Hamline University's History

From Red Wing to Saint Paul

Hamline Historical Image with Students in front of Hamline building

Hamline History: The foundation of Minnesota’s first university

1854-1869: A Red Wing start

Before there was a state, there was a university. Named in honor of Leonidas Lent Hamline, a Methodist bishop who donated the funds for its opening, Hamline University was founded 1854 in what was then the Territory of Minnesota. The first classes were held on the second floor of the Red Wing village general store and stayed there through the second term, when students moved into the Red Wing building in January 1856. Seventy-three students enrolled in the opening year, and Hamline graduated its initial class in 1859, including two sisters, Elizabeth A. Sorin and Emily R. Sorin, who were not only Hamline’s first graduates but also the first graduates of any college or university in Minnesota.

Three courses of study were open to candidates for a degree:

  • The "Classical Program": Greek, Latin, English language and literature, and mathematics
  • The "Scientific Course": Included the studies of the classical program but substituted German for Greek and Latin
  • The "Lady Baccalaureate of Arts": A separate course for women, omitting Greek and abridging Latin and mathematics while introducing French and German and the fine arts

On July 6, 1869, the Red Wing location was closed. It is believed that the building was torn down in about 1872. The city of Red Wing turned the site into a park, and a plaque was dedicated on June 14, 1939, and placed on the Methodist Church, which stands across the street.

1880–1914: The move to Saint Paul

Building operations for the new University Hall began in 1873, but an economic depression overtook the planners and led to repeated postponements and delays. The doors finally opened on September 22, 1880, and Hamline’s history in Saint Paul began. The catalog for that year lists 113 students, with all but five of them preparatory students.

Tragedy shocked the campus on February 7, 1883, when the new building, barely two-and-a-half years old, burned to the ground. With frontier fortitude, the plans for a new University Hall were prepared. Eleven months later, the new structure—the present Old Main—was dedicated in the presence of a throng whose carriages were parked all over the campus. Take a virtual tour of Old Main.

On February 9, 1895, Hamline University hosted the first-ever intercollegiate basketball game only four years after the sport was created. Hamline’s basketball team played the University of Minnesota’s School of Agriculture in the basement of the Hall of Science, where the Blue Garden is located today. Learn about the first-ever intercollegiate basketball game.

Under the nine-foot tall ceiling, players ran through a makeshift basketball court, which had been used previously as a cafeteria. Unlike the nets of modern basketball, they threw the ball into hoops made out of peach baskets with no backboard. The nine-person teams even included goalies to guard the baskets.

Raymond Kaighn, the Hamline University athletics director at the time, organized the game. He coordinated basketball as an intramural sport at Hamline in 1894, leading to the first intercollegiate game and a women’s basketball team the following year. Among his many achievements, Kaighn also created the first track and field teams at Hamline.

1915–1929: World War I and the post-war years

When World War I came in April of 1917, Hamline students responded to the call to duty in a variety of ways, grasping the issues at stake and the role they would play in the war. Voluntary military drill for men continued, and by May of 1917, 75 women were meeting four times a week to learn the principles of first aid.

In the fall of 1918, a unit of the Students’ Army Training Corps was established at Hamline, and almost every male student became an enlisted member. The Science Hall was used for military purposes, with the basement transformed into a mess hall and the museum and several classrooms marked as squad rooms and sleeping quarters. The campus became an army post; the bugle replaced the class bell. This all came to an end with the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918.

1930–1945: The Great Depression and World War II

Lynn Beyer '32 and Carlyle Beyer '37 were awarded Hamline University's third and fourth Rhodes Scholarships during this time. Prizes and awards that recognized and rewarded creative achievement in art, essays, music, oratory, playwriting, poetry, and the natural and social sciences stimulated the creative life of the campus. From 1927 to 1932, Hamline organizations and faculty members participated in programs on WCCO radio and helped establish radio as a medium for artistic expression and the communication of ideas.

A new venture was launched in 1940 when Hamline University and Asbury Methodist Hospital of Minneapolis established the Hamline-Asbury School of Nursing, offering a five-year program (later changed to four years) leading to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Hamline was moving with a growing trend in the country to provide academic training for women preparing for careers in nursing.

1946–1966: Post-World War II

A flood of veterans entered or returned to college after World War II under the GI Bill of Rights®. The first wave reached the campus in the fall of 1946, when registrations passed 1,000 for the first time.

The School of Nursing was discontinued in 1962 following the decision to concentrate resources and staff on the liberal arts program. There were other curriculum and instruction methodology changes during this time, including special programs such as the Drew University Semester on the United Nations, the Critical Language Program of Princeton University, and a faculty and student exchange with Xavier University in New Orleans.

The Hamline Choir, under the direction of Robert Holliday '30, grew to become one of the great choirs of the country during the 1960s. It appeared with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Music Orchestra, performed at the National Cathedral in Washington and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, and was selected by the Office of Cultural Presentations of the US Department of State to tour Central and South America.

Basketball teams coached by Joe Hutton won the NAA national championships in 1949 and 1951, and they participated in games and tournaments from coast to coast during holiday breaks.

