History of UC Berkeley

19th-century: Founding UC's flagship campus

The roots of the University of California go back to the mid 19th century, when hundreds of thousands of fortune seekers came west in the gold rush, California became a state, and farsighted drafters of the 1849 State Constitution dreamed of creating a university that "would contribute even more than California's gold to the glory and happiness of advancing generations."

The "seat of learning" they envisioned was born nearly two decades later, through a merger of two fledgling institutions — the private College of California, in Oakland, and a new state land-grant institution, the Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College.

The former, led by former clergyman Henry Durant and modeled after Yale and Harvard, featured core courses in Latin, Greek, history, English, mathematics, and natural history, with the addition of modern languages. Though it had little funding, it had land — both in Oakland and four miles north at a town site eventually named for George Berkeley, an 18th-century Irish philosopher and bishop.

Meanwhile the state college, created by the state legislature under federal land-grant legislation, had funding but as-yet no campus. Leaders of the two institutions decided to join the two schools to their mutual advantage, blending their curricula to form a "complete university." On March 23, 1868, the state governor signed into law the Organic Act, "to Create and Organize the University of California."

Defining the university's mission

A "tiny band of scholars" — 10 faculty members and nearly 40 students — made up the new University of California when it opened in Oakland in 1869. Construction of South Hall and North Hall on the northern site was promptly begun. In September 1873, the University and close to 200 students, led by UC President Henry Durant, moved to the new campus in Berkeley on land adjoining Strawberry Creek.

Setting course

Literature? Agriculture? Science? Early leaders of California debated which subjects its new university should emphasize — and whom primarily it should serve.

The early years saw intense debate over the emphasis of the new University. How central to its mission was the teaching of literature? Agriculture? Science? And whom was it primarily to serve? During the state's Second Constitutional Convention, in 1878, the future of the new public university hung in the balance: one proposal was to disband it altogether and start a new institution devoted exclusively to practical matters, excluding all elements of a "classical" education.

A new State Constitution was narrowly approved by voters in May 1879. It guaranteed the University of California a level of independence shared by few other public institutions in the nation and gave its governing Board of Regents "full powers of organization and government," subject to limited oversight by the state legislature. What this unique governance structure meant precisely, in practice, would become a point of debate; periodic crises throughout UC's history have tested the relative powers of the regents, state governor and legislators, campus chancellors, faculty members, and students.

Launching a statewide UC system

South Hall historic photo
South Hall, built in 1873, the first UC building

The early decades of the 20th century saw the launch of a "southern branch" of the University of California, at Los Angeles, in 1914 — thus initiating a statewide system (today with 10 campuses across California) with Berkeley as its flagship institution. The UC system was later restructured, in 1952, to create chancellor positions for the campuses at Los Angeles and Berkeley. At Berkeley industrial-relations specialist Clark Kerr was appointed, later to became UC President and chief architect of the California Master Plan for Higher Education. Designating UC as the research arm of the state educational system, that plan has guided public higher education in California since 1960 and has served as a model for states throughout the nation.

Architecture: A 'City of Learning' overlooking San Francisco Bay >