Spanning ten campuses, serving more than 250,000 students, employing more than 165,000 staff and faulty members, and connecting more than 1.86 million living alumni, the University of California is, by some metrics, the most comprehensive postsecondary educational system in the world. Not bad for a liberal arts school founded on a four-square-block plot of an undeveloped town in the shadow of the California Gold Rush.
Were it not for the guiding hand of Henry Durant, this premier public university system might have been a mere footnote in the history of the Golden State. The school’s co-founder and very first president, Durant saw his University through its shaky first years, helping navigate it through a massive transformation, and ultimately establishing himself as among the foremost pioneers of California’s now-vaunted system of higher education.
An educator and minister, Durant was born in 1802 to a devoutly Protestant family in Acton, Massachusetts. Throughout his life, Durant was drawn to the twin passions of education and faith, first attending the Andover Theological Seminary, then graduating from the ministry at Yale University in 1827, and eventually becoming the ordained pastor of a congregation in Byfield, Massachusetts. Durant performed admirably in his duties for sixteen years before making the first of several unpredictable about-faces in his career.
Durant left the ministry suddenly for furniture manufacturing, a move that can only be speculatively attributed to Durant’s enterprising nature and the Industrial Age transforming northern Massachusetts. Then, after six years in his new business, Durant suddenly shifted gears once again, veering into education.
From 1849 to 1852, Durant was headmaster for the Dummer Academy (probably a good thing for the marketing team that the name was changed to The Governor’s Academy in 2005. Seriously, that’s a tough name for a school and it really was hurting enrollment).
Go West, Middle-Aged Man
For Durant though, Dummer Academy was just the training ground for redefining higher education in the still-untamed west. In 1853, Durant once again altered the course of his life without forewarning. As the Gold Rush boomed, Durant voyaged by sea to California in 1853. His departure was so sudden that his wife Mary would be forced to make the voyage separately thereafter.
Upon arrival in the San Francisco Bay area, Durant partnered with Dr. Samuel H. Willey to found a liberal arts school for boys called Contra Costa Academy. The college prep school enjoyed rapid expansion in its original location in the newborn city of Oakland.
After two years of solid growth, Contra Costa changed its name to the College of California. Actual college courses would be introduced five years later. Oakland’s population was growing, as was its proclivity toward crowded conditions and rowdy behavior. Seeking a quieter location for their studies, the college trustees endeavored to relocate, eventually settling on the as-yet-unfounded city of Berkeley. Indeed, this new school would soon put the fledgling California town on the map.
It would not be without some serious hardship though. Trustees invested in a large number of lots in Berkeley, some of which they hoped would finance the new campus. The late 1850s saw nationwide economic downturn. Sales on the lots were disappointing, as was the general level of interest in a liberal arts education among northern California’s young residents. By 1866, with the first Transcontinental Railroad under construction, interest was much higher in agriculture, mining, and mechanical arts. As fortune would have it, the state had recently chartered a school called the Agricultural, Mining, and Mechanical Arts College. The school was flush with public funding but otherwise existed only on paper.
Meanwhile, the College of California most definitely existed but was desperately short on paper. In 1867, the tireless Henry Durant collaborated with the state governor to bring these two institutions into a merger that connected land, money, and ambition to forge the University of California.
As the school gained its financial independence, Durant drove headlong into the real estate business. At one point late in his life, Durant owned a significant percentage of established property in Oakland.
Suitably, Durant was selected to serve as the new university’s first president, though only after several candidates declined the nomination. He took the post in 1870, just as the school was preparing to make its big move from Oakland to Berkeley. He only held office for two years. Though still active and dynamic at the advanced age of 70, he stepped aside to make room for a younger headmaster.
Just one year later, in 1873, the school made its official move to Berkeley. The recently retired co-founder stayed behind in Oakland to serve as its sixteenth mayor. He held the position for three years. He died suddenly while still in office, felled by a decidedly nineteenth-century-sounding ailment called “congestive chills.” However up until that point in 1875, Durant remained as always, tireless and busy.
Durant’s ambition would ultimately be rewarded with a lasting and remarkable impact on the landscape of higher education. Today, the University of California serves more than a quarter-million students, reporting a budget (as of 2016) of $28.5 billion dollars and commanding an endowment of $14.3 billion. Durant came to California in the midst of the great rush, founded a university, and struck education gold.