History of CU Denver

Colorado’s Only Public Urban Research University

A History Spanning More Than 50 Years

Located on the downtown Auraria Campus and stretching into Denver’s central business district, the University of Colorado Denver educates 15,000 students in the heart of an emerging global city. Part of the University of Colorado system, CU Denver was officially founded in 1973. Throughout our history we have supported students from all walks of life, and we are committed to being a university that works for all.  

Our Origins

CU Denver is located on the traditional territories and ancestral homelands of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Ute nations. We acknowledge the painful history of genocide and forced removal from this territory and pay our respects to the diverse Indigenous Peoples still connected to this land. We give thanks to all Tribal Nations and the ancestors of this place and have developed a formal Land Acknowledgement as one way to honor this past.

Our recent history acknowledges the Auraria neighborhood—composed largely of Hispanic community members—that was dismantled in the 1970s to construct the Auraria Higher Education Campus (AHEC) of which CU Denver is a part. CU Denver is committed to honoring the displaced Aurarians in multiple ways, including through the expanded Displaced Aurarian Scholarship Program and a commitment to revitalize historic Ninth Street Park.

Honoring Our Past

CU Denver continues to acknowledge its past and that of Colorado’s — from its ancestral lands and Hispanic heritage to its modern-day operation as a premier minority-serving public research institution making education work for all.

1800s - Early 1900s

Gold Sparks a New Neighborhood

In 1947, CU Denver was located in the Fraternal Building at 14th and Glenarm.

The history of Auraria is one of the oldest of modern-day Denver. In the years leading up to the 1800s, this land was the home of the Cheyenne, Ute, and Arapaho. Auraria, or aurum, is Latin for “gold,” which was found in the Cherry Creek in 1858, igniting a small gold rush that established the Auraria settlement. Houses, businesses, and places of worship were built in the Auraria neighborhood over the next 50 years, and the neighborhood evolved over time to become largely Hispanic. 

The Tivoli Brewery, built in 1870 in the Auraria neighborhood, operated for nearly 100 years before closing in 1966. Restored and opened in 1994 as the Auraria Campus Student Union. Today the Tivoli Student Union houses offices, study areas, the campus bookstore, restaurants, and a revived brewery. 

1912 - 1960s

CU Expands in Denver

In 1977, CU Denver students began taking classes on the Auraria Campus, alongside students from Metropolitan State University of Denver and Community College of Denver.

CU Denver originated in 1912, when the University of Colorado’s Department of Correspondence and Extension was established to meet the needs of Denver’s growing population. Holding classes in buildings across Speer Boulevard from the Auraria neighborhood–including in the Frontier Hotel’s bar–the institution became known as Denver’s “UCLA” (the University of Colorado between Lawrence and Arapahoe Streets). 

As course offerings expanded, the Denver Extension Center was renamed the University of Colorado Denver Center in 1965. It was an institution that at its root helped nontraditional, working students pursue degrees, build skills, or simply enrich their lives near where they lived and worked. Demand grew and by 1969, 23 fields of undergraduate study and 11 of graduate study were offered. A Colorado constitutional amendment established CU Denver as an independent institution in 1973. 


A Neighborhood Displaced

The geographical area is bounded by Colfax, Auraria Parkway, Speer, and I-25.

During the early 1970s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designated the Auraria neighborhood an urban renewal area and Denver voters approved a referendum and bond issue to build the Auraria Campus. In a unique arrangement, three institutions of higher education–CU Denver, Metropolitan State University Denver, and the Community College of Denver–would be housed on one campus. 

By 1974, most of the buildings in the Auraria neighborhood were condemned and razed. 

A well-established, close-knit, largely Hispanic community of more than 300 households was displaced in the name of urban development. Thirteen cottages and one grocery store were preserved. Today they make up the 9th Street historic park on campus, the oldest restored block of residences in the city. 

The university began the Displaced Aurarian Scholarship program in the 1990s to provide tuition and fees for former residents of the Auraria neighborhood and their children and grandchildren. The university expanded the program in 2021 as part of a long-term effort to honor and support the displaced Aurarians and acknowledge the long-term impacts the taking of their homes has had on them, their families, and their livelihoods. 

1980s – Today

Auraria and CU Denver Today

CU Denver is part of the Auraria Higher Education Center, a 150-acre tri-institutional setting that also includes Metropolitan State University of Denver and Community College of Denver.

The establishment of this unique, innovative, tri-institutional campus, while carrying a difficult history, has made it possible for hundreds of thousands of people to improve their own lives through an affordable, high-quality education. Today the Auraria Campus serves more than 40,000 students across all three institutions.

CU Denver has grown, as well. As the most diverse research university in Colorado, CU Denver today draws top students each year and offers over 110 undergraduate and graduate degree programs across eight schools and colleges, as well as more than 30 online degree programs and numerous certificate and non-degree programs.

Home to more than 40 research centers and institutes, the campus receives sponsored research awards annually to generate knowledge and create solutions to society’s most complex problems. CU Denver fills a singular niche as a vital contributor to the civic, cultural, and economic success of the city, the state, and beyond.

In more recent years:

Toward a Brighter, More Equitable Future. Together.

CU Denver has created an ambitious 2030 Strategic Plan to be a public urban research university that works for all: learners of all kinds and at all stages of life, industries and employers that need talent ready to hit the ground running, and communities in need of new solutions and discoveries. 

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