Knowledge Network

Home / About / Knowledge Network / Alumni / Thunderbird on the Move: Part 1

Thunderbird on the Move: Part 1

January 30, 2018

Thunderbird Tower Military base

You should know, the Thunderbird campus was not meant to be a permanent home for the School. The original buildings were built by Del Webb in 1941 to house an airfield used to train pilots for World War II. At most, the buildings were expected to last seven years, the anticipated duration of the war. But the war ended in 1945 and the American Institute for Foreign Trade took over the grounds in April of 1946.

Over the course of the School’s 70+ year history nearly every President has had a plan to develop the land and renovate buildings. Many of these plans included the demolition of original 1941 buildings.

Dr. Peterson, who served as President from 1966-1969, had the most comprehensive and most aggressive plan to remodel the campus in five phases. Dr. Peterson articulated the state of the campus in his Master Plan in 1967:

When the American Institute for Foreign Trade was founded twenty-one years ago, its major purpose was to train young men and women for positions in
foreign trade. At that time, only a few American corporations were involved in overseas operations and most of those were in the import-export field.

Within the last few years, however, international commerce has undergone some startling changes both in mode of operation and size...What was once essentially characterized by import-export operations has now grown into a vast and complex network of multi-national corporations.

With these changes come new responsibilities for AIFT: the responsibility to train managers for tomorrow’s multi-national corporations and the responsibility to train a greater number than was required in the past. In our efforts to meet those responsibilities, AIFT is giving is best efforts to updating and expanding its curriculum and to preparing for the increased student body it will be expected to train.

As an integral part of meeting these important challenges, it is essential to begin the rebuilding of the entire physical plant. Built as temporary quarters in 1941 for the purpose of training U.S. Air Corps cadets, the present buildings at AIFT have become entirely inadequate in terms of size and service.

Going further, the Master Plan states, “The anticipated remaining life span of the original, temporary buildings-now in their 26th year-is a maximum of ten years.” (emphasis added)

The plan describes challenges in classroom space, office crowding (for faculty and administration) and lack of student housing. The plan also describes, in detail, problems with the original drainage, sewage and water supply systems, all of which were aging and failing.

Over the span of eight years, and parsed into five phases, Peterson’s plan included the destruction of the Tower, Founder’s hall, both existing hangars, the barracks--all of the original airfield buildings.

Had he been able to obtain the resources necessary, we would be looking at a campus full of early 1970’s era buildings.

Would we have the same sentimentality and fondness for the physical campus? Needless to say, Dr. Peterson’s plan did not come to fruition. He resigned in 1968 for
health reasons. When he left the campus his enthusiasm, momentum, and vision seemed to leave with him. The plan was tabled for another time.

Even so, over the seven decades of the School’s history, amazing, life-changing and historic memories have been made on the Thunderbird campus, despite its inadequacies. The uniqueness of the campus and its richness as a historic site, married with the unique vision of a school to train individuals for business abroad, made for a truly mystical experience that is difficult to replicate. However, it is important to remember the original buildings were created for temporary purposes.

The mission of the School is much bigger than the land it resides on. In fact, it has, in many ways, been limited by the physical campus. As we move downtown, and begin a new chapter of the School’s history, we move closer to maximizing our vision as a world class institution.

Get Global Insight in Your Inbox

Join our mailing list