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History of LSU

The Early Days: 1853-1869

Louisiana State University began as a small all-male military school near Pineville, Louisiana.  Originally called the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy (or variations thereof), classes began on January 2, 1860.  The first superintendent, William Tecumseh Sherman, and five faculty members, taught the first students. The Seminary offered classes in engineering, chemistry, Latin, Greek, English, and mathematics.  Cadets, as the students were called, submitted to military-style discipline and were required to stand inspections, drill, stand guard, and attend classes.  They were awakened by a bugler sounding reveille and went to bed at taps.

The school’s administrative structure consisted of a Board of Supervisors appointed by the governor, who was (and still is) also an ex officio member; the superintendent; the faculty; surgeon; and secretary.  The most prominent member of the Board of Supervisors at this time was Gen. George Mason Graham, a planter who owned Tyrone Plantation in Rapides Parish, and was brigadier general in the state militia.  He was called the “father of LSU’ because of his strong commitment to the school and for his long service on the board.  He was responsible for most of the major decisions regarding the Seminary including supervising construction of the building, creating its first curriculum, and insisting upon a military character.

William Tecumseh Sherman was chosen as the Seminary’s first superintendent (equivalent to today’s president) in 1859.  An 1840 graduate of West Point, he served in the army until 1853 and subsequently became a lawyer and banker before applying for the superintendent’s position.  When he arrived at the Seminary, Sherman had a building but little else.  He had to secure books, uniforms, furniture, and other materials so that classes could begin.  The senior professor was Anthony Vallas, a Hungarian émigré who taught mathematics and natural philosophy.  Francis W. Smith became professor of chemistry and commandant of cadets.  He was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia.  David F. Boyd was hired as professor of ancient languages and English and was also a graduate of the University of Virginia.  E. Berté St. Ange, professor of modern languages, had been an officer in the French Marines and had a reputation as a duelist.  John W. Sevier, at one time a filibuster in Central America with William Walker, became surgeon and assistant professor of ancient languages, but stayed only a short time and was replaced by Powhattan Clarke.  Sherman remarked that “…on the whole, the professors are above mediocrity.”

The Seminary grounds, located near Pineville in Rapides Parish, was purchased in 1853 from Mrs. E.R. Williams for $3,190 and comprised 438 acres.  An additional eighty acres were purchased in 1855.  This location was chosen because of its centrality, access to water transportation on the Red River, and the area’s perceived healthfulness.  The fact that George Mason Graham lived in Rapides Parish also played a role.  There were a few buildings on the property, but they were deemed unsuitable for use as a school, and $15,000 was allocated for construction of a new building which began in 1856.  The building itself, one of the largest public buildings in the state upon completion, was an imposing three-story 72-room U-shaped structure with a central quadrangle.  The building combined classrooms, dining hall, library, and quarters for the students as well as faculty until homes could be built for them.

In 1861, Louisiana joined other Southern states in seceding from the Union and Sherman resigned to join the United States Army.  He would remain a friend and benefactor of the school for the rest of his life.  When the Civil War began, most of the students and faculty members left the Seminary to fight for the Confederacy causing the school to close. After a few attempts to reopen, the Seminary closed for the duration of the war in April of 1863.

the Seminary reopened in September of 1865 with David F. Boyd, one of the original faculty members, as superintendent. Although the building survived the war intact, most of the equipment and books were destroyed or missing.  During the immediate postwar period and throughout Reconstruction, the Seminary had great difficulties that were due primarily to a lack of funding.  From 1865 to 1869, the legislature made appropriations to the Seminary, but inflation and the increasing number of beneficiary cadets (chosen from each parish whose fees were to be paid by local police juries, but often were not) used much of the funding intended for school operations.  Boyd and members of the Board of Supervisors had to appear before a reluctant legislature each year to appeal for funding.  Faculty were affected by the Seminary’s financial uncertainty and many resigned.  The unsettled nature of the Seminary also caused a decrease in enrollment, especially after 1867.  The news was not all bad in that the library was built up from duplicates held by the state library and legislation provided for a scientific survey of the state to be undertaken by Samuel Lockett, professor of engineering and Dr. F.V. Hopkins, professor of geology.  The survey was completed in 1872 and Lockett published the resulting report as Louisiana as it is the following year.  This would be the first major scientific work completed by university faculty.

