This week’s 50th Anniversary of the UA College of Medicine should note how difficult it was to start.
In 1958, the president of ASU announced his intention to build a medical school in Phoenix. It caught University of Arizona President Richard Harvill by surprise. If there was to be a College of Medicine, he wanted it here.
The siting debate that ensued grew in energy and resulted in the Board of Regents hiring an outside consultant to study the options and make a recommendation.
The 1961 Volker report came as a shock to Phoenix, which had more people, more hospitals, more political clout and a fundraising head-start. It concluded that above all, the college should be hosted at the campus with the strongest basic sciences — the UA.
The regents blessed the report but with the caveat that forbade the UA from using any existing dollars to begin planning. Money would have to be newly appropriated from the Legislature, or raised. The matter was squarely thrown into the public arena.
The president of ASU immediately — recognizing his electoral advantage — announced his intention to take the matter to the 1962 ballot for the voters to decide.
That year’s request by the UA for a budget supplement to plan the college forced a collision of political forces that held the session in extended suspension for weeks, and the ramifications of which are still felt to this day.
As the session limped on — with this the only remaining issue — Gov. Paul Fannin forced a compromise: ASU would drop its initiative campaign and the UA would drop its budget request.
So Tucson boldly upped the ante. A group of leading citizens wrote an open letter to Phoenix leaders with a shockingly aggressive message — if you divide the state over a medical school we will divide it over water distribution. At the time, the only hope of bringing Colorado water to Arizona was a united Congressional delegation.
Bill Mathews, the publisher of the Star, called U.S. Rep. Mo Udall — an influential member of the Interior Committee — and made it plain: Put the water squeeze on Phoenix or this editorial page will put the squeeze on you.
Water was the ultimate leverage, and the matter was settled.
The federal government had established medical school start-up grants, but a condition of eligibility was a $2 million match. And the Legislature made it clear — as did the regents — that there would be no state money. The local in-state match would all need to be raised privately.
Everyone in Tucson helped.
I remember driving into a gas station where the attendant asked my dad, “Aren’t you the guy on the news raising money for the medical school?” When he said yes, the attendant said: “We have something for you”. And he and the mechanics all came out and presented us an oily Folgers can filled with coins. He said: “We understand the importance of this school to Tucson’s future and we are collecting our tips for it.”
Ours was the first public medical school launched entirely with private funds.
The final existential crisis that faced the school in its pre-student era occurred in 1967, when Gov. Jack Williams proposed a state budget that froze the university faculty. The medical faculty had not yet been fully hired. The school was faced with a choice to be a one-year medical school, or rescind half of the soon-arriving first medical class so the existing faculty could teach two years.
The school leadership decided these were unacceptable choices and took it upon themselves to build a base of support in every legislative district in the state. They prepared the case, took it statewide and spoke to over 100 civic clubs. They articulated the statewide benefit and obligation of a land grant university. They committed support to rural Arizona, starting with Med-Start and manifesting in telemedicine that grows to this day. And they prevailed. The Legislature disregarded the governor’s hiring freeze and the college hired the talent it needed.
In the beginning, every single person involved in the vision and creation of this medical school believed it was destined to become among the best in the United States. This week, 50 years hence, we can celebrate a mission accomplished.