150 Years and Counting

College of Liberal Arts & Sciences plays major part in KU’s past, present and future

The University of Kansas and the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences go way back. From the time there has been a KU, liberal arts and sciences has been there in one way or another.

When KU first opened its doors on September 12, 1866, classes started with just three faculty members teaching courses in Belles Lettres (fine writing) and Mental and Moral Philosophy; Languages; and Mathematics and Natural Sciences. Nearly 150 years later, though department names have changed, those original subjects remain as mainstays in the College.

As KU celebrates its sesquicentennial, the College’s influence is evident. Our faculty, staff, students and alumni built traditions that have lasted through generations. They’ve made discoveries that have changed the world around us. And they’ve reached the highest levels of achievement in a variety of fields, raising the profile of KU and the College around the globe.


Then & Now

Classes at KU started with just three professors teaching in one building. Elial J. Rice, David H. Robinson and Francis Huntington Snow were paid $1,600 each in that first year to teach KU’s 49 original students. Rice served as chair of Belles Lettres and Mental and Moral Philosophy; Robinson, as chair of Languages; and Snow, as chair of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. For Snow, the appointment came with an opportunity to change course; he was a Congregationalist minister who applied to teach languages and instead was asked to teach math and science. He quickly found himself drawn to his new subjects, especially entomology.

By 1887, the Department of Science, Literature and the Arts had been established. A few years later, in 1891, KU reorganized and established the next configuration of liberal arts, now called the School of the Arts. In 1904, the name was changed to one that has stuck for more than a century – the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

The College started with 15 majors in 1887: Biology, Chemistry, English literature, French, German, German and French Combination, Greek, Greek and Latin Combination, History, Latin, Mathematics, Mineralogy, Philosophy, Physics, and Political Science.

Students in the College still have majors similar to many of these to choose from, plus dozens more that have been added over the past century. The College now offers degrees in more than 50 departments, programs and centers. Courses are taught and research is conducted by about 800 faculty in more than 20 buildings across campus. Enrollment has grown to more than 13,000 students.


Keeping Up With the Times

As culture and society have changed, so, too, have the areas of study available to students.

KU was at the leading edge of sociology instruction in the United States. The oldest sociology course in the nation has been taught in the College at KU since 1890 when Professor Frank Wilson Blackmar taught the first “Elements of Sociology” class; a course by that title has been taught at KU every semester since.

One of the greatest challenges for the College came after World War II, when enrollment tripled in just three years. During that time, the College added faculty and redeveloped curriculum. Among the changes were classes to reflect the “coming of peace.” Students were offered classes such as “Survey of Soviet Culture” and “History of American Foreign Policy, 1776 to the Present.”

Also following World War II, new departments were created to help students examine the complexity of a more interconnected world. The Western Civilization Program was established in 1945, with the goal to help students understand history of American and Western Civilization and avoid repeating mistakes of the past. A few years later, in 1949, an American Civilization program (now American Studies) was formed.

As the Cold War era progressed, national leaders understood the importance of training more international experts, especially in less commonly taught languages. In1958, Congress voted to provide funding at U.S. universities to build foreign language and area studies programs. KU was an early leader, launching its Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS) in 1959. Nearly 60 years later, the College is home to five total area studies centers: CEAS; Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies; Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies; Center for Global & International Studies; and Kansas African Studies Center.

The 1960s and ’70s brought broad social movements to the U.S. and university campuses, including civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war concerns.  KU students and faculty were involved in protests to demand access and opportunities more broadly across the student body, especially for women and African-American students. In 1969, upon creation of the Student Senate, one of the governing body’s first actions was to call for a Department of African Studies (now African and African-American Studies). In 1972, a group that came to be known as the February Sisters occupied the East Asian Studies building on campus as a “means of obtaining the resources to meet the pressing needs of women.” The group sought more female administrators, campus day care and more curricula in women’s studies. By 1973, the Women’s Studies Program (now Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies) was in place, along with several other changes requested by the protesters. At the same time, growing concern about the environment led to the creation of an Environmental Studies Program in 1971, making it one of the oldest in the U.S.

More recent additions to the College continue to reflect interests of the populace: UKanTeach (2007), which provides training for students to fill the growing need for STEM teachers; a major in human sexuality (2014), allowing students to study how sexual identity and practices contribute to significant contemporary social issues such as human trafficking, family violence and health inequality; and the Center for Global & International Studies (2009) and School of Languages, Literatures & Cultures (2015), demonstrating continued research strength and student interest in being informed global citizens.


Making Discoveries that Change the World

Nature is filled with mystery. Whether it’s new species tucked away in unexplored waters and forests, elements in the air and ground around us, or unknown reaches of the universe, faculty and alumni in the College have been making discoveries that have revealed more about the world around us.

Pluto-heart-NASAFrom Pluto, with love: A three billion-mile journey that reached its target this summer connected the far reaches of our solar system with the Jayhawk universe. In July, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft made the agency’s first flight by Pluto – carrying with it ashes of the KU alumnus who first identified the planet. Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930 while working for the Lowell Observatory in Arizona as he earned money to pay for his freshman year at KU. For that discovery, he was awarded a scholarship by KU, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in 1936 and a master’s in 1939. Although Pluto was downgraded from the ninth planet in our solar system to a dwarf planet in 2006, early images sent back by the New Horizons spacecraft revealed a “love note” of sorts from the planet. A “heart,” about 1,000 miles across at its widest point, is one of the planet’s most distinctive features. The region near the heart was informally named “Tombaugh Regio” (Tombaugh Region), cementing Pluto’s place in Jayhawks’ hearts.