In June of 1869, the Seminary held a commencement ceremony for its first graduating class. This would be the first and only commencement held at the Seminary.  On October 15, 1869, fire destroyed the seminary building.  All of the library books and some of the scientific apparatus and textbooks were saved, but about $20,000 in supplies were destroyed.  On November 1, the cadets moved to the State Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind in Baton Rouge. 


The Move to Baton Rouge and Surviving Reconstruction: 1869-1886

The move to Baton Rouge was supposed to be temporary, but the school remained at the Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind for eighteen years.  The Seminary occupied half of the large building while inmates of the institute used the remainder.  Throughout Reconstruction in the 1870s and into the 1880s, LSU continued to struggle financially and was nearly forced to close in 1875.  Financial instability also caused a revolving door of faculty; teachers would be hired, but when they were not paid, or paid late, they would resign.  LSU had to compete for funding with the Louisiana Agricultural and Mechanical College (in existence from 1874 to 1877) and in theory was racially integrated (but no African American students were actually admitted); and the University of Louisiana (Tulane University after 1884), both based in New Orleans. The Agricultural and Mechanical College was also allowed to use proceeds from the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.  In 1877, after much political wrangling, LSU and the Agricultural and Mechanical College merged to form Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College based in Baton Rouge, the name it would keep until 1965.  After the merger, LSU’s financial woes continued, due in no small part to the constitutional convention of 1879.  Louisiana’s new constitution reduced the university’s income and it still had to compete with the University of Louisiana for the small education appropriation from the legislature.  The legislature restored some funding in 1880, but it was not enough to adequately maintain the university.  There was talk of consolidating the two schools with the law and medical departments remaining at the University of Louisiana and LSU retaining the academic department, but nothing came of it.

By 1878, the inmates of the Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind had been moved to other locations leaving the entire building available for LSU.  This move provided the university with additional space for laboratories and classrooms.  Student enrollment steadily rose during this period but remained below 200 students.  Student performance suffered during the 1878-1886 period because of continued financial instability, conflict among faculty members and members of the Board of Supervisors, and a revolving door of university presidents who in turn had conflicts with the Board and the legislature.  David Boyd was ousted in 1880 and replaced by William P. Johnston from 1881 to 1883.  Johnston was replaced by James Nicholson in 1883-1884. David Boyd was called back to serve from 1884 to 1886 and Thomas Boyd (David’s younger brother and a faculty member) replaced him in 1886-1887.  Nicholson served again from 1887 to 1896 and Thomas Boyd returned to the presidency from 1896 to 1927.  Development of more scientific work began in the 1880-1887 period with the advent of an agriculture course and improvements to the mechanics, civil engineering, and commercial courses.  For agriculture, the State Experiment Station in Baton Rouge was established in 1886 and was devoted to experiments with crops grown in the state.  Two other experiment stations, at Calhoun in north Louisiana and near New Orleans (the Sugar Experiment Station), were also established.  Beginning in 1909, experiment station staff disseminated (and continue to do so through the Agricultural Extension Service) important information to the agricultural interests throughout the state.


The Downtown Campus and World War I: 1886-1918

Although LSU was the sole occupant of the Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind, it did not own the building.  Since the Seminary was destroyed by fire in 1869, several groups from central Louisiana had wanted the school to return to Rapides Parish, but there was never enough support in the legislature to construct new buildings or rebuild the old one.  In 1886, LSU received permission to use the former military post in Baton Rouge where the new state capitol is situated today. The university had been interested in the post for a number of years but was unable to secure permission to use it.  The post had been unoccupied except for a caretaker since the end of Reconstruction and the buildings had begun to deteriorate, but after LSU had gained permission to use them, they were cleaned and repaired.  By 1900, a major building program began with the construction of an auditorium, a new library, engineering shops and classrooms, and more dormitory space. In 1902, the federal government gave LSU title to the former military post and by 1915, the 200-acre site had reached the point where there was no more room left to expand.

