Some Memorable Moments in the History of Marquette University

By Dr. Tom Jablonsky

John Martin Henni, the first Catholic bishop of Milwaukee, came to his adopted city in 1843 with two ambitions. Understandably, he first wished to erect a cathedral that would herald both the Catholic Church’s arrival as a civic presence in the Cream City and his own appointment as spiritual leader for the faithful throughout the Territory of Wisconsin. His second goal was a bit more problematic. He wanted to open a college, similar to the one that he had helped administer in Cincinnati before turning over management of what eventually became Xavier University to the Society of Jesus. The biggest difficulty with this second intention was the absence of an intellectual culture in Milwaukee conducive to such an enterprise. The village (Milwaukee wasn’t even a city at this time) had no paved streets, no high school, and no library. And, realistically, it had no students prepared for collegiate life.

In addition, Bishop Henni encountered difficulty in finding a religious order willing to take responsibility for “his” college. After several false starts, he finally convinced the Jesuits, then headquartered in St. Louis, to embrace his vision of a local Catholic college. To begin the process, the prelate assigned the city’s newest parish, St. Gall, to the Jesuits in 1855 so that they would have a place to live and an income with which to support their small community. The first step toward an institution of higher education involved the Jesuits setting up a boys’ academy (an academically elevated mixture of a parish grade school with a high school). Sadly, St. Aloysius Academy only lasted for two years because of the students’ inadequate preparation for a Jesuit education. Even though this situation delayed any immediate implementation of Henni’s hopes for his college, the bishop forged ahead, purchasing a slice of land atop a prominent hill overlooking downtown. In time, he surrendered ownership of this property to the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits in turn cautiously bought adjacent lots until they owned a complete city block. In anticipation of the next step, Marquette College--a title chosen by the bishop himself--was officially incorporated in the State of Wisconsin in 1868. Still, for the moment, a functioning collegiate center remained an unfulfilled desire.

Bishop Henni, aging and informed, finally saw the fruits of his labors become reality when ground was broken for a three-story classroom building in 1880. At long last, the Jesuits had assembled the personnel and, they thought, the student body to open a Jesuit college. A year later in September 1881 (only days before Henni’s death), the doors to Marquette College opened, every bit as shakily as its earlier development. Attendance was haphazard. Students came and went throughout the first year of operation. And, it turned out, Milwaukee finest young scholars still lacked the preparatory background to undertake collegiate studies in the Jesuit tradition. Two years of additional work at the “academic” level (what in the later course of things would become Marquette University High School) finally set the stage for the fall of 1883 when the first regular college classes were taught at Marquette College.

During the school’s opening decades, the “academic” and “preparatory” (grade school age) students always outnumbered the college students by a handy amount. Overall, this all-male population ranged from about eleven years of age to twenty or more, and it included youngsters of many faiths. At first, the faculty consisted only of members of the Society of Jesus. When lay instructors were brought aboard in a few years, they were restricted to the education of the younger students. College classes were handled entirely by the Jesuit priests, trained in the classical education that had brought renown to their religious congregation.

Marquette’s first collegians completed their course work in four years. Of the five graduates in 1887, one remained at the college to earn his Master of Arts; eventually he became the first lay instructor at his alma mater. A second individual subsequently served as Milwaukee City Treasurer and a third followed his vocation into the priesthood. Yet another young scholar who collected a bevy of awards and recognitions during his years at both the academic and collegiate levels had a career as the purchasing agent for a local firm. Finally, after four decades, Bishop John Henni’s vision of a Catholic college in Milwaukee had been realized with a building to welcome its students, a curriculum to offer the essential Jesuit degree (a Bachelor of Arts), and the beginning of an alumni base that would eventually surpass one hundred thousand, each on his/her path toward serving the larger world with their individual talents and attendant virtues.

Memorable Moments in Marquette University's History

1907, Opening of Johnston Hall, the first building dedicated exclusively to Marquette’s college students: Physically and academically, this structure set the collegiate program apart from the much larger high school program. Named for its sole donors, Robert and Ellen Story Johnston, this building (which is still in use) became the signature marker for Marquette University’s presence along city’s most glorious roadway leading west out of downtown: Grand (now Wisconsin) Avenue. Over time, other academic facilities would rise around Johnston Hall and its inspiring neighbor to the west, the Church of the Gesu.

