Nova Southeastern University was envisioned a half-century ago as a high-tech university different from anything Florida had ever seen. And it has been pioneering ever since.
Long before most people had home computers, NSU offered online classes in the mid-1980s. It also became one of the nation's first universities to bring its degrees to other states. In recent years, it has constructed one state-of-the-art building after another, and is now planning an education park and giant science and engineering web lab research center.
Based in Davie but with campuses in nine other locations in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, NSU plans to spend all of 2014 celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Dec. 4, 1964, charter. It will hold weekly "Coffee and Conversation" gatherings at its Davie library. The 50th anniversary also will be the theme for its annual Celebration of Excellence gala as well as its CommunityFest, fishing tournament and golf tournament. Events at other campuses are expected as well.
"I think Nova is an amazing success story," said Tinsley Ellis, 80, an attorney who oversaw the incorporation of the university and has served on the Board of Trustees since the beginning. "It had a very, very rocky beginning, and a lot of people were skeptical that we could have a full four-year college and graduate school. It was hard to raise the money."
But the school managed to turn its struggles into opportunities, growing from its first class of 17 students in 1967 to an enrollment of 26,000 today. It's the largest private university in Florida and one of the 10 largest in the country.
Nova was conceived as part of a "womb-to-tomb" educational complex to serve fast-growing Broward County, said Abe Fischler, 85, one of Nova's first faculty members and its second president.
The plan was to locate K-12 schools, a junior college and a university on Forman Field, an abandoned airfield used during World War II. Fischler said the state wasn't going to fund a public university in Broward County because it already had established Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
The Junior College of Broward County, now known as Broward College, moved to the space in 1963. Nova High, an innovative public school with no ties to the university, opened in 1964, followed by two elementary schools and a middle school with the Nova name in the late 1960s and 1970s. The university opened its own private K-12 school on campus in 1971.
Nova University of Advanced Technology, as it was known then, struggled to raise the money until several key donations from philanthropists Edwin M. Rosenthal, Louis Parker and Abraham Mailman allowed buildings to be constructed.
NSU's first president, Warren Winstead, even persuaded the Legislature to extend the racing and jai alai season by one day in Broward County, so the venue operators could donate that day's proceeds to Nova, according to the book "The Making of Nova Southeastern University: A Tradition of Innovation" by Julian Pleasants.
"Nova came close to never opening at all, and when it did so, it came close to failing on several occasions," Pleasants wrote.
Nova was on the verge of collapse in 1970, with just a few dozen students, little money and no accreditation, when Fischler took steps to repair the school. These included a merger with the New York Institute of Technology, which pumped $1.2 million into the university and helped Nova receive accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
To raise more money, Fischler came up with the idea of serving students who didn't live in South Florida.
The Internet was still many years off, but Fischler developed a distance-learning program for principals and superintendents who wanted to earn a PhD but couldn't leave their jobs. He flew adjunct faculty into cities around the country where they met with clusters of students on weekends.
"The concept was ahead of its time and in many ways was the forerunner of today's online education programs," Pleasants wrote.
But many questioned the quality of the programs. After the Cincinnati Enquirer labeled it a diploma mill, the school sued and the newspaper was forced to run a retraction.
Joe Pace, 66, a psychologist who earned a doctorate in education from Nova in 1983, said the school's reputation of having inferior academic quality was unfounded.
"It was a tough curriculum," he said. "It was very rigorous, and there were several times I didn't think I was going to finish. I started with about 50 professionals in my class in 1979, and in the end, only 10 or 11 finished after four years."
Nova continued to grow, adding new colleges for business, law and pharmacy. But perhaps its most significant milestone was its 1994 merger with Southeastern University of the Health Sciences in North Miami. The doctor of osteopathic medicine program, focused on a holistic approach to medicine, gave Broward County its first medical school.
The arrangement also pumped $60 million worth of assets into the university, helping its bottom line and enabling it to attract higher caliber students.