Preservation News|

By David J. Morrison

Early educational institutions in Harrisburg

            The quest to make Harrisburg a center of learning long predates its establishment as a seat of government, and indeed it goes back to 1784, before there was a Dauphin County or even a Harrisburg.  In that year, John Harris, Jr., son of the pioneer and builder of the historic John Harris Mansion in the village of Harris’ Ferry, established a school in a room of his mansion for the education of his children and those of his neighbors.  He imported a schoolteacher from Lancaster, seat of Lancaster County, of which his community was still a part.  Known as the Academy or the Harris School, it was named the Harrisburg Academy by State charter in 1809, and it remains the region’s leading private school to this day.

            The Harrisburg Academy has occupied a number of high-profile locations along Front Street including the equally historic William Maclay Mansion at Front and South Streets from 1847 to 1908.  In that year, the trustees of the all-male institution sold the Maclay property and purchased 15 acres farther up Front Street, where a new campus was built and occupied until 1942.  Although most students were day students, an increase in boarding students led to rapid expansion and the erection of dormitories in the manner of the New England prep schools.

            The Academy struggled through the Depression years of the 1930s.  Like private day schools and boarding schools across the country, the Academy’s endowment and enrollment had been decimated by the economic catastrophe.  To counter declining enrollments, it briefly added an elementary school, and in 1935 renamed itself “Harrisburg Academy and Junior College,” offering a two-year college curriculum in business training.  The struggle to survive, however, was dealt a blow by America’s entry into World War II.  On January 7, 1942, the school passed into receivership, and was forced to sell its assets.  The campus was sold for $300,000 to the U.S. War Department, which established an air intelligence school, and a much reduced Academy with 43 students (minus the junior college) moved to the McCormick Mansion at 305 N. Front Street.  In 1948, predating a national trend by two decades, the Academy became co-educational through the merger with the Seiler School for Girls, and relocated to the Elias Z. Wallower Mansion at Front and Maclay Streets, where it remained until moving in 1959 to a new suburban campus on Erford Road in Wormleysburg on Harrisburg’s West Shore, where it has expanded and prospered since then.

Harrisburg’s Quest for a College

According to historian Paul Beers, the first call for a bona-fide institution of higher education in Harrisburg was in 1902, if not earlier.  Although Harrisburg was the Capital City and a thriving metropolis at the turn of the Twentieth Century, the prospect of establishing a college or university was not an easy one.  The city’s business tycoons and professionals typically were graduates of old Eastern Seaboard institutions. Yale was for many generations Harrisburg’s college of choice.  Family patterns were strong, and the Front Street elite pointed their offspring – and their acts of philanthropy – toward their alma maters.

            In addition, there were old, established, respected private liberal arts colleges scattered across the Capital Region.  Within a 20-mile radius were Dickinson College in Carlisle, Messiah College in Grantham, Lebanon Valley College in Annville and Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown.  The latter two would play an important subsequent role in this story.

            Lastly, the publicly sponsored institutions of higher education that existed at the time were Penn State, established in 1855 in geographically-central Centre County (not Harrisburg) as the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, and the State Normal Schools, established during the Nineteenth Century to train teachers for Pennsylvania’s public schools.  With one of these 40 miles to the east at Millersville and another 43 miles to the west at Shippensburg, there was little likelihood or need for another in Harrisburg.

            These various elements of Pennsylvania’s extensive higher-education infrastructure had a collective prominence that was impressive.  Though none was in Harrisburg, their proximity had quelled the community-based movement for a college in the Capital City.

            Meanwhile, another movement, the community college movement was gradually taking root across the nation.  Pennsylvania first considered a community college system in 1926, and the first legislation to create such a system was introduced in 1939.  World War II intervened, but in 1947, recognizing the pent-up demand for higher education, President Harry Truman called for a national system of community colleges.  Pennsylvania would eventually answer that call in 1963, an occurrence that would factor in this story as well.

            The post-World-War-II era unleashed a 15-year hunger for goods and services in America.  From the stock market crash in 1929 to V-J Day in 1945, the country had grown accustomed to shortages: shortages of capital and spending money during the Great Depression; and shortages of labor and domestic goods during the War.  The massive dam-burst that followed included the demand by millions of returning GIs for education and training to equip them for a much changed world.  The Federal GI Bill provided an avalanche of tuition funds, and eligible providers, from technical schools to colleges and universities, operated around the clock to meet the demand.  It was a seller’s market.  In addition to offering evening and summer classes, many schools made their markets with satellite campuses and empty buildings wherever a class of students could be assembled.

            Harrisburg was no stranger to this phenomenon.  A number of Pennsylvania institutions of higher education saw the Capital City as a major under-served market, and they moved in quickly.  By 1950, at least half a dozen institutions offered courses in Harrisburg.

            The entity that became the University Center had its origins in the early 1950s when these colleges offering evening courses in Harrisburg recognized that broader opportunities could be made available to the people of the greater Harrisburg area if their efforts were united.

