The University of Utah, Utah’s First University

Jami Balls

On February 28, 1850, the General Assembly of the provisional state of Deseret declared their intention to establish a university and appointed members to a Board of Regents to select a site. They chose an area of about 560 acres on the east bench of the city. With a growing demand for children’s education, the newly settled Mormons felt that a university was needed to train elementary school teachers. Due to lack of funds they were unable to construct buildings, but they commenced classes anyway. On November 11, 1850, the University of Deseret opened in the home of local resident, Mrs. John Pack. The classes were available to men only, but by the second term both genders were welcomed. Tuition started at eight dollars a quarter, however by the end of the third term the school to be closed due to lack of funding.

With the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit just northwest of Salt Lake City, Utah’s relative isolation ended. Increased non-Mormon immigration boosted the economy and renewed intellectual energy. By 1869 the University of Deseret was completely reestablished, housed in several areas throughout Salt Lake City until the turn of the century. In 1892, the Legislative Assembly changed the name of the institution to the University of Utah. Then, in 1894 Congress granted sixty acres of Fort Douglas land to the school, giving the school a permanent location. Classes opened officially at this new site on October 1, 1900 with an enrollment of 400 students.

Throughout the 20th Century, the university gradually attained land from Fort Douglas, growing into the institution of higher education that it is today. Professional schools were added, including a two-year, basic science medical school, opening in 1905 as the only college of medicine between the West Coast and Denver. In the 1920s, classrooms and an athletic stadium were constructed, and in 1922 the school became affiliated with the Association of American Universities. At this time, each of the 2,805 undergraduate students paid $13 per quarter in tuition, while top professors brought home $3,850 per year. The 1930s saw the field house and a central library constructed due in part to the efforts of the Public Works Administration fund. This was followed by another period of building and growth after World War II when the university actively sought the surplus materials of post-war Fort Douglas.

Today, education is Utah’s second greatest industry, surpassed only by tourism. Only the state itself employees more people in Utah than the University of Utah. In 1993, the university completed its transfer of land and facilities from Fort Douglas and is constantly growing, expandingthe opportunities and education of its students, faculty, and the citizens of Utah.

Sources: Linda Sillitoe, The History of Salt Lake County; Gregory Thompson, “University of Utah” Utah History Encyclopedia; Elinore H. Partridge “A. Ray Olpin and the Postwar Emergency at the University of Utah” Utah Historical Quarterly XLVIII; Yvette D. Ison, History Blazer January 1995

Further Reading: John Nillson, “Public Philosophy and the Idea of the University: The Unviersity of Utah’s Great Issues Forum, 1952-1974,” Utah Historical Quarterly 87 n. 3, 2019.