Nebraska Historical Marker: The University of Nebraska

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Stadium Dr, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, Lancaster County, Nebraska

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Marker Text

Chartered as a Land-Grant institution by the first regular session of the State Legislature on February 15, 1869, the University opened its doors to 20 collegiate students and 110 preparatory school pupils on September 7, 1871. Lincoln was then a raw prairie village of about 2,400 people. University Hall, the original four-story building, stood on this site. Its lumber was hauled by wagon from Nebraska City; its brick made locally. It was finally razed in October, 1948. Despite financial crises and ideological disputes, the University survived its early years and in 1886 inaugurated the first program of graduate instruction west of the Mississippi. Recognized for its high scholastic standards, the University was accorded membership in the Association of American Universities in 1908. As a major institution of higher education, the University performed a key role in the early development of the State and continues now as a prime source of further Nebraska progress.

Further Information

University Main Building in 1872, surrounded by the houses of early Lincoln (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Since 1869, the University of Nebraska (or University of Nebraska-Lincoln) has been the top public university in Nebraska and is the flagship school of the University of Nebraska system. The university’s motto is Literis dedicate et omnibus artibus, meaning “Dedicated to letters and all the arts.”

A Land-Grant University

Passed in 1862, the Morrill Act created the land-grant university system, whereby the government would give states land to create public universities. Unlike most institutions of higher education of the day, which focused on moral development, religious education and classical learning, these land-grant universities were devoted to “practical” knowledge and professional training.

On February 15, 1869, Nebraska’s first state legislature unanimously approved a charter for a public university under the Morrill Act. According to the 1867 law that named Lincoln the state capitol, the state university and the state agricultural college were to be united in one institution also in the city of Lincoln. Thus, unlike other states which have both a “State” university and a land-grant college (i.e. Iowa and Iowa State), Nebraska would have only one state university combining both roles. The charter proclaimed that the object of the university was “to afford to the inhabitants of the state the means of acquiring a thorough knowledge of the various branches of literature, science and the arts.” As a public university, it would be open to all: “No person shall, because of age, sex, color, or nationality, be deprived of the privileges of this institution.” Originally, the university was run by 12 regents, 9 of which were appointed by the legislature and 3 of which were ex officio members (the governor, the superintendent of public instruction and the chancellor). After 1877, the board of regents became a six-member delegation directly elected by the people.

Panoramic view of the University, undated. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Creating the School

Four city blocks, the area between 10th and 12th Streets and R and T Streets, were set aside for the university. This land would later prove to be too small of an area for a university, and much of the land that could have been included in the initial settlement had to be bought back by the university later. The land, like the rest of the city at the time, was not well developed; cows and wild plants filled the space where school buildings would later reside.

The cornerstone for the first building on campus, University Hall, was laid on September 23, 1869 to much fanfare. Located at 11th and S, the building was an imposing sight in the otherwise-undeveloped town. Its construction went well over budget, however, and was poorly made: the roof leaked and furnaces failed to heat the building properly. By 1877, many architects deemed that it was unsafe and needed to be replaced, but fearing that destroying the building might tempt others to move the university out of Lincoln, the city of Lincoln financed a renovation.

The university’s first chancellor, Allen R. Benton, was noted for his generosity. He declined to accept a larger salary for his job and later offered to take a $500 cut in his salary in order to open up funds for an assistant for the professor of science, who was greatly overworked.

Alan R. Benton, the first chancellor of UNL. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Early University Life

Classes at the university opened in September of 1871. Though it was a public university, in those days education and religion went hand in hand; thus, most early professors were also church leaders. The Board of Regents took no official stance on religion, making the university ecumenical or pan-sectarian. Early curriculum focused on ancient languages and mathematics. A professor of agriculture was hired, but his role was not clear. The idea of having a “practical,” “professional” college was a new one, and no one was quite sure how an agricultural college should look. On June 24, 1874, the university purchased 320 acres of land outside of Lincoln that became the school of agriculture, now located on East Campus. In its first year of classes, 130 students enrolled in the school; 110 of these were in preparatory school. The only college yet organized was the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Despite financial difficulties in the 1870s, the university survived and began to grow.

