First university in the United States: Wikis


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First university in the United States is a status asserted by more than one U.S. university. In the U.S. there is no official definition of what entitles an institution to be considered a university versus a college, and the common understanding of "university" has evolved over time. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica tells the story of the gradual emergence of U.S. "universities" thus:[1]

In the United States the word university has been applied to institutions of the most diverse character, and it is only since 1880 or thereabouts that an effort has been seriously made to distinguish between collegiate and university instruction; nor has that effort yet completely succeeded. Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale ... were organized in the days of colonial poverty, on the plans of the English colleges which constitute the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Graduates of Harvard and Yale carried these British traditions to other places, and similar colleges grew up in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.... Around or near these nuclei, during the course of the 19th century, one or more professional schools were frequently attached, and so the word university was naturally applied to a group of schools associated more or less closely with a central school or college. Harvard, for example, most comprehensive of all, has seventeen distinct departments, and Yale has almost as many. Columbia and Penn have a similar scope. In the latter part of the 19th century Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Brown, in recognition of their enlargement, formally changed their titles from colleges to universities.

The issue is further confused by the fact that at time of founding of many of the institutions in question, the U.S. didn't exist as a country. Moreover, questions of institutional continuity sometimes make it difficult to determine the true "age" of any institution.


Claimants and potential claimants

(In alphabetical order by full institutional name):

  • The College of William and Mary's website states, "The College of William and Mary was the first college to become a university (1779)."[2]
  • Educational historian Frederick Rudolph once said Cornell University was "the first American university".[3] However, Rudolph did not mean that Cornell was the first university in America, but rather that it was in the vanguard of sweeping changes brought about by the Land Grant movement which created a characteristically American style of institution: coeducational, nonsectarian, egalitarian, and with a curriculum not focused on the Latin and Greek classics.[citation needed]
  • Harvard University, founded in 1636, claims itself to be (v.i.) "the oldest institution of higher education in the United States". The claim of being "the first university" has been made on its behalf by others.[4]
  • The University of Pennsylvania makes claim on their website of being "America's First University".[5] The university has published a book about being the first university in America,[6] and their website contains numerous instances of the phrase "America's First University."

First "research" university in the United States

The Johns Hopkins University's website states "The Johns Hopkins University is the first research university in the United States." The distinctively American model of the research university came into being in the nineteenth century when the German model of the elite scientific research institute offering specialized graduate training was “grafted” onto the traditional American undergraduate liberal arts college. Following the lead of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, fifteen American institutions came to define the American research university: some of them private, such as Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, Pennsylvania, and Yale; others, state and land grant universities, such as the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois, and the University of California; still others, new universities made possible by private bequests, such as Stanford, Caltech, MIT, and the University of Chicago. These institutions have produced the vast majority of Ph.D.s in the nation for the past century. Many here today are graduates of these elite universities, and very nearly everyone who has attended a college or university in the nation has been taught by faculty who are their graduates.[7]

Facts that have been used to support claims of being "the first university in the United States"


Institutional age

Harvard University calls itself "the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States" and this claim is rarely challenged. William & Mary calls itself "America's second-oldest college", acknowledging Harvard's claim but in fact adding that it is William & Mary that is the nation's oldest college in its "antecedents".

It is possible to quibble over what year should be taken as Harvard's "real" founding date (Harvard uses the earliest possible one, 1636, when the institution was chartered by the Massachusetts Bay Colony). However, Harvard has operated since 1650 under the same corporation, the "President and Fellows of Harvard College"; thus Harvard has an unbroken continuous institutional history dating back that far.

One official Harvard web page for the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences [3] chooses to phrase this claim: "Founded in 1636, Harvard is America's oldest university."

As a historical curiosity, a College of Henricopolis or University of Henrico, near Jamestown, was chartered in 1618 and construction was possibly started, but was destroyed with the town in the Indian Massacre of 1622 and not rebuilt. At times, the College of William and Mary claimed itself to be the nation's first college "in its antecedents" and technically this is true – W&M's charter or foundational concept was laid decades before Harvard's founding.

Official designation as a "university"

University of Pennsylvania

November 27, 1779 is the date of chartering of the "University of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania." [4]), however, 1740 is the year in which the institution that became the University of Pennsylvania was created. Many dispute Penn's founding date of 1740, including Princeton University, which dislikes being second to Penn, but most scholars agree that 1740 is a legitimate date.

1791 is the year when the "University of Pennsylvania" was chartered.

These events are sometimes presented as if they were simply a change in name in a single institution, but the actual history, summarized in an article from Penn's archives department is complicated.

In brief, in 1779 the College of Philadelphia was directed by provost William Smith. One might have expected it to have become the "University of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" but this did not occur. "Since the Revolutionary state legislature felt that the board of trustees led by Provost Smith contained too many suspected loyalist sympathizers, they created a new board of trustees." Thus, the University of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was created de novo. A schism occurred, with an attenuated College of Philadelphia continuing under Dr. Smith's direction. In 1791 Pennsylvania adopted a new state constitution which merged the College of Philadelphia and the University of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania into the "University of Pennsylvania," with a board of trustees made up of twelve men from each of the two parent institutions. "It is this institution and this board of trustees that has continued to this day."

