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A term to remember: 1984 to 2003

Though the MainStreet construction zone may seem like chaos from the ground, this aerial photo of Tangeman University Center and the Student Life Center reveals the extent to which the campus puzzle is coming together. photo/Dottie Stover

Though the MainStreet construction zone may seem like chaos from the ground, this aerial photo of Tangeman University Center and the Student Life Center reveals the extent to which the campus puzzle is coming together. Photo/Dottie Stover

by John Bach

The deep thud of a jackhammer echoes across the University of Cincinnati's McMicken Commons. To those standing on the expansive green and facing east, campus appears to have fallen in on itself.

What was once the student union, Tangeman University Center, is now a mere shell, its steely girders exposed for all to see. Students, hemmed in by plywood and chain-link construction fences, trudge around the mess. And from his sixth-floor office, retiring UC president Joseph Steger has a bird's-eye view of the chaos he'll leave behind.

To visitors, UC may appear in shambles, one big hard-hat area. But to regulars, the work on TUC and the new MainStreet corridor through the heart of campus represents the culminating phase of Steger's most tangible legacy -- the Master Plan, a massive physical transformation he envisioned 14 years and $1 billion ago.

No doubt the era has been accompanied by growing pains. Still, most who have witnessed the Steger years will count 1984 to 2003 as a golden age of progress for this university, and not simply due to bricks and mortar.

The same span has seen widespread technological advances in the classroom, obvious efforts to improve service at every level, a dedication to social equity through an initiative known as Just Community and a commitment to laboratory discovery that has steadily produced knowledge and products of global importance.

Even those who do not view the last two decades so positively surely would agree it has been a period of extreme change. The numbers alone speak to the progress: 16 new buildings, several by world-renowned architects; a budget that has grown from $273 million to $753 million; and research funding that last year reached $260 million, compared to $30 million in 1984. Plus, the university endowment has grown from about $150 million to about $800 million.

Obviously UC's hyper-evolution is due partly to the fact that it was surrounded by a world that over the same time frame witnessed the end of the Cold War, the beginning of the digital age, years of unfettered economic prosperity and scientific revelations such as the mapping of the human genetic code. Regardless of whether UC has remained ahead of the curve or has orbited at the same rate as the rest of the planet, both are far different today than 19 years ago.

UC's Internet traffic, technology that was virtually nonexistent in 1984, amounts to 20 trillion bytes per month today. Yahoo Internet Life even ranked UC as the 32nd "Most Wired" campus in the country in 2000. Students and faculty using UC's wireless network can surf the Net in various locations on campus without a physical connection.

Historically speaking, information technology has reformed the classroom experience for the modern student. Hundreds of professors now use an online course-management system known as Blackboard, which allows students 24-hour access to materials, grades and even discussion groups. Instead of chalkboards and overhead projectors, faculty often connect with students through entirely online courses, paperless classrooms and streaming video. It is indeed a different place, both physically and virtually.

When Joe Steger took over as the university's leader in '84, the same year Ronald Reagan began his second term in office, UC was in the early years of its transformation from a municipal university to a state university.

"We were an ordinary institution," recalls Richard Friedman, senior assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "There was a sense of ordinariness. We had just become a state university in 1977, and we were doing a lot of catch-up. We thought of ourselves as more of a regional university than a national university."

At the same time, the university's enrollment figures were mimicking a downward trend in higher education across the country, says UC vice president of finance Dale McGirr, who was promoted by Steger shortly after he settled in as president.

"1984 was the beginning of the end of the baby boom or the sort of natural expansion process of enrollment," McGirr says. "It wasn't automatic anymore. We were coming to the end of that push in the '50s, '60s and '70s when you had either the GI Bill or the baby boom just pushing enrollment numbers like crazy."

From a sea of blacktop to a sea of green, the evolution of Lot 1 (top) into Campus Green (above) is perhaps the most dramatic transformation of space in the university’s recent history. photo/Dottie Stover

From a sea of blacktop to a sea of green, the evolution of Lot 1 (top) into Campus Green (above) is perhaps the most dramatic transformation of space in the university’s recent history. Photo/Dottie Stover

UC's transformation to a state school and the need to work harder to attract students, vice president Dale McGirr says, made it the perfect time for a president interested in "long-term strategic horizons."

"You could get to the '80s and say, OK, these drivers are gone,'" he explains. "What are the next drivers that are going to run the show for the next 25 to 40 years?'"

What emerged in 1989 was a vision for a world-class institution that would require top people, the foremost programs and state-of-the-art facilities. By then, the charter was clear, particularly considering that research indicates most students choose a school based on their first 15 minutes on campus. To attract the best faculty, students and administrators, the outdated, run-down campus needed a complete makeover.

The Washington Post summed up the situation well: "Almost every college campus in America was bent out of shape by the egregious mistakes of the post-World War II boom in educational buildings. The University of Cincinnati was hit harder than most.

