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Introduction

Origins

The City

Collegeville (1887, 1895)
College Delta (1898, 1899)
Oakwood (1899)
Cedar Banks (1900)
College Grove (1903)
Fairview (1904, 1905)
College Heights (1904)

Charter of 1907

Avondale (1913)
Bungalow Knolls (1916)
Chesterfield Hills (1916)
Ardson (1919)
Ridgeley Park (1921)
Strathmore (1925)
Glen Cairn (1926)

The Campus

Chronology

1855–1870
1871–1885
1886–1900
1901–1915
1916–1927

 

Interactive Map

Sites on the National and State Historic Registers

Complete list of
Significant Structures

Sources

The Reorganization of 1861

The earliest years of the Michigan Agricultural College were a constant struggle for its very existence. Since the field of scientific agriculture was quite a new concept in the United States, many doubted whether it was really beneficial to the state’s young men to attend the school. The uncleared land for the experimental farm meant that the first few years of labor were spent in clearing brush, pulling stumps, and digging drainage ditches, rather than experimentation. The state Board of Education managed it poorly, being saddled with a new charge it scarcely understood and finding “the College’s problems more vexing and less congenial than those of the Normal.” There were political forces at work too, since the land grant that financed the school’s creation and operation was a lucrative pearl that many wanted to grasp.[Kuhn, p. 62]

By 1859, four years after its founding and just two years after classes had commenced, the College was at a difficult juncture. There were three main schools of thought as to its purpose, and its future. One group, led by President Joseph Williams, wanted the College to continue on the path it was founded upon, that is a four-year degree-granting program focused on agriculture but with a strong base of liberal and scientific education. A second group wanted to switch to a two-year program, eliminating all the liberal arts to focus solely on practical studies and turning the College into, essentially, a technical school. And of course there was the third faction, which wanted the entire enterprise to fold, so that the land grant could be reassigned to the University at Ann Arbor.


Hon. J. R. Williams, M.A.C. President (1857–1859).
Photo Credit: Beal, p. 23.

Adding pressure to the situation was the fact that the College was in debt and seriously strapped for cash. “The [1859] appropriation made by the legislature for the support of the College [was] to be paid from taxes which would not be received till February or March of 1860.” This led to “the introduction of the closest economy into all the affairs of the College.” Believing that Joseph Williams’ intentions for the College were extravagant or frivolous, and under pressure from public opinion, the Board of Education (which had governed the College since its founding) forced Williams to resign his position as president.[Beal, p. 40]

Superintendent of Public Instruction John Milton Gregory, ex officio secretary of the Board, proposed a plan to switch to the two-year program. On the surface, Gregory’s intent with this plan seemed to have been simply to drum up more interest in the school, “so that it shall be sought not by those who merely wish a general education, but by those who desire to fit themselves for practical and scientific agriculturists. It was considered that the institution was designed not merely for farmers’ sons, but for all who wished to become good and intelligent farmers.” But underlying Gregory’s proposal was the fact that he was a strict classicist: he believed that education in such areas as English literature, logic, ethics, and psychology were “irrelevant,” that “a liberal education was best obtained through the study of Latin and Greek.” Since the College did not require Latin and Greek, which its rurally educated students would generally have lacked, in Gregory’s eyes the College was already no more than a technical school with extraneous coursework.[Beal, p. 41. Kuhn, p. 56]

“In November 1859, the board met in Lansing, and after discussion, adopted the new plan. The professors at once resigned their places, and their resignations were accepted.” The faculty was reduced to a mere four professors to teach agricultural chemistry, botany, zoology, and engineering. Courses in English, mathematics, history, philosophy, and elementary science were eliminated.[Abbot, p. 133. Kuhn, p. 55]

The results were immediate and nearly disastrous. Students lost confidence in the College, and at the start of the term in February 1860, only 49 showed up—down from 137 two years earlier. Many soon left in disillusionment, until the student body numbered a mere 19. “To prevent further defections, the remaining students were asked to choose between the old and new curricula; all chose the old.” What John Gregory and the Board of Education had failed to understand was that the state’s farmers, and other members of the so-called industrial classes, were not interested in simply raising better farmers; they wanted their children “to be transformed into enlightened citizens,” prepared “to act in any capacity in society which they may be called upon to occupy.”[Abbot, pp. 129, 133. State News, 1 Sep 1966, p. A6. Widder, p. 42]

Meanwhile Gregory’s micromanagement of the school budget was leading it into dire financial straits. He kept such a tight rein that the College failed to spend one fourth of its 1860 appropriation. As a result the legislature not only took that money back, it also cut the appropriations for 1861 and 1862 to a level below the spend from 1860.[Widder, p. 40. Kuhn, p. 55]

Saving the day, in stepped the State Agricultural Society, the same organization which had promoted the cause for an Agricultural College that led to the original founding act of 1855.

The Society proposed to the 1861 legislature that a new governing board be created whose primary purpose was to manage the College. This proposal quickly turned into legislation since it was backed by Joseph Williams who, after his departure from the College, had been elected to the state Senate and made president pro tempore. Senator Williams made certain that the bill contained language reinstating the four-year program with its balance of liberal arts and practical and scientific agriculture. (It also specifically declared the College President to be its chief executive officer, something the founding act had omitted which Williams felt had undermined his power to act in that position.) The Reorganization Act of 1861 created the Michigan State Board of Agriculture and put it wholly in charge of the State Agricultural College—a name change from the long-winded but more specific “Agricultural College of the State of Michigan.”

It would be a few years after the Reorganization until the College could regain its footing. The first students at the school should have graduated in 1860, but thanks to the two-year scheme the school lacked any senior-level courses that year, so the seniors scattered to other schools or quit their educations entirely. The class of 1861 were not present at graduation, having been dismissed two weeks earlier to enlist in the Union army, as the Civil War was underway. That year saw a student body only two-thirds as large as that of 1858. But the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 helped to right the financial ship, and with the 1869 legislature, and its appropriation for the construction of Williams Hall, the question of closing the school had been firmly answered in the negative. By the time President Abbot retired in 1883 the student body numbered 185, and thereafter only continued to grow.

John M. Gregory left the state of Michigan in 1867 to become the first Regent of the Illinois Industrial University. During his thirteen-year tenure he “promoted the establishment of a classical liberal arts education in addition to the anticipated industrial and agricultural education.”[UIUC website] Of course he made certain this included Latin and Greek. However, his detractors called him “a man ignorant of agricultural practice and science,” a comment the M.A.C. faculty would likely have seconded, and when he "later turned authoritarian,” it caused “a student rebellion in 1880 to force his resignation.”[UIUC website] Nevertheless, for as poorly as he handled the Michigan Agricultural College in its early years, he seems to have given the future University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign a proper start. He was buried in a place of honor on that school’s campus.