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The University of California: What Makes It Unique?

Mind Before Mines

Land and a Charter

The University

President Gilman

The Constitutional Convention of 1878

Early Benefactors

Growth for the Twentieth Century


Chapter 5: President Gilman

In 1872 President Durant resigned, stating he believed a younger man could better advance the interests of the University. Once again, the Regents turned to Daniel Coit Gilman of Yale, who, this time, and to the lasting good fortune of the University, accepted the appointment.

A distinguished educator sought by many universities, Gilman served the University of California for three turbulent years. He was excited by the prospect of building a university in a young state untrammeled by tradition. Unfortunately, his term was beset by Wnancial difficulties and political harassment that culminated in a legislative investigation. Yet he perceived the true nature of a great university and laid down guidelines for its development.

Two things, he asserted, were settled by the Charter of the University of California and embodied in the name it bore.

"First it is a university, and not a high school nor a college, nor an academy of sciences nor an industrial school which we are charged to build," he declared in the University's First inaugural address.

Some of these features may indeed be included . . . but the university means more than any or all of them. The university is the most comprehensive term which can be employed to indicate a foundation for the promotion and diffusion of knowledge. . . . It is not the University of Berlin nor of New Haven which we are to copy . . . but it is the University of this State. It must be adapted to this people, to their public and private schools, to their peculiar geographical position, to the requirements of their new society and their undeveloped resources.

President Gilman saw the University's graduates as the nucleus of the future not only of California but of a vast region—"the new civilization of the Pacific coast"—and was concerned that they be equipped with the most comprehensive culture that could be provided.

"Science is the mother of California," he said.

Give us more and not less science; encourage the most thorough and prolonged search for the truth which is to be found in the rocks, the sea, the soil, the air, the sun and the stars; in light and heat and magnetic forces; in plants and animals and in the human frame; but let us also learn the lessons which are embodied in language and literature, in laws and institutions, in doctrines and opinions, in historical progress.

Gilman soon found himself confronted with a crisis: the University's very existence was jeopardized by long-simmering conflicts over whose interests it was to serve. Criticism centered on the relative emphases to be laid, or being laid, on the literary, agricultural, and scientific departments. Advocates for agricultural interests contended that the University was failing in its obligations under the Morrill Land-Grant College Act to provide education in the "agricultural and mechanic arts." Defenders, President Gilman among them, argued that the University was hospitable to the needs of California's farmers, but that its approach to agricultural education must be based on scientific study and methods of inquiry, not on vocational training for future farmers.

A legislative investigation of alleged mismanagement of the University's land-grant funds was undertaken. Although it resulted in the return of a clean ledger, it affirmed that there had been a want of clear understanding both as to the grant and the management of the University.

The University had scraped by, but Gilman found the heat of the battle too blistering for his taste. The University, he said, "is . . . nominally administered by the Regents; it is virtually administered by the legislature." Frustrated, he offered his resignation in 1874 but was dissuaded by the Regents.

The following year, however, the offer of the presidency of Johns Hopkins University was too great a temptation, and he accepted it.

Gilman did more than Wght the University's battles in the public arena during his brief but momentous tenure. He laid the foundations for the future by instituting the University's first visiting lectureships and graduate fellowships, doubling the size of its library, and defining the standards to which it should aspire. Looking back on his California experience in later years, Gilman said that he had "helped rescue a state university from the limitations of a college of agriculture and enlarge it to meet the requirements of a magnificent commonwealth."3


3. Quoted in Francesco Cordasco, Daniel Coit Gilman and the Protean Ph.D.: The Shaping of American Graduate Education (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960), p. 35.


Women students were admitted
to the University in 1870.

Photograph courtesy University Archives.


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The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Last updated 08/15/05.