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Brief history of UMBC

A Brief Early History of UMBC


UMBC's origins lay in the dramatic expansion of higher education due to the GI Bill.  After the second world war, and especially the Korean Conflict, a college education moved from being the province of a few elites to a far more accessible goal.  The Baltimore-Washington area experienced significant growth, as the federal government expanded and the industries around the Chesapeake Bay grew to fuel the affluent 1950s world of the suburbs.  The University of Maryland in College Park dominated general higher education in the state, with the medical and law schools in downtown Baltimore.  Through the 1950s several state commissions investigated the needs of higher education and began planning for the eventual matriculation of the postwar "baby boom" bulge.

By 1963 the Maryland legislature finally moved to take action.  It approved the development of several new colleges, with a new campus to serve the Baltimore area first in line.  By the end of the year, the excess 435 acres of the Spring Grove State Hospital for the mentally ill looked most appealing as the locus of a new campus, edging out constituencies who wished to see the campus developed in Baltimore City.  The former maximum security ward, Hillcrest, became UMBC's first administration building.   Architectural design and planning went forward, headquartered in College Park.  In early 1965 Dr. Albin O. Kuhn, a distinguished professor and administrator at College Park was named Vice President of the "Baltimore Campuses," which included the professional schools in Baltimore and the new County campus.  Shortly thereafter John Haskell, Jr. became first Librarian, and Dr. Homer Schamp, also of College Park, the first Dean of Faculty.  In only eighteen months, the new campus was ready for the first semester of classes in Fall of 1966.

While creating and furnishing class rooms, buildings, a library, roads, and other infrastructure in eighteen months was impressive enough, the hard part was finding and hiring enough faculty members to staff a new university, especially since higher education was booming all over the country and professors were in very short supply.  One solution was to establish "divisions"--English & Humanities, Biological Sciences, Social Science, Mathematics, etc. instead of traditional departments.  Eventually, as more faculty joined the university a more traditional department organization replaced the divisions.  Because UMBC was born just as the

The first classes at UMBC coincided with sweeping and turbulent changes in society, as the civil rights movement coalesced and became more activist, the war in Vietnam escalated, and the free speech and anti-war movements swelled to challenge established customs and expectations.  While protests, demonstrations, and other activities were not so militant or violent as at other campuses, the early atmosphere at UMBC was already decidedly nontraditional and somewhat experimental.

UMBC was entirely a commuter campus until the first residence hall opened in the Spring of 1970.  Without a large cohort of resident students, the university's social life was more muted than elsewhere.  By the mid-1970s when a significant portion of students were resident, the large anti-war and other movements were already winding down.


Author's Note: This brief account of UMBC's early history is based on materials researched and analyzed by John D. Willard, on helpful reminiscences written and spoken by the early founders, and other materials.  Joseph N. Tatarewicz, Department of History


For the story of UMBC's mascots--the statue "True Grit" and its real Chesapeake Bay Retriever counterpart, "Campus Sam," see UMBC Founders Project Researcher and Producer John Willard's Letter to the Editor of The Retriever.

UMBC Founders Oral History Project
c/o Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery
  Dr. Larry Wilt, Library Director
  Dr. Joseph N. Tatarewicz, Department of History, Webmaster