“…what is a university? Like any living thing, an academic institution is comprehensible only in terms of its history.” – James Conant, President of Harvard, 1933 – 1953
The west wing of the old Main Building, about 1886, surrounded by newly planted hackberry trees. Plumbing for the building was incomplete. Out of sight and behind the hill to the right was a temporary lavatory.
The arrival of The University of Texas was anything but auspicious. At 10 a.m. on a sunny, sticky Saturday morning, September 15, 1883, nearly three hundred gathered for the opening ceremonies in what was the unfinished west wing of the old Main Building. The floor had not yet been laid. Instead, the audience sat on chairs arranged on a makeshift floor of undressed lumber, surrounded by unpainted walls. The incomplete windows were open to the elements, and required the day’s speakers to compete with the neighs and whinnies of the horses parked outside.
The west wing sat near the center of a square, uneven, 40-acre campus, initially dubbed College Hill. It was almost devoid of flora, save for a thicket of mesquite trees and a handful of live oaks, some festooned with Spanish moss. A great gulley extended from the top of the hill to the southeast, dry most of the time but a quagmire in wet weather. According to Halbert Randolph, who earned his law degree in 1885, the ornamental shrubbery consisted of “cactus sporting its full-grown fruit, looking like the ripe nose of a drunkard.” For a few weeks in the spring, the campus was aglow with a blanket of Texas Bluebonnets, and the forlorn state of the landscape was temporarily forgotten.
To the east, just beyond the University grounds, lay vast tracts of pasture and open prairie, while to the west, along a dusty and unpaved Guadalupe Street, stood two grocery stores, a dry goods shop, and a saloon.
The sprawling town of Austin filled the view to the south, its 15,000 inhabitants still abuzz over the local telephone service that was installed two years previously. Austin won the privilege to host the main campus of the University after a hotly contested statewide election, and as it was already the seat of Texas government, civic leaders predicted Austin would soon be the “Athens of the Southwest.” Fortunately, there were no proposals to change the city’s name accordingly. (Through much of the 19th century, as the United States expanded westward, colleges and universities were desired assets of newly founded, up-and-coming towns with lofty ambitions, and communities sometimes renamed themselves to reflect their goals. It’s no accident that two of Ohio’s state universities reside in towns named Oxford and Athens, that students enrolled at The University of Mississippi travel to Oxford, or that The University of Georgia is found in Athens.)
Ashbel Smith, a 76-year-old physician from Galveston, was selected to chair the first Board of Regents, and was entrusted with the Herculean task of creating the new university. A graduate of Yale, Smith had served as secretary of state for the Republic of Texas and had been elected to multiple terms in the state legislature. The University of Texas was Smith’s passion in the conclusive years of his life, and his top priority was to recruit the best faculty possible. He traveled extensively, visited colleges throughout the country, and spent many late nights devoted to University-related correspondence, scribbling letters by candlelight.
After nearly two years of effort, Smith and the Board of Regents selected eight professors. Six of them formed the Academic Department, and most were assigned to teach multiple disciplines: English, literature, and history; chemistry and physics; mathematics; metaphysics, logic, and ethics; ancient Greek and Latin; and Spanish, French and German. The remaining two professors comprised the Law Department. Salaries averaged $2,500 per year, a generous sum in the 1880s.
The University’s first faculty. From left: John Mallet, professor of physics and chemistry; Leslie Waggener, professor of English language, history, and literature; Robert Dabney, professor of mental and moral philosophy and political science; Robert Gould, professor of law; Oran Roberts, professor of law; Henri Tallichet, professor of modern languages; Milton Humphreys, professor of ancient languages; and William LeRoy Broun, professor of mathematics.
The initial entrance requirements were determined by the faculty. Candidates for the Academic Department were expected to know elementary Greek and Latin, though French and German could be substituted for those planning to pursue science or literature. Competency in algebra and plane geometry, English composition, history, and political geography were also required. Prospective law students needed to have a strong background in reading and writing English, and a “familiarity of the history of the United States and England.”
In the weeks before the University was scheduled to open, college-aged youth made their way to Austin to present their credentials and be interviewed by the faculty for admission. In a state where 90 percent of the population was classified as rural, many of the candidates were from farms and ranches, the children of pioneers, raised in log cabins with few luxuries. They were practical and self-motivated, but their preparatory education was incomplete, they often did not possess high school diplomas, and the standards for admission were too high. One prospective student who hoped to study mathematics, when asked how much math he had taken, proudly answered that he’d completed a class in “discount and bankruptcy.” Though hindered by a lack of formal education, the young Texans managed to impress the faculty. According to chemistry professor John Mallet, “Boys whose spelling and arithmetic were much behind their years, talked and thought like grown men of house building on the prairie, of cattle driving, even of social and political movements.” At the end of the first day of entrance examinations, the faculty met, discussed the situation, and with a collective shrug decided not to rigidly enforce the “grade of scholarship” established for admission, due to the “limited advantages for education in this state.”
From the beginning, the University was open to men and women, a progressive statement at a time when opportunities for women in higher education were rare. That UT would be coeducational was the result of a compromise in the state legislature as it debated the bill to create the University. Some members of the House who were opposed to female students were also political opponents of Governor Oran Roberts, and they feared that Roberts, whose term in office was coming to a close, would be named UT’s first president. In order to support the inclusion of women, the legislators demanded that the University be modeled after the University of Virginia, which was then led by a faculty chairman instead of a chief executive. An agreement was reached, and for its first decade, University affairs were the responsibility of the elected head of the faculty. Roberts was denied the possibility of serving as UT’s president, but he was appointed one of the two initial law professors.
With an incomplete building, sitting on a mostly barren campus, boasting an inaugural faculty of eight professors, and joined by 221 students, the University took its first, tentative steps upon the stage of Academe.