The College Center at Harrisburg

            Among the institutions then offering courses in Harrisburg were Elizabethtown College and Lebanon Valley College, private liberal arts institutions that were both about an hour east of downtown Harrisburg.  In September 1951, these two colleges took the first step to combine efforts to create a College Center in Harrisburg.  Their well-crafted mission statement announced that they would offer “…a curriculum designed to meet the academic, vocational and cultural needs of residents of the central Pennsylvania area.  The Center will present opportunities for educational advancement to those whose regular employment allows them to attend classes only in the evening.”

            Among the early goals were the standardization of tuition rates and mutual exchange of credits, facilitating a student’s educational progress between the institutions.  A centralized site for classes, all at night, was created at the William Penn High School in Uptown Harrisburg.

            In 1954, Temple University joined the colleges operating the Center.  Temple expanded the menu by offering graduate-level courses in education and psychology.  Within a year, the combined enrollment was 224 undergraduate students and 133 graduate students.

The Pennsylvania State University in 1957 became the fourth member of the Harrisburg College Center, an addition which brought in significant strength, in terms of more students and broader course offerings, on both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

HACHE is Incorporated

            A major milestone in the development of this enterprise occurred in 1958 when the University of Pennsylvania became the fifth member of the College Center.  It was at this point that the five institutions took steps to create a more formal and iconic organization, an educational consortium.  Several Harrisburg civic leaders were recruited to play a part in the new organization which was to be named the Harrisburg Area Center for Higher Education, a non-profit corporation chartered under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

            To accomplish this, an Application for Charter, in accordance with the Non-Profit Corporation Law of 1933, was filed with the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, November 25, 1958, along with Articles of Incorporation.  Article One provided the corporate name: Harrisburg Area Center for Higher Education.  Article Two stated its purpose:  “to supply a means of bringing college educational programs to the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area, at the undergraduate and graduate levels, designed to meet the academic, vocational and cultural needs of persons residing in Central Pennsylvania.”

            There were fifteen original incorporators.  Each of the five participating institutions had two representatives: Dr. Eric A. Walker and Mr. E.L. Keller of the Pennsylvania State University; Dr. A.C. Baugher and Dr. Ray E. McAuley of Elizabethtown College; Dr. Frederic K. Miller and Dr. Howard M. Kreitzer of Lebanon Valley College; Dr. Millard E. Gladfelter and Dr. Sterling Atkinson of Temple University; and Dr. Gaylord P. Harnwell and Dr. Willis J. Winn of the University of Pennsylvania.  In addition, there were five community representatives:  John L. Tively, Mrs. William Hargast Jr., Sidney G. Handler (who also was the attorney who filed the legal documents), E.F. Russell and R. Robert Storey. 

The Articles of Incorporation specified a Board of Directors with a minimum of 15 members, with two classes of directors: there would be two institutional members serving “at the will of the President of each participating institution” and an equal number of community members serving staggered, three-year terms.  The articles specified that if institutions were added or withdrew from the corporation, the number of community members would rise or fall accordingly.

On December 4, 1958, the Honorable Walter R. Sohn, of the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County, issued a court order approving the Charter of the Harrisburg Area Center for Higher Education as a non-profit corporation, “…the same appearing lawful and not injurious to the community.”  The order was entered in the Court of Common Pleas for No. 1090 September Term, 1958, by the Prothonotary, Russell G. Hummel.  The corporation was generally known as HACHE.

            The HACHE articles of incorporation established a governing and administrative structure.  It was stipulated that the chairman of the board had to be the president of one of the academic institutions.  The president, vice president and treasurer, on the other hand, were to be community representatives, elected to two-year terms of office.  It was further provided that the chief administrative officer of the organization would be a Dean chosen by the Board of Directors.  The first dean was John G. Berrier.

            The formal entity proved to be more effective than its predecessor in providing a collaborative educational system.  Under the auspices of the new HACHE Board of Directors, the educational offerings continued to expand.  In 1960 the University of Pennsylvania, through its Wharton School, instituted a Masters of Governmental Administration in cooperation with the other two universities (Temple and Penn State).  This was a logical offering that addressed the considerable State Government market in Harrisburg, where the end of widespread political patronage and Civil Service reform brought about the demand for trained professional governmental administrators.  Indeed, it could reasonably be asserted that this HACHE curriculum over the years played a significant role in the improvement and modernization of state government during the second half of the Twentieth Century, a time when rising public costs, declining rust-belt industries and growing environmental and social-service programs demanded that government rise to the occasion and “work smarter.”

            As the 1960s unfolded, HACHE grew and accumulated a few more of the trappings of a stand-alone university.  In 1963, Temple University began offering a Master of Science Degree at the Center by sponsoring a Graduate Education program for teachers, which program made it possible for a person to earn all the credits for a master’s degree at the Center in Harrisburg.

            Simultaneous to the expansion of the graduate-level programming, the HACHE leadership also sought to strengthen the freshman and sophomore level offerings.  It was believed that there was a growing market for full-time college students and that traditional daytime operation was needed.  This could not be accomplished in the shared classrooms at William Penn High School. 

“Dr. Joseph Butterwerck, a professor of secondary education at Temple University, conceived the idea that some of the colleges and universities that were then offering courses off-campus in Harrisburg, if they all got together and had one center, they could all probably pool enough income to pay for the maintenance of the place,” said B. Anton Hess, Ph. D., a prominent retired Pennsylvania educator who has played an enduring role in this history. 

