Six Decades of Innovation

Florida Atlantic: Six Decades of Innovation

Celebrating 60 Years of FAU

From its inception six decades ago, Florida Atlantic University was seen as a gamechanger; a new kind of university that would create access to higher education like never before.

In the words of U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson when he dedicated the university, FAU represented the beginning of a new era “when education is no longer only for the sons of the rich, but for all who can qualify.”

In 1964, for a sitting president to officiate the dedication of a new university was unusual. Then again, FAU was never fated to be just another university

Destined to become a hub for higher education and innovation, the history of FAU’s flagship campus is shaped by its origins as the Boca Raton Army Air Field. During its years of active use, from 1942 to 1947, the base served as a revolutionary radar training school operated by the U.S. Army Air Corps.

The pivotal airborne radar technologies and tactics developed at the Boca Raton installation had a direct impact on shortening World War II and saved the lives of countless U.S. airmen. Of course, the activities on the airfield were highly confidential, and measures to protect the Army’s research went as far as ensuring that wires would burn upon crash, preventing the enemy from reproducing its secrets.

Shortly after the war ended, directives changed and the Air Corps’ operations moved to Biloxi, Miss. — but the innovation instilled at the site soon would be revived as a transformative new university.

Today, the daring history of the Boca Raton Army Air Field and its service members are not only remembered, but honored, around campus. In May 2021, the university unveiled a Florida Heritage Site historical marker on the spot where, in May 1944, nine soldiers lost their lives during a B-34 training flight crash. The marker is located at the southeast corner of FAU Boulevard and North University Drive. Original WWII-era “T Buildings” also remain on campus and are used by FAU’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

While the former airfield sat abandoned in the 1950s, the Florida Legislature authorized the establishment of a fifth public university in the state. This time, for the first time, a university would be set in the southeast.

Thomas F. Fleming Jr., a community leader and banker in Boca Raton, stepped in to suggest the vacated airbase as an ideal site for the new university. Using the slogan, “Boca U. in ’62,” Fleming’s campaign delivered success when the Board of Control approved of the location.

Once the federal government agreed to lift land use restrictions, 1,000 acres of the former airfield were designated for the university, and another 200 acres were reserved for the Boca Raton Municipal Airport. Legislation passed on July 15, 1961, and the opening for FAU was set for September 1964.

Although the new university had approval, it did not have funding. Instead, the Board of Control announced that, in order to proceed with the plans, the local community would be required to raise $100,000 for planning, architectural design and construction.

Fleming accepted this challenge and proceeded to create the Endowment Corporation for a University in Boca Raton, which focused on securing contributions from the public. To spearhead the effort, he made the first donation, pledging 1 percent of three years’ worth of the pre-tax earnings of the First Bank and Trust Company of Boca Raton, which he headed.

At the close of the campaign, the Endowment Corporation surpassed its goal by raising nearly $300,000. Today, the organization remains in service as the FAU Foundation, benefiting students through scholarships, fellowships, research endowments and more.

Education Without Limitations

The conception of the new university in Boca Raton was inspired by the 1960s American culture that yearned for societal and technological progress. With the intention to establish a university “different from any educational institution known to the area,” drafters of the tentative plans were considered ahead of their time when they outlined teaching strategies that included unprecedented access to live telecasting and video recordings.

The drafters also embraced the unique geographical and cultural makeup of Boca Raton and its surrounding areas, recognizing that “the growth of the university [would] require that it become harmoniously blended into the civic and cultural life of the great urban region that Southeast Florida [was] already becoming.” Given these provisions, the founding of FAU reflected a clear understanding that the path to becoming a truly competitive world university would begin with diversity in both people and ideas.

When its doors opened on Sept. 14, 1964 – six days later than scheduled due to Hurricane Cleo – FAU welcomed a charter class of 867 students. In what would become the most racially, ethnically and culturally diverse institution in Florida’s State University System, FAU’s founding student body included 25 African Americans, seven Hispanics and one Asian student.

A few weeks later, on Oct. 25, the university garnered national attention when President Johnson delivered the keynote address at the dedication ceremony. With 15,000 people gathered to heed the call of higher education, Florida Atlantic University became the place “Where Tomorrow Begins.”

For the next 50 years, FAU would make extraordinary strides to develop a distinct culture of diversity, innovation and excellence that serves as a standard for modern universities today. To activate this growth, new structures and programs were steadily introduced, including the first undergraduate ocean engineering degree in the nation, now a designated Program of Distinction by the Florida State University System.