Changes in the 1800s

During the 1880s, the university became less and less affiliated with religion; no clergymen were on the Board of Regents, fewer faculty were religious, and the opening of several explicitly religious schools in the state attracted those seeking religious education. As the university became less religious, a group of reformist professors came to campus in the early 1880s that challenged the notions of what the university’s role should be. These professors, following a trend started by progressive eastern colleges, believed that professors should guide students in their intellectual pursuits rather than act as moral guides. They advocated for elective courses and independent research. Many of these professors were fired by conservative regents, but their model became the model adopted by Nebraska and other universities. Charles E. Bessey, the chancellor from 1888 to 1891, was instrumental in this change. He helped develop the East Campus agricultural school and made the university into a research institution.

The football team in 1890, the first year of its existence. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

The Dawn of Big Red and George A. Flippin

The first football game on campus was played on December 2, 1889 between members of the senior and sophomore classes. As football grew in popularity, students lobbied for intercollegiate football. The first team representing the university beat a team from the Omaha YMCA in 1890. The following year, it went 1-1 in a two-game series against Doane.

In 1892, the team beat Illinois with the help of fullback and tackle George A. Flippin, an African-American. That same year, the University of Missouri forfeited its game against Nebraska because they would not play against a black man. Flippin’s teammates voted to keep Flippin on the team regardless. Flippin was a popular leader on campus and was elected president of the prestigious Palladian literary society. After graduating from Nebraska, he got his MD degree at the University of Illinois Medical School in Chicago and later joined his father in Stromsburg to establish the first hospital in the region.

George Flippin, the first black athlete at Nebraska, with the 1895 football team. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

From its earliest days, football dominated the university. By 1901, the football coach made more than any professors.

Life in the 1890s

James H. Canfield, chancellor from 1891 to 1895. He is credited for bringing national prestige to the university. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

James H. Canfield became the chancellor in 1891 and helped the university grow in prestige. It was known as one of the “Big Four” state universities, along with Michigan, Wisconsin and California.

Willa Cather attended the university between 1891 and 1894. Originally, she was going to study medicine but realized she had a talent for writing and served as managing editor of the school newspaper, The Hesperian. She edited a series of essays on university life to celebrate the school’s 25th anniversary in 1894. These essays provide a glimpse into life in Lincoln in the 1890s. Students wrote about their experiences living in small tenement houses in a city that had no paved streets. Much drama on campus centered around the formation of Greek-letter societies, which many thought imperiled the egalitarian nature of public education.

In addition to Cather, several notable students attended Nebraska in the 1890s: Samuel Avery, later university chancellor; George Sheldon, future governor; and Harvey Newbranch, who would go on to win a Pulitzer as editor of the Omaha World-Herald. This list also included the Pound family. The children of a judge, Roscoe, Louise and Olivia were extraordinarily gifted. Louise became the president of the Modern Language Association, and Roscoe returned to the university after attending Harvard Law School to get a PhD in botany. Olivia was the least famous of the three but still made contributions to her community.

John J. Pershing served as the military instructor at Nebraska from 1891 to 1895, where he established the famous Pershing Rifles group of elite students.

Chancellor Canfield resigned in 1895 to accept a position at Ohio State. His tenure at Nebraska was not only the highlight of his professional life but also instrumental in the growth of Nebraska as a prestigious university. Student population tripled during his tenure, growing from 530 in 1891 to 1550 in 1895. By 1900, the university had 4,000 students.