Seeking a Headquarters

The HACHE Facilities Committee, which included such local businessmen as Wallace H. Alexander and Robert M. Mumma, explored several sites, including the old Camp Curtin Junior High School and the Open Air School at Fifth and Seneca Streets, both of which were available.  But their preferred recommendation was the former Harrisburg Academy campus in uptown Harrisburg, With half a dozen stately academic buildings in the style of a New England prep school, the Academy had thrived at this location in the 1920s, but a downsizing caused by the Depression of the 1930s had left it vacant.  The campus was acquired and used during World War II by the United States Government as a training center for military intelligence officers, and it had continued under Federal ownership after the war was over. 

On May 16, 1962, the president of the HACHE corporation, J. Robert Storey, wrote to the commanding officer of the Naval and Marine Training Center occupying the former academy, seeking an arrangement “to provide fulltime studies beginning in September 1962 for classes scheduled from 0900 to 1700 hours…Monday through Friday.”  Specifically requested were “one large classroom in Hunter Hall, three smaller classrooms in Stillwater Hall, and a gymnasium and additional rooms appropriate for temporary offices in the gymnasium building.”  HACHE would pay to have the rooms painted and the locks changed.

An official “License for Non-Federal Use of Real Property” was executed, and HACHE was on its way to becoming the equivalent of a full-time college, gymnasium and all.  Some on the HACHE board and in the Harrisburg community had the vision that this might evolve into a stand-alone four-year college.

            Meanwhile, another stand-alone institution of higher education was on the verge of being established in Harrisburg.  Governor George Leader in 1957 had introduced state legislation to create a community college system in Pennsylvania.  When it failed to be acted upon, Governor David Lawrence proposed similar legislation in 1959.  It was not, however, until nearly the end of the term of Governor William Scranton that this initiative succeeded, when on August 24, 1963, the Legislature adopted and Scranton signed into law Act 484, the Pennsylvania Community College act.

HACC is Established

            With the HACHE consortium going gangbusters and with a national frenzy to expand educational capacity in the Sixties in anticipation of the huge college-bound “baby boom” generation, Harrisburg civic leaders were poised to create a community college under the provisions of the new law.  The law provided for two-year colleges to be established under local sponsorship, either county governments or school districts.  Tuition was to be met by having the State Government, the local sponsoring jurisdiction and the individual student each paying one third.

            Harrisburg lawyers James Evans and Bruce Cooper led the effort to create a local community college.  During the Fall of 1963 they called on dozens of local school districts to seek and secure sponsorship agreements, which were in place by December.  A State charter was granted in February 1964, and a charter board of trustees met on March 2, 1964.  Over the next several months, a president, Dr. Clyde Blocker, and a staff were employed, and Harrisburg Area Community College opened its doors on September 21, 1964.  It, along with HACHE, used classrooms at the Federally-owned Harrisburg Academy campus.

The Campus is Acquired (Almost)

In 1965, a significant advance was made when steps were taken that would lead, hopefully, to the acquisition of the historic campus in Uptown Harrisburg that had by now become the city’s premiere educational landmark.  Retaining active use of just one building, the Federal Government was considering declaring the balance of the property surplus.

Through the efforts of a number of the Board of Directors, especially Major General (ret.) George J. Richards, then the president of the corporation, the Federal Government agreed to grant HACHE a 20-year lease of the 6.7 acres of buildings and grounds of the historic Academy campus.  As HACHE gained broader control of the campus, HACC meanwhile relocated to its own new campus adjoining Wildwood Park a few miles away.

For HACHE’s continued growth, the former academy campus was ideal.  It had six large buildings, a prestigious and convenient location, and a vividly academic appearance.  The lease was executed in the form of a “quit-claim deed,” a mechanism that stipulated that if the recipient used the property for the purposes specified for the full period of the lease, and showed evidence of perpetuity at the expiration of the lease, it would receive full title to the property on that occasion.  This deal was a small coup for the HACHE leaders, but the quit-claim deed had significant requirements to be fulfilled.  To the community members of the board in particular, it provided strong motivation to maintain a thriving institution.

According to former University Center vice president James Romano, “General Richards was a powerful mover and shaker in persuading the federal government to relinquish title to the physical property to HACHE, subject to the jurisdiction of the Dauphin County Court.” 

It was under this court jurisdiction that control of the real property was transferred through the quit-claim for the 20-year duration of the lease.  If the consortium should fail to maintain its stated function, court action would be necessary to make alternate arrangements for disposal of the property on behalf of the United States of America.

As Anton Hess recalled, “When the property was turned over to us at the start of the lease, the Court had to make a stipulation regarding the conditions by which the board of the consortium would ultimately acquire the property.”  This stipulation required that the property continue to be used for educational and public purposes.  “The judge expressed his belief that there ought to be some control by the community, not just a group of colleges. That’s how people like Barney and I became involved in serving on the board.”

