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The Vanderbilt History

Cornelius Vanderbilt | Vanderbilt University

The $1,000,000 that Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt gave to endow and build our University was his first and only major philanthropy. It might have never happened if Methodist Bishop Holland N. McTyeire of Nashville, a cousin of the Commodore's young second wife, hadn't gone to New York for medical treatment early in 1873 and spent time recovering in the Vanderbilt mansion. While there, Bishop McTyeire won the Commodore's admiration and support for building a university in the South that would "contribute to strengthening the ties which should exist between all sections of our common country."

Commodore Vanderbilt never visited Nashville; instead, he trusted Bishop McTyeire to choose the site, supervise the construction of buildings, and personally plant many of the trees that today make Vanderbilt a national arboretum. Originally, the University consisted of one Main Building (now Kirkland Hall), an astronomical observatory, and houses for professors. The stone wall surrounding the campus was built to keep cows off the University grounds.

The original charter, issued in 1872, was amended in 1873 to make the legal name of the corporation "The Vanderbilt University." The charter has not been altered since.

Vanderbilt University opened for classes in October of 1875 with 192 students enrolled. From the outset, Vanderbilt offered work in the liberal arts and sciences beyond the baccalaureate degree, and it embraced several professional schools in addition to its college. James H. Kirkland, the longest serving Chancellor in University history, guided Vanderbilt in rebuilding after a fire in 1905 that consumed the main building, rebuilt and renamed in Kirkland's honor.

The original Vanderbilt campus consisted of 75 acres. By 1960, the campus had spread to about 260 acres. When George Peabody College for Teachers merged with Vanderbilt in 1979, about 53 acres were added. Today, our campus covers a park-like 330 acres.

In the planning of Vanderbilt, the assumption seemed to be that it would be an all-male institution. Yet the board never enacted rules prohibiting women. At least one woman has attended Vanderbilt classes every year since 1875, and. by 1897, four or five women entered with each freshman class. By 1913 the student body contained 78 women, or just more than 20% of the academic enrollment.

National recognition of the University's status came in 1949 with election of Vanderbilt to membership in the select Association of American Universities, and by its 90th anniversary in 1963, Vanderbilt ranked in the top 20 private universities in the United States.

Today Vanderbilt University is a private research university comprised of ten schools, a public policy institute, a distinguished medical center, and The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. Vanderbilt offers undergraduate programs in the liberal arts and sciences, engineering, music, education and human development as well as a full range of graduate and professional degrees. Vanderbilt is the largest private employer in Middle Tennessee and the second largest private employer in the state.

Unschooled himself, Commodore Vanderbilt once said, "though I never had any education, no man has ever felt the lack more than I have, and no man appreciates the value of it more than I do and believes more than I do what it will do in the future."