"Its campus started with conventional clusters of buildings and open spaces, high on a green hill far from downtown. After the war, however, things went downhill both literally and figuratively." Green space dwindled as unchecked growth squeezed the institution by the late 1980s. The problem became abundantly clear when, in the same week, two college deans turned in building plans for the same piece of open land.

"The campus became dominated by the car," McGirr explains. "Campus was saturated with 'hardscape' and traffic and building materials that turned out not to be very attractive or long-lived. It became impersonal, dense and paved around. Open space was virtually gone.

"We wanted to go from all those bad adjectives to all the good ones. And so we are going from dense, paved, impersonal and high-rise to planned, pedestrianized, open and low-rise."

Even beyond the aesthetic beauty of the institution, it needed a redefinition of itself. And that is precisely what president Joe Steger gave it with the unveiling of the campus Master Plan -- a watershed moment in the university's history.

University architect Ron Kull, DAAP '68, MA (A&S) '81, remembers his initial reaction to the daunting task of remaking the place when he was hired in 1990. "I told them maybe the best thing you could hope for is that kudzu grows this far north, then let it grow over the buildings. Because that is the only way you are going to make it all look alike." 

Home to more than 550 students, the Jefferson Residence Complex (above) sits squarely on land that was once the UC tennis courts. A new tennis complex is scheduled to open as part of Varsity Village. photos/Lisa Ventre and Dottie Stover

Home to more than 550 students, the Jefferson Residence Complex (above) sits squarely on land that was once the UC tennis courts. A new tennis complex is scheduled to open as part of Varsity Village. Photos/Lisa Ventre and Dottie Stover

UC leaders went to work throughout the '90s seeing through the first three phases of the Master Plan -- bringing academic facilities up to top standards, adding research facilities in key areas and making the urban campus greener and easier to get around -- all while adding signature architecture for the world to admire.

"Models for the healing of America's stressed campuses" is the way the Washington Post described the plan and its signature architect program in 1996: "We all know intuitively that buildings and landscapes should come together to make places that people enjoy. We desperately want that sense of wholeness in our cities and campuses, though we rarely get it anymore. In the long run, the Master Plan will prove to be more important than the architecture. It is an inventive attempt to put Humpty back together again."

Today, as President Joe Steger prepares to exit, Ron Kull and many others are closing in on phase four: "Quality of Campus Life and Student Services." By 2006, the final ribbon should be cut on MainStreet, and a vibrant corridor of retail, cafes, dining, entertainment and recreation will bring a true 24-hour comfort level to campus.

"We will have gone from a place where you spend as little time as possible to one where you want to be and you spend as much time as possible," vice president Dale McGirr says. "Dr. Steger used to say that we will have won when people come to see this place who have no other reason to be here other than they want to see the place."

Steger's theory that world-class facilities attract top-notch talent has held true. And it is those researchers, faculty, staff and students inside the buildings who have driven the university's success on many fronts.

"The buildings are enabling people," Steger says. "That's the reason you build great facilities. You can't do great science, and you can't do great teaching if you are in a Quonset hut. Those days are gone." 

Today the university's people, programs and technology all link globally. In a sense, the entire world is sitting in on UC lectures. Students here represent 110 countries, compared to 79 in 1984. In addition, about 300 students study abroad every year, as part of an international co-op program, and affiliation agreements are in place with schools in 50 countries.

Besides a more colorful student body, the last 20 years has also seen substantial advances in gender equity as evidenced by last year's report from US News and World Report, which ranked UC among the top five Title IX schools. And it goes well beyond athletics. The number of women enrolled at UC, particularly in what once were male-dominated fields such as law and engineering, has expanded greatly, president Joe Steger points out. Female law students, for example, occupy more than half the seats in any given classroom today. "Twenty years ago there was maybe one female in the class," he says. "All of those changes are really making it an entirely different place."

Nationally, the university has gone from zero programs ranked among the top 25 in 1984 to having nearly a dozen today, especially from colleges such as the College-Conservatory of Music and the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. Doctors and scientists at UC, one of only 88 schools that were classified as Carnegie Research I institutions, have helped UC achieve a National Science Foundation ranking of 46th in the country.

Part of this success is due to innovative collaborations such as the new Department of Biomedical Engineering, a melding of the College of Medicine and the College of Engineering to produce cutting-edge biotechnology. UC's new Genome Research Institute is furthering the understanding of human physiology and unraveling the secrets of disease. Scientists from internationally known corporations work daily with UC's scholars to develop nanotechnology, test new medicines and work on cures for conditions such as obesity.

Everything considered, the change in one president's term seems both enormous and impressive, but Dale McGirr sums up the last 19 years in one sentence: "Dr. Steger has added strength and quality in every direction that you can look."

A summation critics may want to keep in mind as they stand on McMicken Commons and sneer at all the construction. Legacies take time to build.