A Historical Perspective on Graduate Education at MSU

A Historical Perspective on Graduate Education at MSU

Chittenden Hall, current home of The Graduate School. At the time of photo, Chittenden was the Department of Forestry. Photo courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections.

As it stands today, graduate education makes up a substantial and integral part of Michigan State University’s operations and student body. Making up roughly 16.3% of the total student body, the university’s 8,132 graduate students—spread across 80 departments and 277 programs—fulfill many important teaching and research-related functions [1, 2]. However, the underexamined history of graduate education at MSU reveals a dynamic and nonlinear trajectory.

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the the Graduate School, Grace Shu Gerloff (a fellow CAP fellow) and I have been working on an archives-centered project examining the history of graduate education at Michigan State University. One thing that immediately stuck out to us was that despite a long history of graduate students at MSU, the Graduate School was only boasting 25 years of service, prompting us to consider what events lead up to the founding of this administrative body. We quickly found out that a series of administrative organizations for the interdepartmental management of graduate studies preceded the current Graduate School, sparking a further interest in why it had been reorganized so many times. This post is a preliminary and partial look at some of what we’ve found so far, specifically focusing on early graduate education at MSU and the predecessors of the current organizational form of the graduate school.

The Early Years

Campus (viewed from Farm Lane) as it would have appeared to early graduate students in the 1890s. Photo courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections.

Graduate education at the State Agricultural College (future Michigan State University)  began in 1861, when a state statute enabled the Board of Trustees (then known as the ‘Board of Agriculture’) to confer degrees equivalent to those offered at the University of Michigan [3]. Graduate study programs at this time were incredibly loosely organized, consisting of the automatic conferral of master’s degrees to any student who remained engaged in scientific study at the school for three years following the completion of their undergraduate degree [4]. This dynamic quickly led to strong growth in graduate studies at the school; in 1879 a third of State Agricultural College alumni who were three years past graduation were awarded master’s degrees [3]. This lead to early efforts to standardize and restrict the process of conferral, beginning in 1879 with the requirement of two years of study and the completion of a thesis [3]. An alternate path to the master’s was introduced in 1881, consisting of a year of study, a final exam, and the completion of a thesis [3].

            The peak of early graduate education at the State Agricultural College occurred in the 1890s, at which time almost one out of every ten enrolled students was seeking a master’s degree [3]. This would not last however; in part owing to the decision to stop offering courses during the summer months (beginning in 1879) and a rule that resident graduate study must be full-time and exclusive, leading many students with other responsibilities to choose another path [3]. With the formation of a Committee on Graduate Studies in 1913, revival of summer instruction in 1914, and emerging financial assistance programs for graduate students—including an industrial fellowship offered by the Heinz Pickle Company and the institution of graduate assistantship positions by the Board of Trustees—enrollment grew, but only temporarily [3, 4].

Black and White photographic portrait of David Friday
David Friday, MSU’s 9th President (1922-1923). Photo Courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections.

At the onset of David Friday’s presidency of the school (at this time known as ‘Michigan Agricultural College’ or ‘M.A.C’ [5]) there were only 12 students engaged in graduate studies [4]. Through the removal of rules that limited staff involvement in graduate study to vacation periods, Friday made quick progress in reviving the once glutted graduate programs, with 75 enrolled in 1923-4 and 151 enrolled by the 1925-6 school year [3]. Under his tenure, seven departments were authorized to begin conferring doctoral degrees in farm crops, entomology, soils, horticulture, chemistry, botany, and bacteriology[3]. The first Ph.D. was granted in 1925 to Edward J. Petry, whose dissertation focused on the role of root nodules in the nitrogen assimilation processes of Ceanothus Americanus (commonly known as ‘New Jersey Tea’) [6].

Scan of Dissertation cover page, text reads Physiological Studies on Ceanothus Americanus Thesis for Degree of Ph.D. Edward J. Petry 1925
Text on Cover of MSU’s first dissertation. Provided Courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections.


Despite this quick recovery some major issues were left unresolved, including persistent gaps in standardization and the lack of a central administrative body for managing graduate education interdepartmentally. In light of these issues, the Board of Trustees voted on July 11th 1928 to establish ‘the Graduate School’ in order to pursue inter-department central planning, guide implementation of programs, and to approve conferral of doctoral degrees [4, 7]. Beginning the following year, the authority and responsibilities of the Committee on Graduate Studies was transferred to the first graduate dean, Ernst A. Bessey [4, 8]. Bessey was chosen on the basis of his interdisciplinary training in linguistics and mycology, as well has his prior engagement with directing graduate study [8].

photo of seven faculty members in a classroom, in front a chalk board.
Photograph of Botany Faculty as they appeared in the 1912 Yearbook. Ernst Bessey is pictured in the lower right hand corner. Photo courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections.

