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The Generational U
By Tim Pugmire, February 2001
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The founding of the University of Minnesota took place seven years before the territory of Minnesota became a state.

Through its evolution from a preparatory school to a leading land grant, doctoral and research institution, the university has been an enduring fixture throughout Minnesota's history. It's also been a constant influence for many Minnesota families who've seen several generations enrolled as students.

Three generations at the U of M. From left to right: Junior Amanda Mackenthun, Dorothy (Hanson) Swanson, '43, and Jan (Swanson) Mackenthun, '74 and '78.

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University of Minnesota historian Ann Pflaum digs through files that tell the institution's early story. The university started in 1851 as a preparatory school of 20 students. The first permanent building went up in 1858. Not long after, the university closed temporarily during the Civil War.

The federal Morrill Act of 1862, which created the nation's land grant colleges, established the university's mission and a mandate to serve average folks.

"The mission of the universities so funded was particularly to be agriculture, engineering, which they called the mechanic arts, and military science. And it was to have a focus on the working and industrious classes and it was to have an applied focus," says Pflaum.

William Watts Folwell became the university's first president, in 1869. From 1884 to 1911, the second and longest-serving president, Cyrus Northrup, opened the School of Agriculture, founded the Law School and formalized the medical and graduate schools.

Enrollment grew from 289 to 4,800 students. The Northwest School of Agriculture opened in Crookston in 1905.

The years between World War I and World War II were the university's "Golden Years." Memorial Stadium, Northrup Auditorium and Coffman Union were built. University researchers were gaining fame in several fields, and the football team - led by Bernie Bierman - was a national power.

Enrollment grew to nearly 16,000 by 1941.

1851: Charter signed creating the University of Minnesota.

1862: Morrill Act creates land grant universities: establishes principles of applied research and access to working class.

1939: Dorothy (Hanson) Swanson enrolls.

1941: U.S. enters WWII: campus enrollment drops from 16,000 to 8,000.

1943: Dorothy (Hanson) Swanson graduates.

1946: After WWII enrollment explodes to 26,000.

1970: Jan (Swanson) Mackenthun enrolls.

1974: Jan (Swanson) Mackenthun graduates.

1998:Amanda Mackenthun enrolls.

"Someone going to college at that time was almost unheard of. I didn't know anyone else in our whole community that attended college," says Dorothy Swanson, who grew up in the 1930s on a farm in Traverse County and attended the Agricultural Boarding High School in Morris.

The nation was struggling through the Great Depression, and Swanson says she never expected to attend college. At her father's urging she traveled to the Twin Cities in 1939 and enrolled in the university's School of Agriculture in Saint Paul. The golden era was brought to an abrupt halt during Swanson's junior year.

"It's very vivid to me the day Pearl Harbor was bombed," says Swanson. "I was studying for finals and I can remember we all gathered at Northrup Auditorium to hear that declaration. But that quarter, the whole atmosphere was very different and it was very difficult going to classes and completing your school work."

Enrollment soon dropped from almost 16,000 to fewer than 8,000. The remaining students were mostly women. Dorothy Swanson graduated in 1943.

Patriotism ran high throughout the country and higher education retooled for the war effort. The University of Minnesota trained over 1,000 cadet nurses and Physiology professor Ancel Keys conducted important military research that led to the K-Ration.

The end of the war brought even more dramatic changes, as returning servicemen flooded the university.

"The G.I. Bill really made American higher education feasible for all kinds of people who might never before have attended a college or university. These students were very often the first generation of their family to attend higher education," says Ann Pflaum, the university historian.

Enrollment exploded to more than 26,000 in 1946. Temporary classrooms and living quarters sprung up around the Twin Cities campuses to accommodate the surge. Students packed lecture halls to hear the likes of economist Walter Heller and writers Saul Bellow and Robert Penn Warren. The university added its Duluth campus in 1947.

U of M doctors performed the world's first open-heart surgery in 1954. The Morris campus opened in 1960.

Dorothy Swanson and her husband raised four children a block away from the Saint Paul campus. Daughter Jan Mackenthun began classes at the University of Minnesota in 1970.

The Vietnam War and concerns about civil rights and equal rights inspired students throughout the nation to new heights of political activism.
The Vietnam War and concerns about civil rights and equal rights inspired students throughout the nation to new heights of political activism. Students questioned authority at all levels, gender roles changed and anti-war sentiments spilled over on the Minneapolis campus.

Mackenthun, who graduated in 1974, says she wasn't a war protester, but she vividly remembers the turmoil.

"University Avenue in front of the armory while the gates were being torn down; I was locked out of a child psychology class in the Bell Museum, and the protest was going on, and the officers were running down University Avenue," Mackenthun recalls.

The 1980s and '90s were decades of more change and controversy at the U of M. President Ken Keller pushed a plan to streamline and reorganize the university. A controversial and costly remodeling of the president's residence eventually led to his resignation. A scandal over the transplant drug ALG also embarrassed the institution.

The G.I. Bill really made American higher education feasible for all kinds of people who might never before have attended a college or university.

University President Nils Hasselmo closed the Waseca campus in 1992. Crookston became a four-year poly-technical college the following year.

Today, system-wide enrollment is about 59,000 and construction and renovation projects are underway on every campus. President Mark Yudof, who arrived in 1997, has directed new resources to emerging research fields such as cellular and molecular biology. He's cleaned up a major academic-fraud scandal in the men's basketball program and now faces a funding crisis in the Academic Health Center.

Yudof says his vision is to place Minnesota among the nation's top five public research universities and continue its role as a preferred choice for undergraduates.

"I think the fundamental foundation function that we serve is undergraduate education. That is our covenant," Yudof says. "That's what the university was about 150 years ago."

That compact is alive for Jan Mackenthun's daughter, Amanda, a junior at the U of M, majoring in accounting and international business. Mackenthun, who's on track to graduate in 2002, says she's often amazed at the stories her grandmother and mother tell about attending college in troubled times. She says campus life is much different today in an age of relative peace and prosperity.

"I think there's less of a pressure to get done in four years, and I'm not sure that was a pressure back in my mom's or my grandma's time. But now I think it's much more laid back. People aren't trying to get done right away; they're enjoying more of the college life," she says.

Whatever changes lie ahead for the university, Mackenthun says someday she hopes to have a daughter who will carry on the family tradition at the U of M for a fourth generation.

Tim Pugmire covers education for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at