The History of Cal

Part 1: The Forging of a University, 1850 - 1899

The University of California was created on March 23, 1868. Its direct institutional antecedent was the College of California, founded in 1853 as the Contra Costa Academy, and patterned after the great New England colleges, offering a thoroughly classical curriculum of Latin and Greek to children under "the pervading influence and spirit of the Christian religion." The head of the College was Rev. Henry Durant of Yale (many of the original founders were Yale men), who later became the first President of the University.

At the same time a movement was afoot to establish a practical school for the people of California. The State Constitution of 1849 first articulated this vision, seeking to "encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement" of the people of California. Four years later, Congress granted California 46,000 acres to create a "seminary of learning." The first major step towards realizing this educational dream came with the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862, granting California 150,000 acres of land. The California Legislature used this land in 1866 to found an "Agricultural, Mining and Mechanic Arts College."

On October 8, 1867, the Trustees of the College of California voted to give all their land and property to the state to create a new "University of California." These College trustees hoped to create an institution "equal to those of Eastern Colleges." The state repealed the act of 1866 and on March 23, 1868 -- thereafter celebrated as Charter Day -- the legislature passed the "Organic Act," creating the University of California. The state then expanded the college out of Oakland into an adjoining town named after George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, who, during a visit to America in 1729, spoke of educating and converting to Christianity the "aboriginal Americans."

The twelve members of the Class of 1873, Cal's first graduating class, were known as the "Twelve Apostles." These alumni were an accomplished group. From their ranks came two University of California Regents, a congressional representative, a mayor, a governor of California, professors, lawyers, a bank president, a businessman, a clergyman, and a rancher. After two short years, Durant stepped down as University President; Daniel Coit Gilman, later the founding President of Johns Hopkins University, took his place. In his inaugural address of November 7, 1872, Gilman reconceptualized the new University for the people of California. He said that the University "must be adapted to this people [of California], to their public and private schools, to their peculiar geographical position, to the requirements of their new society and their undeveloped resources." Gilman sought to create an institution which would live up to the noble title of a "University." Cal wouldn't just be a teaching college, but a university aimed specifically at helping the people of California.

After three years, Gilman stepped down to go to Baltimore and was replaced by John LeConte, a longtime University Professor of Physics. Though a beloved Professor, he wasn't able to lead and organize the University and excite the public imagination the way Gilman had. He presided over Berkeley as a financial crisis beset the nation and as student pranks, games, and fights grew increasingly unmanageable for the administration. Students had long had their own traditions, such as the sophomore class' "Burial of Bourdon," the Greek textbook, at the end of the school year. But by 1879 such traditions were becoming riotous. For example, the sophomore class published an "obscene parody" of the Junior Class Day Program, resulting in the suspension of the entire class. Some Cal students would also knock over Trolley cars so they could be late for class. "It was quite the proper thing to derail the antiquated engine and cars and interrupt traffic indefinitely," one student reminisced. LeConte's ineffective handling of these problems (from the Regents' point of view) combined with growing fiscal crises led him to resign in 1881. LeConte was succeeded by W.T. Reid, Edward S. Holden, Horace Davis, and Martin Kellogg, who one-by-one led the University to the dawn of the twentieth Century. University historian Verne Stadtman characterizes these decades as the "Era of Powerless Presidents." It wasn't until Benjamin Ide Wheeler assumed the Presidency in 1899 that Cal would begin the transformation into the University it is today.

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