The first buildings on campus include what is now the S.E. Wimberly Library, the Sanson Life Sciences Building, General Classroom South and the Instructional Services Building, which then was called the Learning Resources Building. It delivered on the founders’ dream of a fully equipped studio capable of broadcasting lectures across campus and around the world. An aggressive construction plan by FAU’s first president, Kenneth R. Williams, ensured the swift completion of the Administration Building — now named for him — the Breezeway cafeteria and six residence halls.

Several small satellite facilities also were established in South Florida during this time, later developed into five additional campuses: downtown Fort Lauderdale, Davie, Dania Beach (SeaTech), the John D. MacArthur Campus in Jupiter and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce. Today, the six FAU campuses encompass 110 miles of the Southeast Florida coastline and contribute to worldwide research activities and a multibillion-dollar regional economic impact.

Brought to the university by student demand, intercollegiate athletics was introduced to FAU in 1969, followed by the advent of fraternities and sororities, annual homecoming festivities, and construction of the University Center, known today as the Student Union. These welcomed additions gave FAU students a newfound sense of competition outside the classroom, as well as a new reason to cheer for their fellow Owls.

With the opening of the Tom Oxley Athletic Center and the creation of an official football team in 2001, FAU students entered a new age of sportsmanship and school spirit. The team was led by legendary head coach Howard Schnellenberger, who successfully prepared the team for its eventual move to NCAA Division I and the Sun Belt Conference. Ten years later, in 2011, the fighting Owls stepped onto a field they could call home at the newly constructed FAU Stadium.

Celebrating 60 Years of FAU

Today, FAU is led by its seventh president, John W. Kelly, Ph.D. Since joining FAU in 2014, he has worked to transform FAU into one of the nation’s top public universities, spurring academic, economic and social growth for the university community and its partners.

Achievements during President Kelly’s term include the doubling of research expenditures, enrolling an all-time high number of National Merit Scholars, increasing graduation and academic progress rates, setting new records for private gifts to the FAU Foundation, raising the profile of FAU’s athletics program, and being recognized as one of the nation’s best public universities by U.S. News & World Report.

“President Kelly has set Florida Atlantic University on an incredible trajectory of innovation and expansion,” said Anthony K. G. Barbar ’78, Distinguished Alumnus from the FAU College of Business and chair of the Board of Trustees of FAU. “His leadership and vision have played an indispensable role in advancing the university’s reputation while keeping the students he serves at the heart of its progress.”

While President Kelly pursues new achievements for FAU with Unbridled Ambition®, he has not forgotten its foundation. To further the founders’ original vision, in 2015 he introduced a 10-year strategic plan titled “The Race to Excellence,” designed to build upon the institution’s unique strengths and achieve the goal of becoming the country’s fastest-improving public research university.

“We’re seeing major accomplishments that are changing the course of the institution and its research enterprise,” President Kelly said. “Our students, faculty and staff are building bridges to a better future, from addressing the global pandemic to mitigating the impacts of climate change, and from understanding how artificial intelligence will shape our future to finding clinical solutions to the diseases that affect so many of us.”

Where Tomorrow Begins

As FAU enters its seventh decade, it is time to consider once again what the future holds for the university. Throughout its history, FAU has taken a bold and daring approach to education, and this will certainly endure.

FAU will continue to recruit and train world-class talent, Kelly said. Embedded in a culture of achievement, both students and faculty will have the resources and support required to break down barriers and earn national recognition. FAU already has made progress by eliminating equity gaps based on race/ethnicity, income and firstgeneration status, thus ensuring that achievement is a possibility for all who are willing to work for it.

Across the Southeast Florida coastline, unprecedented research in areas such as artificial intelligence, advanced medicine and environmental science will elicit new understandings of human life and the world around us. As new questions arise, FAU faculty and students are ready to answer them.

However, this vision is not limited to the experiences of an academic program. When students graduate from FAU, they are workforce ready, prepared to step into high-paying jobs or prestigious academic programs with earned confidence. Moreover, top companies seek out FAU graduates for their unmatched skills and leadership qualities.

FAU also is ensuring optimal outcomes for its students by working diligently with business and community leaders in developing new opportunities for graduates. From local trade to national defense, these organizations and individuals have so much faith in FAU students that they choose to invest in them by supporting the institution at large, Kelly said.

If you would like more information, please contact us at

Florida Atlantic Magazine

"Six Decades of Innovation" comes from the Florida Atlantic Magazine. View stories like this and more at