Famous Students

Willa Cather, later a famous author, pictured here on campus. She attended the school from 1891 to 1894. University Hall can be seen in the background. (Nebraska State Historical Society)
Louise Pound, a University of Nebraska graduate, was famous for her love of sports and later became president of the Modern Language Association. (Nebraska State Historical Society)
Roscoe Pound, the brother of Louise Pound. He made significant contributions in the fields of law and botany. He also served as a professor at the University of Nebraska. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

A New Century and New Traditions

School pride and success continued in the new century, but many problems also emerged. The rise of Greek-letter societies threatened campus unity. One fraternity in particular, Theta Nu Epsilon (TNE), challenged authority, tried to monopolize campus power and became notorious for drinking. To counter TNE, Roscoe Pound suggested and Professor G.E. Condra sponsored an honors society called the Innocents Society, created in 1903. Made of 13 seniors and basing its imagery and ritual on Papal tradition (oddly, since Nebraska was predominately Protestant), the society was meant to recognize leadership, character and service. A similar group for women was also created in 1905 called the Black Masque. In 1921, the Black Masque society merged with the Mortar Board. Leaders of the society were recognized on Ivy Day, which had been a campus tradition since 1901 but became a day to recognize student leaders.

The first on-campus dorm was a privately-run building endorsed by the university built on 12th and Q. Rooms cost between $5 and $24 a month, with meals costing an additional $3 a week. Chancellor Benjamin Andrews, who began his tenure in 1900, shepherded the university into the new century through his progressive policies. He believed in academic freedom and was not afraid to hire controversial professors. In 1902, he asked Booker T. Washington to give the commencement address. Chancellor Andrews continued the university’s transition to a modern research institution. He was instrumental in fulfilling the university’s land-grant charter by focusing on making the school a place for professional accreditation and agricultural experimentation. Agriculture and engineering became “learned” professions thanks to deans Bessey, Burnett and Richards.

The Medical School

The first medical school in Nebraska, the Omaha Medical College, was opened in Omaha in 1880. The University of Nebraska Medical College opened in Lincoln in 1883, but partly due to funding and partly due to public outcry over the alleged grave robbing for specimens, it was closed in 1887. The Omaha Medical College wanted to become affiliated with a university to get funding and prestige, and the University of Nebraska wanted a medical school, so in 1902 the Omaha Medical College joined the University of Nebraska to become University Medical College (now the University of Nebraska Medical Center). By the end of the decade, it was considered not only the top medical school in the West but one of the best schools in America. It remains one of the most prestigious institutions in the country.

Class of 1905 women's basketball team celebrating their victory in the 1901 inter-class championship. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Decline in the 1900s

Chancellor Andrews retired in 1909. While several prominent national figures, like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, had been candidates for past openings, the 1909 search ended with the selection of Samuel Avery, a professor of chemistry, who had no national prestige. When Avery took office, some of the regents suggested that City Campus be closed and the whole school moved to East Campus. Avery was in favor of the idea, but a statewide referendum kept both campuses alive. Instead, the small City Campus with its structurally unsound buildings was expanded. Avery’s tenure as chancellor was marked by the university’s decline on the national scene. Once considered one of the best public schools in America, by the 1920s Nebraska had to compete with Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and other nearby schools for students and prestige.

Big Red Expands

The Nebraska football team scores a touchdown against Carlisle on December 2, 1908. Coach W.G. "King" Cole is identified on the sidelines. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Football continued to be popular. In 1906, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa State, Drake and Washington (St. Louis) Universities organized the Missouri Valley Conference to organize intercollegiate schedules. The conference declared that players should be full-time students and not be paid to play. Nebraska dominated the early days of the conference. Coach W.G. “King” Cole went 25-8-3 from 1907-1910 and E.O. “Jumbo” Stiehm went 35-2-3 from 1911-1916. Stiehm’s teams were called the “Stiehm rollers,” since “Stiehm” was pronounced “steam.” He left in 1916 when he was offered a large salary by Indiana. Some Lincoln businessmen urged the university to make a counteroffer, but the professors, upset that their school was becoming a “football school,” did not want a coach to be paid more than them and protested.