William and Mary

On December 4, 1779, just seven days after the founding of the "University of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania", an event occurred which William and Mary describes thus:[8]

Under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia and a member of the Board of Visitors, William and Mary became a university. The grammar and divinity schools were discontinued, and a professorship of anatomy and medicine, and the first American chairs of law and police and modern languages were established. The elective system of studies was introduced at this time, the first such program in the United States.

(For historical reasons, The College of William and Mary, as Dartmouth College and Boston College, has continued to use "college" rather than "university" in its official name.)

William and Mary has a published list of its first graduates (by Swem) available through its library.


On March 2, 1780 a "A CONSTITUTION OR FRAME OF GOVERNMENT, Agreed upon by the Delegates of the People of the STATE OF MASSACHUSETTS-BAY" was issued, containing this language:[9]

Chapter V. The University at Cambridge, and Encouragement of Literature, etc.
Section I. The University.
Art. I.--Whereas our wise and pious ancestors, so early as the year one thousand six hundred and thirty six, laid the foundation of Harvard-College, in which University many persons of great eminence have, by the blessing of GOD, been initiated in those arts and sciences, which qualified them for public employments, both in Church and State: And whereas the encouragement of Arts and Sciences, and all good literature, tends to the honor of God, the advantage of the christian religion, and the great benefit of this, and the other United States of America--It is declared, That the PRESIDENT AND FELLOWS OF HARVARD-COLLEGE, in their corporate capacity, and their successors in that capacity, their officers and servants, shall have, hold, use, exercise and enjoy, all the powers, authorities, rights, liberties, privileges, immunities and franchises, which they now have, or are entitled to have, hold, use, exercise and enjoy: And the same are hereby ratified and confirmed unto them, the said President and Fellows of Harvard-College, and to their successors, and to their officers and servants, respectively, forever.

(It is not clear from context, either above or in the paragraphs that follow, that the constitution meant to draw any semantic distinction between "college" and "university." )

Establishment of quarternary-education schools, issuance of any kind of "doctoral" degree

  • King's College (now Columbia University) organized a medical faculty in 1767, and in 1769 became the first institution in the North American Colonies to confer the degree of Doctor of Medicine, according to the College of Physicians and Surgeons.[10]
  • Penn founded the first medical school in America in 1765, according to Penn's Directory of University Archives, Mark Frazier Lloyd[5].
  • Yale's website[6] refers to the establishment of "the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences" in 1847.

Issuance of Ph. D. degree

  • Yale's website[7] states that in 1861, Yale "awarded the first Ph.D. in the United States."

University of Pennsylvania's argument

The University of Pennsylvania uses "America's First University" as a slogan and has an official, succinct statement of the argument supporting this claim:

"Penn does not claim to be America's first college, but it is America's first University. In the Anglo-American model, a college, by definition, is a faculty whose subject specialization is in a single academic field. This is usually arts and sciences (often referred to as "liberal arts"), but may also be one of the professions: law, medicine, theology, etc. A university, by contrast, is the co-existence, under a single institutional umbrella, of more than one faculty. Penn founded the first medical school in America. In that year, therefore, Penn became "America's first university." If you wish to take the position that "first university" means first institution of higher learning with the name "university," Penn also qualifies as first. In 1779, the Pennsylvania state legislature conferred a new corporate charter upon the College of Philadelphia, renaming it the "University of the State of Pennsylvania" (in 1791 still another new charter granted Penn its current name). No other American institution of higher learning was named "University" before Penn. So whether you take the "de facto" position (1765) or the "de jure" position (1779), Penn is indeed "America's first university." [8]

—Mark Frazier Lloyd, director of the University of Pennsylvania's archives[9]

Definitions and criteria that have been used to support claims of being "the first university in the United States"

Definition of terms

1. What is a university? There are two definitions of a university used between the three schools mentioned above. The definition that Penn uses, given by Mark Frazier Lloyd, Director of the University Archives, is "the co-existence, under a single institutional umbrella, of more than one faculty." [10] The other definition was given by Stacy B. Gould, University Archivist for the College of William and Mary. She stated, "a course of graduate studies was the requisite for the status of university."

One modern dictionary (American Heritage, 4th edition) defines "university:"

An institution for higher learning with teaching and research facilities constituting a graduate school and professional schools that award master's degrees and doctorates and an undergraduate division that awards bachelor's degrees. [11]

Webster's 1913 dictionary says:

An institution organized and incorporated for the purpose of imparting instruction, examining students, and otherwise promoting education in the higher branches of literature, science, art, etc., empowered to confer degrees in the several arts and faculties, as in theology, law, medicine, music, etc. A university may exist without having any college connected with it, or it may consist of but one college, or it may comprise an assemblage of colleges established in any place, with professors for instructing students in the sciences and other branches of learning. [12]

1a. A related question: To be a university, must an institution have "university" in its name? Boston College, Dartmouth College, and the College of William and Mary continue to name themselves as "colleges" for historical reasons, but each of these institutions is, in fact, a university.

