History of MSU and Higher Education

Steeped in over 120 years of rich history, MSU has transformed dramatically through the years to create the leading research university that exists today. Originally founded in 1893 as the Agricultural College of the State of Montana, the college has evolved into a research intensive institution and was officially renamed Montana State University on July 1, 1965. This summer will mark the 50th anniversary of the school’s name being changed to MSU.


Land grant university

Founded on the Land Grant College Act of 1862, the Agricultural College of the State of Montana was renamed the Montana College of Agricultural and Mechanic Arts and by the 1920s the name was officially changed to Montana State College.

Any college founded under the land grant act, also known as the Morrill Act, held the mission of teaching agriculture, military tactics and engineering, as well as classical studies. The purpose of this dynamic was to give students a well-rounded, practical education. Montana State University still holds firmly to this land grant mission.

For the first three months the school was open, classes were held in empty rooms in the high school building and two people taught all of the classes. Three months later classes moved to an empty skating rink. By the end of the first year, land south of Bozeman, where MSU now stands, was made available for building the college. Students had strong ties to agriculture, and the field thrived among the student population.

Fast forward to today, Tricia Seifert, the assistant professor of adult and higher education, points out the importance of Montana State College’s connection to the land grant mission. “We come out of this sort of history tradition that sets MSU and other land grant institutions apart from other post-secondary institutions not only across the United States but across the world,” Seifert said.


School rivalry

The current football rivalry between Montana State University and the University of Montana stems back to serious political arguments between the two institutions. The University of Montana was founded the same year as MSU in 1893. Although until 1965, the University of Montana was called the State University of Montana and as the only university in the state, many questioned whether both institutions were necessary to serve Montanans.

The 1910s marked a peak in the tension between the two institutions in deciding whether the curriculum between the schools should complement one another, as it does now, or if each should teach all subjects. Complementing one another means teaching different subjects; for example, MSU has a college of agriculture while the University of Montana has a college of forestry.

Throughout the early years, there was talk of closing Montana State College because the State University of Montana believed it did an adequate job of educating Montana students and that Montana State College was taking students from school in Missoula. In response to the possibility of closing Montana State College, then President James Hamilton put emphasis on “education for efficiency,” in an attempt to ensure that Montana State College would continue as an institution.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Montana State College felt the financial strain of the Great Depression. Despite this, departments such as engineering and agriculture continued to grow. During this time, the Student Union (now Strand Union) building was finished to give students a place to congregate.

Dr. Robert Rydell, professor of history and philosophy, has compiled information on the history of MSU and also co-authored “In The People’s Interest” a book about the history of MSU. Rydell points out that while Montana State College was working to stay around and figure out how to teach in the presence of the State University of Montana there was less research happening than today, but the teaching was still there. “[The teachers] taught more, they taught very well, and they inspired a lot of students,” Rydell said.


A transforming agenda

In the 1940s Montana State College saw a decrease in the male student population because many able-bodied men were fighting in World War II. Women began filling the gaps left by men, studying what were typically “male” degrees such as engineering and agriculture.

The need for more nurses due to the war also pushed expansion of Montana State College’s nursing program, which still thrives today. Still in a highly agricultural community and state, in 1942 all male students were allowed to end their semesters early to travel to Eastern Montana and help harvest sugar beets. There was statewide panic that if all of the sugar beets were not harvested in time, they would rot in the ground. From 1945 to 1946 enrollment drastically increased as veterans returned home from the war.

In 1957 Russia launched Sputnik and sent a message to America that they were ahead in research. This led to push for increased research and the federal government started putting additional money into universities to encourage this research. This money came to Montana State College and the college began transforming into a more research-intensive institution focused on discovering and disseminating found knowledge, not simply teaching known material. Departments such as physics, math, chemistry and history began establishing graduate programs.


Changing the name

Those at Montana State College decided that the institution deserved recognition as an actual university. This again was met with opposition from the State University of Montana in Missoula. Due to this, reinventing Montana State College took a significant amount of hard work and political discussion. Changing the name of an institution calls for serious consideration as it completely changes its identity. Rydell credits the people who envisioned, and believed in a university in Bozeman for the eventual change. “There was a lot of consternations, a lot of handwringing and a lot of hard work,” Rydell said.

On July 1, 1965, Montana State College became Montana State University. At the same time, the State University of Montana in Missoula became the University of Montana. Changing the identities of the two universities was an incredibly important step in getting to where Montana State University is today. “That’s an important story that I don’t think a lot of people appreciate,” Rydell said.

The role of Montana State University as a research institution has grown continuously since 1965, but not without challenges. The choice to transform Montana State College into a research university carried with it controversy that continues today. Focusing on research leads to allocating professors more time to research and lighter teaching loads.

Seifert sees this dynamic as beneficial to the classroom. She also points out that as a renowned research institution, MSU has an unusually high undergraduate population. Many other research universities will have a higher graduate population because of the focus on research.

“What I think that does for MSU is it sends a signal and we engage our undergraduate students in research in ways that not all high research intensive institutions do because they first have those research opportunities for their graduate students because they have a huge graduate profile but we have a huge undergraduate profile and so it means that the faculty member in chemistry reaches out to some undergraduate students for research assistance,” Seifert said.

Rydell cites the vision people had for the university as something everyone should understand. “These folks managed to accomplish something breathtaking,” Rydell said. MSU continues to hold onto the land grant mission it began under as well as evolving to fit the needs of students, something that has been happening since its beginning.