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FSU's age change: history or one-upmanship?

The school's president says the new founding date (1851) is more accurate, and, yes, it makes FSU older than rival UF (1853).

By BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


Florida State University President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte swears his recent decision to add six years to FSU's age was made in the interest of historical accuracy.

He knows a lot of people aren't going to buy that explanation, least of all University of Florida backers. Not when the change makes FSU two years older than UF, which has long proclaimed itself Florida's oldest school.

D'Alemberte says he expects to catch some heat for his decision. Actually, he's kind of counting on it.

"I think a little controversy would be helpful if it makes people think about their history," says D'Alemberte, who is planning to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his school's founding next year, a birthday made possible by his decree that FSU was founded in 1851 rather than 1857.

Maybe it had to come to this: UF and FSU already fight over football, research grants and the quality of their academic programs.

Why not an argument over which institution is really the oldest?

"There is no basis for FSU using 1851" as its founding date, says Samuel Proctor, a professor emeritus of history at UF. "That's when the state Legislature said it was ready to establish two universities, but it didn't take any action."

Even a prominent FSU historian thinks the date change may have as much to do with historical rivalry as historical fact.

"I think there is some justification for using 1851, and there is no argument that FSU has operated longest on the same site," says Robin Sellers, author of Femina Perfecta, a history of FSU.

"But the rivalry also is a factor," she says. "I think it affects everything that goes on between these two schools."

In recent months, D'Alemberte has twice written interim UF President Charles Young to explore whether the schools can find common ground. He is urging UF to move its founding date back to 1851, which would put the universities on equal footing.

That was the year state lawmakers passed a bill authorizing the establishment of two seminaries in Florida, one east of the Suwannee River, and one west. East Florida Seminary later evolved into UF; West Florida Seminary became FSU.

UF, however, marks its founding in 1853 because that's when it opened as a state-supported institution. Until recently, FSU used the same criteria, which put its birth date in 1857.

D'Alemberte says he is inviting UF to age two years because then the schools could jointly celebrate the 150th anniversary of higher education in Florida. Sellers thinks that is a great idea.

But what about UF alumni, who have always seemed a lot more interested in beating FSU than in joining it?

"Maybe the alumni ought to grow up," she says.

That doesn't appear likely. In February, Young sent a one-paragraph response to D'Alemberte that refers him to a report compiled by Proctor, the UF historian.

It concludes that FSU was founded after UF.

D'Alemberte doesn't agree.

He says he started researching FSU's origins several years ago, when the school was preparing for the 50th anniversary of its conversion from a women's college. He noticed how earlier versions of his school's seal used 1851 as the founding date. When he asked why, he was told that many universities -- including FSU when it was a women's college -- mark their founding from the date they were authorized, not the date they opened.

FSU officials provided 10 examples, including the University of Virginia, the University of Georgia, Penn State University and Iowa State University.

University system officials say there is no mechanism in Florida that governs how universities establish their founding dates. In fact, FSU's change is only the latest of several that have occurred at both schools during the past century.

For many years, UF used 1905 as its founding date. That was the year the Legislature consolidated six state-supported academies into three institutions -- UF, the Florida College for Women, which later became FSU, and the State Normal College for Colored Students, which became Florida A&M.

But 30 years later, the state Board of Control, which then ran the university system, told UF it could change its birth date to 1853. Proctor says this was done at the behest of then-President John Tigert, who was tired of marching at the end of academic processionals, where the order of appearance was determined by a university's age.

In an interview, Proctor acknowledged the often arbitrary way in which founding dates are set. But he says UF would still be older than FSU even if you accept the argument that a university's founding is properly based on the year of its authorization.

In 1836, Proctor notes, the U.S. Congress authorized the establishment of a University of Florida.

That, he says, was nine years before Florida even became a state.

The founding dates: a history

Here are some of the critical dates in the evolution of the University of Florida and Florida State University, two institutions that have changed their founding dates several times.

1851: Florida lawmakers pass a bill authorizing the establishment of two seminaries; one in east Florida and the other in west Florida. These are the forerunners of UF and FSU.

1853: The East Florida Seminary, which evolves into UF, opens as a state-supported institution in Ocala.

1857: The West Florida Seminary, which becomes FSU, opens as a state-supported institution in Tallahassee.

1866: The East Florida Seminary moves to Gainesville.

1905: The Legislature consolidates six state-supported academies into three institutions -- UF, the Florida Female College, which becomes FSU, and the State Normal College for Colored Students, which becomes Florida A&M University. 1905 becomes the official founding date for all three institutions.

1935: The Board of Control, the forerunner of the state Board of Regents, changes UF's founding date to 1853. It changes FSU's to 1857.

2000: FSU President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte declares 1851 to be FSU's actual founding date. This means the university will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year.

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