In the foreword to “The School on the Bluff” Richard Melzer expresses pleasure that this history book takes care of important unfinished business – the life and death of the University of Albuquerque.
After operating for 65 years under different names, the small Catholic college closed in 1986 without receiving a proper obituary, eulogy or funeral, Melzer asserts.
He cites other reasons for the need for the book – to remember the university’s contributions to education and its impact on many people; to reveal the university’s true character; and for “a historian to conduct a thorough autopsy” so other schools could learn what the university did well and what it did poorly.
New Mexico historian John Taylor tackles the subject in “The School on the Bluff,” in which he examines the many years of the school’s financial ups and downs, leadership changes and shifting educational philosophies.
Seeking more revenue from tuition, the school began offering more classes in secular subjects like criminal law, sociology, aerospace management and fewer on those grounded in theology, Taylor said in a phone interview.
“So the question was, ‘What are we? Are we a Catholic college or just another liberal arts college?’ ” Taylor asked rhetorically. “That (identity) issue made it harder to raise money. … The problem was that the university never really was well-financed.”
The university started out in 1921 as the St. Francis Normal School for Catholic Sisters of St. Francis, also known as the St. Francis Summer College. Classes were held at St. Anthony’s Orphanage on Indian School.
It was initially envisioned as a school for nuns teaching in New Mexico, but lay teachers were admitted as students in 1922.
Through the 1920s, the school had support from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. At the end of the ’30s the archdiocese decided it would operate the school with faculty coming from 23 religious orders, including Franciscans, Jesuits and Christian Brothers, and 14 communities of nuns.
Renamed the Catholic Teachers’ College of New Mexico, it became a year-round school and was integral in the broad spectrum of Catholic education in New Mexico.
Then 1946 saw several significant events. The school moved from the orphanage to property on South Second Street. It established its first board of trustees and for the first time faced some financial hardship.
That hardship resulted in then-Archbishop Edwin Vincent Byrne declaring that the archdiocese was “too poor” to pay for the college’s operation.
The following year the Sisters of St. Francis took back responsibility for running the school, after rumors that the college may close.
The school saw a name change in 1949 to the College of St. Joseph on the Rio Grande. Considering Albuquerque’s fast-growing economy, the college began searching for a larger campus. In 1950, it received a donation of acreage on the largely undeveloped West Mesa.
Sometimes the book slides into the enumeration of dry facts. On one page in the chapter “Crossing the Rio Grande” it lists the names of people involved in the construction of the new West Mesa campus.
The college’s final name change came in 1966 – to the University of Albuquerque. Taylor writes that the purpose was to more closely identify with the community, to avoid confusion with seven other St. Joseph colleges around the country and to acknowledge the adding of substantive graduate programs that signified the school’s higher status as a university.
The book also gives ample background on the roots of Catholic education in New Mexico, dating from 1540 when two Franciscans accompanied conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado to the Southwest in 1540. One of the two priests established a school at present-day Pecos.