Friday, September 29, 2017

First university in the United States is a status asserted by more than one U.S. university. Historically, when the Philippines was still a United States territory, the University of Santo Tomas (established in 1611) was considered as the oldest university under the American flag. Presently in the United States, there is no official definition of what entitles an institution to be considered a university versus a college, and the common understanding of university has evolved over time. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica tells the story of the gradual emergence of U.S. "universities" thus:

In the United States the word university has been applied to institutions of the most diverse character, and it is only since 1880 or thereabouts that an effort has been seriously made to distinguish between collegiate and university instruction; nor has that effort yet completely succeeded. Harvard, William and Mary, and Yale . . . were organized . . . on the plans of the English colleges which constitute the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Graduates of Harvard and Yale carried these British traditions to other places, and similar colleges grew up in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.... Around or near these nuclei, during the course of the 19th century, one or more professional schools were frequently attached, and so the word university was naturally applied to a group of schools associated more or less closely with a central school or college. Harvard, for example, most comprehensive of all, has seventeen distinct departments, and Yale has almost as many. Columbia and Penn have a similar scope. In the latter part of the 19th century Yale, Columbia, Princeton and Brown, in recognition of their enlargement, formally changed their titles from colleges to universities.

The issue is further confused by the fact that at time of founding of many of the institutions in question, the United States didn't exist as a sovereign nation. Moreover, questions of institutional continuity sometimes make it difficult to determine the true "age" of any institution.

Claimants and potential claimants

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Several universities claim to be the first university in the United States:

  • Harvard University, founded in 1636, claims itself to be (v.i.) "the oldest institution of higher education in the United States". The claim of being "the first university" has been made on its behalf by others. An early official mention of Harvard as "the University" is found in the Massachusetts Constitution, first submitted on October 28, 1779 by James Bowdoin, Samuel Adams, and John Adams.
  • The University of Pennsylvania considers itself to be America's first university, a title it claims on its website and in other published materials. The university has published a book about being the first university in America, and its website contains numerous instances of the phrase "America's First University".
  • The College of William and Mary's website states, "The College of William and Mary was the first college to become a university (1779)."

Additionally, Johns Hopkins University opened in 1876 and claims to be "America's first research university" (emphasis added).

Facts that have been used to support claims of being "the first university in the United States"

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Institutional age

Harvard University calls itself "the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States" and this claim is rarely challenged. It is possible to disagree what year should be taken as Harvard's "real" founding date (Harvard uses the earliest possible one, 1636, when the institution was chartered by the Massachusetts Bay Colony). However, Harvard has operated since 1650 under the same corporation, the "President and Fellows of Harvard College"; it thus has an unbroken institutional history dating back to the mid seventeenth century (an official Harvard web page for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences claims, "Founded in 1636, Harvard is America's oldest university").

William & Mary calls itself "America's second-oldest college", acknowledging Harvard's claim but adding that William & Mary itself is the nation's oldest college in its "antecedents," the College of Henricopolis or University of Henrico established by the Virginia Company near Richmond, Virginia. This institution received a royal charter in 1618 and operated a school for several years before being destroyed with the town during the Indian Massacre of 1622, but it never offered college-level instruction. The following year, King James I dissolved the Virginia Company, converting the Colony of Virginia to a crown colony. William and Mary was founded under a new charter in 1693.

Official designation as a "university"

University of Pennsylvania

The founding date of the University of Pennsylvania is associated with more subjectivity and institutional debate than the more straightforward dates used by the eight other colonial era colleges. Harvard University uses as its founding date 1636, the year in which the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony formally voted to budget funds for the creation of a college in Newtowne, later called Cambridge. The seven remaining colonial era colleges consider their founding dates to be the year in which they were first granted charters and thus became legal corporations.

Penn's claim as the first university in the United States is three-fold: the 1765 founding of the first medical school in America made Penn the first institution to offer both "undergraduate" and professional education; the 1779 charter made it the first American institution of higher learning to take the name of "University"; and existing colleges were established as seminaries (although, as detailed in its own article, Penn adopted a traditional seminary curriculum as well). Harvard and Yale were officially affiliated with the Congregational Church. Although officially nonsectarian, Princeton was founded by Presbyterians. Similarly, though Penn was officially nonsectarian, it was established by a board composed of Church of England and Methodist members, with a curriculum consistent with those religions.

The first charter for an institution of higher learning in Philadelphia was granted in 1755 to the College of Philadelphia, a new undertaking of the Academy of Philadelphia, which had previously taught only secondary students. In 1779, a charter was granted to a separate institution called the "University of the State of Pennsylvania" which in 1791 was merged with the College of Philadelphia and issued a new charter as the "University of Pennsylvania".

Despite the three charter dates of 1755, 1779 and 1791, the University used for more than a century the founding date of 1749, the year in which founder Benjamin Franklin first convened a board of trustees to organize the new institution. In 1899, the University's board of trustees voted to change the founding date by nine years to 1740, the year in which a group of Philadelphia citizens established a trust for a charity school requested by traveling evangelist George Whitefield. A frame of a building was erected, but the citizens discovered that they lacked the funds to furnish the interior chapel or open the charity school.

The unfinished edifice lay vacant for roughly a decade until Franklin's nascent Academy of Philadelphia was looking for space to begin operations and purchased the still unused building in 1750. The Academy of Philadelphia operated a charity school for a few years and this brief period was the basis for the trustees' claims of institutional continuity to the earlier date, as the Academy had assumed the trust of the charity school for local orphans planned but not begun by the original fundraisers of the building.

