Campus Pond and Old Chapel, with strong reflections in the water

UMass History

The Heart of Campus

Iconic Old Chapel, shown here in a postcard circa 1915

Our History

The University of Massachusetts Amherst traces its origins back more than a century and a half. Throughout that time, it has steadily and dramatically evolved and expanded. Even so, UMass Amherst has always been marked by a deep dedication to the public good—or, as old term had it, the “common weal.”

At first, that approach had one narrow target, scientific agriculture. The Massachusetts Agricultural College (MAC) was founded in 1863 under the national Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act. Set on 310 rural acres, it offered its first classes in 1867. It then had four faculty members, four wooden buildings, 56 students, and a curriculum combining modern farming, science, technical courses, and a smattering of the liberal arts.

In 1892 the first female student enrolled and graduate degrees were authorized. Over time, the college’s curriculum, facilities, and student body outgrew its original mission. In 1931, to reflect its ever-broadening curriculum, “Mass Aggie” became Massachusetts State College. In 1947, “Mass State” in turn became the University of Massachusetts.

Immediately after World War II, the university experienced rapid growth in facilities, programs, and enrollment, with 4,000 students in 1954. By 1964, with the earliest Baby Boomers coming of age, undergraduate enrollment jumped to 10,500. The turbulent political environment of the time brought a sit-in to the newly constructed Whitmore Administration Building. By the end of the decade, the completion of Southwest Residential Complex and the Alumni Stadium, and the establishment of many new academic departments, gave the campus much of its modern look.

In the 1970s, continued growth gave rise to a shuttle-bus service on campus as well as several important architectural additions: the Murray D. Lincoln Campus Center, with a hotel, office space, fine-dining restaurant, campus store, and passageway to a multi-level parking garage; the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, the world’s tallest academic library, and the Fine Arts Center, with performance space for world-class music, dance, and theater.

By 1990 the campus, now called the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the flagship of the state’s new five-campus university system, was emerging as a major research facility with the construction of the Lederle Graduate Research Center and the Conte National Polymer Research Center. The new William D. Mullins Center, a multipurpose sports and convocation facility, and the Paul Robsham Visitors Center bustled with activity. On the athletic front, in 1996 the Minutemen were Atlantic 10 Conference Basketball Champions and went to the NCAA Final Four. In 1999, the founding of Commonwealth College, later renamed Commonwealth Honors College, began attracting highly academically gifted students in unprecedented numbers.

During the first decade of the 21st century, UMass Amherst gained an ever-stronger national and international reputation for excellence. Notable additions to the campus included the Studio Arts Building, the Integrated Sciences Building, a new heat-and-power-generation facility, and the Commonwealth Honors College Living and Learning Complex.

Over the last decade, UMass Amherst has formulated overarching, comprehensive objectives. These include maintaining and improving student affordability and access; continually enhancing the student learning experience; strengthening the university’s research and development enterprise; promoting diversity and a welcoming and collegial campus climate; energetically and strategically renewing the faculty; increasing the university’s endowment; maintaining a leadership role in public service; providing state-of-the-art administrative and IT services; and positioning UMass Amherst among the top tier of national public research universities.

This strategy has resulted in unprecedented success and momentum for the university. The hugely successful UMass Rising fundraising campaign exceeded its goals. The creation of the groundbreaking Institute for Applied Life Sciences cemented the university’s international standing as a major locus of research in the life sciences. An ambitious collaboration with MassMutual led to increased research and faculty in data sciences and cyber security. Other highlights of this momentum are evident across campus and include the new Physical Sciences Building, Business Innovation Hub, John Olver Design Building, as well as the dramatic restoration and reconfiguration of the historic Old Chapel and South College buildings.

The university’s growing reputation is reflected in its position as one of U.S. News and World Report's top public, four-year universities, in its online MBA program ranked #1 nationally and #3 in the world, and in repeated recognition for serving the best food among all American colleges. The academic profile of incoming students has steadily increased for many years running and shows every indication of continuing to climb.

More than 150 after its founding, the flagship campus of the commonwealth is a major economic engine for Massachusetts, educating its citizenry and driving innovation, while its national and international standing and influence continue to grow.