Editor’s note: This is one in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016.
When the first classes were held in 1824, Indiana University had one professor, 10 male students, and no building to call its own. The only subjects offered were Latin and Greek. Today, more than 3,000 professors teach 47,000 students on a campus graced by limestone buildings and woodland paths. Undergraduates choose from more than 150 majors.
And that’s just at Bloomington. IU has campuses throughout the state and an operating budget of $3.3 billion. Its founders would surely marvel at the size and scope of the tiny school they launched in the Monroe County wilderness.
In the beginning, it was called the Indiana Seminary, but it wasn’t a religious training ground in the sense that word is used today. In early 19th century parlance, seminary referred to a place of general learning offering coursework beyond reading, writing and arithmetic.
The Indiana General Assembly created the Indiana Seminary in 1820, naming six men to serve as its trustees. One of them, David H. Maxwell, wrote in 1821 that it was to be a “humble” school where “the elementary parts of an education can be had.”
It didn’t stay humble. In 1828, the Legislature turned the seminary into a college and in 1838 gave it university status. In 1852, an act of the Legislature declared IU “the university of the state.” After a fire destroyed its sciences building in 1883, the school moved to its current location on the east side of Bloomington so it could expand to accommodate more buildings and more students.
Early histories say that was the plan from the beginning — IU was destined to be the state university mentioned in Article IX, Section 2 of the 1816 state constitution: “It shall be the duty of the General Assembly ... to provide, by law, for a general system of education, ascending in a regular gradation, from township schools to a state university, wherein tuition shall be gratis, and equally open to all.”