1907-10, Introduction of Professional Programs at Marquette and a Subsequent Name Change

For its first twenty-five years, Marquette College was a liberal arts school in the Jesuit tradition, focusing upon course work for a Bachelor of Arts degree with a single major: Philosophy. All around Milwaukee’s Jesuit college, however, American higher education was changing. Among those adjustments was a demand by the American Medical Association that privately run medical schools affiliate with licensed undergraduate colleges in order to insure the quality of a student’s basic science education. Because of this, the Milwaukee Medical College, a for-profit institution that had opened in 1894, approached Marquette College in early 1907 to arrange a working relationship. Within a short time an agreement was crafted, leaving the physical components of the medical college (buildings at the corner of Ninth and Wells streets) in the hands of its original owners whereas the academic side of this enterprise fell under control of Marquette College (which, in turn, reincorporated itself soon thereafter as Marquette University). This was followed about a year later by Marquette’s purchase of two privately owned law schools. An Engineering program was established a few months later, followed in two years by professional programs in Economics (later the College of Business) and Journalism (later part of the College of Communications). Within three years, Marquette had gone from a modest sized liberal arts school to a full-fledged university offering degrees (or diplomas) in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, nursing, law, engineering, business, and journalism. It now became the most significant educational institution in Wisconsin’s largest city.

1909, Admission of Women

In June of 1909, the rector (today’s president) of Marquette University planned to open the very first summer school in American Catholic higher education to serve the young men of Milwaukee who had to work, at least part-time, during the regular school year and therefore could not take a full load of classes. This priest, Father James McCabe, S.J., had been warned by a fellow Jesuit that Wisconsin Catholic schools would soon be overshadowed by public education because the religious sisters who staffed parochial elementary and secondary schools did not have access to a college education anywhere in the state. McCabe immediately decided to solve two problems at one time by permitting women (both religious and lay) to enroll in the Bachelor of Arts classes at his new summer school. This initiative earned McCabe a reprimand from his religious superior in St. Louis. Marquette's rector was ordered to discontinue his co-educational classes immediately because they defied Church traditions and violated Jesuit practice the world over. Instead McCabe appealed the Provincial’s order to the Jesuit’s Superior General in Rome and a few years later received a surprising thumbs-up for his co-educational summer program. By this time, women and men were also taking classes side-by-side in medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, law, economics, and journalism as well. James McCabe’s bold action on behalf of gender equity established Marquette University as the first Catholic institution of higher education to admit both men and women into its core academic program: the Bachelor of Arts.

1920s, First Building Program

As the twentieth century entered its third decade, Marquette University consisted of a single academic center (Johnston Hall) and several renovated structures that served the law and engineering programs. The medical and dental programs, in turn, had moved to another medical complex further from the main campus. In 1918, the university unexpectedly acquired a large tract of land between Fifteen and Sixteenth streets, from Wisconsin (then called Grand) Avenue to Clybourn. On this property were two mansions that were soon turned over to Marquette’s music conservatory and to an eye, ear, nose, and throat clinic. (Later, respectively, these stylish structures became home to the university’s School of Speech and to the athletic department.) Within a few years, the university for the first time invested heavily into a building campaign that saw the rise of a new law building at the corner of Eleventh and Wisconsin, a grand structure to the west of Gesu to house basic science classrooms and laboratories, a dental school building just south of Wisconsin along Sixteenth Street, and a long-desired gymnasium at Sixteenth and Clybourn. Although separated into three locational components, Marquette University finally had the physical facilities to handle its expanding curriculum.

1953, A Wellspring of Students and Facilities

On the heels of World War Two, Marquette experienced an unprecedented growth in its student body. Thousands of former soldiers and seamen flooded the campus, taking advantage of the GI Bill. The university’s facilities, largely unchanged after the rapid expansion of the early 1920s, were completely inadequate for the rush of new students in the years following 1945. In response, a new building for the business students arose at the corner of Thirteenth and Michigan in 1950, followed by two of the most important additions in the history of the university: a student union to serve the entire Marquette community as well as the university’s first library building. Brooks Memorial Union opened in the spring of 1953. It ended thirty years of gender separation in terms of co-curricular space. Male students had enjoyed the luxuries of a specially built two-story brick structure (complete with a cafeteria) while female students squeezed into an old frame house. As a reflection of this new unity of the sexes, the separate men and women’s student governments also merged into a single organization. Every Marquette student now had claim to a first-class facility for meals, study, and a wide assortment of co-curricular activities. Late in that same year, immediately to the west, a three-story, cross-shaped edifice rose to centralize the heretofore-scattered library holdings of the university. Memorial Library, which is still in use, became the central study area for Marquette’s undergraduates.