2. What does it mean to be the "oldest" university? The statement "X is the oldest Y," generally refers the length of time that X has existed. (e.g. if Max is the oldest doctor, the reference is to Max's age. If Max is 50 years old, but only a doctor for 7 years, and Cindy is 43 years old and has been a doctor for 15 years, then Max is the older doctor.) In this instance, the "oldest" university is the one with the earliest date of founding.

Complications arise in the case of institutions, however, because in tangled corporate histories it is not always clear when old and new institutions should be regarded as the same. This arises in the case of Penn: is it correct to say that the College of Philadelphia changed its name to the University of the State of Pennsylvania? Or is it more correct to say that the latter was actually a completely new institution, which later merged with the College of Philadelphia to form the University of Pennsylvania?

3. What does it mean to be the "first" university? The statement "X is the first Y," generally refers to the date on which X became a Y. (In the above example, Cindy was the first doctor of the two.) By this definition, the "first" university is the one which actually became a university before any of the others, regardless of when it was founded.

To complicate matters, a school which was termed a university in the 1700s would not meet the current criteria for such an institution. As an analog, no doctor who practiced medicine in the 1700s, even having attended medical school at the time and having received a formal education in the field would qualify to receive an M.D. under today's standards, and thus would not be considered a doctor. But it would be incorrect to state that there weren't any doctors in the 1700s. Similarly, it would be incorrect to state that there were no universities in the 1700s.

University status of specific institutions

Harvard dates its own university status to 1780: "The first medical instruction given to Harvard students in 1781 and the founding of the Medical School in 1782 made it a university in fact as well as name."[11]

William and Mary traces its university status to 1779, "the first year of our law school and simultaneously our medicine and chemistry chair was still filled."

Penn claims to have become a university in 1765, when its medical school was created.[12] Penn was designated a university by the legislature of Pennsylvania (the first such U.S. institution of higher learning, beating William and Mary by only one week,[citation needed]) fourteen years later, in 1779, although the institution did not receive its current name of "University of Pennsylvania" until 1791.

It is slightly more difficult to determine the first university, although Harvard may be disregarded as, by its own admission, it did not become a university until 1780, after both Pennsylvania and William and Mary. Pennsylvania and William and Mary use different definitions of "university", as mentioned above. By Penn's de facto definition, Penn is the first of the two to become a university (1765). Using W&M's de jure definition, W&M is the first.

Reasonable causes for disagreement and other potential candidates

The facts are given above so that the reader can be allowed to make his/her own decision. Disagreement may arise in particular if the reader disagrees with the definitions of "university," "graduate studies," "oldest," or "first."

One possible alternate definition of university is an institution that grants the Ph.D. This would make Yale the first University, as it granted the first Ph.D. in North America in 1861. James Morris Whiton, PhD (Yale, 1861), wrote a dissertation that was only six pages long. [13] However, Columbia organized a medical faculty in 1767, and claims to be the first institution in the North American Colonies to confer the degree of Doctor of Medicine. The first Bachelor of Medicine degrees were earned by Robert Tucker and Samuel Kissarn in May 1769, and those of Doctor of Medicine in May 1770 and May 1771 for the same men, respectively.[14] Yale also claims to have America's first "graduate school," founded in 1847, but the same source acknowledges that Harvard's first "graduate program" began 16 years earlier in 1831. And each of these is different from William & Mary's claim of "graduate studies." However, Georgetown University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1820, conferring its first degree in 1821, making it the first graduate school in the United States.[15][citation needed]

Some classifications break institutions down even further. The widely-accepted Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching's classification (as of 2000) differentiates between "doctorate-granting institutions" and "Masters colleges and universities", each of which is broken down into even smaller distinctions. [13]) Note that Carnegie does not require an institution to grant the Ph.D. in order to be considered a university. Nor does US News and World Report in its annual ranking of colleges and universities. [14]

Johns Hopkins University stands out as a strong candidate for "first," as it is universally credited for bringing the German model of higher education (with a very strong emphasis on graduate studies and faculty research) to the United States. In fact, JHU does bill itself as "the first research university in the United States." [15]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ The College of William and Mary
  3. ^ Cornell University
  4. ^ For example, Bush, George Gary (1886). Harvard, the First American University. Cupples, Upham and Company, Boston.  Reprinted in 2005 by Kessinger, ISBN 1-4179-5779-4.
  5. ^ University of Pennsylvania
  6. ^ Building America's First University: An Historical and Architectural Guide to the University of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania University Press. 2000.  (ISBN 0-8122-3515-0) [1]
  7. ^ [2] A New American University: A New Gold Standard
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ About the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Accessed 06/10/2009.
  11. ^ Harvard University
  12. ^ University of Pennsylvania
  13. ^ You're the Dr. (
  14. ^ About the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Accessed 06/10/09
  15. ^ "Georgetown History". Georgetown University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 2007-10-13. 


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