            During the period of the lease, all the participating educational institutions contributed a share of funds to provide for the necessary administrative and custodial support.  According to Anton Hess, it was a tenuous arrangement.  On the one hand, some of the institutions bristled at footing their share of the costs, and any decline in enrollment led them to contemplate withdrawal.  On the other hand, the rewards of survivorship were substantial.  “They all had their eye on this property,” said Hess, referring to the anticipated transfer of ownership if 20 years of educational activity could be sustained for the duration of the lease.

Not all of the participating institutions would remain in the game.  Penn State became the first to withdraw.  “They were competing with themselves at Middletown,” said Hess, referring to the recently established Capitol Campus of Penn State a few miles south of Harrisburg, which also occupied federal property under a quit-claim deed.  “The Provost at Middletown said ‘it makes no sense to operate in both places.’.”

The University Center at Harrisburg

            In 1966, the legal name of the corporation, Harrisburg Area Center for Higher Education, was formally changed by amending Article 1 of its Articles of Incorporation to University Center at Harrisburg.  The Articles of Amendment were approved by Order of Court entered August 15, 1966.  Not only had there been growing confusion between the similar names “Harrisburg Area Center for Higher Education” and “Harrisburg Area Community College,” but the corporate change also reflected the growing offerings of graduate-level courses.  It was also in 1966 that Dr. Robert A. Byerly, chairman of the department of religion and philosophy at Elizabethtown College, was named director of the Center.

            Business and civic leader Ralph E. Peters, who joined the HACHE Board in 1962, became its vice president in 1966.  Shortly thereafter, noting the amount of time he was devoting to this community responsibility, Peters wrote to his colleagues at Berger Associates (forerunner of the current Benatec Associates, which Peters heads today) “I want you to know I am grateful for the hours I spend assisting in this program.”  He certainly expressed a sentiment that has applied to most of the Board members who have devoted substantial professional time and resources as volunteer stewards of the Center.

            The tenth anniversary of the incorporation of the Center was observed at a dinner on November 22, 1968, at Harrisburg’s Holiday Inn Town.  It was noted that in the first ten years of its operation the Center had served more than 14,000 students.  At the time, the corporate chairman was Dr. Morley J. Mays, President of Elizabethtown College, while General Richards continued in the role of president of the corporation.  The board then consisted of 30 members, fifteen each from the community and the institutions.

            On October 25, 1973, education history was made at the University Center when the first baccalaureate degree was awarded to Robert J. Haertsch of Camp Hill, an account manager for the National Cash Register Corporation, who received the degree of Bachelor of Business Administration.

            The evolution of the campus to an even stronger University Center at Harrisburg identity occurred on December 3, 1978, the 20th anniversary of the founding of the corporation.  At a ceremony on that date, by resolution of the Board of Directors, one of the campus buildings, Stillwater Hall was officially renamed Richards Hall, honoring the corporation’s long-time president Major General George H. Richards.  A 1915 West Point graduate, he had served under General Pershing and advanced through the Army ranks, ultimately serving as Army Comptroller in 1947.  From 1953 to 1959, he had served as Pennsylvania’s Deputy Secretary of Highways.  The ceremony honoring General Richards also marked the succession of the corporate presidency to Ralph Peters, who arranged for and presided at the ceremonies honoring General Richards.

Although the president’s role in the corporation was large, he was nonetheless a volunteer.  The chief executive officer, the center’s paid director, coordinated the day-to-day operations of several full-time staff members as well as numerous faculty members employed by the member institutions.  In 1978, this position was filled by Dr. Quay C. Snyder, succeeding Coleman Herpel.   

            In September 1981, the University Center at Harrisburg celebrated the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the original consortium.  It was noted that the member institutions were offering a wide array of academic programs to the citizens of Central Pennsylvania.  An individual could obtain a Bachelor of Science in Accounting or Business Administration, a Bachelor of Arts or Science in Social Work, a fifth-year diploma in Accounting, Business Management or Human Services, as well as Associate degrees in these areas from Elizabethtown College.  There were Certificate Programs (first year of an undergraduate degree program) in Accounting, Business Management, and Human Services.  A report noted, “The Adult External Degree Program offers the flexibility of classroom experience coupled with experiential learning toward degree programs in Professional Studies as well as Liberal Studies.”

Real Estate Ownership

            On Tuesday, October 10, 1985, the United States of America, acting through the Secretary of Education, released the conditions of the August 5, 1965 quit-claim deed, thereby transferring full control and ownership of the 6.7 acres of land and seven buildings from the federal government to the University Center at Harrisburg.  This meant that the consortium of five educational institutions of higher learning would own and administer the land and buildings without federally imposed conditions.  The Release of Conditions document was filed of record in the office of the Recorder of Deeds of Dauphin County, in Deed Book 578, page 252, on January 4, 1987.

            Presiding at the ceremonies that day were J. Bernard Schmidt, president of the University Center at Harrisburg and Ralph Peters, immediate past president, as well Dr. Arthur Peterson, chairman of the board of directors of the consortium.  Hon. Margaret Smith, Secretary of the PA Department of Education, was the guest speaker.

            In 1988, the start of the University Center’s fourth decade brought not only growing academic success, but also a new chapter in its physical evolution as well.  A change in the structure of state government would create a unique opportunity for both the Center and its Uptown Harrisburg campus.

