials and community leaders – hit upon the idea of a private, non-sectarian college and started a campaign to raise funds in 1965. They set their sights on the sum of $100,000 (just over $945,000 in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars). The community truly pitched in, eventually raising $107,300. A notable fund-raising event included a marathon baseball game which lasted more than 70 hours and 431 innings! Donations of $100 would lead to the donor being named a “Founder”, and such individuals received either a tie bar or a lapel pin (such as this one) and a Founder’s Card.
By 1966, a search was underway for a president for the fledgling institution. The man chosen for the job was Dr. Sumner Hayward. Hayward was a catch for the new institution. A native of Nebraska, Hayward went east to Ohio’s Oberlin College from which he would graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Music in 1939. After graduating, he went to New York and worked in the music business before spending four years in the Army during World War II. After the war, he went to Brown University where he received his Ph.D. in psychology. After Brown, he accepted a faculty position at Carlton College in Minnesota. He moved up in the ranks and at the time of his hire as President of CoOR, he was a dean at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN. He arrived in Oak Ridge to a college that existed on paper in late 1966 (he wouldn’t officially become president until January 1967). He shaped the college from an idea into a distinct plan. The CoOR campus would be on part of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission’s property. It was anticipated that enrollment would initially peak at 1,000 students, all of whom would be required to have two minors in addition to their major. Online records are limited, and I do not have ready access to microfilm copies of local papers of that time, but for reasons I do not know, the honeymoon did not last. By the following December, Hayward would leave CoOR for a job in the Midwest. He would remain in higher ed for the duration of his career, finally retiring from SUNY Empire State College in 1978. The Elizabeth and Sumner Hayward Professorship at Swarthmore is named in honor of him and his wife.
Despite his departure, the College of Oak Ridge would continue for more than a decade, although it would never officially launch. The CoOR hired a consulting firm to aid in continued planning and development after Hayward moved on. The result was a finance plan that called for more than $31.5 million in fund raising. For perspective, $31.5 million in 1970 would be worth more than $241 million today. Attracting that level of funding did not pan out. The growing profile of UT Knoxville and increasingly better roads in the area which allowed for easier access to the UT campus likely played a role in the demise of the college as well. In 1979, only fourteen years after its launch, the Board of CoOR met and determined to use the funds raised for the college as scholarships for local students to go to other institutions.
Eventually, the state of Tennessee decided to locate a campus of the Roane State Community College in Oak Ridge. The expansion of Roane State into Oak Ridge made sense for the same reasons that sparked interest in the College of Oak Ridge in the first place. Oak Ridge continued to be a growing and happening place, and it made sense to have a state-supported institution in the city. Today, the Roane State Community College in Oak Ridge stands in the very location of the planned College of Oak Ridge.
So, we are left to wonder what might have been. Although higher education flourished through much of the 20th century, small private colleges began to struggle as the Baby Boom generation aged out of college. As subsequent generations decreased in size and the higher ed market grew increasingly competitive and costly, many smaller schools closed or were absorbed into larger institutions. Kudos to the forward-thinking folks behind the idea, and cheers to a college that never quite existed. I purchased the lapel pin (I have quite the collection of collegiate lapel pins), which you see here, and I am now on the lookout for a CoOR tie bar and Founder’s Card.
University Grounds is a blog about college and university campuses, their buildings and grounds, and the people who live and work on them.
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