In the 1890s, student life began to change.  Debating and literary societies had existed, and beginning in 1893, LSU began to field teams in football, baseball, tennis, and track and field, and cadets were allowed more time for recreation. The military system of discipline was still in force as it had been since 1860, but with a regular army office detailed to the University as commandant. Cadets had complete uniforms and were issued rifles, and an artillery battery was formed.  There was a demerit scale for such infractions of the rules as gambling, fighting, drinking, and absence without leave, and a cadet could be expelled if he received enough demerits.  “Town students,” those who did not live in the barracks on campus, were subject to similar discipline, but were required to wear their uniforms only when actually on campus.

As far as academics were concerned, LSU offered courses primarily to provide industrial and technical training and this was the case into the early 20th century.  In 1887, there were only two courses: the Agricultural Course and the Mechanical and Engineering Course.  In 1892, a Latin-Science Course was added and a General Science Course was added in 1894.  There was also a Literary Course, but it was not as well equipped or staffed as the science and technical courses.  Student population grew from around 200 in the early 1890s to over 400 by 1902 including 21 foreign students.

With an increased enrollment came in increase in the number and types of classes offered.  In 1906, the law school was established, women were admitted for the first time, and by 1908, the college system was established that formed the basis of the school and college system used today.  The new colleges were the College of Arts and Sciences (now the College of Humanities and Social Sciences), College of Agriculture, College of Engineering, Audubon Sugar School (now part of the LSU AgCenter), Teacher’s College (now the College of Education and Human Sciences), the Law School (Paul M. Hebert Law Center), the Graduate Department (now the Graduate School), the School of Agriculture (a three-year course for those unable to pursue a full four-year course in the College of Agriculture), and the School of Commerce (part of the College of Arts and Sciences; now the E.J. Ourso College of Business).

Upon America’s entry into World War I, LSU students and faculty signed up to fight and many faculty members were employed by the federal government as experts in such fields as agriculture, food distribution, and information dissemination.  President Thomas Boyd headed a program to train and employ a corps of shipbuilders.  William Dalrymple, professor of veterinary medicine, organized a knitting club for the female students to make socks, caps, and gloves for soldiers at the front.  The war ended before many of the programs, such as the corps of shipbuilders, could get off the ground.  The Memorial Oak Grove near the LSU Union was planted in 1926 to commemorate the students who lost their lives in the war.  The Memorial Tower, completed in 1925, honors all Louisianans killed in the war.


The Greater University: 1918-1940

By 1918, LSU was experiencing growing pains and President Thomas Boyd began looking for land to build a new and larger campus. For several years, Boyd had his eye on Gartness Plantation south of Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River, thinking that the land would provide enough space for the university’s physical growth and further its agricultural mission. Several faculty members and prominent Baton Rouge citizens purchased an option to buy Gartness until the state could come up with funding to purchase it. This property, along with portions of Arlington and Nestledown plantations, make up LSU’s present campus in Baton Rouge. With support from Governor John M. Parker and utilizing a newly-enacted severance tax, construction began on March 29, 1922.  The first building completed was the dairy barn followed by other agricultural buildings, and by the fall of 1925, many classes were held on the new campus that was formally dedicated on April 30, 1926.

The physical layout of the campus was designed by the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm in 1920-1921, but since the Olmsteds were not building architects, Theodore Link was hired in 1921 to design the buildings.  Link also made a few changes to the Olmsted layout.  The original campus buildings around the quadrangle and including the Memorial Tower and Power House were designed in a northern Italian renaissance style featuring archways, pantile roofs, and stucco walls.  This style of architecture was continued on other buildings, such as Himes and Allen halls, constructed throughout the 1930s.

