History 1869–Present

Chartered in 1869 as a Morrill Act land grant institution, the University of Nebraska is dedicated to the Jeffersonian ideal of a “generalized diffusion of knowledge.” Since its earliest days it has been open to all people of any “age, sex, color, or nationality,” in the words of its founding documents. Now, as then, this university welcomes all.

A Parthenon for the Plains

Following the university’s founding in 1869, a campus was laid out on four city blocks and its first building, University Hall, was constructed. Built of wood and sun-dried bricks in what its builders termed the “Franco-Italian Style,” University Hall was an impressive structure to young people visiting the capital city. One student, born and reared in a sod house, likened it to the Parthenon. This beacon of learning also dazzled young pioneer children, who would mount huge ash heaps in the back of University Hall to view skeletons in the state’s first museum.

Attempts to impose a more civilized appearance on the campus landscape often were turned back by the harsh conditions of the prairie. Hundreds of trees were planted, only to perish, and the first flower beds were cut down numerous times by marauding hordes of locusts.

Even University Hall paid nature’s toll. By the time the university erected its second building in 1886, old U Hall was crumbling back into the prairie.

But the spirit of higher education prevailed in great leaders like Chancellor James Canfield. In the early 1890s, during construction of the new library, Canfield stood over its builders, personally holding contractors to specifications. The completion of this building marked a new era for the university—its collection of books and artworks were declarations of learned civilization in a raw land.

Today the old library appropriately serves the College of Architecture. Its turrets, winding staircase, and owls of wisdom are reminders of the great aspirations of its builders.

A portrait of Chancellor James Canfield
Chancellor James Canfield

The Campus Expands

As the university’s mission grew, so did its size. A farm campus was established east of Lincoln in 1873. Separated from the city by an unbroken stretch of prairie, it was regarded by students to be a great distance from the main city campus. By 1904 the farm campus went beyond its own boundaries to establish an experimental station at North Platte, the first of many research centers that would serve the state in later years. NU made its first operational tie with the city of Omaha when that city’s then-ailing Medical College merged with the university in 1902.

A New Century

The first decade of the 20th century saw enrollment at NU increase by a third, and by 1909 nearly 4,000 students were in attendance.

The university began to outgrow its original four-block city campus, and in 1906 constructed a student activity center, known as the Temple Building. Matching funds for the construction of this building were given by petroleum magnate John D. Rockefeller, a friend of Chancellor E. Benjamin Andrews. The donation created an uproar among such Nebraska populists as William Jennings Bryan, who considered Rockefeller’s oil money to be tainted.

A number of buildings from those early days survive today as reminders of this era, including Brace Laboratory, Richards Hall, and the first law college building.

A portrait painting of Chancellor E. Benjamin Andrews
Chancellor E. Benjamin Andrews

The Early Century

Growth during the war years occurred amid fierce debate in the legislature over a proposal to consolidate both campuses on the farm campus. Put to the vote of the people in 1915, the proposal was defeated, and work was begun anew for expansion on both campuses.

The orderly development of the farm campus, under the scrutiny of Chancellor Andrews, included a number of large, buff-brick buildings arranged around a central mall. Despite this classical arrangement, the campus retained the feel of the countryside, with its barns, livestock and test fields.

City campus, on the other hand, developed in a variety of styles, experiencing rapid growth in the postwar years of the 1920s. This period brought such monumental structures as Social Sciences Hall, now home to the College of Business Administration, and Morrill Hall, also known as the University of Nebraska State Museum. Millions of visitors have passed through its massive colonnades to view astonishing displays of prehistory, including the remarkable exhibition known as Elephant Hall. The 1920s also saw the continued rise of athletic excellence at the University of Nebraska with the construction of two large-scale sports complexes—Memorial Stadium and the Nebraska Coliseum.

Hail Varsity

The years surrounding World War II boomed with the beat of more construction—the student union, large classroom halls, and Love Memorial Library, whose stacks served as a barracks during World War II. Today, University Libraries houses more than 2.5 million volumes located in the main library and in branch libraries on both campuses.

Two years after the formal dedication of Love Library in 1947, another landmark was dedicated near the center of campus—the Mueller Carillon Tower. Its chimes have been marking time on campus ever since.

Taking to the Sky

In the late 1950s NU’s enrollment soared with its skyline, climbing from 8,000 students in 1959 to nearly 20,000 just 10 years later. Buildings for laboratories, classrooms and student housing dwarfed earlier structures.

The massive growth in the 1960s transformed the university into the institution it is today. The farm campus outgrew its name and became East Campus. Surrounded by busy city streets, East Campus has retained much of the natural beauty and open spaces that are its heritage, including the lush Maxwell Arboretum. It has diversified in mission, today serving as home to the colleges of Law and Dentistry, the Barkley Memorial Center for Hearing and Speech Disorders, the Division of Continuing Studies and the Nebraska Educational Television Network.

In 1969 the “University of Nebraska,” a phrase which had theretofore described the university chartered in 1869 and located in Lincoln, was redefined as an umbrella organization for three campuses. To its name the former University of Nebraska appended the name of its host city to become the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, joining the University of Nebraska at Omaha (the former Metropolitan University of Omaha), and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Twenty-two years later yet another institution was added to the system, the University of Nebraska at Kearney (formerly Kearney State College).

Building Boom

The 1990s saw the start of another building boom on campus, with the construction of such large scale facilities as the Beadle Center for Biomaterials Research, the Kauffman Center residential learning community, a new building for Teachers College, and major expansions of Memorial Stadium and the Nebraska Union. In the new millennium, several notable new buildings have opened, including the Quilt Study Center and the Ken Morrison Life Sciences Research Center on East Campus, as well as new apartment-style residence halls on City Campus.

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln begins the 21st century with a mission deeply rooted in its status as a land grant university. It is of national and international influence, with students from every state and more than 100 nations. It is a research university at the forefront of discovery in the humanities and sciences. It is as it has always been, a place of pioneer spirit and restlessness, forever seeking the horizon.