            Anton Hess recalled the genesis of the new agency of state government that would play a pivotal role in the future of the University Center:  “State Senator Jeannette Riebman had for several years been introducing a bill to create a State System of Higher Education, similar to the New York system.  In 1982, her legislation was passed and was signed into law by Governor Thornburgh.  The thirteen state colleges and Indiana University of Pennsylvania became part of this system and all were given the status of universities.  Until the 1930s they had been called normal schools.”  In 1936, they became four-year “state teachers’ colleges.”

The normal schools were created in the mid-19th Century to address the need for trained teachers which had been brought on by statewide laws requiring local public education.  Initially, every township or borough had to provide free public education.

“Later they were permitted to join together to create ‘school districts’ to provide secondary education,” said Hess, “This meant they had the right to apply to create a high school either on their own or together with others.  This led to a great shortage of teachers for elementary and secondary education, and the normal schools were created to meet that need.”

“In time, these institutions began to get money from alumni and run drives and create endowments.  But the State saw this as padding their budgets, and for many years ordered their state appropriations to be reduced by the amount they raised.  When the State System of Higher Education was created we went to the Board of Governors to get them to stop the practice of penalizing the fourteen universities for raising money.  That was in the early 1980s.  The practice had been started many years earlier by a previous governor to make a budget balance,” Hess recalled.

State System of Higher Education

The legislation which created the State System of Higher Education provided for a Board of Governors, the majority of members appointed by the Governor, and a Chancellor, who would serve as chief executive officer.  From the beginning, and for nearly 20 years, the new entity enjoyed the leadership of two visionary individuals.  The first chairman of the Board of Governors was the late F. Eugene Dixon, Jr., a Philadelphia civic leader and philanthropist, with political savvy, business acumen (he owned the Philadelphia 76ers basketball franchise and also at one time or another was a part owner of every other major professional sports franchise in the city, including the Phillies, Eagles and Flyers), and educational leadership (he had chaired the board of trustees of the college that became Widener University (named for his grandfather, streetcar magnate P.A.B. Widener). 

Chosen as the first chancellor was Dr. James H. McCormick, whose past service as professor and administrator at Shippensburg State College and president of Bloomsburg State College, two components of the 14-institution system, provided an ideal background for the task.  Dr. McCormick served as Chancellor for 18 years, from July 1, 1983 until June 30, 2001.

These responsibilities were inherited from the Commissioner of Higher Education, Frederick K. Miller, in the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), along with some of Miller’s staff.  At about this time, PDE was preparing for its move to a new state headquarters building at 333 Market Street, vacating the older and smaller Forum Building.  The new independent entity, SSHE, saw the symbolic importance of a separate headquarters, and entered into a 10-year lease for the historic Kunkel/Feller Building, nearby at 301 Market Street, which had recently been acquired and rehabilitated by contractor/developer William H. Alexander.

The move was hailed by city and state leaders.  A major vacant building in downtown Harrisburg had been rehabilitated and occupied, and because it remained privately owned, it remained on the tax rolls.  SSHE remained at this location for the duration of the lease, critical years before the eventual Harrisburg renaissance brought other major office buildings and tenants to Center City. 

But, in the late 1980s, as SSHE was nearing the end of its ten-year lease in its downtown office tower, at the opposite end of town, an ideal solution presented itself to the creative and visionary eyes of University Center Board member Anton W. Hess.   A retired deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Hess knew the personalities and the politics that would come together to create a win-win situation for the State System, the University Center and the old Harrisburg Academy campus.

Sale to the State System of Higher Education

Hess recalled how the University Center would once again undergo operational and custodial transformation, as the UCH Board sought to ensure that both the corporate entity and the real estate had a meaningful future that would be of maximum benefit to the community and the public at large.

“As we struggled with the operation of the University Center and the SSHE contemplated what it should do when its downtown lease expired, I thought it would be nice if SSHE had a regular headquarters on the Susquehanna River.  I approached Dr. McCormick with my idea, and he and the lawyer took it to the Board of Governors.  Dixon said ‘that sounds like a tremendous idea, and I’ll kick in a million dollars.’”

            Although the University Center consortium had an illustrious presence in Central Pennsylvania and had made an historic impact on the educational landscape, by the mid 1980s, the scale of its activities had decreased.  On April 4, 1986, Sheldon Hackney, President of the University of Pennsylvania, by his letter dated April 4, 1986, informed UCH President Arthur L. Peterson, that because Penn’s professional schools expressed no interest in extension work in Harrisburg and its College of General Studies saw no way of conducting programs in Harrisburg on a practical basis, the University of Pennsylvania decided not to continue as a member of the consortium after June 30, 1986.  Similarly, Bryce Jordan, President of The Pennsylvania State University, by his letter dated June 25, 1986, directed to Dr. Robert E. McDermott, Executive Director of the University Center, provided formal notice that The Pennsylvania State University would withdraw from membership as a participating institution in the University Center at Harrisburg, effective June 30, 1987, and that it intended not to conduct any educational programs in the fiscal year from June 1, 1986, through June 30, 1987.  The consortium’s two largest partners had established their presence elsewhere in the Harrisburg area, Penn State at its Capitol Campus in Middletown, and Temple in Downtown Harrisburg’s Strawberry Square. 