After Huey Long was elected governor in 1928, funding for LSU became a priority and the university entered what may be called a golden age.  Long wanted LSU to be the best university in the nation and during the 1930s, and despite the Great Depression, the number of buildings increased and the number of courses grew and improved. LSU’s president from 1931 to 1939, James Monroe Smith, played a large role in this expansion.  Smith supported new courses in the arts and literature, and LSU Press and The Southern Review began in 1935.  Foreign languages also received greater attention with the completion of the French House in 1935, which provided an immersion program for French language, literature, and culture.  The LSU Cadet Band and football team received special attention from Long and were used as public relations tools for the university and the state.

Much of LSU’s growth in the 1930s was funded by the Works Progress Administration and other New Deal programs instituted by the Roosevelt administration.  As the decade came to an end, allegations of misuse of these funds began to surface.  Various state and federal agencies investigated the university’s administration and entities with which it had done business. The investigators found that corruption and graft existed at the highest levels, and James Monroe Smith and Governor Richard Leche, among others, received prison sentences in connection with the so-called “University Scandals.”  One of the reforms brought about by the scandals was an overhaul of LSU’s accounting system that forms the basis of the one used today.


World War II and Postwar Growth: 1941-1964

During World War II, LSU became a major center for the Army Specialized Training Program and was one of the Army’s top providers of officers.  Student population decreased from a high of 7,500 in 1941 to around 3,400 by 1944 because so many student-age men were off at war.  In 1944, women students outnumbered men for the first time and they began to take more technical courses.  Women also joined the Cadet Band for the first time during the war.  By 1947, GIs (many of whom were married with families, a rarity before the war) returning from the war increased the student population to just over 10,000 and another major building program took place to house and provide classrooms for the new students and their families.

Throughout the 1950s, LSU would continue to grow and began to evolve from a teaching university mainly concerned with agricultural research to an institution where teaching and research went hand in hand. The first major research grant awarded to LSU came from the National Science Foundation.  New programs such as nuclear science and computer science also began in 1950s, and Boyd Professorships recognizing faculty excellence began in 1953.  The building boom that began after World War II continued with the expansion of Tiger Stadium to include more seats and dormitory rooms (1953) and completion of much-needed new main library (now known as Middleton Library after LSU President Troy Middleton) in 1958.  A commuter campus in New Orleans (originally LSU-NO, now UNO and part of the University of Louisiana System) also opened in 1958.

LSU’s demographics began to gradually change after World War II.  In 1946, for the first time, African Americans began to attempt to register at LSU.  Many were veterans of World War II eager to use the educational benefits provided by the GI Bill.  State law required that African Americans attend historically black colleges such as Southern and Grambling or go to college out of state.  Beginning in 1950, federal court decisions stated that if a comparable graduate program was not available at a historically black college, LSU and other historically white colleges in Louisiana had to allow African Americans to enroll.  From 1950 until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, potential African American students had to file suit in federal court to show why they should be admitted.  This ruling was expanded to allow undergraduates to enroll under similar conditions in 1953, but A.P. Tureaud, Jr. was the only African American undergraduate to enter LSU until the passage of the Civil Rights Act.


Boom and Bust: The 1960s to the 1990s

The 1960s and 1970s saw many changes in student life on campus.  A new spacious student union was completed in 1964 that provided meeting and gallery space, a theater, and dining facilities.  The union replaced cramped facilities in the Huey Long Fieldhouse and the Gym-Armory (now the Cox Academic Center for Athletes).  The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forced LSU to allow African American students to enroll.  Even though LSU was (and still is) a relatively conservative campus, students began to question established rules and ideas held by the administration, and wanted to have more say in their own lives.  Students began to protest the Vietnam War, the dress code, and mandatory ROTC.  By 1972, the age of majority had been lowered from 21 to 18 and the concept of in loco parentis (in the place of the parent) ended rendering moot many university rules governing conduct and living arrangements.  Students also advocated for a Black Studies program and hiring more African American faculty and administrators.  By the mid-1970s, women students were allowed to enter ROTC and women’s intercollegiate sports began to be recognized as more than an intramural activity.