1966–1987: Times they are a-changin'

During the 1960s, Hamline felt the impact of deepening racial turmoil throughout the country. In response, the university began to address such matters as the racial diversity of its students and faculty, institutional racism, and the education of culturally disadvantaged students. In 1969, black students on campus founded PRIDE (Promoting Racial Identity, Dignity, and Equality), an organization now known as the Black Student Collective (Presence page). PRIDE focused on helping students of color deal with problems at a predominately white institution

Hamline's academic life also changed during the 1970s. After nearly 60 years of lobbying, the university was finally awarded a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1973. Hamline initiated a Jewish Studies program in 1974 and summer sessions in June 1977 (with an enrollment of 375). In 1980, the university added computer literacy as a prerequisite for graduation.

Coach Mary Jane Olson established the women's gymnastics program in 1975, and by 1993, it had produced 59 All-American gymnasts—more All-Americans than any other team in Division III athletics. In 1987, legendary basketball coach Joe Hutton was named to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame. He was the first college coach selected for the Helms Foundation Hall of Basketball Immortals in Los Angeles.

Hamline broke ground on a number of new buildings during this time:

  • Bush Memorial Library, named to honor long-time Hamline trustee and benefactor A. G. Bush, opened in the fall of 1971, a three-story, 83,210-square-foot building housing some 240,000 volumes
  • Paul Giddens/Alumni Learning Center, linked to the Carnegie Library and named for the former university president, opened in October 1972, and contains classrooms, study areas, and laboratories
  • Hamline School of Law was dedicated in October 1980, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun delivered the dedication address

Hamline had received full accreditation from the American Bar Association two months earlier. The roots of the modern law school lay in the Midwestern School of Law, an upstart, unaccredited school that came searching for classroom space in February 1974.

1988–2004: Vision of a "new American university"

Larry G. Osnes became the 18th president of Hamline in 1988. During his tenure, he saw many building projects come to fruition, including the construction of Walker Fieldhouse, the renovation of historic Old Main, and the dedication of the Bishop statue. As part of the 150th anniversary of Hamline's founding in 2004, President Osnes said in a statement announcing his retirement, “It seems altogether fitting that Minnesota's first university is ranked as Minnesota's top comprehensive university . . . [and] is entering this anniversary period with a strong reputation that should make us all feel proud." The past two-plus decades was again a period of growth for Hamline, including:

2005–2015: Pathway of distinction

Dr. Linda N. Hanson became Hamline University’s 19th president in July 2005. Under her leadership, the university developed a comprehensive, university-wide strategic plan, Creating Pathways to Distinction, which described Hamline’s academic vision and strategies for innovation in the tradition of liberal arts and professional education, to be dynamic and actively inclusive, to be locally engaged and globally connected, and to invest in the growth of persons. Upholding Hamline’s strong commitment to leadership and civic engagement, Dr. Hanson led the expansion of the university’s global partnerships and exchange programs, and the university’s Middle East Civic Education Project was recognized for its outstanding efforts by the U.S. State Department. Hamline established a relationship with the United International College, the first liberal arts college in mainland China, and the Shanghai Institute for Foreign Trade.

As well as international endeavors, Hamline took huge strides at home. Highlights of those accomplishments include:

  • Launching the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline, offering students an undergraduate major in creative writing, an MFA in creative writing, and a low-residency MFA in writing for children and young adults
  • Launching the Hamline MBA program in 2008 and realigning undergraduate and graduate programs into the School of Business and School of Education
  • Opening a West Metro location in Minneapolis, which offers master’s level programs in business
  • Building the Anderson University Center in 2012, which has become a prominent symbol of the university and dramatically expanded Hamline's capacity to accommodate and serve its community
  • Securing an agreement with William Mitchell School of Law in 2015 to combine with our Hamline School of Law and create the new Mitchell Hamline School of Law

2015–2023: We Take The Lead

President Fayneese Miller was installed as Hamline’s 20th president in 2015.

In keeping with the university’s commitment to social justice, during Dr. Miller’s tenure Hamline became one of only ten Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation (TRHT) campuses in the United States in 2017. In 2020, she was a leading voice in the community after the death of George Floyd, when she encouraged everyone in the Hamline community to "find their voice."

During that time, Hamline produced two of its three Harry S. Truman scholarship recipients in consecutive years, saw dramatic increases in access to, and enrollment in, the university for traditionally disadvantaged groups, and reorganized its academic administration and programs to better serve the needs of today’s students. Programs in forensic science and music production made their debuts in an atmosphere of balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility. The university successfully launched and exceeded its $110 million comprehensive campaign during President Miller’s tenure as well.

2024–Present: Building From Strength

Hamline welcomed Dr. Kathleen Murray as its 21st president on January 1, 2024. She serves on an acting/interim basis.

Dr. Murray brings a twenty-year record of academic achievement to Hamline, most recently at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, where she served as president from 2015-2022. She comes to a university that is on the rise in academic ranking according to U.S. News & World Report, ranking tops in its class in Minnesota. She also has a demonstrated track record of fundraising success and guided the formation of a $100 million-plus comprehensive campaign at Whitman.

The history of Hamline University is about strengthstrength of character, strength of purpose, and strength of our educational experience. We look forward to building on these and many other intangibles our students receive. As Minnesota’s first university, we can do no less.