Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

In the Beginning – Recalling the Legislation that Established the University of California

By John Aubrey Douglass


Today, March 23, marks the 153th anniversary of the 1868 legislation that established the University of California, also known as Charter Day. The following provides a reflection on the intent of that legislation and its initial organizational principles that remain relevant today for one of the largest and most prestigious multi-campus public universities in the world.

Becoming a State

Entering the Union as a state in 1850, California’s constitution called for the establishment of a university. Every self-respecting new state did so. But some fifteen years later, it had made no progress toward that goal within a society just emerging from its gold rush past and in need of stabilizing public institutions.

The passage of the federal Morrill Act in 1862 and in the midst of the Civil War, also known as the Land-Grant Agricultural and Mechanical College Act, launched a debate regarding how the state should use the promised federal land-grants to help establish a public university.

One group of lawmakers and influential Californians thought it best to use the funds to establish a utilitarian polytechnic that would focus on the training of farmers, mechanics, and engineers. In this way, it could meet the immediate needs of California’s economy then dominated by agriculture and mining. Some wanted to use the federal generated funds to support existing private colleges, like the fledgling College of California located in Oakland led by Henry Durant, and with a classical curriculum that reflected Durant’s alma mater, Yale.

With the Civil War over, and the federal deadline for establishing a college of agriculture or mining coming to an end, enough California lawmakers came to the conclusion that the state needed a public university that offered a broad range of academic and professional fields to lift the hearts and minds of the state’s citizenry.

Not unlike the status anxiety felt by those who lobbied for a federal university to be located in Washington after the Revolutionary War, boosters of a state university in California saw it as a vehicle that would foster civility in frontier California, nurture and retain talent, and promote economic development and opportunity. And like the early promoters of the public university ideal, Californians felt the status anxiety with the East Coast that Thomas Jefferson and others felt with Europe.

After two legislative attempts to establish a public university, in 1868 lawmakers finally passed the Organic Act creating the University of California. Similar legislation establishing the public universities in Michigan and Wisconsin informed the authors of the bill, including Assemblyman John Dwinelle. The new state university was to be an expansive experiment, absorbing the faculty and property of the existing College of California located in Oakland, and intended to touch in some way every citizen in every corner of a vast state.

Organizing a New Public American University

The Organic Act included language reflecting old and new ideals of the American public university that would, in the course of the nation’s history, fundamentally change American society. Its purpose was, “to provide instruction and complete education in all the departments of science, literature, art, industrial and professional pursuits, and general education, and also special courses of instruction for the professions of agriculture, the mechanic arts, mining, military science, civil engineering, law, medicine and commerce.” It was to include a College of Letters, Colleges of “Arts” including for Agriculture, Mechanic Arts, Mines, Civil Engineering, as well as colleges for Medicine, Law and “other like professional colleges.”

In sharp contrast to private colleges and the few that began to call themselves universities, the University of California was to be a secular institution in the admission of students, in its curriculum and in its governance.

As recently as the 1950s, many private universities, the famous and not so, used religious tests or other means (like standardized tests) to help weed out particular non-desirables for admission, and to guide the selection of presidents and governing board members.

UC followed the path of other major publics in the American West. The 1868 Organic Act stated:

. . . it is expressly provided that no sectarian, political or partisan test shall ever be allowed or exercised in the appointment of Regents, or in the election of professors, teachers, or other officers of the University, or in the admissions of students thereto, or for any purpose whatsoever; nor at any time shall the majority of the Board of Regents be of any one religious sect, or of no religious sect; and the persons of every religious denomination, or of no religious denomination, shall be equally eligible to all offices, appointments and scholarships.

California’s public university was also to serve all California communities, then defined largely in geographic terms: “it shall be the duty of the Regents, according to population, to so apportion the representation of students, when necessary, that all portions of the State shall enjoy equal privilege therein.”

This ethos of statewide service, ingrained in the concept of the land-grant university, led states like Pennsylvania to require student representation from every county. As the University of California later grew in the number of campuses, it focused on the idea of service areas. The concept of state-wide service also fostered the development in 1891 of University of California Extension offering advice and information for farmers to housewives, and establishing numerous agricultural and marine research stations throughout California.

To encourage access in an era when the demand for a university education was not clear, the Organic Act stated the intention that tuition would be eventually free for Californians. “For the time being, an admission fee and rates of tuition, such as the Board of Regents shall deem expedient, may be required of each pupil except as herein otherwise provided; and as soon as the income of the University shall permit, admission and tuition shall be free to all residents of the State.”