World War I

Stand promoting the Daily Nebraskan, the university's student newspaper. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

America’s entry into World War I created massive controversy on campus. Many students and teachers were of German descent, and a number of professors, including Chancellor Avery, had received their PhDs in German schools. On the other hand, Professor Fred Morrow Fling was highly opposed to German policy and did not approve of America’s initial neutrality. Once the war started, the government expected full patriotic support from university professors. The Nebraska Council of Defense held hearings on campus for about a dozen professors accused of being disloyal to the war effort. All the professors were exonerated, but two of them were asked to resign due to “indiscreet” public comments.

The 1920s

Student enrollment expanded from 4,500 in 1915 to 7,000 in 1920 to 12,000 in 1927. The cost per student was lower than 25 other state universities. Thanks to a lack of funding, however, the first tuitions were established in 1923. Students had to pay $1 a credit hour for most classes, $2 for science and special subjects, and $3-5 for professional classes.

Hartley Burr Alexander, a philosophy professor from 1908-1928. He helped design the state capitol and the football stadium. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

The most famous professor at the university in this time was Hartley Burr Alexander, a philosophy professor from 1908-1928. In 1922, he helped design the artwork and decoration in the Nebraska State Capitol Building. His idea was that the building could be “read” like a book, meaning that every piece of art would have a symbolic meaning. His work was so successful that he was asked to perform similar tasks at the Rockefeller Center in New York, the Century of Progress Exhibit in Chicago and several public libraries. In addition, he was an anthropologist and artist who celebrated the history and culture of the Plains.

Social life continued to change in the 1920s. College increasingly became a place for making connections and showing one’s place in society rather than a place for purely intellectual pursuits. In 1923, Memorial Stadium was built to become the new home of the football team. Professor Alexander composed the famous words on the outside of the stadium: “Not in the victory but the action/Not the goal but the game/In the deed the glory.”

Fans watching Nebraska defeat Notre Dame 14-7 on November 10, 1923, in an incomplete Memorial Stadium. Nebraska and Notre Dame had a fierce rivalry in the 1920s. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Controversy over the future of Teacher’s College embroiled Nebraska in the 1920s. Professors in different departments and administrators disagreed on whether Teacher’s College should be an independent college or remain a part of the College of Arts and Sciences. Professor Alexander thought it should become independent, but his ideas were rejected. He resigned from the university in 1928. Chancellor Avery retired in 1927 and was replaced by E.A. Burnett. The choice of Burnett was not a popular one, and his tenure, like that of Avery, was seen as a time of decline for the school. During this time, Nebraska was segregated. In 1929, a separate clubroom for black students was built. “Separate but equal” was the apparent policy on campus despite objections from local groups.

The completed Memorial Stadium. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

The Depression

Nebraska was not isolated from the Great Depression, and the university became a popular target in the legislature. Many Nebraskans felt that, during such hard times, support for the university should be cut. Some populists saw it as an “aristocratic” institution that created an upper class who would dominate society. Others simply saw it as a waste of money during a depression. Chancellor Burnett cut most of the faculty’s salaries, but this was not enough for many state legislators. A group of university supporters toured the state to gin up support for the school. In 1933, the legislature cut the school’s funding but kept its leadership intact.

UNL tractor school, 1918. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

The one exception to these cuts was football. Coach Dana X. Bible was hired in 1929 for $10,000 a year, about twice as much as the average professor’s salary. He left in 1936 when Texas offered him $15,000 a year. Fortunately, his successor, Major Lawrence M. “Biff” Jones, was a suitable replacement, most famous for bringing his team to the Rose Bowl in 1941. Nebraska football declined after that achievement, and did not regain national prominence until the Devaney era 20 years later.

New Buildings

Despite budget cuts, the Depression years saw new buildings come to campus. In 1929, the legislature provided a $100,000 bond for a women’s dorm to be called Carrie Bell Raymond Hall. In 1938, former Lincoln mayor Don L. Love donated, in memory of his wife, money to create an extension onto Raymond Hall. This complex later became Neihardt Hall, the oldest dorm still on campus.

