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1880s

University Museum, 1880-1881, facing State Street

University Museum, 1880-1881, facing State Street

Graduate education begins to emerge during this decade on a model that is more familiar, and more rigorous; its appeal is evident in the accelerating popularity of master’s and doctoral degrees. The leadership at U-M experimented throughout the late nineteenth century with adaptations of systems used elsewhere in the U.S. and Europe. At the same time, expanding resources on our campus made possible the pursuit of advanced learning in an increasing number of fields.

For example, in 1881 the new museums building was completed. This housed what were in fact six separate museums, one each for fine arts and history, applied chemistry, medicine and surgery, dental surgery and natural history. The collections were established and then expanded through amazing donations from faculty, leadership and alumni who traveled the world and shared the fruits of their purchases and discoveries with the university. Similar enlargements and improvements occurred in the laboratory facilities. The library used in the early decades of our history was quickly outgrown. The new Library was completed thanks to state appropriations in 1883 and quickly expanded through additional state appropriations and personal gifts.

June Rose Colby

June Rose Colby is the first woman to receive a Ph.D. upon examination. She becomes professor of English at Illinois State Normal School. Photo courtesy of Dr. JoAnn Rayfield Archives.

With these impressive resources at hand, presidents, faculty and the Regents turned in earnest to consider how best to make use of them with the most modern research methods. The central complaint was that study at the University was little more than additional rote learning of the type favored in secondary school and still dominant for those seeking a bachelor’s degree at most American universities. The fear was that Americans would continue to move to England and Germany for a serious advanced education and postgraduate studies. Improvement was sought through a shift in emphasis to new modes of instruction and investigation into assigned topics.

Beginning in the prior decade professors began to favor, instead of the traditional recitation, the lecture model accompanied by set topics for further investigation in writing. At the same time President Angell promoted what he termed the seminary system—more familiar to us as learning in small seminars. Limited to a small group of students, the seminar would meet regularly and at each session a student presented a paper on a prescribed topic and was critiqued by another student. The credit hour system came into use and undergraduate students had a wide number of electives from which to choose.

A doctorate could only be pursued by one who had received both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It did not require a set number of courses but rather that the student pursue intensive studies under the guidance of a faculty committee in a focused set of topics.

During this decade 116 graduate degrees were granted, a growing number of them to women. In 1886 June Rose Colby became the first woman to receive Ph.D. by examination (English Literature). Considering the extended years of study required, and that at this time no fellowships were available, this speaks to the desire to pursue higher learning at the graduate level.