Difficult start, bright future

By Yevgeniya Lomakina

It seems like only yesterday that the class of 2010 threw their caps in the air and abandoned the University of Massachusetts. The valley became deserted. After three months of viewing an empty campus, move-in time now brings life, noise and traffic into the area.

The Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority buses zoom at frequent intervals, students run from class to class, an array of social events are planned that leave no one behind or uninvolved – everything gives the impression that Amherst has always been that way. The university came a long way since its humble beginnings, yet only a small number of people are familiar with its history.

The college website provides some dates and numbers, but searching in the university archives reveals a deeper picture of the thorny beginnings of this institution.

Difficulties started with the mere idea of its establishment. Faced with the changes in American society during the late 1830s, Massachusetts legislators sought to abandon the conventional standards of classical studies and reform the educational system by building a new college. It would instruct the practical sciences: agriculture, chemistry, mechanics, botany, geology and mineralogy. The ideal students were assumed to be farmers. The latter opposed the idea, unwilling to send their children to college, viewing education as an activity for those with leisure time. Nevertheless, the search for funding and support for the new institution continued.           

After an extensive search and heated debate the Massachusetts Agricultural College was finally established in 1863. In order to include the natural sciences into its curriculum, the college was positioned in an ideal location: the valley near the Connecticut River. The area consisted of vast fields for the practice of farming as well as forests. Amherst College, an already reputable institution, existed nearby.  

The newfound school occupied only four buildings. South College, a four-story brick building, contained a dormitory and some classrooms. In the place of modern Machmer Hall stood College Hall, a wooden structure doubling as a chemistry laboratory and an auditorium. To the north stood a dining hall and to the east – a botanic museum.

Student accommodations were few, but spacious; for $15 a year, they could share two bedrooms and a common room, with no furniture except for a stove. The board, a source for controversy and complaints, cost $3.50 per week per person.

The curriculum covered a variety of subjects, including mathematics, civil engineering, zoology, English grammar as well as French and German. Textbooks were few and in complement of studying, students were required to have six hours of field labor per week.           

The MAC opened its doors on Oct. 2 of 1867 to an entering class of 56 exclusively male students. Upon arrival, they were greeted by four faculty members (including the president), rundown farm buildings, piles of bricks and unfinished college halls. The campus consisted of orchards filled with broken apple trees, rail fences and fields with weeds.           

The practical student day started with the morning bell at 6:30 a.m., continued with three lectures and an afternoon of labor in the fields. Removal of weeds, digging, harvesting crops and carrying building materials often conflicted with the more “academic” parts of the curriculum. Saturday afternoons were used for recreation and Sundays – for church and Bible class. Students could also enjoy various other activities and sports, played against Amherst High School or Amherst.           

Yet their education was not fully rural and students were actively engaged in academic endeavors, to the extent that after the first class graduated, MAC was accused of being more academic than agricultural. By 1876, the college’s efforts were finally recognized; one of the faculty members was invited to Japan to help establish a similar institution.           

It was not until 1892, however, that the first female student enrolled. Inauguration of women was slow and was completed only in 1917, when a woman’s college was introduced on campus.             

Over the beginning of the 20th century, the school grew and became Massachusetts State College. Faced with the changing student body, as the world was devastated with war and other conflicts, the institution learned to adapt. Although the college became a university in 1947, achieving that status required much effort. A restructured curriculum, new classrooms as well as additional dormitories, often named after distinguished faculty and presidents, were only a few of the changes. In 1954, there were 4,000 students, and by 1964, the enrollment increased to 10,500. In 1973, the W.E.B. Du Bois library was completed and later, the Lederle Graduate Tower.          

The University continues to expand and overcome new challenges. As another academic year approaches, UMass opens its doors to another “outstanding class,” whose grade point averages and SAT scores are even better than last year’s “best-ever” incoming class. With freshmen’s academic records on the rise, UMass is headed for new beginnings and commencing yet another part of its long history.

Yevgenia Lomakina is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected].