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UNIVERSITY HISTORY

The University of Pennsylvania:
America's First University

 

Penn does not claim to be America's first college, but it is America's first University.

In the Anglo-American model, a college, by definition, is a faculty whose subject specialization is in a single academic field. This is usually arts and sciences (often referred to as "liberal arts"), but may also be one of the professions: law, medicine, theology, etc.

A university, by contrast, is the co-existence, under a single institutional umbrella, of more than one faculty.

Penn founded the first medical school in America (in 1765; Columbia was second).

In that year, therefore, Penn became "America's first university."

If you wish to take the position that "first university" means first institution of higher learning with the name "university," Penn also qualifies as first. In 1779, the Pennsylvania state legislature conferred a new corporate charter upon the College of Philadelphia, renaming it the "University of the State of Pennsylvania" (in 1791 still another new charter granted Penn its current name). No other American institution of higher learning was named "University" before Penn.

So whether you take the "de facto" position (1765) or the "de jure" position (1779), Penn is indeed "America's first university."

Mark Frazier Lloyd, Director
University Archives
November, 1999