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A Not-So-Brief History of Montana State University

    Montana State University is the largest university in the state of Montana. It offers sixty bachelor degrees, forty-five master’s degrees and doctoral degrees in twenty-three fields! In 2014 the enrollment was over fifteen thousand students and that number is only growing. The school that started out as nothing more than a land-grant college focusing on agriculture has begun to become a hub for growth and diversity. Montana State University is one of the main contributing factors for the growth of the city of Bozeman. But how did it get here? How did it go from the Agricultural College of the State of Montana to one of the leading universities in our Treasure State? Well, I guess it’s time for class.


Early Bozeman Montana

Photo courtesy of Ebay

    In May of 1864, a portion of the Dakota Territory was turned into Montana Territory. The Legislative Assembly of Montana spent the next twenty-five years fighting to become a state. Finally, on November 8 of 1889, the territory of Montana became the 41st state in the United States of America. Once Montana achieved its statehood it had the difficult choice of finding a location for its capital. After quite a bit of competing, the city of Helena was chosen as the capital. However, the city of Bozeman had fought hard and as a consolation, the state legislature offered to put the land-grant college in the city.


Montana State University Early

Photo courtesy of ePodunk

    On February 16 of 1893, the Agricultural College of the State of Montana opened. They held the first classes in the county high school. Later that year they moved to some classrooms in the Bozeman Academy, a now-closed private, preparatory school. The first students at the Agricultural College of the State of Montana were originally from the Bozeman Academy and had been forced to transfer. The first staff consisted of two individuals who were later joined by three additional members. One of those new faculty members was Augustus M. Ryon, the first president of the school.

Montana State University Early days, Montana Hall

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia 

    Ryon regularly clashed with the board of trustees and other members of the faculty. One of the issues was that the board wanted the school to focus on agricultural courses and degrees, but Ryon was against it. He argued that the students who were attending the college weren’t looking to continue careers in agriculture but wanted to bring something different to their community. The board and Ryon clashed on an additional front when Ryon refused to establish a remedial education program to assist unprepared undergraduates. Finally, in 1895 Ryon was replaced with Rev. Dr. James R. Reid. Reid served for ten years and expanded both the campus and the curriculum. In 1896 the construction for the Main Building (Montana Hall) and the Agriculture Experiment Station (Taylor Hall) began, ending two years later. In 1898, Reid extended the curriculum to civil and electrical engineering.


Montana State University James M. Hamilton. Third President of MSU

President James M. Hamilton at a costume party

    In 1905, following Reid’s resignation, Dr. James M. Hamilton became the third president of MSU. Hamilton wanted the college to focus on technology. He extended the curriculum to include many programs in biology, engineering, chemistry, physics, and geology. Hamilton established the first school motto, “Education for Efficiency.” In 1913 the official name for the college became the Montana College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, despite that name being unofficially used since 1894. Under both Hamilton and his successor, Alfred Atkinson, the Montana State College (MSC) campus experienced rapid growth. Hamilton oversaw the addition of the buildings Linfield Hall in 1908, Hamilton Hall in 1910, and Traphagen Hall in 1919. Under Atkinson, Romney Gym was built in 1922 and in 1923 Lewis Hall, Roberts Hall, and the Heating Plant were built followed by Herrick Hall in 1926.

Downtown Bozeman in the 1910's

Downtown Bozeman, home of the Red-Light District

    During the first three decades of MSC, the city of Bozeman was also growing. And the city’s red-light district was slowly but steadily leaking onto the campus. The red-light district began to flourish twenty years prior to the opening of the college thanks to a miss Louisa Couselle. Even when Couselle passed away in 1895, the district was so well established that it only grew. By 1904, Downtown Bozeman had at least nine “female boarding” homes, several opium dens above and below ground, as well as several saloons and dance halls that were known for their excessive “petting.” President Reid had tried to crack down on the students excessive drinking, gambling, dancing, and prostitution. And while his fight took a toll on the red-light district, it also impacted his health and contributed to his resignation. President Hamilton had Hamilton Hall constructed as a female only dormitory, adult men were allowed inside only on Sundays and only in the first-floor lobby. Teenage boys were allowed in Hamilton Hall but only as servants. Sports and other extracurricular programs were started with the hope that students would be busy engaging in club activities and wouldn’t have time to visit the unsavory part of downtown.


Bozeman Rifle Team at Montana State University during Prohibition Era

Women's Rifle Team in 1924

    While Atkinson was president of MSC, the battle against unsavory behavior continued. Atkinson became president in 1920’s, the year as the Prohibition Era. The Prohibition Era saw an increase in the excessive drinking performed by the students, and the Jazz Era had them dancing more than ever. Atkinson’s plan of action was to restrict freshman activity. He created the Septemviri, a council of seven men. They recruited sophomore men (called Fangs) and women (called Spurs) to help them. They required freshman male students to wear beanies and freshmen women to wear sashes to help identify them from the rest. Students who failed to follow the rules were brought before the Septemviri to discuss a proper punishment. A common punishment for freshman was a late night dunking in the muck of the frog pond.