Today, KU faculty continue to discover more about the universe. For instance, Gregory Rudnick, associate professor of physics & astronomy, was part of a team that detected the most-distant-known example of a lensing galaxy. And Adrian Melott, professor of physics & astronomy, is part of a team awarded $500,000 by NASA to assess the potential damage from a near-Earth supernova, or explosion of a star.

A gaseous discovery: In 1905, two KU chemistry professors were the first to discover a gas that scientists previously thought didn’t exist on Earth. Two years earlier, in Cowley County, Kansas, a new well brought forth a strange natural gas that wouldn’t burn. Curious about this new gas, geology professor Erasmus Haworth brought samples back to KU. Two chemistry professors, Hamilton P. Cady and David F. McFarland began to study the mystery gas using an air compressor and liquefier (the only one west of the Mississippi River at the time). On Dec. 7, 1905, they uncovered the mystery – the gas was helium. Previously, scientists assumed helium was present only in the Sun and in trace amounts of a mineral called clevite. The discovery, made in Bailey Hall, didn’t immediately yield ground-breaking results. Not knowing any applications for helium, the professors’ three tubes of the gas sat untouched in Bailey Hall for years. Aside from filling birthday balloons everywhere, helium has since played a part in major advancements in military, medical and industrial applications, including nonflammable helium-filled blimps in World War II.

Scientists in the College continue that tradition of groundbreaking discovery. Among those is a newly hired Foundation Distinguished Professor. Steven Soper, professor in the departments of Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, will return to his alma mater to join the Department of Chemistry next academic year. Often referred to as lab-on-a-chip technologies, Soper’s efforts pinpoint diagnostics for cancer, stroke and infectious diseases as well as bringing diagnostics to the point-of-care. Alongside the Department of Chemistry, the Departments of Molecular Biosciences, Physics & Astronomy and the Bioinformatics Program are active in chemical, medical and nanotechnology advancements.

Natural History MuseumA plethora of flora and fauna: This year, KU’s Natural History Museum was named the top natural history museum among public universities by Best College Reviews. From Lewis Lindsay Dyche’s expeditions around the turn of the 20th century to now, faculty in the College have played an integral role in building the impressive array of millions of flora and fauna species on display and stored in the museum’s collections. Faculty in several departments conduct research on species including dinosaurs, birds, reptiles, insects and plants through their affiliation with the Biodiversity Institute, the parent organization of the museum. The Departments of Anthropology, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, and Geology are particularly prolific in such discoveries.

In 2015, a research team led by an alumnus announced the discovery of a new giant raptor, the largest specimen ever found with wing feathers. The Dakotaraptor expedition in South Dakota was led by KU graduate Robert DePalma, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History and lead author of the research, led the expedition to South Dakota where the specimen was found. Co-authors of the research include others with KU ties, including paleontologist David Burnham and Larry Martin, former KU paleontology professor and curator who died in 2014, and served as an advisor to DePalma.

If you come across a whirligig beetle in an Alabama forest, you could be looking at a Jayhawk discovery. Last year, KU alumnus Grey Gustafson found the first definitively new species of the whirligig family (Gyrinidae) to be described in the U.S. since 1991. Gustafson named it “Dineutus short” after Andrew Short, associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and associate curator at the Biodiversity Institute.


Ready to Succeed

From KU’s first graduate to Nobel Prize-winning alumni, a liberal arts and sciences education has been the starting point for generations of accomplished Jayhawks.

KU’s first valedictorian, Flora Ellen Richardson, graduated in 1873. She was a “Classical Collegiate” major, studying subjects such as Greek and Latin, trigonometry, physics, philosophy and theology. She and three other students graduated in that first class. About 20 years later, the university’s first doctoral degree was earned by a graduate student in the College. Arnold Emch, a Swiss student, earned his doctoral degree, in mathematics, in 1895.

Fast-forward more than 100 years and students in the College continue to make history for KU. A total of 26 KU students have been selected for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which fully funds two years of study at Oxford University in England. All of those students have majored in the College; Kelsey Murrell was the most recent KU Rhodes Scholar, in 2011. In the past several years, KU debaters have made a name for themselves at the national level. In 2009, the team of Brett Bricker and Nate Johnson won the National Debate Tournament, the fifth championship for a KU team. Four years later, in 2013, the team of Jyleesa Hampton and Quaram Robinson made history as the first KU team selected for the National Debate Tournament that was composed of two women and two African-Americans.

Once graduates leave campus to start their careers, they continue to make history. A look at recent recipients of the College’s Distinguished Alumni Award demonstrates the range of accomplishment:

  • Ann Hamilton, internationally recognized visual artist and MacArthur “Genius” Grant awardee (one of just seven KU alumni to be recognized)
  • Steven Hawley, astronaut who flew five space shuttle missions and now professor of physics & astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at KU
  • Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia and the first KU graduate elected as head of state of any nation
  • Kathleen Sebelius, former Secretary of U.S. Health and Human Services and former governor of Kansas
  • Vernon Smith, Nobel laureate and experimental economist

In the 150 years since its founding, the University of Kansas has made an impact in the lives of its students and the world around us. Through educational opportunities, research breakthroughs and a vast alumni network, the College has contributed significantly throughout KU’s history. As the university enters into its next 150 years, the College stands ready to create opportunities and take on the challenges that will continue a tradition of excellence that has been built by generations of Jayhawks.