In 1973, Southwest Florida was deemed too small for a university. It would take another 25 years until Florida Gulf Coast University formed to meet demand in the area
Chances are, when the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles soared through the early rounds of the NCCA men's basketball tournament in March before losing to the University of Florida Gators, most Americans had never heard of FGCU.
In much of the ensuing media coverage, commentators marveled that a new basketball program at a school founded “only 16 years ago” could compete with venerable institutions that had been fielding teams for decades.
Now I have a confession to make: It's partly my fault that FGCU is only Sweet 16 instead of beginning its fifth decade. The delay involves an episode in Florida history for which I was not only a witness but also a minor participant. Here's the inside story:
In 1972, when Florida's state university system opened the doors of its eighth and ninth institutions — Miami's Florida International University (FIU) and Jacksonville's University of North Florida (UNF) — state officials thought their job was completed.
That sentiment was especially popular around the Board of Regents, which was dominated by unabashed supporters of the University of Florida — then as now suspicious that Florida was establishing more public universities than it could afford to support in the style to which they'd like to become accustomed.
The older universities thought they had good reason to be worried. They were a bit like teenagers who suddenly discover that their 30-something mother is expecting sextuplets. Yikes! More mouths to feed!
No doubt the developments of the preceding 12 years had left them in shock. Until 1960, Florida had had only three state universities: UF in Gainesville, plus Florida State and Florida A&M in Tallahassee. All three were located far from the major population centers where most of the state's growth was occurring.
Suddenly these long-established institutions saw things changing dramatically. Their quasi-monopoly was going away — fast. Indeed, between 1960 and 1972, the state spawned six new universities.
The first of these — the University of South Florida — opened in 1960 in Temple Terrace, just north of Tampa. Significantly, the Legislature, then still totally dominated by lawmakers from rural north Florida, dubbed it the “University of South Florida,” as though it would provide access to higher education for all the high school grads south of Gainesville.
Next came Boca Raton's Florida Atlantic University, which opened in 1963. State officials in Tallahassee probably imagined that it would take care of those pesky Southeast Florida residents clamoring for a bigger share of the pie that their taxes disproportionately funded.
The next to open (1967) was Pensacola's University of West Florida, which also established a branch campus in Panama City. That region was next to get a university even though the 10 Panhandle counties in that region had a total population of only 423,918 in the latest census (1960) available at the time UWF was being planned.
Of these six new institutions, four — FIU, FAU, UNF and UWF — were truncated “upper-division only” versions of a university, with no freshmen or sophomores (consigned to junior colleges), no graduate or professional programs, no dorms, no sports teams and — if you believe the students and faculty who commuted — no parking.
Besides USF, the other exception to the upper-division model was Orlando's Florida Technological University, which opened in 1968 and represented the state's first attempt to address STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
As FTU's mission broadened, however, its name was changed in 1978 to the University of Central Florida (UCF). It is now the largest state university in Florida in terms of enrollment and the second largest in the United States.
So there it was: Mission accomplished! As a 1973 Board of Regents study boasted, “In 1972, after the two new institutions opened in Miami and Jacksonville, 89.5% of the state's high-school graduates were approximately within commuting distance of at least one of the state's nine universities.”
Conspicuously missing from this rosy picture, however, were the students in Southwest Florida. Sen. Elmer Friday, D-Fort Myers, rightly complained that high school grads in the region still lacked convenient access to higher education beyond the community college level.
In a Legislature that had been forced to redistrict in accordance with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1963 “one-man, one-vote” ruling in Baker v Carr, Sen. Friday and his allies, including the powerful Sen. Wilbur Boyd, D-Palmetto, were not easily ignored.
Sen. Friday, in particular, kept pushing for the creation of a new state university to be located in Fort Myers. The BOR, which at that time exercised centralized control over university matters and was arguably suffering from a bit of expansion exhaustion, predictably said, “Whoa! Let us study this.”
As it happened, I served as the research associate for that study, which was conducted throughout much of 1972 and was published early in 1973 under the title “Higher Educational Needs of the Lower West Coast.”
In conducting the study, the BOR's team surveyed high school students, junior college students and the public to gauge the region's appetite for higher education. The team also traveled through the region, meeting with newspaper editorial boards and community leaders.
The research team also analyzed the population data and demographic trends for the nine-county region encompassing Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Sarasota, Manatee, Desoto, Hardee, Glades and Hendry counties.
In the 1970 census, those nine counties had 431,929 residents, up from 264,071 in the 1960 Census. More growth was projected. Indeed, Southwest Florida had a higher population — and far better prospects for growth — than the 10-county Panhandle region had when UWF was in the planning stages.
Now, of course, the latest figures show the population of this nine-county region in Southwest Florida at slightly more than 2 million, and Lee County's current population of more than 660,000 exceeds that of the entire region at the time of this 1972 study.
Yet population alone doesn't necessarily determine demand for higher education. Then, as now, this region's population (58% of which was older than 50) tended to skew older than the rest of the state and the rest of the nation.
Therefore, in planning for higher education, the total number of high school grads matters more than the gross population figures, which included huge numbers of retirees. And when it came to high school grads in 1972, Southwest Florida fell a bit short.
Indeed, the previous year those nine counties had produced only 4,478 high school graduates, and 2,049 had chosen not to enter college at all. Of the 2,429 who did move on to higher education, roughly half, 1,216, chose a public community college.
Significantly, more grads (420) entered out-of-state institutions than entered Florida's public universities (405). Of those choosing an in-state public university, 134 chose the nearest campus, USF, while 117 chose UF in distant Gainesville, and 103 picked FSU in even-more-distant Tallahassee, quite a tiresome journey in the days before I-75.
Those figures only served to illustrate a challenge faced by would-be collegians in Southwest Florida. The study's authors concluded:
“The nine-county area is too populous, and its college-age youth are too far away from existing campuses to commute to classes. To enroll for baccalaureate study at present, youths in the area must enroll at an existing university as resident students. The cost of moving away from home is too high for many students, causing them to terminate their baccalaureate study whether they wish to or not.”
Nonetheless, the study's authors rejected starting a free-standing university — even an “upper-division only” one. It was deemed too expensive. So was the option of creating a full-fledged branch campus of an existing university.
That left only the option of starting an off-campus center in which professors from an existing university would travel to the area and teach “high-demand” courses in fields such as business, criminal justice and teacher education.
The center in Fort Myers eventually morphed into a branch of the University of South Florida until, finally, FGCU was created — ironically, perhaps, located on 760 acres of land generously donated by the family business of Ben Hill Griffin.
Griffin was one of history's most fervent boosters of that Gainesville school whose alumni were arguably neither surprised nor saddened when that 1973 BOR study told Southwest Florida that it would have to wait awhile.
Who knew that the wait would last 25 years?
Robert F. Sanchez is the policy director of The James Madison Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Tallahassee.