Parenthetically, the University of Pennsylvania calls itself the fourth oldest institution of higher learning in the United States, comparing the legal charter dates of Princeton University (1746) and Columbia University (1754) with the 1740 date in which the trust had been established and fundraising had begun for the building it would ultimately purchase in 1750.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Princeton University and Columbia University do not follow the same train of thought in their own institutional histories. Princeton and Columbia consider themselves the fourth and fifth oldest institutions of higher learning in the country, respectively, comparing the three collegiate charter dates of 1746, 1754 and 1755.

This seemingly minor difference of opinion assumes greater importance in the world of academia. Formal academic processions such as those at graduation ceremonies place visiting dignitaries and other officials in the order of their institution's founding dates, explaining why universities have sometimes used strained rationales to claim and defend dates as early as possible. The University of Pennsylvania changed its founding date in 1899, four years after elite universities in the United States agreed that academic processions would follow this age-based hierarchy. The revision in founding date was the result of a three-year campaign initiated by the University's "Alumni Register" magazine to make it older than Princeton for these processions.

The argument used is that it is the common legal practice to date the founding of an institution from the date of founding for the oldest trust it administers. In this case, the oldest trust that the University of Pennsylvania administers was established in 1740. Historian Edward Potts Cheyney states that, "it might be considered a lawyer's date; it is a familiar legal practice in considering the date of any institution to seek out the oldest trust it administers." (The University still administers this trust in the funding of the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander University of Pennsylvania Partnership School.) He also points out that Harvard's founding date is merely the year in which the Massachusetts General Court resolved to establish a fund in a year's time for a "School or College". As well, Princeton claims its founding date as 1746â€"the date of its first charter. However, the exact words of the charter are unknown, the number and names of the trustees in the charter are unknown, and no known copy is extant. Though it is a common practice to use the dates of charter as the official date, the majority of the American Colonial Colleges do not have clear-cut dates of foundation.

In brief, in 1779 the College of Philadelphia was directed by provost William Smith. One might have expected it to evolve into the "University of the State of Pennsylvania" but this did not occur. "Since the Revolutionary state legislature felt that the board of trustees led by Provost Smith contained too many suspected loyalist sympathizers, they created a new board of trustees." Thus, the University of the State of Pennsylvania was created de novo. A schism occurred, with an attenuated College of Philadelphia continuing under Dr. Smith's direction. In 1791 Pennsylvania adopted a new state constitution which merged the College of Philadelphia and the University of the State of Pennsylvania into the "University of Pennsylvania," with a board of trustees made up of twelve men from each of the two parent institutions. "It is this institution and this board of trustees that has continued to this day."

William and Mary

On December 4, 1779, just seven days after the founding of the "University of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania", an event occurred which William and Mary describes thus:

Under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia and a member of the Board of Visitors, William and Mary became a university. The grammar and divinity schools were discontinued, and a professorship of anatomy and medicine, and the first American chairs of law and police and modern languages were established. The elective system of studies was introduced at this time, the first such program in the United States.

(For historical reasons, The College of William and Mary, like Dartmouth College and Boston College, has continued to use "college" rather than "university" in its official name.)

William and Mary has a published list of its first graduates (by Swem) available through its library.


The Constitution of Massachusetts, submitted by James Bowdoin, Samuel Adams, and John Adams to the full Convention on October 28, 1779 and ratified on June 15, 1780, contains this language:

Chapter V. The University at Cambridge, and Encouragement of Literature, etc.
Section I. The University.
Art. I.--Whereas our wise and pious ancestors, so early as the year one thousand six hundred and thirty six, laid the foundation of Harvard-College, in which University many persons of great eminence have, by the blessing of GOD, been initiated in those arts and sciences, which qualified them for public employments, both in Church and State: And whereas the encouragement of Arts and Sciences, and all good literature, tends to the honor of God, the advantage of the christian religion, and the great benefit of this, and the other United States of America--It is declared, That the PRESIDENT AND FELLOWS OF HARVARD-COLLEGE, in their corporate capacity, and their successors in that capacity, their officers and servants, shall have, hold, use, exercise and enjoy, all the powers, authorities, rights, liberties, privileges, immunities and franchises, which they now have, or are entitled to have, hold, use, exercise and enjoy: And the same are hereby ratified and confirmed unto them, the said President and Fellows of Harvard-College, and to their successors, and to their officers and servants, respectively, forever.

The word "university" is used a total of five times in reference to Harvard in the Massachusetts Constitution.

(It is not clear from context, either above or in the paragraphs that follow, that the constitution meant to draw any semantic distinction between "college" and "university." )

In George Washington's honorary Doctor of Laws degree, conferred by Harvard on April 30, 1776, the text of the degree refers to Harvard twice as "our University".

Establishment of quaternary-education schools, issuance of any kind of "doctoral" degree

If a university is defined as an institution that awards doctoral degrees, then there are a number of contenders for the title of oldest United States university based on that criteria, as well. Among the conflicting interpretations is whether the date the first doctoral degree is awarded should be the determining factor, or the date a doctoral program was first attempted is the determinant.

Harvard University

Harvard has awarded honorary "doctorates" since the 17th century, such as the Doctor of Sacred Theology degree to Increase Mather in 1692 (the first honorary degree in the New World).

Columbia University

King's College (now Columbia University) organized a medical faculty in 1767, and in 1769 became the first institution in the North American Colonies to confer the degree of Doctor of Medicine, according to the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

University of Pennsylvania

Penn founded the first medical school in America in 1765, according to Penn's archivist.

Yale University

Yale's website refers to the establishment of "the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences" in 1847.

Georgetown University

Georgetown's website references 1820 as the year it first established its graduate school, issuing its first advanced degree in 1820.

Issuance of Ph. D. degree

Yale University

Yale's website states that in 1861, Yale "awarded the first Ph.D. in the United States".

See also

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  • Colonial colleges
  • List of oldest universities in continuous operation
  • Oldest public university in the United States


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