            The UCH Vice President, James Romano, explained, “We had a sizable consortium at first, particularly with the participation of Penn State and Temple.  But the support (based on enrollments) was sporadic and, hence, difficult to predict.  When Penn State and Temple left the consortium to offer their own programs in the Harrisburg area, the viability of the University Center as an educational entity was weakened to virtually zero.” 

            Thereafter, the UCH Board of Directors decided to approach individuals and entities, including the SSHE to discuss the continuation of programming and to discuss the future use of the UCH campus.  As a result of that contact, F. Eugene Dixon, Jr., Chairman of the Board of Governors of the SSHE, by his letter dated April 8, 1986, directed to Mr. Barney Schmidt, Chairman, University Center at Harrisburg Corporation Board, stated that “The Board of Governors for the State System of Higher Education today authorized its Chancellor, James H. McCormick, to present to your Board a proposal under which the State System would administer a Higher Education Consortium at the University Center at Harrisburg.”  Chairman Dixon expressed the desire of SSHE to offer academic programming, beginning January, 1987.

            Dr. Charles Clevenger was a vice president at Shippensburg University during the 1987-1988 school-year (a few years before the SSHE’s Kunkel Building lease expiration) when a conversation occurred between Shippensburg President Dr. Anthony Ceddia and Chancellor McCormick.  “Jim McCormick said that SSHE was intent on keeping its headquarters in the City, and equally intent on having a headquarters with a campus environment with student and faculty activity,” Clevenger recalled.  McCormick was sowing the seeds of support for a move of SSHE to the old Harrisburg Academy campus.

McCormick continued to cultivate support for the idea among his Board of Governors and his fourteen SSHE member institutions.

Meanwhile, keeping the consortium in tact proved increasingly difficult.  In anticipation of the SSHE presence, efforts were made to bring in the State System universities, according to Clevenger.  Soon the University of Penn withdrew, and the remaining colleges, Lebanon Valley and Elizabethtown found themselves increasingly in competition for students and tuition.  When the University Center at Harrisburg, Inc. conveyed the real property to SSHE, only these two colleges, remained members of the corporation, along with the community members. 

The sale of the campus to the Commonwealth was a complicated transaction, full of uncertainties.

“We had to change the law again, because there was no provision in the law for SSHE to own land.  Up to that point, the Chancellor lived in a state-owned Chancellor’s Residence on Indiana Avenue in Lemoyne,” said Hess.  This arrangement was made when McCormick’s position was created, since he had been recruited from a state college in Pennsylvania where all state college presidents received an official residence.  An attractive selling point of the University Center campus was the mid-sized Front Street Mansion that had been built as the Harrisburg Academy’s Headmaster’s House.

“We could sell the property because the time period and the conditions under which the federal government could retake the property expired,” said Hess, referring to the acquisition from the federal government via the quit-claim deed.  “After we got it for the price of one dollar from the U.S. Government, we then sold the campus to the State for $100,000.”  In essence, the selling price reflected the value of the equipment turned over by the corporation, while covering expenses incurred in making the transaction a reality.  It truly was a win-win-win situation, but the conveyance to SSHE did have an important condition attached to it.

“The money from this sale was used for a scholarship fund which we administer to this day,” said Hess.  As Hess recalled, the sale of the campus to SSHE was not an immediate done deal.  “There were several ways it could have gone.  Several board members said, ‘let’s sell it to (local developer) John Vartan or somebody and use the money for scholarships.’  And I said, ‘scholarships for whom?’”

“The feeling was we could dispose of the property and we could operate elsewhere.  We did have the ability to transfer it, as long as we carried forth our mission,” Board member and President J. Bernard “Barney” Schmidt explained.

Hess added, “I went to Florida with my wife in the winter of 1991.  Soon I learned that the whole thing had fallen apart!  SSHE said ‘we must own it and have full right to use it as we want to.’  Some of our board members wanted to put in a 25-year clause, to make sure they stayed.  I couldn’t conceive of them selling it, so I opposed the restriction.”

The long-term future of the property was of concern to the surrounding neighbors, whose neighborhood of large lots and historic homes was appropriately named “Academy Manor.”  Led by long-time resident Joel Burcat, they were strongly opposed to any plan that might permit the historic campus to be commercially developed.

“Barney Schmidt did a wonderful job convincing the neighbors that this was a plan that would not jeopardize the neighborhood,” said Charles Clevenger.  “When I became involved, I made it a personal goal to make sure we protected the historic nature of the site.  Fortunately everyone agreed, and I consider it a great accomplishment that ultimately we not only preserved, but enhanced the site.”

With so many key players involved – UCH board members, state officials from numerous agencies, local neighbors and others –  the effort to consummate the $300,000 real estate transaction was far from assured.  Just keeping such a diverse cast of characters together and in communication was a challenge.

“I was the guy that had the bright idea,” Hess recalled.  “I came back from Florida and found that the agreement hadn’t been consummated.  So I got on the phone to McCormick and asked, ‘Is the door closed?’ and McCormick said, ‘As far as I’m concerned the door and the window are still open.’  Jeff Boswell was our lawyer.”