At this time renamed to Michigan State College of Agricultural and Applied Science [5], the school continued efforts at standardization under the leadership of the college’s twelfth president, John A. Hannah, to date the longest serving president in MSU’s history [9]. His tenure coincided with an unprecedented level of growth both physically and in terms of enrollment. During this time, ‘The Graduate School’ was reformed two times, firstly in 1944 as the ‘School for Graduate Studies’. The second reforming of this administrative body occurred during the transition to the school’s status as a university in 1955, becoming the ‘School for Advanced Graduate Studies’ [5, 10]. As part of this change, the management of Master’s degrees was returned to individual departments and the ‘School for Advanced Graduate Studies’ became solely responsible for the management of doctoral level degrees [10].

Despite these changes, the 1970 ‘Report on the Future of MSU’ notes the decentralized management of graduate education as a persistent barrier in the development of the university [4]. These concerns are echoed by several pieces in campus and local newspapers. In 1974, a piece in ‘The State News’ brought attention to the then empty graduate deanship, and outlined the intention of COGS to develop a committee focused on restructuring graduate education at MSU [11]. A 1982 article in the Lansing State Journal raised concerns about the ‘grad drain’ in Michigan, and the Midwest more broadly, citing the increasing flow of the state’s would-be graduate students to the east and west coasts and the lack of attractive, tech focused programs at the state’s universities [12]. In 1989, Provost David Scott formed CORRAGE, Council On the Review of Research and Graduate Education, to reconsider the structuring of graduate education and to submit recommendations for its reform [13]. An article in the Fall 1993 issue of the ‘Graduate Post’ cites the Graduate School’s continuing reliance on ‘indirect administration’ practices in outlining the need for a restructuring of the organization and foreshadowing its re-founding the following year [4].

The Graduate School—in its current organizational form—was established in 1994 in response to these issues, and set out to “stimulate broader, more interdepartmental research ventures, raise the status of graduate education at Michigan State, and promote the support and preparation of graduate students as the next generation of academic professionals” [4]. The rising status and strength of graduate education at MSU attests to their success in these matters. The Graduate School, on top of other functions, is instrumental in advocacy for graduate education and connecting graduate students to programs and resources offered at the university, including workshops, conferences, details on funding opportunities, etc [14].

Timeline of Graduate Education at MSU, composed by author.


Although no Campus Archaeology Program excavations have focused on contexts specifically associated with graduate students at MSU, this post offers some basic background information that helps to render visible the long history of graduate education at MSU, and provides reason to keep graduate students in mind as part of MSU’s student body even in excavations dating to the earliest days of the university. It also offers a chance to emphasize the role of archival research in historical archaeology, a role often understated in popular representations of archaeological methodologies. Archival research, and the painstaking work of archivists, provides archaeologists important contextual information that helps us plan for—and interpret the results of—survey and excavation projects. It also warrants mention that in addition to The Graduate School’s 25th anniversary, 2019 also boasts the 50th anniversary of the University Archives! The CAP blog is full of wonderful examples of the crucial role archival research plays in our work, including this post on the identification of a fragment of mortar as a part of a list of names written on the wall of College Hall from an archived photo, and these two posts on an archaeological survey of the Sanford Lot sugar house, in addition to many others.


[1] 2019 Fall 2019 Enrollment Report. Submitted by Teresa A. Sullivan to the MSU Board of Trustees Policy Committee on Oct. 4th 2019.

[2] 2019 Office of the Registrar, Academic Programs – Graduate Degrees (list). Digitally accessible here.

[3] 1955 Kuhn, Madison. Michigan State: The First Hundred Years. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, MI.

[4] 1993 Author Unknown. A Brief History of Graduate Study at Michigan State. Published in the ‘Graduate Post’, Fall 1993. Provided courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections.

[5] MSU Timeline. Published within ‘On the Banks of the Red Cedar’. Accessible online here.

[6] 1925 Petry, Edward J. Physiological Studies on Ceanothus Americanus. Dissertation submitted in Partial Fulfillment of Ph.D. in Botany, Michigan State University. Digitally accessible here.

[7] 1928 State Board of Agriculture, Minutes of the State Board of Agriculture, July 11th 1928. Provided courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections. Digitally accessible here.

[8] 1929 Committee on Advanced Degrees, Creation of Deanship of Graduate School. Provided courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections.

[9] John A. Hannah (b. 1902 d. 1991). In ‘MSU Presidents Since 1857’ digital exhibit published by MSU University Archives & Historical Collections. Digitally accessible here.

[10] 1960 Author Unknown. Graduate Education at Michigan State University. Provided courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections

 [11] 1974 Ourlian, Bob. Dean for Graduate Studies Urged. Published in ‘The State News’, January 23rd, 1974. Provided courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections.

[12] 1982 Mallory, James. Experts Warn Grad Drain Hurts State. Published in the ‘Lansing State Journal’, October 10th 1982. Provided courtesy of the MSU University Archives & Historical Collections.

[13] 2019 The Graduate School. 25 Years of Leading Graduate Education at Michigan State University. Digitally accessible here.

[14] 2019 The Graduate School. About Us. Digitally accessible here.

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