The Raymond and Love wings of Neihardt Hall, the oldest dorm on campus. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Another important building built during the Depression was the Student Union. For many years, students had requested a Union. Jack Fischer, student council president, played a key role in getting the Union built. The student council received 2,300 signatures on a petition to build a Union, and the Public Works Administration, a New Deal program, offered to pay 45% of the cost. Fischer worked with the Alumni Association to get funding. Students agreed to participate in a bond program to raise the other 55% of the money needed. The regents were not too keen on the idea, so it took another year of campaigning by Fischer and others before the plan was approved in 1936. It was completed in 1938. Fischer was also on the forefront of a plan to create a university bookstore to help save students money on textbooks. A bookstore was created in 1935, but it was poorly managed and criticized by students. Don Love also donated money to build a new library, which began construction in 1941. The library was built adjacent to a new garden to help beautify campus.

World War II

The war had a profound effect on the university. Controversy ensued when the chancellor refused to shift the university schedule to a quarter system, which would have made it easier for students to get degrees before joining the military. Many faculty complained that the administration was too slow in helping the war effort. A group of faculty petitioned the War Manpower Commission to use the university for war-related purposes. The chancellor eventually approved the plan. In 1943, the university became part of the Army Specialized Training Program. Many soldiers were housed in the newly built Love Library. Since it was used as barracks throughout the war, the library did not open for students until 1945.

Aerial view of East Campus (Agricultural School), undated photo. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

A number of Nisei (second-generation Japanese immigrant) students came to the university during the war. They were released from their internment camps on the West Coast and allowed to attend school. While they were accepted to the university, they were given separate living spaces, and one student was expelled for dating a local girl.

The University of Nebraska Press began in 1941 when the chancellor hired an Austrian refugee, Emily Schossberger, as University Editor. Originally in charge of publishing institutional literature, she eventually created a press to publish scholarly manuscripts. The Press expanded and later, after Schossberger’s resignation in 1957, started Bison Books, which was a series of paperback books ranging from Greek classics to pioneer journals. The Press has been a huge success for the university.


At the conclusion of the war, faculty members successfully protested to get a raise in their salaries, undoing the cuts during the lean Depression and war years. A new chancellor, Reuben Gustavson, continued to lead the school towards becoming a research institute and made Nebraska nationally relevant again. Thanks to the GI Bill, enrollment at the university increased greatly during the post-war years.

Aerial view of City Campus, March 23, 1959. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Racial discrimination and student health were two big issues facing the post-war university. During the war, a separate dorm, called the International House, was created to house non-white students, but it was criticized as a “ghetto.” Segregation was officially ended for on-campus housing in 1949, even though private housing had been integrated since 1943. Non-discrimination policies were put in place in 1949 as well. In 1947, a new Student Health Center was created to replace the unpopular, poorly-managed health facilities already in place. The Health Center was first housed in a barrack from the Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot.

In 1954, Clifford Hardin became chancellor. His first accomplishment was the creation of the Nebraska Center for Continuing Education, a facility now bearing his name. While the idea was conceived during Gustavson’s tenure, Hardin continued the development of a statewide educational television network. Jack McBride was brought in to lead the television operations. The first university television station, KUON-TV, began broadcasting in November of 1954. It was a huge success, and by 1969 the state legislature authorized the construction of a $3.4 million Telecommunications Center on East Campus to house the station. Nebraska became internationally prominent in the 1960s when the Agency for International Development (AID) asked the school to help international universities. First, Nebraska was asked to help Turkey develop a land-grant style university system, and then it was asked to give assistance to Colombian agricultural institutions.

