Although the University of Michigan was founded in Detroit in 1817, only after it was reorganized as a state university and relocated in Ann Arbor in 1837 did it begin to fulfill its promise of grand ideals from 20 years earlier.
During these early decades the Regents of the University devoted time to planning, seeking funds for construction, and putting up the first buildings to house the resources that must be in place before goals could be pursued. The Regents had the foresight to invest in resources for the buildings—books, laboratory specimen and equipment, professors—while still fund-raising for the construction of buildings and often in advance of any significant student presence.
One of the four original buildings on campus, located on South University, east of the Presidents' house, where Clements Library now stands. Used as a professor's house from 1840 to 1877.
Mason Hall, the first University building devoted to instruction, was known as the University Building upon completion in 1841, in time for fall classes. It was both a dormitory and classroom facility. It was named after Governor Stevens T. Mason in 1843.
The early building campaign featured the construction of four homes for professors that might also serve as museums. (One of these, on South University, remains the home of the University’s president.) Next, the Main Building was completed in 1841 and contained classrooms, student residences, library and museum collections. The first courses on the collegiate level were offered that year to a student body that consisted of six freshmen and one sophomore. By the end of the decade the campus also featured the Medical Building, also known as South College because of its relationship to the Main Building.
During the opening years the curriculum was of the type typically offered to the wealthy and intellectual elite. Courses included very traditional fare found elsewhere in the American collegiate model: classical literature, rhetoric, and grammar; basic instruction in natural science, algebra, and geometry. Americans in the first half of the nineteenth century were just beginning to question the type of education suitable for the young democracy.
The first reference to graduate education at the University, what was then termed a postgraduate degree, was in 1845. It is found in a resolution adopted by the Board of Regents that year: “No candidate for the second degree of Master of Arts shall receive this honor unless he has preserved a good moral character, and previously to the Commencement, has signified his desire of the same to the Faculty.” The first 11 students graduated from Michigan that same year. The Honorary Master of Arts was established by the Board of Regents in 1847 and the first two Master’s degrees earned through coursework were given in 1849 to Merchant Goodrich of Ann Arbor and Winfield Smith of Monroe, MI.
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Published in: Rackham Centennial