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University of San Diego’s mission unwavered through decades of change

On a mountain ridge overlooking Linda Vista sits a plot of land that stood undeveloped until 1949. Once blanketed in a sea of sage and chaparral, the mesa now known as Alcala Park is today home to the University of San Diego.

The university’s history — from its birth as separate institutions for men and women to its eventual recognition nationwide — is no less rich than the picturesque landscape that drew Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill and the Reverend Bishop Charles Francis Buddy to see the mesa historically known as the Pueblo Lands as the right fit for their vision.

While bulldozers never touched the site until December 1949, that vision — originated in Buddy’s dreams and brought to fruition with the help of Hill and many others tied to the congregations of the Society of the Sacred Heart — dates back several years prior, to Buddy’s 1937 arrival in San Diego.

Dr. Iris Engstrand, professor of history at USD since 1968, described the bishop as “energetic” in his quest to found a Catholic institution in San Diego. Five years after telling Hill — who had earlier helped establish the San Francisco College for Women — that he would call on her to help in do something similar in San Diego, the time was ripe. And so then, in 1942, the work began.

“Of course there were no schools here of (Catholic) higher education in San Diego,” Engstrand said. “People I know just say that he contacted people in the diocese and anybody that could help him get land.”

Constructed between late 1949 and into 1952, the original campus at USD — then the San Diego College for Women, the first of Buddy’s many visions — wasn’t very large.

But it was visually appealing.

Built under the direction of Hill, superior vicar of the Society of the Sacred Heart, the original campus — and later, all of the campus’ many additions — adopted the style of the 16th-century Spanish Renaissance.

Mother Rosalie Hill (left) and Bishop Buddy (right) chat with then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who gave the first commencement address at the College for Men in 1959. Photo courtesy of USD Public Affairs Office

An esteemed California and USD historian, Engstrand captured Hill’s reverence for the style in her 1989 book “The First Forty Years: A History of the University of San Diego.”

Behind Hill’s preference for adopting the Renaissance look was more than just a fleeting admiration for the style. According to Engstrand’s book, Hill was quoted as saying at the time that “Spanish Renaissance has been in style in California for 200 years and will be in style for 200 more,” suggesting that modern architecture of the time might too soon become outdated.

With the extensive research of Society of the Sacred Heart Vicariate Treasurer Mother Suzanne de Leon, including the request of illustrated books from de Leon’s order of the Religious of the Sacred Heart in Spain, a Spanish Renaissance style to be modeled after was found in the University of Alcala de Henares near Madrid, Spain.

Despite not being a part of the original campus when the school’s first classes were held for 50 students at the College for Women on Feb. 12, 1952 — the school was no bigger at that time than the original Founders and Camino Halls — a look at the characteristics of the campus’ Degheri Alumni Center shows the loose adaptation of the Spanish campus’ look in full strength, from the window and column placements to the triangular window canopies, ornate doorways and column- and arch-rich central courtyard.

Hill’s small group of planners was meticulous in its research and documentation, Engstrand said, making the professor’s job as a historian that much easier.

But even in recent times, new pieces to the puzzle are emerging. As recently as June, a long-held “secret” vault space built on the west side of Founders Hall was removed in preparation for additional office space.

The vault was used during the school’s early days, reportedly only by a select few such as de Leon and Hill, for the safekeeping of important university documents and money. So secret was the 96-square-foot chamber that it was only in 2008, when an assessment of campus space was performed, that discrepancies in room measurements were found to reveal the vault. Its existence wasn’t even listed on the campus map held by the school’s director of institutional research.

While up to today the campus continues undergoing physical change, the school has undergone academic changes in its 63-year history, as well. Two years after the College for Women opened with just 50 students, the College for Men held its first classes in 1954 despite not yet having a permanent home on campus, which later came with Serra Hall in 1959. That year, graduates of the College for Men would await the awarding of their degrees while listening to the college’s first commencement speech, delivered by then-Vice President Richard Nixon.

Buddy expanded on his dream by adding the San Diego School of Law, which graduated its first class, of only eight students, in May 1958.

In 1968, the College for Men and College for Women — during the nationwide Second Vatican Council-inspired movement to merge separate Catholic facilities into co-ed institutions — joined academic operations for the first time, Engstrand said. In 1971, Dr. Arthur E. Hughes was hired as the school’s first Catholic lay president, and on July 1, 1972, his administration completed the merger of the two colleges and the law school into a unified University of San Diego.

But one thing hasn’t changed six decades after the bishop’s dream first provided instruction to a group of 50 young minds. And despite the school’s nationally-recognized law program, that’s the university’s focus on the liberal arts, which Engstrand said remains its strong suit.

“That’s a very universal thought of Catholic education — the well-rounded person,” Engstrand said.

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