After the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, a group of faculty members called for changes in the education department. They felt that Teacher’s College put too much emphasis on education classes, which were not as intellectually rigorous as subject-matter classes. In order to keep up with the Soviets in the Space Race, they said, education majors should focus more on subject-matter classes. Frank Henzlik, the dean of Teacher’s College, was opposed to these changes. Controversy over the issue continued after Henzlik retired in 1958, but Nebraska was home to some academic innovation in the 1960s. Paul Olson, an English professor, created a revamped, modernized English curriculum called Project English that soon spread across the nation and earned the approval of the US Office of Education.

Homecoming parade, 1955. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Cold War tensions led to fervent anti-communism in the nation that affected the university. The people in Nebraska were generally very conservative, so liberal teachers at the university were not well-received. However, administrators were able to calm most controversies, and in 1965 a national organization called Nebraska the “best administered and the most comfortable” university in the nation.

The 1960s

Enrollment more than doubled in the 1960s. As the number of students grew, so did calls to cap enrollment. Chancellor Hardin wanted to keep open enrollment for political reasons. While the state kept funding for the university high, student rates had to increase to meet the needs of the modern university. To accommodate the new students, a massive building project began in the 60s. The size of the campus was expanded to include more classrooms, but most of the building focused on dorms. Cather and Pound Halls were completed in 1963. Abel and Sandoz were completed in 1965, and by 1966 plans were underway to construct Harper, Schramm and Smith Halls. Oldfather Hall was completed in 1970 to house the College of Arts and Sciences. Thanks to federal funding, the College of Agriculture was able to expand as well, setting up a research station near Mead. The College of Medicine in Omaha was also able to expand with federal funds. Eugene Eppley of Omaha donated $2.5 million to the university to start a cancer research center in 1960. The UNMC cancer center is now one of the best in the nation. A campus centerpiece was completed in 1963 as finishing touches were added to the Sheldon Art Gallery. Construction began in 1958 on a gallery of art funded by the Sheldon family. Costing $67 per square foot, the building was the most expensive building in the United States at the time. It is regarded as one of the best small art galleries in the nation. Chancellor Hardin left the school in 1969 to become Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture. He was replaced by Durward B. “Woody” Varner.

Ellen Smith, registrar. Smith Hall, a dorm built in the 1960s. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Merger with the Municipal University of Omaha

The Municipal University of Omaha started as a Presbyterian school in 1900 and became a municipal university in 1937. In 1966, the city failed to pass a levy to fund the school. A state senator named Terry Carpenter suggested that the state take over the university as part of a deal with other senators to get a tax law through. The legislature agreed to this plan, though the nature of the merger was ambiguous. The merger became official in 1968. Omaha kept its president, but UNO (as it was now called), the College of Medicine (now UNMC) and the original UNL were governed by the same board of regents. At first, the leader of each branch was called a president, and Hardin remained chancellor, but in 1971 the titles were reversed; the head of the whole university system was called the president (an office then filled by Woody Varner) and the leader of each branch was called a chancellor. The joining of Omaha with the Lincoln campus created many issues, but ultimately UNO was able to expand its campus and achieve greater academic renown by its association with UNL.

Bob Devaney

Nebraska football had slipped off the radar in the 1940s and 50s. In 1962, Bob Devaney, the coach of Wyoming, began his career at Nebraska and forever remade the sport in the state. Known for his toughness, fairness, teaching instincts and sense of humor, Devaney became one of the most successful coaches of all time in his 11 years at Nebraska, during which he had a record of 101-20-2. His crowning achievement came in 1970 and 1971 as the Cornhuskers won back-to-back national championships. The 1971 team is considered one of the best teams in college football history. In 1972, Johnny Rogers won the Heisman Trophy. Devaney retired that year and was succeeded by his talented offensive coordinator, Hastings native Tom Osborne.

Student Changes

The 1960s marked a time of great social unrest, particularly among college students. Changes came more slowly to Nebraska, but by 1970 the university was involved in national debates about government, war, civil rights and college education. In 1967, students prepared “A Student Bill of Rights” which was endorsed in a student vote. In 1968 a Council on Student Life was proposed to govern social and out-of-class activities, with its actions only subject to the regents for approval.

