The History of Union Institute & University

By February 27, 2015Students

Union Institute & University was founded as an experiment more than 50 years ago. It was during the tumultuous 1960s, a time of change and transformation throughout all sectors and in all facets of our society. Amazingly, 1964 was a pivotal year: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law; Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize; Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in South Africa; Congress authorized war against North Vietnam leading to the student protest movement; James Meredith graduated from the University of Mississippi as the first African American to attend a segregated school. The Beatles arrived in the U.S. for the first time and the first Ford Mustangs came off the assembly line. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is released as a paperback, with its first printing selling 1.4 million copies. A loaf of bread cost 20 cents, a stamp was five cents, and smoking was determined to be a health hazard by the Surgeon General. Jeopardy and Bewitched began on television, Dr. Strangelove, Goldfinger and Mary Poppins premiered at the movies.

It was during this time of change that ten university presidents gathered in Vermont with a mission to change the face of higher education. They established a consortium of colleges and universities called the Union for Research and Experimentation in Higher Education, a forward-facing institution formed for three reasons: to foster cooperative efforts in experimentation and research among the member colleges; to encourage experimentation and research by faculty members within the member colleges themselves; and to disseminate information through conferences and publications regarding the Union’s activities.

The consortium included 10 liberal arts colleges. Among them were Hofstra University, Bard College, Antioch College, and Sarah Lawrence College. The Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities collaborated with the goal of providing innovative higher education alternatives to working adults.

While the educational models developed by the consortium are often described as “non-traditional,” they are actually adaptations of the traditional, tutorial-based models of British and German research universities. But the consortium’s early commitment to student-centered education—a higher education concept that acknowledges students’ prior knowledge and experiences—was an innovative invention in 1964.

The consortium changed its name to The Union for Experimenting Colleges and Universities (UECU) in 1969. UECU was approved as a degree-granting institution in 1971 by the Ohio Board of Regents, and granted candidate for accreditation status by the Commission on Institutions of Higher Education of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA) in 1972. By 1976, this unique educational institution had developed beyond an experiment in American higher education. Within a few years, the consortium dissolved in favor of a freestanding institution that took on a life of its own.

Union Institute & University pioneered many of the concepts now common in higher education including non-residential learning, credit for prior experience and knowledge, and learner-centered education, especially for adults. They created the concept of distance education and flexible delivery models, understanding the model of online education before the technology existed to support the approach.

While much has changed throughout the last 51 years, including Union’s name, its reach, and its offerings, one thing has stayed true: the belief that education is about achieving aspirations and goals, celebrating the very best of the human spirit, expanding knowledge, and transformation of lives and communities.