The Early Years | 1867-1904

A child of the Morrill Act, the University of Illinois began life in 1867 as the Illinois Industrial University: the school’s radical mission was to extend higher education to members of the working-class. With too few students and too little money, the University languished for years in obscurity. Near the end of the century, the students and alumni helped give the school a new start, and the U of I moved forward under the leadership of Thomas J. Burrill and Andrew Draper. A skilled administrator, Draper placed the University on a firm foundation. His successor would take the U of I to the next level.

Old University Building (Elephant), c1870

Old University Building (Elephant), c1870


The first regent, John Milton Gregory, championed liberal arts, freedom of electives, and student self-government, which students appreciated. He later turned authoritarian, however, causing a student rebellion in 1880 to force his resignation. His successor, another harsh disciplinarian who also opposed intercollegiate athletics and secret societies, met a similar fate in 1891.

In light of student revolts, Acting Regent Thomas Burrill abolished the demerit system and compulsory chapel, allowed fraternities and athletics, restored elective freedom, improved the status of professors, and started the Graduate College. His successor, Andrew Draper, with support from the Illinois governor, tripled student enrollment, embarked on an ambitious campus building plan, and created the schools of Pharmacy, Dentistry, and Medicine.

  • Faculty 1886:
    1. William McMurtrie, Chemistry
    2. Kittie M. Baker, Music
    3. James H. Brownlee, Rhetoric and Elocution
    4. Edward Snyder, Modern Languages
    5. George E. Morrow, Agriculture
    6. James Crawford, Librarian
    7. Arthur N. Talbot, Municipal and Sanitary
    8. Stephen Forbes, Zoology
    9. Peter Roos, Drawing
    10. Helen B. Gregory, English

  • 11. Samuel Shattuck, Business Manager and Prof. Mathematics
    12. President Selim Peabody
    13. Joseph C. Pickard, English
    14. N. Clifford Ricker, Dean of the College of Engineering
    15. Thomas J. Burrill, Botany
    16. Charles W. Rolfe, Zoology
    17. Theodore B. Comstock, Physics
    18. Donald McIntosh, Veterinary
    19. Baker, Civil Engineering
    20. Charles McClure, Commandant
    21. Arthur T. Woods, Mechanical Engineering
  • Buildings:
    A. Wood Shops and Drill Hall
    B. Chemistry (now Harker Hall)
    C. University Hall

Further Resources


“Let us but demonstrate that the highest culture is compatible with the active pursuit of industry.”John Milton Gregory

From the beginning, the new Illinois Industrial University had a split personality. The Morrill Act expected a college devoted to agriculture and the “mechanical arts” rather than traditional liberal arts. The first regent, John Milton Gregory, however, insisted on combining the practical with the classical, leading to creation of not only an engineering college, but colleges and schools dealing with literature, natural science, commerce, domestic science, library science, and several more.

There were 351 faculty by century’s end, including pioneering botanist Thomas Burrill; Stephen Forbes, founder of the science of ecology; agronomist Cyril G. Hopkins, whose experiments revolutionized agriculture; and Isabel Bevier, a pioneer in household science.

Further Resources

Faculty Papers

Campus Architecture & Planning

Why is the U of I in the flattest part of Illinois? Many claimed bribery had a hand in the decision. The school’s first building, the five-story “The Elephant,” likewise was shoddily built by land speculators.

Regent Gregory, not surprisingly, quickly saw the need for new buildings and placed them along and south of Green Street, including Harker Hall, the Natural History Building, Engineering Hall, and Altgeld Hall. President Draper’s siting of Davenport Hall in a more central location created the east boundary of the Main Quad. Several more buildings in that area quickly followed. Many were designed by alumni and are now on the National Register of Historic Places.


The University’s earliest students were mostly white, of European descent, Protestant, and from adjacent counties. By 1873, however, there were students from 69 counties,12 states, and four foreign countries. By 1903, it was 12 foreign countries.

The first African-American student arrived in 1887, but numbers remained low, with only 10 enrolled between 1894-1904. One, Albert R. Lee, became the University president’s long-time chief clerk. An African-American also was elected to the Board of Trustees in 1873 but was driven out by “Repbulican ostracism.”

Carlos Montezuma was the first Native American graduate, in 1884. Elected class president, he became a physician and advocate for Native American rights.


The first women were admitted to the University in 1870, subject to severe social restrictions and curfews. Regent Gregory himself paid for two houses to accommodate them. In 1874, he hired a “preceptress” to oversee women’s interests. She established a domestic science and calisthenics program. President Draper in 1897 hired the first Dean of Women as well as several notable women faculty.

Women’s organizations now flourished, including the Young Women’s Christian Assocation (1884), Illinois’s first basketball team (1897—a women’s team, not men’s) and two sororities (1895), among others. A women’s gym was turned down, however, because it was thought inadvisable for women to do calisthenics.


Student Activities

Student Life

With the downtowns of both Urbana and Champaign nearly a mile from campus, there weren’t many outlets for fun for early students, who had compulsory manual labor and military drill daily or weekly. Even the two original student organizations were geared to improving the minds and skills of students. When women were admitted in 1870, women’s organizations followed suit.

The first fraternity arrived in 1872, but Regent Gregory was so hostile, it had to go underground. Gregory’s successor, Selim Peabody, outright banned them, making them more popular and leading them to help force Peabody out. Sororities appeared in the mid-1880s, as did professional societies in chemistry and engineering, musical groups, and the YMCA and YWCA.

Student Regulations

Student discipline at first was severe—no smoking, no drinking, no noise in the hallways. In 1870, however, Regent Gregory established what may be the first student government in the country. Mimicking the federal structure of the U.S. Government, the elected body imposed fines for infractions of student code, including whistling, dancing, gambling, etc., until this experiment ended in 1883.

Regent Peabody imposed his own demerit system, which was so detested that in 1890, he was doused by students with a fire hose as he attempted to break up a dance. In 1891, a cadet rebellion helped force his resignation. Peabody’s successor liberalized many of these unpopular, puritanical policies.

Further Resources

  • Illini_Reminder-to-study_Mar-7,-1891

    Reminder to study from the Daily Illini March 7, 1891

  • Illini_battalion-resigns_Feb-7,-1891

    Resignation of the Battalion, Daily Illini February 7, 1891

Traditions & Sports

Students yearned for a school culture. Class rivalries filled that niche, resulting in classes adopting their own colors, yells, and symbols, and by 1872, class memorial gifts. By 1879, the rivalries became physical, often leading to injuries and, in one case, George Huff hanging from a chandelier. President Draper reined this in by promoting all-school spirit. By 1894, students had chosen all-school colors, songs, and yells.

Intramural and intercollegiate baseball and football were the big sports. By 1892, there was a director of athletics and a professional coach. In 1883, students formed the Athletic Association, leading to development of Illinois Field in 1896, the same year the University helped found the Big Ten.

Further Resources

Additional class chants and colors, 1903

Additional class chants and colors, 1903 Illio