University history

A History of the University of Nevada, Reno

In 1864, the Constitution of the State of Nevada calls for the creation of a “State University” with instruction in Agriculture, Mechanic Arts and Mining. Ten years later, the State University of Nevada (later the University of Nevada) was founded.

Since its inception in 1874 as the state of Nevada’s first university, the University of Nevada, Reno has delivered on the promise of providing the citizens of Nevada with a better future. As the state’s land-grant university, and ranked among the nation’s top research universities by the Carnegie Foundation, the University is known as a high-impact institution. Students and faculty are solving the pressing issues our time and providing new paths for the state’s next generation of leaders.

Over the past decade, the University has grown at a dynamic and record-setting rate, including student enrollment, number of National Merit scholars, student diversity, faculty achievement and productivity as well as infrastructure. The record growth of the modern University of Nevada, Reno, is in direct contrast to the first few decades of the University’s existence.

Read a description of the video below

Campus scene, southwest view, 1900
This 1900 view of the University of Nevada campus from the northwest shows the historic Gymnasium, the Mechanical Arts Building, Morrill Hall, Lincoln Hall, the Nevada Agricultural Experiment Station Building, and Hatch Hall.
Credit: Special Collections & University Archives - University Libraries

When the University was founded in 1874, fresh from the enabling language of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which created an endowment fund specifically for colleges and laid the groundwork for the modern American public university, it was in many ways fighting an uphill battle for relevance.

Nevada was sparsely populated, with only a handful of high schools – by 1886 there numbered only seven. The University’s first iteration in Elko, which welcomed the institution’s first student body of seven students in October 1874, was more of a preparatory school than a true university. The fledgling university’s prospects for survival improved in 1885-86, when the Board of Regents transferred the University from Elko to Reno. The campus, now nestled on a hopeful bluff above the Truckee Meadows, opened its first building, Morrill Hall, in spring 1886 and welcomed 35 students. By 1900 the campus had grown to 11 buildings, two student dormitories and a gymnasium. In 1936, University enrollment surpassed the 1,000-student mark.

Sepia image of Morrill Hall building with sagebrush in front of the building and a small shed behind the building

Morrill Hall, ca. 1886
Morrill Hall, constructed in 1885, was the first building on campus and was originally known as the Main Building. It still stands today at the southern part of the Old Quad. (Image credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

The Mining Hall is photographed here after its extension was added (sepia photograph). The Mining Hall was built in 1889 as the second permanent structure on campus.

Mining Hall, ca. 1909
The Mining Hall was built in 1889 as the second permanent structure on campus. Later became the Physics Building until it was demolished to construct the Mackay Science Building. (Image Credit: (University Libraries Digital Collection)

People and horse buggies surround Morrill Hall during an event. Morrill Hall, originally known as the Main Building, was the first building constructed at the university in 1885 and still stands today at the southern part of the Old Quad.

Morrill Hall during an event, ca. 1898
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

View of the entrance to the University in 1903 with Morrill Hall in the distance, a dirt road in the foreground and trees dotting the landscape

University Entrance Gates, ca. 1903
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

View of snow on campus with a man shoveling a path to the President's house on the right and the tree-lined quad on the left

Quad & the President's House, ca. 1911
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

Students walk outside of the University hospital building in 1907, which was torn down in 1960 for Getchell Library

Hospital building (torn down 1960 for library), ca. 1907
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

View of the Quad lined with small trees and views of the Mackay School of Mines and Physics building in the distance

Quad, Mackay School of Mines & Gymnasium, ca. 1911
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

A bi-plane sits on the Quad with the Electrical Engineering Building and Mechanical Arts buildings in the background

Bi-plane sits on the quad, ca. 1929
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

One of the most influential of the University’s early faculty was Dr. James Church, who arrived at the University in 1892 as a classics professor and kept an office on campus until his death in 1960. Although he taught Latin and the classics, Church gained international notoriety as a snow scientist. Beginning in 1905, Church led a movement to make systematic meteorological tests and snow surveys on the slopes of Mount Rose  to predict frosts and water supplies for the valleys below. Church won worldwide recognition for his snow survey methods and visited many parts of the world. He is considered the “father of snow science” and his creation of what was known as the “Mount Rose Snow Sampler” — an elongated, hollow, metal tube used to take snow samples and to measure snow weight – was a groundbreaking invention still used to this day.