Montana State University, Bozeman Montana Frog Pond Early 1920s

Frog Pond Tug-o-War

    By the time the 30’s rolled around the rebellious behavior of the students had a small drop but not by much. The last of the red-light district was dying and the impacts of the war were felt everywhere. However, that didn’t stop the students for long. In the eyes of the faculty, too many students were still heavily smoking, engaging in an activity called train hopping, and participating in secret marriages because the campus forbids students from being married. The Dean of Women tried to curb the behavior by setting the Hamilton Hall residents’ curfew at 11 pm. instead of midnight. The students rebelled and hosted a four-day boycott of classes that reached national news. When President Atkinson learned about it while out of town he immediately returned and attempted to exercise control by declaring that the administration would make rules about student conduct without student input. In 1935 the Atkinson Quadrangle was built on the site of the College Inn, which had been previously dubbed the “Bobcat Lair.” The Quads, as they are still known today, were another all-female living option on the campus. Atkinson resigned in 1937 and was replaced by A.L. Strand. Strand had the Student Union Building built to give students a place to congregate outside the dorms and downtown.


Montana State University 1942

The Majorettes at Practice

    After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Montana jumped into the war-effort full throttle. The male enrollment at MSC dropped significantly and the male-centric extracurriculars dwindled down. As a result, the female population at MSC began to actively fill the void left by the men. The nursing program grew to accommodate the war effort, while women began enrolling in degrees and programs typically dominated by the men. Women were getting degrees in agriculture and in engineering programs. The male population decreased again in 1942 when the statewide sugar beet panic called for them to leave school and travel east to help harvest the crop before they could rot. In 1943 Roland Renne became the next president of MSC. Eight days prior to Renne’s appointment the United States passed the G.I. Bill, and with the end of the war approaching Renne knew that the enrollment at MSC would skyrocket. Renne began collecting recycled wartime and mining wooden buildings from around the state, these would act as temporary classrooms and dorms until permanent buildings could be made. Renne also hired a surplus of faculty. When the war ended in 1945, Renne’s prediction was proven correct. Between 1945 and 1946 the number of students enrolled nearly doubled, providing new life to the curriculum, the sports clubs, and other extracurricular activities.

Trailer Village in 1946 at Montana State University, Bozeman

Temporary Housing at Montana State University 

    Following the rise in student enrollment and faculty employment, Renne sought to expand the college. During his twenty-one year presidency, Renne had eighteen buildings constructed. He expanded the campus a full mile to the west and an additional half mile to the south. Not only did Renne work to expand the physical campus but to extend the curriculum beyond just the sciences. Programs in the liberal arts began to take root and grow at MSC, degrees in archeology, history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and political science were now offered. However, like with all interesting figures, there was controversy surrounding Renne. Renne was a devout liberal in an otherwise conservative state. To keep the college free from backlash and to continue to receive funding for his new programs, Renne kept his ideals relatively private and even denied Eleanor Roosevelt that chance to speak at the campus.

Hamilton Hall at Montana State University, Bozeman

Hamilton Hall

    Despite Renne’s best efforts, the students were still restless. And soon the male students of MSC participated in the latest college trend. This trend had been popular since it’s first ever occurrence in 1949 and many students were using it as a humorous protest against curfews and the separation of the sexes on college campuses. That’s right, on March 7th, 1957, an astounding 1,000 male students descended on the female-dorm, Hamilton Hall, in a panty raid. The panty raid at MSC was small compared to the size of some (the University of California had a 3,000-man panty raid.) However, the one at MSC dissolved into an all-night riot that the Bozeman police struggled to contain.


Montana State University, Bozeman

Campus Aerial View

    A year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Renne resigned as president of MSC to run for governor. In 1964 he was succeeded by Dr. Leon H. Johnson. Johnson shared Renne’s passion for growth and pushed for MSC to be named a university. In 1965, Montana State College became Montana State University. Once MSU was born more bachelor degrees were added including, English, history, music, political science, and economics. However, unlike Renne, Johnson was a steadfast conservative. Many of Johnson’s policies were supported by the student body, who surprisingly were as conservative as Johnson was.

Another Country by James Baldwin,

Photo courtesy of Abe Books

    However, America’s youth is a restless and scrappy lot. Despite many shared opinions, the protests and growing radicalism that had been affecting campuses across the nation reached MSU. It began in 1966 with a hundred students protesting the Vietnam War. Two underground student newspapers emerged, one called The Stiletto, and students began organizing clubs to debate the issues of the day. Student protests grew when Johnson tried to ban English professor James Myers from assigning students the novel Another Country, a novel by James Baldwin that contained many taboos of time such as bisexuality and interracial couples. Protests about the separation of sexes and curfews in 1969 ended with Johnson threatening to call city police. Johnson passed away from a heart attack later on that year and his successor was vice president, William Johnstone. Johnstone had the pleasure to kick off his career as MSU ’s acting president with another student protest. In 1970, the favored English professor James Myer was terminated and over 250 students engaged in a sit-in at Montana Hall. The protest ended more peacefully than most but was ultimately a failure, eight other faculty members aided the protest by resigning.