The state was poised to accept the proposal.  Schmidt, Hess and their colleagues had done their homework.  “SSHE’s annual rent for their building on Market Street was $450,000.  So, to acquire the University Center would be a godsend to them.  The $450,000 (in their next year’s budget) could be used to purchase this property, but we didn’t charge that much,” said Hess.  The consideration included a cash component of $100,000 and a deed covenant negotiated by Attorney Boswell that would require the SSHE to “…provide courses and programs of instruction at the undergraduate and graduate levels, public service programs and other educational opportunities to the greater Harrisburg community on the conveyed property…”

Thus, in 1991, the campus that had been consecutively Harrisburg Academy, a Federal Department of Defense training facility, the Harrisburg Area Center for Higher Education and the University Center at Harrisburg, now became the headquarters of Pennsylvania’s independent system of fourteen state-owned universities.

According to Barney Schmidt, president of the corporation at the time of the sale, “The Corporation received the proceeds from sale of the real estate and equipment.  Then we retained an involvement.”  By careful design, the University Center at Harrisburg, Inc. would not go out of business with the sale of its campus, but it would evolve into an important local partner for the State System of Higher Education.  The proceeds from the property sale would be retained under the stewardship of the corporation, local educational and cultural activities would be sponsored, and, perhaps most importantly, the University Center would continue to have a community function while serving primarily as the headquarters for a state educational agency.

As Barney Schmidt and Anton Hess recalled, “Dr. Charles Clevenger had been a vice president of Shippensburg University.  He had been proposed by Dr Ceddia, Shippensburg’s president, to become our first director, after the SSHE became owner of the property.”

Dixon University Center

Clevenger was recruited to become dean of the new University Center’s ongoing educational operation.  He would continue to be a SSHE employee, but he would work closely with and for the UCH corporate board.  “Dr.  Clevenger was the ideal person to undertake this unique position and serve as the bridge between the statewide and the local interests,” said Barney Schmidt.

The new role of the UCH would be to guide the local activities coordinated by Clevenger and to provide special funding for key projects and purposes.  The vision for the new SSHE headquarters was that its own statewide administrative functions would coexist synergistically with the long-standing consortium-style educational programming that would now include participation from SSHE member universities. 

Following his appointment as dean, Clevenger initiated a review of the educational needs in the Harrisburg area.  A Gallup study was commissioned.  “One thing was clear,” said Clevenger, “there was a great need for part-time graduate study in applied areas, such as business, computer science, nursing, counseling and xxx science.  We sought to bring these programs in.  The major challenge was to maintain the public-private consortium.  That was the spirit of the Corporation.”

“Dr. Clevenger got busy immediately in contacting the SSHE universities about having them send professors to teach courses.  They could send to Harrisburg to teach part time adult students,” Hess recalled.  “This grew very rapidly.  Soon we had several thousand students every semester.  Institutions kept asking to put in new courses.”

“We protected Elizabethtown and Lebanon Valley,” Hess said, referring to their seniority status in the consortium.  As the state universities began to offer a broader array of course, it became necessary to establish a non-competitive clause to protect the programs of the two colleges.  “But then Lebanon Valley dropped out.  That left Elizabethtown as the sole original consortium presence — plus the State universities.  But Elizabethtown had a non-competitive clause.  They had exclusiveness.”

The State System of Higher Education’s headquarters at the Dixon University Center continued to be an extremely satisfactory arrangement for both the State System and the Harrisburg community.  In 1994, the former Hunter Hall, that had contained the Academy’s library and dining hall and had limited capability for conversion to new uses, was razed and replaced by a new building that became the executive offices for SSHE.  Although it is state-of-the-art in every way, this new facility was designed in an architectural style that is entirely sympathetic to the historic “collegiate gothic” appearance of the campus.

Built by the State Department of General Services for SSHE, but with a $1-million gift from F. Eugene Dixon Jr., the building was a masterpiece and quickly became the focal point and nerve center for the campus and for the State System.  In 1994, the campus was named Dixon University Center, honoring Dixon while preserving the familiar “University Center” nomenclature by which the campus had come to be known under the Corporation’s stewardship.

All the other existing buildings were rehabilitated and restored for use by SSHE.  In particular, the former Headmaster’s House was extensively renovated to be a suitable official residence for the Chancellor and was named McCormick House in honor of its first SSHE occupant.  Landscaping and sidewalks were upgraded, and a collection of important outdoor sculptures was developed to enhance the grounds.

A most praiseworthy step was the placement of an expansive parking garage entirely underground, beneath the campus’ broad green quadrangle facing Front Street, preserving this key feature as one of the City’s prized open spaces.

The combined vision of Clevenger, McCormick, Dixon and the corporation board created a facility and a campus that has drawn widespread praise for its historic beauty and its modern function.  In 1996, the campus was the recipient of the annual Preservation Award of the Historic Harrisburg Association.

Another priority of Clevenger’s and the Board’s was to ensure a broad range of community use and access at the Center.  At minimal or no cost, local arts and cultural organizations were invited to use the facilities for public activities.  These included music recitals presented by the Wednesday Club, exhibitions by the Art Association of Harrisburg and the Susquehanna Art Museum, and a decorator show house presented by the Greater Harrisburg Arts Council in the Headmaster’s House prior to its conversion to the Chancellor’s residence.