Lawmakers assumed that the federal land granted via the Morrill Act, to be sold or leased and the proceeds placed in an endowment, would be sufficient to fully fund the university, eventually. This was an incorrect assumption.

In the initial statement of the university’s purpose and policies, no provision was made for the admission of women. However, this failure was rectified in 1870 by the Board of Regents who stated, henceforth, the equal right of women to enroll at Berkeley, and with no quotas – commonly used at many of the great public universities to restrict females to twenty-percent or lower of the total student population.

Reflecting the “corporate” model of a governing board reflective of chartered colleges in England (like Oxford), and the governing boards in America’s colonial colleges established originally by Royal Charter, California’s Board of Regents would have substantial powers to manage the university. What was relatively new, and again reflecting Michigan and other new publics, was the concept of having a lay board with members from a broad swath of California society and key elected officials, including the governor. There were to be twenty-two regents, including:

  • Five ex officio members – the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the Assembly, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction (also an elected position), the President of the State Agricultural Society, and President of the Mechanic’s Institute of the City and County of San Francisco.
  • Sixteen Appointed: “to be nominated by the Governor, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, who shall hold their office for the term of sixteen years.” In the first year of the university’s official operation, appointments included special Regents who served for less than the full sixteen years to stagger the appointment process and allow successive governors to appoint regents, and help avoid any one political party or interest group from dominating the board.

Conceptually, the Board of Regents was to set policy. To manage the university, the Regents needed to appoint a President who served at the pleasure of the board. The Organic Act also established UC’s Academic Senate consisting of, “all the Faculties and instructors,” presided by the President, with regular meetings, and for the purpose of conducting the general administration of the University and “memorializing the Board of Regents [providing formal written advice]; regulating, in the first instance, the general and special courses of instruction, and to receive and determine all appeals couched in respectful terms from acts of discipline enforced by the Faculty of any college.”

The establishment of an Academic Senate in the legislation creating a public university was extremely unusual. It reflected a founding concept of the emerging model of the American university: the central role of faculty in guiding a public university’s academic programs and management, particularly in an era of no significant support staff.

The Organic Act passed the legislature on March 5, 1868. Seventeen days later, on March 23, Governor Henry H. Haight signed the act. In autumn 1869, and after officially absorbing the faculty and buildings of what had been the College of California, the new University of California began operation in Oakland.

The Regents first met in 1869, and the new campus near Strawberry Creek in the Berkeley Hills opened in 1872 with two new buildings – North (still standing) and South Hall (pictured in the photo above). A year before, Governor Haight proclaimed, “with patient zeal [the University of California] will soon become a great light-house of education and learning on this Coast, and a pride and glory of California, long after those who have assisted in its birth and watched over its infancy have passed away and been forgotten.”

A Slow Emergence

The first three decades of the university’s existence would be fraught with uncertainty, including political battles over its mission and role in a young state with a growing population. The State Grange, a political body representing farmers, vehemently argued that the new university in Berkeley was not doing enough to support agricultural interest California. Here were the seeds of an often-bitter debate regarding the proper curricular balance between practical education and classical studies. There was also public concern over the Regents’ management of the federal land grants.

By 1920, however, UC emerged as the nation’s first multi-campus university with the acquisition of a state teacher college in Los Angeles–what became UCLA. University research experiment stations supported by the federal Hatch Act of 1887 created the foundation for major agricultural sectors, including grapes for wine making and citrus. And beginning in the 1890s the university developed Cooperative Extension courses and programs that soon reached to every corner of the state.

In 1910, Edward E. Slosson authored the book, The Great American Universities. Regarding the University of California, Slosson claimed, “I know of no other university which cultivates both the mechanics and metaphysics with such equal success or which looks so far into space, and, at the same time, comes so close to the lives of the people, or which excavates the tombs of the Pharaohs and Incas while it is inventing new plans for the agriculture of the future.”

California’s land-grant university was an integral part of what I call the “rise of the publics,” at first reflecting the great experiments in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and elsewhere, but eventually emerging as a distinct, multi-campus university. In a state constantly growing, in its population, in its economic activity, perhaps more than any other single institution, the University of California both pushed and was pulled by California’s arrival as the sixth largest economy in the world.


This blog is adopted from the article, “The Rise of the Publics: American Democracy, the Public University Ideal, and the University of California,” CSHE Research Paper: 1.18. For more on the history of California’s public higher education system, see my book The California Idea and American Higher Education (Stanford University Press).