Creative Arts Buildings at Montana State University, Bozeman

Creative Arts Buildings Layout Plan

    In 1970, Dr. Carl W. McIntosh became MSU’s eighth president. McIntosh worked hard the first two years of his presidency and ultimately did great things for the university. In 1972 he persuaded the legislature to allow MSU to participate in the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho (WWAMI) medical education program and in 1973 the college of nursing’s Sherrick Hall was finished. However, in 1973 President Nixon’s budget cuts hit MSU hard, it decreased the federal funding many programs relied on. Then in 1974, while MSU was building the Creative Arts Complex, the women faculty members sued the school for gender discrimination, claiming the school "discriminated against [women] in the areas of promotion, tenure, salary, and appointment to important university committees." And in 1976 they won the lawsuit resulting in a $400,000 damages award, a back-pay award and extensive promotions that increased salaries. McIntosh had to terminate several masters and doctoral degrees as well as all advanced programs in the social sciences to handle the new fiscal realities. 

Montana State University

Audience at Women Aware

    In 1977 McIntosh was forced to resign after the “hidden million” controversy. MSU’s ninth president, Dr. William Tietz, was appointed in August, just as the financial and economic conditions of the state were improving. Tietz was aggressive and energetic, he put a strong focus on research, diversity, and faculty development. In 1981 the legislature made the decision to refund indirect cost payments back to MSU, which greatly helped Tietz’s research funding. Under Tietz faculty salaries increased by 15% and the Native American Studies, created back in 1967, met a period of growth in the 1980’s. The Visual Communications Building, a film and tv center,  was also constructed under Tietz in 1983. However, in the mid-1980’s Montana’s coal, oil, and agricultural industries met hardship. To coup with the sudden budget cuts, Tietz elected to focus on the university’s most successful programs. As a result, programs like industrial arts, business education, and engineering science were cut. Tietz proposed cutting the school of architecture but was met with a large amount of backlash so Tietz backed down. Tietz finally resigned in March 1990 because he was tired of battling bureaucracy.


Brick Breeden Fieldhouse at Montana State University, Bozeman

Brick Breeden Fieldhouse

    Michael P. Malone was appointed as the acting president in January of 1991 and became the official president in March of that year. The 90’s were a prosperous year for MSU. Malone shared many of Tietz’s ambitions and without the economic crisis, Tietz faced, the campus was able to flourish. The students at MSU finally had a president that was like-minded. An avid sports fan and a strong believer in research, Malone fought hard for both. He renovated and expanded several sports facilities, hired competent coaches and made sure he personally attended every game. For research he fought tirelessly against the state legislature, believing that the state was unwilling to invest in high technology education. Malone also worked to expand alumni fund-raising programs. During his presidency, Malone was loved by many, despite the criticism he would receive after his passing. Malone was accused of starting projects he couldn’t finish, being too willing to build new buildings while refusing to provide adequate teaching equipment, and tuition doubled under his presidency.

Henrietta Mann at Montana State University

Dr. Henrietta Mannas 

    After Malone’s passing in 1999, he was replaced by Geoffrey Gamble as the 11th president of MSU. Gamble’s main ambitions as president were research and diversity. Under Gamble, MSU implemented the “Core 2.0 curriculum” and increased federal research funding from $50 million to $98.4 million by 2009. To create more diversity, Gamble began by appointing the first female vice president. To collaborate with the seven Native American campuses in Montana, Gamble appointed Dr. Henrietta Mannas as his representative to the seven tribal colleges and created the Council of Elders.


Montana State University

    After Gamble retired in 2009 he was succeeded by Waded Cruzado, the current president of MSU. Cruzado jumped immediately into more expansion, renovating campus buildings, constructing new buildings for student housing, and initiating an ambitious 90-day campaign for private funding. Under Cruzado the student enrollment continues to increase, growing from 13,559 in 2010 to 16,902 in the fall of 2018. The fall after Cruzado took office also saw the new Gallatin College, which offered two-year programs at Montana State University.


     Montana State University has a long and rich history, I mean they just celebrated their 125th birthday! If you want to learn even more about the exciting MSU head on over to their website! MSU's history has always been closely tied to Bozeman's, as well as Bozeman's more interesting side. If you want to learn more about the lesser-known history of this great city check out Extreme History Project and make their fun walking tours apart of your next summer visit! 


By: Issa Rabideaux

Photos not credited are courtesy of MSU 

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