One of the biggest complaints students had involved housing. Women’s dorms had restricted hours, and all the dorms were seen as impersonal. The Associated Women Students, the organization governing women’s behavior, abolished itself in 1970. That same year all the residence halls adopted a no-hours policy. A group of students unhappy with traditional coursework formed the Nebraska Free University (NFU) in 1966. The NFU offered non-credit coursework with maximum student freedom: they chose the topic and the method it was taught. Topics included “Psychedelic Drugs” and “Radical Needs in Education.” In response, the university began several experimental programs to change learning at the school. First, there was the Centennial Education Program, so named because it was established in the school’s centennial year, which sought to combine the residential and academic lives of students and foster closer relationships between professors and students. Next, the Teaching Council was created to promote experimentation within professors’ teaching duties. The student freedom shown in the Centennial Education Program inspired the university to create the University Studies program, where students could create their own program of study. Lastly, the ADAPT program introduced experimental pedagogy into the classroom.

Protests against Vietnam were not as pronounced in Nebraska as other colleges, but the Military and Naval Science Building was occupied in 1970 following the Kent State shootings. Students got more of a say in university dealings in 1975 when a state constitutional amendment allowed the student president of each university in the Nebraska system to have a non-voting seat in the Board of Regents. The university was still slow in changing student social policy since it saw the school as acting in loco parentis, in place of parents; students responded that they were legal adults and should be treated as such.

Tom Osborne

Tom Osborne began coaching in 1973. While his first few teams were not as successful as those from the peak Devaney years, he never won fewer than 9 games a season. By the mid-80s, Nebraska was back in the national spotlight and very nearly won the National Championship on several occasions. After a brief decline in the late 80s, the Cornhuskers returned in the mid-90s, winning championships in 1994, 1995 and 1997. Osborne retired in 1997 with a final record of 255-49-3.

Fiscal Troubles

The state legislature was less supportive of the university in the 70s. Both UNO and UNL were unhappy with the financial situation, with each school believing that the other was sapping its resources. To cope with the drop in funding, tuition had t be raised. Battles between the legislature and the administration caused President Varner to resign in 197. Varner later became the head of the University of Nebraska Foundation, where he turned it into one of the largest foundations benefiting a state university. Varner’s successor, Ronald Roskens, was more modest in his budget proposals. Upset with underfunding and low salaries, professors at UNO unionized. Their counterparts at UNL considered the matter but did not accept a union.

The 1980s

Funding remained an issue in the 1980s. The Regents, the Legislature and the Governor went back and forth proposing cuts in funding and cuts in programs while professors complained that their salaries were much lower than those of other comparable schools. The university’s mission was at stake: If its budget was cut, its national prestige would drop, and it could potentially lose its status as a major research institution. Fortunately, increased prosperity in the mid-80s and the election of Kay Orr, a pro-university governor, allowed the legislature to pass a bill increasing professor’s salaries.

Despite financial troubles, the university continued to grow. In 1985, the University Honors Program was started. Fundraising for the Hixson-Lied Performing Arts Center began in 1984, and the building opened in 1990. A campus recreational center was built in 1987. Plans to beautify both City and East Campuses were also implemented in this time. Research at the university began to focus on business. Chancellor Massengale noted how the new research institutions created in the 80s helped the economy of the state. Research at the university got extra funding thanks to Governor Kay Orr’s Nebraska Research Initiative (NRI), created after the US West corporation built a laboratory in Colorado instead of Nebraska since Nebraska, they said, did not have the proper research capability. The biggest research initiative was the Beadle Center for Genetics and Biomaterials Research, named after a Nobel-Prize winning graduate of UNL. Completed in 1991, Nebraskans hoped the Beadle Center would become a “big league player” in biotechnology research.

