When James Wattenbarger started school at Palm Beach Junior College in the 1930s, community and junior colleges were rare institutions, groping for a role in the academic world.
By the time Wattenbarger retired, two-year colleges were within driving distance of everyone in Florida, training thousands of Floridians for jobs and launching countless college careers – and Wattenbarger himself was the architect of that change.
Wattenbarger, UF alumnus and former COE professor, died Aug. 10 in Atlanta. He was 84.
“He created a community college system that has become a model for the rest of the country,” said Linda Serra-Hagedorn, chair of COE’s department of educational administration and policy. “Florida has one of the most successful systems in the U.S., and this is largely due to his influence.”
A Tennessee native, Wattenbarger grew up in West Palm Beach, and graduated from Palm Beach Junior College in 1941, completing his bachelor’s degree in education at UF in 1943. He served as a navigator in the Air Force — earning an Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross – before returning to graduate school at UF.
While in graduate school, Wattenbarger was tapped to provide research for a report for the legislature on the state of Florida’s junior colleges – a handful of schools that were either privately-owned or affiliated closely with a public high school. Motivated by his own positive experiences in Palm Beach, Wattenbarger took to the task eagerly.
His work on junior colleges grew into a dissertation, in which he outlined his vision for a modernized community college system, in which higher education was open to everyone, regardless of age, social class, or location. Wattenbarger proposed the establishment of community colleges within commuting distance of every Floridian, with open enrollment and flexible schedules.
The idea appealed to leaders in state education, so much so that in the early 1950s Florida began to rebuild its community college system around Wattenbarger’s vision. In 1955, Wattenbarger – then serving as a professor at the COE – was called on to head a new council dedicated to restructuring community colleges. Two years later, he became head of the new Division of Community Colleges, a title he held until 1966.
By the time Wattenbarger returned to UF, the community college system had built 16 news schools, and was in the process of merging the historically black and historically white schools that had been built during the segregation era. It was well on its way to becoming the school system we know today – which educates nearly 1 million students in degree and non-degree programs.
He remained a major presence in the community college movement after his return to UF. He chaired UF’s Department of Educational Administration and Policy and directed the Institute of Higher Education, teaching the next generation of community college leaders.
As other states began to look to Florida as a model, Wattenbarger helped them set up their own community college systems. In all, he served as a consultant or otherwise played a role in the development of community college systems in 34 states.
Wattenbarger remained in Gainesville after his retirement from UF in 1992. In 1996, Santa Fe Community College paid tribute to him by naming its student services building in his honor.
“One can only speculate about how many hundreds of thousands of students there are at UF, in other Florida institutions, and around the nation who owe their start in higher education to Wattenbager’s dream of making college truly a populist, democratic possibility,” wrote Richard Scher, a UF professor of political science, in a remembrance of Wattenbarger in the Aug. 18 Gainesville Sun.
In lieu of flowers, his family is asking people to send donations to the James L. Wattenbarger Fellowship Fund, which is for graduate students in higher education administration. Contributions can be made online or by check to: University of Florida Foundation, PO Box 14425, Gainesville, FL 32604. On the memo line, write “Wattenbarger Endowed Fellowship (Fund #11967).”