The arrival of Fr. Sorin

The University of Notre Dame began late on the bitterly cold afternoon of November 26, 1842, when a 28-year-old French priest, Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., and seven companions, all of them members of the recently established Congregation of Holy Cross, took possession of 524 snow-covered acres that the Bishop of Vincennes had given them in the Indiana mission fields.

Within two years, Fr. Sorin and his companion brothers had constructed a religious novitiate, a vocational institution for apprentices, a preparatory high school, and a men’s college. Fr. Sorin named the fledgling school, in his mother tongue, L’Universite de Notre Dame du Lac. The Indiana State Legislature provided official recognition of the University on January 15, 1844, conferring on it the power to grant degrees.


In the subsequent decades, the University began to award graduate degrees, although most were honorary, given to successful businessmen in recognition of their achievements.

Beginning in the 1870s, the University began to offer graduate-level courses in philosophy, history, and the natural sciences.

Announcement for the first graduate course offered by the university in 1874:
“The want of such a course has been for a long time felt by students desirous of continuing to perfect themselves in those studies which require several years of close attention. The Postgraduate Course is now open, and we invite our Graduates, and such others as are able, to enter it and avail themselves of the advantages it affords of prosecuting their studies to a successful conclusion. The students in this course occupy themselves with Philosophy, History, and Natural Sciences. Law and Civil Engineering may be optional studies of the course.”

Early 1900s

As Holy Cross Provincial for the United States from 1897 to 1906, Fr. John Zahm, C.S.C. worked to transform Notre Dame into a great university. He erected buildings and added to the campus art gallery and library. During these years, he purchased nearly 200 volumes a year on Dante, amassing a 3,000-volume collection that even now ranks as one of the best in North America and continues to be held at the University. A brilliant scholar who later accompanied former President Theodore Roosevelt on a South American expedition, Fr. Zahm built the science departments at Notre Dame and inspired the University’s first flowerings in research. His brother, Albert, was among the earliest and most influential pioneers of the aerodynamics of flying machines, and during Fr. Zahm’s tenure, Notre Dame was the site of the nation’s first wireless transmission—an achievement of Prof. Jerome Green.

The Committee of the Faculty on Graduate Work was appointed in 1905. It mandated that candidates for advanced degrees must pursue one major and two minor courses, pass a written examination, and write a dissertation. Rather than individual tutorial arrangements with faculty members, graduate education was recast in the German model, in which students conduct research as a primary learning tool.

Fr. Zahm

Fr. Zahm was also concerned with reconciling faith and reason:
No, the man of science is not intellectually hampered because he happens to be a man of faith and of strong religious persuasions. His acceptance of the Bible does not handicap him in research nor preclude him from enjoying the completest mental liberty of which moral man is capable. His faith shields him from danger as the beacon-light protects the mariner from harm, but it in no wise restricts his freedom of thought and action.
By hearkening to the gentle voice of religion he escapes the errors of Atheism, Pantheism, Materialism, and Monism, which are at present so rampant, and which have more than anything else obstructed research and retarded the progress of true science.
Bible, Science, and Faith by John Zahm, C.S.C


Notre Dame’s Summer School opened. Devised primarily for secondary school teachers to continue their own education during the summer, it became the principal vehicle for graduate study. Many students were religious teachers seeking advanced training.


President James A. Burns, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s great theorist of education and the first Notre Dame president with an advanced degree, revolutionized the University in the 1920s. In eliminating the preparatory school and dramatically upgrading the Law School, in establishing the University’s first meager endowment and a board of lay advisors to oversee it, Fr. Burns made it clear that Notre Dame was committed to nothing less than preeminence in American Catholic higher education.

Fr. Burns was instrumental in elevating graduate education at the University. He recruited faculty with doctorates, created the five-college administrative structure, encouraged research, and was a prodigious fundraiser with foundations such as the Rockefeller and Carnegie Corporations. The legacy of early research at Notre Dame includes the work of the Rev. Julius Nieuwland, a renowned botanist, who experimented with chemical reactions on vinyl-acetylene in the 1920s. Fr. Nieuwland’s work led to the Du Pont Chemical Company’s development of neoprene, the first synthetic rubber.

“We have a [faculty member] who devotes most of his time to research  … My ambition is to have this kind of work going on in every department. But money is necessary, and we have to proceed slowly and patiently.”
—Rev. James A. Burns, C.S.C. President of the University, 1919-1922 in a letter to a friend


University President Rev. John O’Hara

The University officially created the Graduate School in 1932. Still, most graduate work at Notre Dame continued to be concentrated in the Summer Session, which was attended largely by Catholic religious. In 1931, 437 graduate students studied in the summer session; only 59 during the academic year. Prominent visiting faculty were brought to campus during the summer months to augment the faculty ranks.