“This property has had a long history of community service,” said Clevenger.  The WITF public broadcasting corporation was founded in South Hall, which also served as the original home of Harrisburg Area Community College.”

As the University Center and all of the institutions and activities that it has nurtured continued to thrive, both regionally and statewide, yet another institution of higher education came upon the Harrisburg scene early in the 21st century.  In 2001, the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology was incorporated, becoming the first comprehensive university to be established in Pennsylvania in more than a century.  In 2005, it received its charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and admitted an inaugural class of 113 students.  In 2006, ground was broken for a high-rise campus headquarters at Fourth and Market Streets in Downtown Harrisburg.  A long-standing goal of Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed, it is a private, independent institution, although at one time there had been suggestions that such a university be created as an addition to the State System of Higher Education.

James McCormick was about to retire from his history-making stint as SSHE’s first chancellor when he was offered a prestigious position in Minnesota overseeing an even larger state system of higher education.  McCormick who continues to hold the position in Minnesota is considered a national leader in his field.  In Pennsylvania, he was followed as Chancellor by Dr. Judy G. Hample.  After nearly a quarter century as an independent agency of State Government, the State System enjoys a prominent reputation in the world of education that is matched by its prominent situation on its riverfront campus in Harrisburg.

Meanwhile the University Center at Harrisburg, Inc. continues as a separate legal entity, whose ongoing role is to provide the presence of community leadership in the complexion of the campus as well as to award scholarships.  This is funded by the income from the proceeds of the sale of the property to the Commonwealth.

“The purpose of the non-profit corporation was to provide higher education for the people of the Central Pennsylvania area,” said Jeffrey H. Boswell, Esq., legal counsel and long-time UCH board member.  “When we sold the property to the State System of Higher Education, it was with a deed requirement that SSHE had to provide education on this site, so one of the responsibilities of UCH as a non-profit is to serve as a watchdog.

Following the retirement of Charles Clevenger, Kim Coon was appointed President of SSHE’s Educational Resources Group under which the Dixon University Center was managed.  In 2004 the resources group was dissolved, and day-to-day responsibility for the Dixon University Center was assigned to the Department of Academic and Student Affairs, Office of the Chancellor, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

In 2005, the institutions offering courses at Dixon University Center were Elizabethtown College, Philadelphia College of Medicine, Saint Francis University, and five of the fourteen State Universities: Clarion, Indiana (IUP), Millersville, Shippensburg and West Chester.  The combined total number of classes offered was 52, and the total number of enrollments was 535.

At that time, the Board of Directors of UCH, Inc., offered six scholarships per year, one undergraduate and one graduate scholarship each spring, summer and fall term to students at Dixon University Center.  Any student not receiving full tuition reimbursement from another source could apply, provided he or she had a grade point average of at least 2.5 undergraduate or 3.0 graduate in coursework in a degree program at the Center.

Providing six $700 scholarships per year as well as funding other projects of the UCH Board, such as contributions for campus improvements at the Dixon University Center and the production of this history, UCH Inc. has endowment funds currently totaling about $145,000.  The total of projects and scholarships funded since 1991, when the proceeds of the sale to SSHE were realized, was more than $67,000.  At one point, $10,000 of the corporation’s principal was transferred to the Greater Harrisburg Foundation (now the Foundation for Enhancing Communities), a move that many local fund custodians have done in order to strengthen ties with the charitable and philanthropic communities.

The UCH Board continues to meet semi-annually and at the call of the chair or of three members.  In 2004 longtime board President J. Bernard Schmidt died, followed in 2005 by the death of Anton Hess.  Schmidt was succeeded in the presidency by Harrisburg attorney Jeffrey Boswell, Esq., a long-time member of the board who over the years had been instrumental in key legal activities on behalf of the organization.

In addition to President Boswell, other board members as of 2007 were Janice Black, Terry Bush, Gloria Martin-Roberts, Virginia Roth, Charles Clevenger, Robert Craumer, Dean Wharton, Christopher Black, Jewel Cooper, Harold Hurwitz and James Mooney.  Former Vice President James Romano was a director emeritus.

As Barney Schmidt explained shortly before his own death in 2004, “We are a very stable board of twelve persons.  Vacancies are only caused by death.”

In 2008, the University Center at Harrisburg will observe its 50th year of operation.  During its first half century it has proven to be exceedingly responsive to the needs of the Capital Region community while also being readily adaptive to changing circumstances.  It has seized opportunities to fill unmet educational needs.  Through its wise and businesslike stewardship of property and buildings, and through astute and civic-minded dealings with federal and state governmental entities, it has overseen the development and preservation of an educational campus that has become a nationally-recognized symbol of innovative and collaborative educational leadership.

Having continued its mission without interruption since 1958, The University Center at Harrisburg, originally known as the Harrisburg Area Center for Higher Education, enjoys the honor and distinction of being the oldest continuously operating educational consortium in the United States.

 ——————— END ——————

DJM, October 22, 2007

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