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University of Kansas

University of Kansas, between 1900 and 1910The University of Kansas (KU) opened on September 12, 1866, in Lawrence, Kansas. It opened with a name, charter, and 55 students—26 female and 29 male—primarily as a preparatory school.  It was one of the earliest public institutions in the United States to admit men and women equally. It was not until 1869 that collegiate level courses were taught; the first graduation—with four students—was in 1873.

Its location had been a major cause for battle between several Kansas communities. Lawrence, Manhattan, Topeka, and Emporia each hoped for the honor. The fight ensued during 1861 and 1862. Lawrence was at the center of free-state activity and the target of several acts of violence. 

The university owned 72 sections of land granted by the federal government. It was to sell the land to create an endowment. A subscription drive failed to raise the needed money.Charles and Sara Robinson and the city council arranged two swaps and a payment in cash. In return for 22.25acres, Charles Robinson received half a block of land from the city. Sara yielded 17.75acres for $600 and 10 acres of land on another part of Mount Oread. They bestowed the 40 acres directly for the university.KU was formally chartered on March 1, 1864.

Located in Lawrence, KU was to have two branches, for male and female students, and provision was made for six departments. The college grounds included 120 acres of the "very best quality of arable lands," with a fine quarry which would supply stone in abundance for future buildings.

That first class of 55 students in 1866 was judged by the faculty to lack college readiness. A part-time lecturer and three full-time professors were on faculty. The university had one three-story building, 50 feet square, which held offices, classrooms, and housing. It was located on a hill in Lawrence once called Hogback ridge, but renamed Mount Oread. It had a few books but no library, and a few pieces of scientific equipment. Its future was uncertain. Adjoining the college lands were large amounts of unoccupied farmland of the same high quality.

Many chancellors have led the university over the years. R. W. Oliver became the first chancellor in 1865. Bernadette Gray-Little became the first female and African American to serve as chancellor in 2009.            

KU became known over the years for its strong athletic programs. KU's mascot has long been the Jayhawk, named for the Kansans antislavery supporters who battled the Missouri proslavery forces along the border during Bleeding Kansas.

Professor Edgar Henry Summerfield Bailey proposed a cheer for the KU Science Club in 1886. “Rah, rah, Jayhawk, KU” was repeated three times. Inspired by the Kansas limestone bedrock, also called flint and chalk, the rahs were replaced by rock chalk. The famous chant was even popular with President Theodore Roosevelt.

University of Kansas basketball team, 1906James Naismith joined the KU faculty in 1898 to coach basketball, teach physical education, and serve as chaplain. At that time basketball was regarded in Kansas as a woman's sport. Coeds had experimented with the game in 1896 according to the Kansas University Weekly. Naismith was surprised by the game’s popularity, commenting that wrestling was better exercise and that he enjoyed watching gymnasts as much as basketball. By the turn of the century enough colleges had basketball teams that intercollegiate competition was possible. Forrest "Phog" Allen, who was one of Naismith's students, became known as the father of basketball coaching.

KU began its football program on November 22, 1890, at Baldwin. The Topeka Daily Capital reported that the game "had its first introduction into Western colleges today. Baker University defeated Kansas University, 22 to 9." The Weekly University Courier said the Baker-KU contest was the "first football match of any importance."  

"K. U. is a University set on a hilltop," a 1922 pamphlet described the school to freshmen students.

Today the KU campus area is a historic district listed in the National Register. There are 52 resources on 85 acres from Jayhawk Boulevard at the heart of the KU campus about one mile southeast of the civic and commercial center of Lawrence. The buildings, structures, sites, and objects within the district were constructed between 1878 and 2008 and reflect the primary academic core of the university campus that evolved along Jayhawk Boulevard. The evolution of the campus over a period of nearly 90 years is evident in the variety of architectural styles and landscape design trends present in the district. The district includes 26 contributing and 20 non-contributing resources. Six resources are individually listed in the National Register.

A second historic district was listed, which includes 15 contributing resources (18 total resources) on the 13 acres adjacent to the main campus. The buildings and objects reflect the evolution of the residential and religious facilities designed to support the needs of the students and faculty at KU. Eight of the contributing resources were built as scholarship halls, a type of residential arrangement that was common at state universities across the country. As student enrollment increased at KU, the availability of reputable housing options in Lawrence decreased, especially for women. Elizabeth Miller Watkins donated the funds for KU’s first cooperative dormitory, or scholarship hall, in 1925. The concept caught on at KU, and over the next 30 years, benefactors donated funds for seven more scholarship halls for men and women, all of which were constructed in the same general area of campus. In addition to the residences, the presence of Smith Hall, the Wesley Building, and Danforth Chapel reflect a strong desire to support the social and cultural needs of students. Both Smith and Wesley include classrooms and gathering areas, while Danforth contains meditative and ceremonial spaces.

Entry: University of Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2014

Date Modified: July 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.