Also in the 1930s, University President Rev. John O’Hara, C.S.C. traveled to Europe in search of artists, scientists, and scholars eager to flee the policies of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party and other fascist organizations and join the faculty at Notre Dame. Among these prominent European academicians were mathematician Karl Menger, physicists Arthur Haas and Eugene Guth, and political scientists Waldemar Gurian and F.A. Hermens, all of whom helped establish doctoral programs at Notre Dame in their specialties and were the pioneers in a migration that eventually brought more than 40 distinguished European educators and researchers to campus.

Doctoral degrees offered in 1932:

  • Systematic Botany
  • Organic Chemistry

Master of arts programs offered during the academic year 1932–1933:

  • Boy Guidance
  • Economics and Politics
  • Education
  • English
  • History
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology

Master of science programs offered during the academic year 1932–1933:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Physics

Master of arts programs offered during the Summer Session 1932:

  • Classics
  • Modern Languages
  • Music

Early 1940s

In the early 1940s, the Graduate School was re-organized under the direction of a dean (first, the Rev. Philip Moore, C.S.C.) and a graduate council. In Fall term 1940, 149 students were enrolled in graduate courses in the regular session; yet, during the war years, enrollment decreased markedly.

In 1946, the Rev. John J. Cavanaugh, C.S.C. made advanced study and research a priority at Notre Dame when he became the University’s 15th president. The University’s doctoral and master’s degree programs were greatly expanded—including programs in engineering mechanics and aeronautics, English, history, sociology, education, and medieval studies. Notre Dame’s preeminent Medieval Institute was formally founded in 1946. A second institute followed four years later: the Laboratories of Bacteriology, University of Notre Dame (LOBUND), which performed important research into bacteria-free life.


Beginning in 1952, the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., presided over the expansion of graduate education. Graduate students numbered 750 in the 1956–1957 academic year. The Distinguished Professors Program attracted such world-renowned scholars as sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, historian Rev. Philip Hughes, and philosophy professor Rev. I.M. Bochenski, OP.


November 1968 protest

Graduate programs in science flourished in the 1960s, as government funding increased during America’s effort to surpass the Soviet Union in the space race. By the mid-1960s, graduate enrollment rose at Notre Dame and at other institutions across the country as many students sought to delay induction into the military during the Vietnam War. By the end of the 1960s, graduate enrollment was a record 1,270 students in 23 different programs.


Engineering faculty member and student

Using outside review reports, the University took steps in the 1970s to locate graduate studies in programs in which it could excel—building up resources in those areas and combining or eliminating other departments (including the graduate program in the Department of Education). Resources at the library were also improved, and stipends for graduate students were increased to attract more top-level students.

Early 1980s-1990s

Under the leadership of the Rev. Edward Malloy, C.S.C., great strides were taken to intensify the research aspects of the University. Under Fr. Malloy’s leadership, the University dramatically increased the number of endowed professorships held by faculty members who advance the academic frontiers of their disciplines through research and scholarship—from 19 endowed chairs in 1981 to 105 in 1993-1994. Also in this period, the Graduate School initiated its Schmitt Fellowships to attract top students in engineering and science, and its Presidential Fellowships to attract top students in the humanities and social sciences. Then and now, these select fellowships allow Notre Dame to compete for students with the top universities in the country.


President John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. assumed office in July 2005 and placed a renewed emphasis on graduate education and research. Building upon traditional strengths in teaching and in pursuing knowledge with an awareness of its ethical and moral implications, he pledged to commit Notre Dame to elevating its graduate programs to excellence.

In 2006, Provost Tom Burish issued a report separating Graduate Studies and the Notre Dame Research. After two interim deans, Professor of Theology Gregory E. Sterling was appointed Dean of the Graduate School in July 2008.

Also in 2008, Richard and Peggy Notebaert endowed a Premier Fellowship Program, designed to attract top doctoral prospects from around the globe to study at Notre Dame. The Notebaert Fellowships provide generous, competitive stipends as well as additional funding for professional development.

The University’s profile as a whole continues to rise. Over the last decade, the number of endowed professorships and directorships at Notre Dame has risen from 138 to over 250.

Currently, 2221 students are enrolled in the four divisions of the Graduate School: Engineering, Humanities, Science, and Social Science. At Commencement 2014, the Graduate School awarded 344 master’s degrees and 204 Ph.D. degrees.

Sources and Acknowledgements:

  • Academic Development, University of Notre Dame, Past, Present, and Future, Philip S. Moore, C.S.C. (1960)
  • The Graduate School at Notre Dame: A Historical Perspective, Dana Heupel (1992)
  • University of Notre Dame: A Contemporary Portrait, Robert Schmuhl (1986)
  • University of Notre Dame Archives, with special thanks to Charles Lamb, Assistant Director
  • The Dante Collection, Department of Special Collections, University of Notre Dame
Maintaining and even deepening our fidelity to our Catholic mission, we must excel in training the minds of our students, cultivating the convictions of their hearts, and seeking preeminence as a research university. Only in this way can we be the unifying, healing, enlightening place we are called to be, and fulfill the hopes so many have for this University.

— Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.,
President of the University of Notre Dame
Address to the Faculty, September 26, 2006