In 1890 the University of Michigan once again edged out Harvard to hold the distinction of being the university in the United States with largest enrollment. There were 2,420 students on our campus at that time and the reasons for attracting such numbers are many. The costs of tuition and housing were relatively inexpensive, especially compared to private schools on the east coast, and this was due in part to improved state funding. We could boast an impressive faculty that included many authors of textbooks that were widely used in high schools and college; this in turn promoted our reputation. Because of the investment in faculty talent an extensive course selection was available. Libraries, museums and laboratories seemed to multiply annually. In addition to the wealth of academic resources, university life featured a student weekly newspaper, frequent concerts and plays, collegiate sports teams, nine fraternities and three sororities.
University of Michigan Football Team, 1890
Mary Graham of Ann Arbor graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in 1880 and went on to teach at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO.
Dr. Ida Kahn was an early graduate of the Medical School, and one of the three women who inspired Mr. Barbour in later years to establish what was then called the “Levi L. Barbour Scholarships for Oriental Women.”
Only about half of the students came from in state. The University of Michigan was a thriving institution with a prominent national reputation. Indeed, this reputation was beginning to grow in other countries, too, and those who came from abroad were here for graduate and professional studies. In large part this was due to the missionary work carried out in Asia throughout the nineteenth century. Another conduit developed when President Angell took a leave from the university in 1880 to act as the U.S. Minister to China in 1880-81. He was instrumental in promoting the opportunities for Chinese students in Ann Arbor.
While from today’s perspective the number of students of color was painfully small, nonetheless they too enjoyed an increasing presence at Michigan. Even though recordkeeping at the time typically did not always note this aspect of student identity, photographs of contemporary student life speak to their presence. A quick sampling of the Bentley Image Bank shows faces that reflect the increasing diversity of our students. Similarly, the presence of women continued to grow steadily. Of those 2,420 students on campus in 1890, 445 were women. Among the 84 candidates for higher degrees there were 22 were women.
As Michigan’s reputation and size grew, so did the number of specialized Departments established within the university. By the end of the decade the University of Michigan consisted of the Departments of Literature, Science and Arts, of Medicine, Law, Political Science, Engineering, Nursing, Dentistry, and Pharmacy. And a Graduate School was in the making. In 1891 President Angell first promoted the need for an organization that could properly attend to the nature of graduate education. The next year faculty in Literature, Science and Arts decided to establish a graduate Department to appropriately supervise graduate study and the development of advanced courses. Leadership was established in an Administrative Council with the university’s president as chair and the first council consisting of the heads of programs within the Department. By the close of the decade it was increasingly clear that a lack of funds kept many students from taking part in graduate studies. In 1899 a committee, formed to review the need for graduate fellowship support, acknowledged the urgent situation.
When the University of Michigan was founded in Detroit in 1817 it was modeled on a centuries’ old pattern of rote studies for the elite in the seven liberal arts. Yet as the university was poised for a new century the fundamental structure emerging was the modern research university that retained the best of tradition and seized on innovation.
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Published in: Rackham Centennial