Indiana at 200 (26): IU Began as a ‘Seminary’ in 1820

June 2, 2014

by Andrea Neal

When the first classes were held in 1824, Indiana University had one professor, 10 male students and no building to call its own. The only subjects offered were Latin and Greek. Today, more than 3,000 professors teach 47,000 students on a campus graced by limestone buildings and woodland paths. Undergraduates choose from more than 150 majors.

And that’s just at Bloomington. IU has campuses throughout the state and an operating budget of $3.3 billion. Its founders would surely marvel at the size and scope of the tiny school they launched in the Monroe County wilderness.

In the beginning, it was called the Indiana Seminary, but it wasn’t a religious training ground in the sense that that word is used today. In early 19th-century parlance, “seminary” referred to a place of general learning that offers coursework beyond reading, writing and arithmetic.

The Indiana General Assembly created the Indiana Seminary in 1820, naming six men to serve as its trustees. One of them, David H. Maxwell, wrote in 1821 that it was to be a “humble” school where “the elementary parts of an education can be had.”

It didn’t stay humble. In 1828, the legislature turned the seminary into a college and in 1838 gave it university status. In 1852, an act of the legislature declared IU “the university of the state.” After a fire destroyed its sciences building in 1883, the school moved to its current location on the east side of Bloomington so it could expand to accommodate more buildings and more students.

Early histories say that was the plan from the beginning — IU was destined to be the state university mentioned in Article IX, Section 2, of the 1816 state constitution: “It shall be the duty of the General Assembly . . . to provide, by law, for a general system of education, ascending in a regular gradation, from township schools to a state university, wherein tuition shall be gratis, and equally open to all.”

More recent scholarship suggests turning Indiana Seminary into the flagship university was Maxwell’s idea that he pushed strategically through the legislature.

There’s good reason to believe the intended site for lawmakers’ proposed “University of Indiana” was not Bloomington but downtown Indianapolis. That story has been obscured by time, memory and Indiana University’s own telling of its creation story, historian Howard E. McMains noted in a 2010 article in the Indiana Magazine of History.

Consider that designer Alexander Ralston’s 1821 mile-square plan for Indianapolis platted locations for the statehouse, county courthouse, public market, governor’s mansion and a state university. All the elements came to pass except the university. The intended site now is a green space called University Park.

Although IU today is internationally known, it experienced lean times along the way. “A lawsuit in the 1850s nearly ended the institution,” McMains writes. “The Civil War reduced enrollment to a mere handful of students.” As late as the 1920s, McMains says, there was talk of moving the institution to the state capital.

Herman B. Wells, IU’s acclaimed president from 1938 to 1962, is credited with transforming the university into one of the country’s top research and professional training institutions.

Although IU is Indiana’s oldest four-year university, it is not the state’s oldest school of higher learning. Vincennes University gets that title, established under an 1800 Act of Congress organizing the Indiana Territory.

Directions: To see the Sample Gates, use the GPS address for Franklin Hall, the building just to the north. It is 601 East Kirkwood Avenue, Bloomington, IN 47405.

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The Sample Gates are perhaps the most familiar symbol of Indiana University, serving as the main entrance to the historic section of campus known as Old Crescent.

The Sample Gates are perhaps the most familiar symbol of Indiana University, serving as the main entrance to the historic section of campus known as Old Crescent.



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