Alfred Atkinson was the president of Montana State College, now Montana State University, for 18 years before he became the University of Arizona’s 12th president.
Born on a farm in Ontario, Canada, in 1879 of Scot-Irish parents, he was the youngest of seven children. He became a U.S. citizen in 1911. Atkinson received a Bachelor of Science degree from what is now Iowa State University, a Master of Science degree from Cornell University, and a doctorate from Iowa State University.
When he arrived at the University, fewer than 3,000 students were enrolled, the effects of the Great Depression were still being felt, and there was limited financial support from the state. His annual salary of $10,000 remained the same until his 10th and final year at the University, when it rose to $11,025.
Old Main was condemned and Atkinson, who was short on sentimentality and long on practicality, wanted it demolished. The alumni howled. The only new buildings constructed during the pre-World War II years were Pima Hall, a women’s dormitory, and the James Douglas Memorial Building for Mines and Metallurgy, which was funded by a $194,000 gift from the Phelps Dodge Corp.
National publicity about the Arizona sunshine lured out-of-state students and led to the exaggerated idea that the University, with its polo field, was the “collegiate country club of the Southwest.” The first student rodeo was held April 30, 1938.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, campus life changed. Courses and specialized training programs were offered to support the war effort, including classes in noncollege vocational skills to meet the demands of factories. A naval training school was established. Old Main was salvaged in 1942 with $89,000 in Navy funds and became the school’s headquarters. By the time the war ended, 11,000 troops had been trained on campus. After the war, thousands of servicemen used the GI bill to return with their families. With no housing, 114 Quonset huts were erected as temporary dwellings. They lasted 38 years.
During Atkinson’s presidency, the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research (1937) and the Radio Bureau (1939) were established, the School of Business and Public Administration became a college (1943), and fundraising began for the construction of the Student Union.
In 1945, all three state universities were brought under the Board of Regents.
Atkinson was noted for his dignity, courtesy and desire and ability to plan ahead. After his retirement, the regents appointed him executive advisor in budgetary and financial matters, a part-time position he held until July 1955 when he was made President Emeritus. He died in Tucson on May 16, 1958.