Thursday, October 3, 2013

University of Idaho Greets Its First (Under-Qualified) Students [otd 10/3]

On Monday, October 3, 1892, the University of Idaho in Moscow greeted its first prospective students, about 40 of them. That event completed one of the odder paths to the creation of an American university.

The story really began with the creation of Idaho Territory in March 1863. The Federally-appointed Governor, William H. Wallace, made Lewiston the capital, even though the region’s population had already moved south: The 1863 Census showed roughly 1,500 along the Clearwater River and in Lewiston, versus over 15,000 in the Boise Basin camps in the mountains northeast of Boise City.

The imbalance worsened in 1864, so the legislature moved the capital to Boise City. North Idaho leaders never got over it. For years, people in the Panhandle sought to secede and join Washington (or, sometimes, Montana). That was true even as late as 1887 [blog, Dec 1].

President Lincoln. Library of Congress.
While Idaho Territory muddled along, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act, which gave every state 30 thousand acres of land for each of its Senators and Representatives. Funds obtained from selling these lands were to be used to support at least one college in the state.

The Act required these institutions to focus more on agriculture and engineering than traditional colleges and universities. Morrill Act schools – generally referred to today as “land grant colleges” – were also expected to provide military training.

In the late 1880’s, hopes rose within the Territory that Idaho might soon be granted statehood, with qualification for a college land grant as one benefit. Many complex issues then came into play. The last thing majority-holding politicians in the south wanted was for North Idahoans to raise the secession question again.

To placate those northern constituencies, conferees agreed to designate Moscow as the site for a land grant university. To “seal the deal,” when delegates met in 1889 to frame a constitution for the  new state, they wrote the location into the proposed constitution itself.  Idaho is one of only a handful of states where this is true.

When voters approved the constitution and Idaho became a state (in July 1890), that clause was still there, no longer subject to change by simple legislation. Still, the legislature had to provide startup funds, and these were slow in coming and never generous. Construction did not begin on the site backers purchased until the summer of 1891. The University had only part of a building completed when the doors formally opened.
UI campus, ca 1900. Illustrated History of North Idaho.

As it turned out, tests showed that none of the hopeful enrollees were qualified for college-level work. By the time classes began a week later, President Franklin B. Gault [blog, Sept 23] had hired two new instructors, both females, to strengthen a preparatory curriculum. As historian Keith Petersen wrote, “It was perhaps the only time that the university had as many women as men on the faculty.” Not until 1913 did the University close its prep school.

Financial prospects for the new school were not hopeful, partly because of the “Panic of ‘93” – a major nationwide recession that lasted for about four years. Even so, in June of 1896, the University celebrated its first four graduates to earn college degrees: Two young ladies with, respectively, Bachelors in Philosophy and in Art, and two young men with degrees in Civil Engineering.
References: [Illust-North]
“Census of 1863,” Reference Series No. 129, Idaho State Historical Society.
“Census of 1864,” Reference Series No. 130, Idaho State Historical Society.
Rafe Gibbs, Beacon for Mountain and Plain: Story of the University of Idaho, The Caxton Printers (© The Regents of the University of Idaho, 1962).
Keith C. Petersen, This Crested Hill: An Illustrated History of the University of Idaho, University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho (1987).

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