Portland State: an idea sparked from war and flood

Niche, a college review site, ranked Portland State as one of the most liberal universities across the United States. However, it may surprise those unfamiliar with our campus history to learn that plans for Portland State were first conceived after World War II. The terms liberal and war are often used as contradictory statements. Built in 1946, PSU started out as the Vanport Extension Center, located on the opposite side of the Willamette.

According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, the VEC was founded by Stephen E. Epler. Discovering that post-war housing in Portland was especially difficult to come by, Epler accepted a job counseling returning veterans in the small city of Vanport, located to the NE of Portland along the Columbia River. He noticed that Portland had zero options for veterans looking to use the G.I. Bill, and so he proposed the VEC.

“As you know, we are starting from nothing,” Epler wrote in a letter to one of the college’s first professors. In under three months’ time, Epler converted a Vanport shopping mall into the VEC, opening the doors to higher education not only for returning service members, but the entire community of Portland.

The Vanport Extension Center, from the very beginning, was never meant to last. State officials viewed the school’s purpose as a sort of education filler, a step on the path toward state colleges located outside of Portland.

Queue the Vanport Flood of 1948. The city itself, built below the Columbia’s waterline, was devastated. The VEC was destroyed and appeared to be closed for good.

Epler had other plans. Refusing to allow the VEC to be washed away, the school’s dedicated administrators, student body, and growing community base petitioned city planners to allow the school to live on.

City planners approved the reopening of the the VEC, which moved to Grant High School for summer classes and then relocated to the abandoned Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation center in St. Johns. The eternal optimist, Epler announced, “We are truly fortunate in having probably the largest single college parking lot in the nation and perhaps the world.”

As VEC attendance continued to grow, the school’s advocates expanded their push for the school to be recognized as an official institution of Oregon State. One of the advocates was Richard Neuberger, for whom our own Neuberger Hall was named.

According to PSU’s website, “Richard Neuberger remained a champion of a four-year public college in Portland throughout his distinguished political career, which led to a seat in the United States Senate. Even before the 1948 flood, the journalist and state legislator told a Vanport student assembly that it made little sense that the state’s largest institutions of higher education should be in the small towns of Eugene and Corvallis. In fact, Portland was the largest metropolitan area in the United States without a public four-year college.”

In 1952, VEC moved yet again, this time to the old Lincoln High School and its permanent home in Portland’s Park Blocks. Vanport Extension Center was renamed the Portland State Extension Center. In 1955, the center became Portland State College—the city’s first four-year college. In 1968, with the approval of the institution’s first doctoral programs, the school’s name changed to the title we recognize today: Portland State University.

PSU has come a long way since its original founding in Vanport. From this point forward, the history of our campus is left for us to write.