During the 1960s and 1970s, fueled by tax revenue from the booming oil and petrochemical industries, research flourished in medicine, engineering, nuclear science, computers, fisheries, and agriculture. New buildings such as the Life Sciences Building, Choppin Hall, Williams Hall, and the Center for Engineering and Business Administration (CEBA; now Patrick Taylor Hall) were constructed to support additional teaching and research.  Branch campuses opened in New Orleans (1958), Alexandria (1960), Eunice and Shreveport (1967).  The LSU Agricultural Center and the law school (now the Paul M. Hebert Law Center) broke away to form separate campuses in 1972 and 1977 respectively.

The ebb and flow of LSU’s funding continued in the 1980s and into the mid-1990s.  LSU continued to suffer from sharply declining revenue due to reduced values for oil and gas and was, along with other Louisiana colleges and universities, embroiled in a lengthy federal lawsuit alleging that the state operated a dual system of higher education in violation of the Civil Rights Act. The lawsuit called into question every program offered by all universities and required court approval for any new funding or academic programs.  Both of these events caused uncertainty among the students and faculty as academic programs were cut, fees and tuition increased, and salaries for faculty and staff remained stagnant.


The Flagship University: The 1990s and Beyond

By the late 1990s, LSU had begun to recover from the setbacks that began in the 1980s and became a land, sea, and space-grant university with a diverse student body that numbers around 30,000.  Yearly budget cuts beginning in 2008 brought about changes in the administrative structure and as in the 1980s, some low-enrollment courses were eliminated.  LSU has also become responsible for managing Louisiana’s indigent healthcare system.  The agricultural center and law center also reintegrated into the Baton Rouge campus.  Despite these recent impediments and increased responsibilities, LSU has embarked on an ambitious program to increase the amount of research grants and contracts, improve student retention and graduation rates, and improve its academic reputation.

LSU has persevered through war and peace and through good economic times and bad.  Many of the trials through which the university has passed have threatened its existence, but LSU has continued to educate, and through research to further the world’s knowledge.


Additional Reading

Cowan, Barry. Louisiana State University.  Arcadia Publishing, 2013.

Desmond, J. Michael.  The Architecture of LSU: Historic Preservation Study & Recommendations for the Core Campus Area.  Louisiana State University, 2010.

Desmond, J. Michael.  The Architecture of LSU.  LSU Press, 2013.

Fleming, Walter L. Louisiana State University, 1860-1896.  LSU Press, 1936.

Louisiana State University.  General Catalog.  1860- present.

Louisiana State University Board of Supervisors.  Report of the Board of Supervisors of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College, to the General Assembly of the State of Louisiana. 1882-1932.

Ruffin, Thomas R.  Under Stately Oaks: A Pictorial History of LSU.  LSU Press, 2002.


Record Groups
LSU Board of Supervisors Records, RG #A0003, Louisiana State University Archives, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA.

LSU Photograph Collection, RG #A5000, Louisiana State University Archives, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA.

LSU System Office of Academic Affairs Consent Decree Records, RG #A0004, Louisiana State University Archives, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA.

Office of Academic Affairs Records, RG #A0100, Louisiana State University Archives, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA.

Office of the Chancellor Records, RG #A0001, Louisiana State University Archives, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA.


For reference questions concerning University Archives, use our Ask Special Collections service.

The LSU Libraries includes the LSU Library and the adjacent Hill Memorial Library. Together, the libraries contain more than 4 million volumes and provide additional resources such as expert staff, technology, services, electronic resources, and facilities that advance research, teaching, and learning across every discipline.
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