Old school rivalry: Founding stories of IU, Michigan show age is debatable

Two of the oldest institutions in the Big Ten will face each other on the gridiron at 3:30 p.m. today in Bloomington. But there’s room for debate when it comes to which one has been around longer.

Indiana University is celebrating its 200th anniversary this year. The University of Michigan celebrated its bicentennial in 2017, but it also celebrated its centennial in 1937. And while most University of Michigan seals now have a founding date of 1817, others showed 1837.

So which one is older?

“That’s a good question,” said James Capshew, university historian and professor at IU. “It really depends.” Let’s start with the University of Michigan, a founding member of, what is now, the Big Ten conference. On Aug. 26, 1817, in Detroit, the governor of the Michigan Territory and the Territory’s several judges — who were more like legislators than judges — enacted a bill to establish a University of Michigania, according to a Michigan Today article by James Tobin. An instructor was hired in February 1818 to organize the first classes.

In those early days, students learned Latin, Greek and some science before moving on to one of America’s few actual colleges, such as Harvard, Princeton or Yale, Tobin wrote. The University of Michigania campus consisted of one building that the governing board had to rent out in 1834 due to a funding shortfall.

When Michigan became a state in 1837, a state legislator named John Davis Pierce was tasked with writing a plan for a state school system. The state Legislature approved Pierce’s plan — which included a reconstituted University of Michigan under a board of regents appointed by the governor — on March 18, 1837.

The institution was re-started, according to Tobin’s article, on a 40-acre plot in Ann Arbor that was donated by land developers. It took four more years to construct buildings, hire professors and admit students because of a financial slump that hit what was then considered America’s western states particularly hard.

For many years, 1837 was considered the founding date and placed on the university’s seal. That changed when the board of regents accepted a Michigan Supreme Court decision in 1930 that ruled the university had been a continuous legal entity from its original founding in Detroit.

“But the university still threw itself a big party in 1937 — the centennial of its reestablishment in Ann Arbor,” Tobin wrote.

The story of IU’s founding also begins in the early 1800s. There was a provision for a state university in Indiana’s 1816 constitution, Capshew said. A legislative act to establish a state seminary was adopted Jan. 20, 1820. But like with the University of Michigan, classes didn’t begin until a few years later, in this case April 1825.

“You don’t just turn on a light and everything’s going,” Capshew said. “You have to figure things out.”

The State Seminary was renamed Indiana College in 1828 and finally became Indiana University in 1838. Students didn’t start taking classes at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor until 1841. Of course, back then, neither institution was the behemoth it is today.

“This is like small potatoes,” Capshew said. “Very few people went to college at that time.”

But rather than arguing over which state has the older university, Capshew suggested people focus on why frontiersmen felt the need to create the institutions in the first place.

“It’s the idea that democracy requires an informed electorate,” he >said. “And education is the foundation for democracy.”

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