Kearney Joins the System

In 1989, it was proposed that Kearney State College join the university system. The Board of Regents, President Roskens and the Legislature were divided on the matter. Roskens supported the link, but the Regents opposed it; opinion polls showed that the citizenry was divided. Ultimately, a bill joining the schools passed the Legislature and won the approval of the State Supreme Court. In 1991, Kearney State College became the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Continued Growth

Many new buildings were built in the next two decades. One major trend was the creation of apartment-style dorms in Courtyards, The Village and Knoll Residential Hall (named after Robert E. Knoll, the author of the book which provided most of the information for this article). The Kauffmann Center was also created to house a new residential-learning space for the Raikes Program, a special honors program for computer science and management majors. In 2008, the Legislature passed a bill moving the state fair from Lincoln to Grand Island. The university acquired the land and has started developing it into the Nebraska Innovation Campus, intended to promote private/public research and job creation.

Sports Programs

Football declined somewhat after Tom Osborne’s retirement in 1997. His hand-picked successor, Frank Solich, was successful in his first few years and played for a national championship in 2001. In 2002, however, his team went 7-7, the first non-winning season since before Devaney. After going 9-3 the following year, he was fired by Athletic Director Steve Pederson in a controversial move. Pederson then hired Bill Callahan. Callahan’s first year saw Nebraska’s record bowl streak end. After going 5-7 in 2007, new Athletic Director Tom Osborne hired Bo Pelini, formerly the defensive coordinator for Frank Solich, to be the new head coach. Pelini has been a fairly polarizing figure, but his teams have never won fewer than 9 games each season.

Memorial Stadium has seen steady expansion. Most recently, several thousand seats were added in 2012-2013, putting the stadium’s capacity over 90,000. The team’s record sell-out streak has continued since 1962, Devaney’s first year. Other sports have met with mixed success. Men’s basketball has historically been one of the worst major-conference teams, being one of only two major-conference schools to never win an NCAA Tournament game (Northwestern, which has never qualified for the tournament, is the other). The Huskers made the tournament several times in the 90s under Danny Nee and made the tournament in 2014 under coach Tim Miles. The 2013-2014 season also marked the first season the Huskers played in new Pinnacle Bank Arena, rated one of the best venues in the Big Ten. Women’s basketball has been much more successful since its first season in 1975-76. Under coach Connie Yori, the Huskers have performed well in the NCAA Tournament, including making the school’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2010. Overall, the women’s team has made 11 NCAA Tournaments. Despite playing in the home state of the College World Series, the Nebraska baseball team did not see much success before the 2000s. Since then, they have made the CWS three times under coaches Dave Van Horn and Michael Anderson. The current coach is Darin Erstad, a UNL grad and former MLB all-star.

After football, the most successful major Cornhusker team has been the volleyball team, with three national titles. The bowling team, men’s gymnastics team and women’s track and field team have also won national titles. Nebraska athletics have produced more academic all-Americans than any other school.

Move to the Big Ten

In 2010, the university applied for membership in the Big Ten Conference, effective 2011. Previously, sports teams competed in the Big 12 Conference, the successor to the Big 8 Conference. The move not only changed Nebraska’s sports programs but its academic relations and revenue streams.

Removal from the AAU

In 2010, after 102 years as a member of the group, the American Association of Universities voted to exclude Nebraska from membership since it did not meet certain requirements. School officials complained that the AAU standards were unfair to UNL since it counted the UNMC as a separate institution and did not count funding from the US Department of Agriculture as part of its ratings (Nebraska’s historical emphasis on agricultural science means that much of its funding comes from the USDA). Every other member of the Big Ten is a member of the AAU.


Abourezk, Kevin. “Research universities group ends UNL's membership.” Lincoln Journal Star 29 April 2011.

Knoll, Robert E. Prairie University: A History of the University of Nebraska. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 1995.

“Nebraska Cornhuskers.”

“Nebraska Women’s Basketball History.”

“The story so far: Innovation Campus.” Lincoln Journal Star 21 December 2009.

Marker program

See Nebraska Historical Marker Program for more information.