The first time that I made a presentation about the “Layers of UTEP History” it was met with two responses. On one hand, the audience was extremely fascinated by UTEP’s compelling story of transformations. “We didn’t realize what the past was like and how much things have changed!” Then came the second response in the form of a question: “How do these layers compare to the things that other historians have written?” This great question deserves a thorough answer.
Four books have been written about UTEP’s history. The occasion of the school’s fiftieth anniversary prompted Francis L. Fugate’s Frontier College: Texas Western at El Paso, The First Fifty Years (Texas Western Press, 1964) and President Joseph M. Ray’s On Becoming a University: Report on an Octennium (Texas Western Press, 1968). Twenty-five years later came Nancy Hamilton’s UTEP: A Pictorial History of the University of Texas at El Paso: Diamond Jubilee, 1914-1989 (Texas Western Press, 1988) and Diamond Days: An Oral History of the University of Texas at El Paso (Texas Western Press, 1991), compiled by Charles H. Martin and Rebecca McDowell Craver.
Fugate organized his story chronologically, pausing at times to develop some themes more than others. Ray’s history reads as an administrative report (which it was), listing all of the accomplishments of his presidency. Writing in the 1960s, both authors were keen to distinguish where their college was or was going from its past. In a sense they set up two contrasting layers–then versus now/future.
At the seventy-fifth anniversary two other schemes were adopted. Martin and Craver organized the oral histories they presented under headings derived from the institution’s name, with three parts for the Texas College of Mines (1914-1948), Texas Western College (1949-1966), and UTEP (1967-1991). Alternately, Hamilton mapped UTEP’s history onto a decade-based framework (which was followed on the 90th anniversary website).
In the twenty-first century, the then/now framework seems unwieldy with 100 years of history in view. Likewise, employing the institutional name structure would diminish the many significant transformations since 1967. The decade-based chronology also grows difficult in that at present UTEP has participated in eleven decades (1910s through 2010s), leaving audiences puzzled over why 100 years requires eleven decades.
So in looking at the layers of UTEP history, we attempted to avoid those shortcomings and we also set out to reframe the story in terms of transformations relevant to the development of the institution. In many ways this parallels the way that people think about individual lives. When asked about one’s past, a person usually responds that such-and-such occurred “when I was in college” or “the summer after we moved to El Paso” and so on. Years and decades follow: “I graduated in 1984″ or “So that means it would have been the summer of 1957.” Years and decades are the tools that help us make sense of other more important changes. The layers of UTEP’s history help us understand the significant transformation of a small mining school into a public research university.