Beginning in the 1960s, the stage was set for the most sustained period of growth for the University, which has continued to this day. The University achieved national prominence in many areas over the next several decades. Drs. Robert Gorrell and Charlton Laird’s “Modern English Handbook” became the standard textbook for colleges and universities throughout the nation for more than three decades. Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of The Ox-Bow Incident — along with University graduate Robert Laxalt considered the state’s finest novelist — was the University’s Writer-in-Residence for a decade. Department of Psychology researchers Allen and Beatrix Gardner conducted internationally acclaimed communication research with chimpanzees.

The Mackay Science Building is viewed from the southwest corner of the tree-lined quad.

Mackay Science Building, ca. 1935
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

Manzanita Lake reflects Lincoln Hall, Frandsen Humanities and the Tram.

Manzanita Lake, ca. 1940
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

1957 image of cars parked near the entrance to the Sarah Hamilton Fleischmann School of Home Economics Building

Sarah H. Fleischmann Building, ca. 1957
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

The historic Mackay Stadium is photographed from the east. The grandstands and southeast end-zone are shown.

Mackay Stadium, ca. 1960
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

The Quad and the Mackay School of Mines Building are photographed with the statue of John Mackay in front of Mackay School of Mines.

Quad & Mackay School of Mines, ca. 1960
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

This front view of the Getchell Library shows the Thompson Building to the left of the photograph. The Noble H. Getchell Library was completed in 1961 and opened in early 1962

Noble H. Getchell Library, ca. 1965 
(Image Credit: University Libraries Digital Collections)

Over the past decade, the University has continued to achieve institutional records in practically every metric associated with success. In 2017, the University unveiled the 108,000-square-foot E. L. Wiegand Fitness Center as well as the successful renovations of historic Lincoln Hall and Thompson Hall. In 2018, the campus’ newest student residential community, Great Basin Hall, opened.

A record 5,000 students graduated during the 2019-2020 academic year. The University also reached institution records in National Merit and Presidential Scholars, while faculty productivity, campus diversity and retention all remained at record levels.

View of the front of the Knowledge Center with pathways dividing grass areas and students walking across campus.

Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, ca. 2010
(Image Credit: Office of Marketing & Communications)

View of the Joe Crowley Student Union with grass in front and walking paths with a few students crossing campus

Joe Crowley Student Union, ca. 2009
(Image Credit: Office of Marketing & Communications)

View of the front of the E. L. Wiegand Fitness Center surrounded by trees, walking paths and a University road

E. L. Wiegand Fitness Center, ca. 2017
(Image Credit: Office of Marketing & Communications)

In 2019, the University learned that it achieved one of the most prestigious honors an institution of higher learning can ever receive: It was chosen as one of just 130 universities by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as an “R1” institution — “very high research activity” — which is reserved for doctoral-granting universities with exceptional levels of research activity. In 2020, it was announced that the University had reached the prestigious Carnegie Classification for Community Engagement, becoming one of only 119 institutions in the country so honored.

In late 2021, the University learned that it had again reached the prestigious Carnegie “R1” classification in the latest Carnegie Classification update cycle. Reflective of this continued institutional trajectory were other important records. For the eighth consecutive year, research expenditures reached a new institutional record, totaling $168 million for FY 2021. The University celebrated new milestones in 2021 in three key areas, including the most National Science Foundation early CAREER faculty awardees in a single year (eight, representing four colleges), a Sloan Fellowship recognizing early career faculty with potential to revolutionize their field of study and a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. Notably, Graduate School enrollment and the growth of Ph.D. programs at the University have also achieved record numbers.

During summer 2021, it was announced that the University had entered into collaborative agreements with a number of partners throughout the state that promised to yet again raise the University’s profile and impact. The agreements included a partnership (pending approval by federal, state and higher education regulatory bodies) with the campus of Lake Tahoe’s Sierra Nevada University in an effort to broaden the University’s ability to expand academic programming for students while enriching their living, learning and discovery environments; a partnership agreement between the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine and Renown Health which established the first fully integrated health system in Nevada and expanded clinical training and clinical research programs as well as access to clinical care for all Nevadans; plus agreements with the Clark County and Washoe County School Districts to create cohorts of students at the high school level in an effort to make college a real possibility for more families in Nevada.