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During the Depression years, when higher education increasingly was beyond the reach of most Americans, there was remarkable development in graduate education at the University of Michigan. In part this was due to an astounding gift from one family. It also was the result of innovative scholars and academic leadership who seized the opportunity to pursue research and scholarship unhindered by narrow disciplinary boundaries.

Mary and Horace Rackham

Mary and Horace Rackham

The University’s Graduate School bears the name of the lawyer who assisted Henry Ford with the incorporation of his business in 1903. Horace H. Rackham had the foresight to invest in Ford’s vision. Within a decade he and his wife were prominent philanthropists and higher education a major beneficiary of their generosity.

In 1935 the Horace H. Rackham and Mary A. Rackham Fund of Detroit gave the University 6.5 million dollars: 2.5 million were to create a new building for the Graduate School and 4 million provided an endowment to support of scholarly investigations. As his widow, Mary Rackham gave another 1 million for research in the field of human adjustment. Gifts from the Rackham Trust eventually amounted to over 10 million dollars—the equivalent of 168 million dollars in 2011. The Rackham gifts and vision embodied the mission of the public research university and positioned the University of Michigan to take a national leadership role in the coming decades.

Rackham Building 1936

Façade of the Rackham Building under construction in 1936

The administrative structure of the Graduate School remained unchanged but this extraordinary gift was acknowledged by renaming it the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. During this decade the Rackham gift bore fruit in the creation of pre-doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships, support for faculty research projects, and the landmark building intentionally designed to provide ample private space for students and faculty to pursue their research as well as public space to nurture the intellectual and artistic life of the community.

Despite the continuing shadow of national economic hardship, the reality is that the Rackham gift was only one of a significant number of gifts in this decade that greatly increased access to graduate studies by providing financial support to students. By 1939-1940 there were some 148 scholarships made available through monies provided by industry, friends of the University, special endowments, and appropriations from general funds. Total enrollment at the Graduate School during the fall and winter terms that year was just over 3,000 with 1,203 degrees awarded in the spring.

One of the hallmark roles of the Rackham Graduate School really came to the fore during the course of this decade. Since the close of the nineteenth century, University leaders had recognized the value of having one school or college that embraced all disciplines and could resist the pressures of intra- and interdepartmental interests.

Rackham Study Lounge, ca. 1939, and Deans Office

Rackham Study Lounge, ca. 1939 (left), and the Deans Office (right)

A striking number of innovative and interdisciplinary endeavors were established or placed under the aegis of the Graduate School in the 1930s. These include the Institute of Public and Social Administration, established in 1914; the University of Michigan Press, created in 1930; the Bureau of University Archives, created by the Regents in 1937; Fenton Community Center, established in 1938; the Center for Graduate Studies, opening in Detroit in 1939. Mary Rackham, through an additional gift of a million dollars, in 1937 established the Institute for Human Adjustment under the administration of the Graduate School. By 1940 the Institute included the Speech Clinic, Arthritis Research Fund, Psychological Clinic, and Sociological Research Unit.

Last updated: December 6, 2016 - 11:14am