1954-56, The Great Self-Survey

The tremendous growth in Marquette’s student body during the postwar years, accompanied by a rapid expansion of higher education across the nation, demanded a thoughtful effort to redefine the future of Milwaukee’s Jesuit university even as the second half of the twentieth century unfolded. In the spring of 1954, a little over a year before the kick-off of Marquette’s 75th Anniversary, school president Father Edward O’Donnell announced a detailed self-analysis of Marquette’s current state in order to make clear plans for the impending future. Never in the history of this institution has there been a more inclusive, more exhaustive reflection of the university, from top to bottom. Members of the Society of Jesus who had dominated management of the university since its creation now shared institutional decision-making with an upgraded lay faculty, an expanding professional staff, and a still growing student body. Out of this effort came a thorough revision of existing majors, the creation of new departments in fields such as sociology and political science, the establishment of elevated standards for faculty recruitment (in particular new expectations for faculty with doctorates), and, most notably, the return of graduate education, including doctoral programs. It took at least a decade to implement these grand changes, but the vision of Marquette as a leading Catholic university in the Midwest was set in motion by this self-study.

1969, Overhaul of the Board of Trustees:

Since its inception in 1881, first Marquette College and then Marquette University had been managed by the Society of Jesus. Final control always rested in the hands of three Jesuits who constituted the corporation’s Board of Trustees (one of these men being the Rector, or later President). Although laymen might serve as deans in the professional schools and colleges, Jesuits always filled the University’s top administrative positions. By the 1960s, however, changes were afoot across the landscape of American Catholic higher education. Some of the most significant adjustments affected corporate authority at these institutions: their boards of trustees. Although not the first university to respond to these developments, neither was Marquette unduly hesitant to retool its executive leadership beginning with the university wide investment in the 1954-56 Self-Survey, followed a decade later by the appointment of the first layman as Academic Vice-President. Then in January of 1969, President John P. Raynor, S.J., announced a complete overhaul of membership on the Board of Trustees, from three Jesuits to eight Jesuits and twenty-one laymen. Ultimate control over the most precious commodity held in trust by the Society of Jesus in Wisconsin was now handed over to a select group of non-Jesuits who hereafter would have to take complete responsibility for fulfilling the mission of Marquette University.

1960s-70s, Urban Renewal and a Genuine Campus

The multi-locational character of Marquette University in the 1920s, with medical classes taking place north of downtown Milwaukee and other classrooms activities divided between the heart of the campus surrounding Johnston Hall and those located between Fifteenth and Sixteenth streets was somewhat alleviated with the construction of a new medical school on Fifteenth Street in 1931, even as the Great Depression deepened. Additional facilities arose in the postwar period, including the aforementioned student union and library as well as the first residential towers north of Wisconsin Avenue. Nonetheless, the campus was fragmented, interrupted along both sides of Wisconsin by dilapidated frame houses, rows of three and four story brick apartment buildings, and a galaxy of bars, diners, and grocery stores. In cooperation with the City of Milwaukee and the United States government, the university drew on millions of dollars of support to consolidate the Marquette campus between Wells and Clybourn, from Eleventh to Sixteenth streets. This was done under the aegis of the 1949 Federal Housing Act that funded slum clearance and community redevelopment. This unification of the various academic, residential, and extra-curricular facilities into a thirty-block zone on the west side of Milwaukee’s downtown greatly improved the quality of life for students, faculty, and staff over the last half-century. A genuine college campus has evolved, allowing for future expansion or reuse as needed.

Into the Twenty-first Century

As Marquette moved into yet another century, a combination of faculty and administrators dedicated several years to reviewing and revising the core curriculum required of all undergraduates regardless of major. After long process, a Core of Common Studies was developed, along with an entirely new structure for assessing the impact of these academic exposures. This placed the University midstream amidst the flow of modern higher education wherein measurable outcomes are anticipated by interested parties both on- and off-campus. Alongside this critical updating of general education at MU was the ongoing enhancement of what might be the most singular aspect of undergraduate life at Marquette in the twenty-first century: the role of community service. Building upon a strong heritage that goes back to the early twentieth century and the commitment of the Society of Jesus to a faith that serves justice, Marquette students provide for the well-being and enhancement of the greater Milwaukee community, from the central city to the suburbs, through agencies such as Service Learning and Student Affairs, through academic exercises such as internships and practicum, and through volunteer efforts organized by the student government. A transformative education, to have real meaning at Marquette, relies upon these opportunities whereby our students, in a Christ-like fashion, utilize their talents and spiritual values on behalf of our neighbors-in-need across Milwaukee.