Willoughby: Should the ill-fated University of Aspen be built now? | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Should the ill-fated University of Aspen be built now?

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies

Vacant lots punctuated the landscape when the Aspen Institute was founded.
Willoughby collection

The illusionary Aspen State Teachers College has long been derided as the city’s most infamous educational institution. At one time, Aspen came close to establishing a real university of national renown, and then settled for an equally inspiring plan.

Having suffered through and survived World War II, Aspen, like the rest of the country, developed a can-do attitude. Everything seemed possible and every idea merited a chase. After he took over the boat-tow and beginners tow of the Aspen Ski Club, Friedle Pfeifer established a ski school and pursued a plan to build lifts to the top of Aspen Mountain. The Ski Club had previously entertained the idea to use an old tram cable and financing from the Works Progress Administration. But Pfeifer proposed a different tram, parts and cable, and he talked Walter Paepcke into finding financing for his project. Number One, the longest lift in the world, opened in 1946.

Paepcke dreamed of establishing a cultural center. In a series of first steps, he bought and leased land, refurbished properties, built an amphitheater and hosted the Goethe Bicentennial, which featured Albert Schweitzer. These accomplishments attracted visitors, home buyers and small-business owners.

In 1949, Paepcke proposed a follow-up to the Bicentennial project, the creation of Aspen University. Both schemes grew from his connections with Robert Hutchins and others of the University of Chicago. Hutchins presented the idea for a local university to 50 members of the Aspen Chamber of Commerce in October 1949.

The university would follow a novel schedule. During summers, it would host events similar to the Bicentennial, and feature presenters and musicians. During the school year, the university would focus on the humanities. It would kick off with a class of 100 students, who would attend small classes. And it would start as a coed institution, and students would live with Aspen families. Visiting professors would give presentations and debate the Aspen faculty, with students as audience. These discussions would focus on current events in the context of the humanities.

The university founders would ask Aspen residents to raise money, host the students and join committees to develop the institution.

Frank Willoughby, my uncle, a Chamber officer at the time, made the motion to pursue the idea, and it passed with enthusiasm. Clearly, a cutting-edge university would help build Aspen’s name. A maximum 500 students and faculty would enhance the local economy. Students could work part-time in the tourist economy. Building on the success of the Bicentennial Convocation, similar summer events would augment the winter ski season to establish two busy tourist seasons.

Chamber members pledged at the meeting, and a committee began to round up community pledges. In November, the total raised fell short of their goal by $49,000 ($500,000 in today’s dollars). Two acquaintances of Paepcke’s incorporated “Aspen University” under Colorado law, and attempted to recruit the first faculty.

Short of money, and with plans for only the first year, recruiters ran into a problem. Prospective faculty required a five-year commitment to leave their current positions for Aspen.

Paepcke and his University of Chicago compatriots decided to go ahead with the summer component. They hosted events similar to the Bicentennial Convocation at their current facilities. But this time the activities extended through most of the summer. They changed the name of the project to the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies, and you know the rest of that story.

The Paepcke group sustained the vision for Aspen University and continued to plan for it. In 1955 they announced it might possibly open in 1956.

John Herron, another uncle of mine, was involved in the Chamber during the Aspen University presentation, and helped to obtain pledges. Paepcke chose Herron, the only Aspen resident, to serve on the Institute’s board. When he and I talked about the early days of the Aspen Institute, and the successes of the Institute and the Music Associates of Aspen, Herron expressed regret that Aspen University never materialized. He felt it had the potential to be the most important institution for the city.

The Institute retains acres of land. Now that it has added an international reputation and solid funding, shouldn’t there be an Aspen University?

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.