Northern Virginia University Center Advisory Council C0056
Published by George Mason University Libraries
Clarence A. Steele was the chairman of the Exploratory Committee and Advisory Council to the Northern Virginia University Center (NVUC). The Center was established in September 1949 as an adult education extension of the University of Virginia (UVa) at Charlottesville. A few years before, the idea for a center was set into motion. Seeing an opportunity for educational expansion and recognizing the needs of the growing Northern Virginia population, University of Virginia's Extension Division, headed by Professor George B. Zehmer, formed an Exploratory Committee to work out a feasibility plan for creating an extension in Northern Virginia. The result was the Northern Virginia University Center, which became fully operational in February 1950, with six classes enrolling about 50 students.
The Extension Division named John Norville Gibson Finley as the Center's first director. The Center's administrative offices and "campus" were located on the campus of Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. During the Center's early years, it offered college-level courses for adults. By the fall of 1953, the Center grew to 55 classes with 900 enrolled students. The Center, which had set out to serve only the immediate Washington metropolitan area in Virginia, expanded to serve an area that encompassed a radius of thirty miles around Arlington. This significant growth forced the Center to reevaluate its mission to the population it served. So in 1954, an Advisory Council formed to examine the challenges of expansion and to consider a "possible change of character" for the Center. Moreover, it was asked to "interpret the community and its desires to the University" and to "assist in creating a climate of demand for the educational services offered."
The Advisory Council consisted of sixteen members, all of whom resided in Northern Virginia. The Council's first meeting was on January 4, 1954 in Washington-Lee High School, called and chaired by Clarence A. Steele, former chairman of the Center's Exploratory Committee, which the Council superseded. As chair, Steele presided over meetings and directed the activities of the Council. Together with Mr. Zehmer, head of the Extension Division, and President Colgate W. Darden of the University of Virginia, the Council explored ways to convert the Center into a formal branch of University of Virginia. Steele and the Council immediately began a dialogue with prominent members of the community, including Virginia senators Charles R. Fenwick and Harry F. Byrd, Jr., hoping to find support for a branch of the University of Virginia.
In order to establish a branch, the Center had to comply with standards enacted by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, of which the University of Virginia was a member. Standards included: (1) a centrally located building sufficient for administration and instruction; (2) a sizable nucleus of full-time faculty members to ensure permanence and continuity; (3) adequate library and laboratory facilities; (4) a stable pattern of course offerings. Aware that the Center did not meet all of these conditions, the Advisory Council used the Southern Association standards as a foundation for their proposal. Steele thereby formed committees to focus on meeting the standards. The committees included: Building and Grounds, Ways and Means, Public Relations, Legal Council, and Research. This focus streamlined the Council, allowing members to use their expertise most productively. President Darden gave his full support to the endeavor, providing his own philosophy as an impetus: "bring the University of Virginia to the people" and "promote adult education formally and informally; culturally as well as technically."
The most important task facing the Council was the search for a location for the new college. Throughout late 1954 and all of 1955 they searched for tracts of land suitable for a permanent location. In the meantime, the Northern Virginia Center (as the Center was now called) continued to grow, expanding to 110 classes with 2,100 enrolled students in the spring of 1956. More startling was the prediction that enrollment would reach 8,000 adult students within a decade. This, along with the area's growing number of high school graduates, necessitated a new emphasis: one which would make the branch an affordable two-year institution with day classes - serving all students, not just adults. At this time, a Virginia House Joint Resolution passed, "authorizing the establishment of a branch of the University of Virginia to be located in Northern Virginia" (passed by the House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia in February 1956), thereby providing the legal underpinning to continue the expansion of the Center.
By early 1956, many locations for the branch had been scouted out and researched. President Darden insisted that the college "have an appropriate campus, an ample campus, ample acres for spacing buildings, for parking, for playing fields of various kinds, for woods and vistas." Later in the year, three sites were seriously considered: the Ravensworth estate, between Annandale and Springfield, along Braddock Road; the Bowman or Herndon tracts, on the Sunset Hills farm land near Herndon; and seven Prince William County sites, including one along the border of Manassas Battlefield Park. In the summer of 1956, the Advisory Council unanimously endorsed the Ravensworth site. But not long after, a sub-committee assigned by the University of Virginia Board of Visitors was charged to survey the locations, and, to the Council's chagrin, it recommended the Bowman tract.
The disagreement arose from an apparent conflict of interest between the Advisory Council and the Visitors sub-committee. A few years prior, the Virginia Advisory Legislative Council to the Governor and the General Assembly (VALC) drafted a report, recommending that new university branches should only be two-year institutions and be self-supportive. In other words, VALC "wanted to establish urban branches [without dormitories] where students could live at home," and thus raise the cost of tuition, saving the state from unnecessary expenses.
Accordingly, in their search for branch locations, the Advisory Council looked for sites that would accommodate a "2-year, non-dormitory type of institution ONLY." They found the Ravensworth site ideal for those purposes. Conversely, the Visitors sub-committee's choice of the Bowman tract - a much larger and even more isolated area - clearly "envisioned a full scale dormitory type institution." The Council was unaware of the University of Virginia's plan to establish a large, four-year college with an extensive campus, and was unprepared for such a shift in focus.
Gathering what support they could, the Council sent delegations from Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax Counties to persuade the Board of Visitors to reconsider. Several members of the Visitors were openly antagonistic to the Ravensworth site, mainly because the Bowman tract offered a firmer political base to the region. Others felt that there was "little use for Northern Virginia" for the future of the University. After some debate the Visitors dryly agreed to "take the whole matter of establishing a branch under advisement." A few years later, in 1959, the Council and the Visitors settled their differences and decided on an entirely new site: the Farr tract, the site on which George Mason University now stands, located less than one mile south of Fairfax City.
The Advisory Council to the Northern Virginia Center, with Clarence A. Steele at the helm, faced many challenges during the early years of its existence. The problems associated with growth, the evaluation of educational needs in Northern Virginia, and the search for a new location for the University branch occupied much time and required considerable investment.
This collection contains papers and material owned by Clarence A. Steele relating to the Advisory Council to the Northern Virginia University Center. Included are minutes of meetings, letters, newspapers, and miscellaneous documents.
This collection is arranged chronologically.
Collection is open to research.
There are no restrictions.
Special Collections Research Center also holds the George Mason University records.
George Mason University--History--20th century.
University of Virginia. Northern Virginia Center.
University of Virginia--History--20th century.
University extension--Virginia, Northern.
Northern Virginia University Center Advisory Council records, Collection #C0056, Special Collections Research Center, George Mason University Libraries.
Collection donated by Clarence A. Steele in 1999.
Processed by Special Collections Research Center staff. EAD markup completed by Eron Ackerman and Jordan Patty in March 2009.