The evolution of a leader: A journey through DePaul's history of achievement

Kelsey Schagemann
June 16, 2017

As the 120th anniversary of DePaul's founding approaches, it's clear that the "Little school under the 'L'" has evolved from humble beginnings to become a nationally respected leader in higher education.

How did DePaul transform into the largest Catholic university in the nation and one of the top private universities in the country? One thing is certain: It didn't happen overnight. Instead, this evolution took place through small steps and big leaps, through the dedication and commitment of faculty, through the strategic oversight of the administration and through the talent and inspiration of a diverse student body.

A progressive foundation: 1875 - 1949

DePaul's first few decades saw the university defining its identity by opening its doors to women, expanding educational opportunities and participating in war efforts. It all began in 1875, when Vincentians from the Congregation of the Mission arrived in Chicago and opened a church in Lincoln Park at the northeast corner of Webster Ave. and Osgood, now Kenmore Avenue. A few years later, the first archbishop of Chicago, the Most Rev. Patrick Feehan, encouraged the Vincentians to establish a college on a site nearby.

About 70 students were enrolled at St. Vincent's College during its first year, 1898. Seven faculty members taught the courses, making for a slightly better student-faculty ratio than today's ratio of 16:1. Tuition for the 10-month term cost $40.

The college grew rapidly and by December 1907, it adopted the name it carries now: DePaul University. In 1911, in a truly progressive move, the university admitted its first female students into its summer programs; around 1914, the university went fully coed. In 1912, the university expanded to affiliate with the Illinois College of Law and also launched the School of Music and the College of Commerce (now known as the Driehaus College of Business). The latter is one of the 10 oldest business colleges in the country. After offering classes in Lincoln Park starting in January 1913, the College of Commerce moved its courses to the Loop in 1914.

Students Gloria Scholar and Jerri Larrson

Students Gloria Scholar and Jerri Larrson add stamps to their WWII ration books in 1942. (DePaul University/Special Collections and Archives)

During the years of active U.S. participation in World War I and World War II, DePaul established a Student Army Training Corps; offered tuition-free courses in production supervision, radio technician training, chemistry and mathematics; and created a special program that allowed freshman and sophomore men to enroll in both regular college courses and those that prepared them for the Navy Officer examination. In the years between the wars, DePaul established the first department of elementary education in the Midwest, reportedly only one of six in the country at the time.

Physical and curricular expansion: 1950 - 1979

These boom years brought new campus buildings and new curricula. Fundraising campaigns in support of scholarships, research, programming and faculty gave alumni an opportunity to give back to the university that had given them so much.

Foundations also led the charge in supporting DePaul. The Frank J. Lewis Foundation made a gift of the 18-story Kimball Building, known today as the Lewis Center, in 1955. Eleven years later, the Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation made a $1 million gift and the academic center was renamed in its honor.

The university's footprint expanded with building acquisitions and new structures. Alumni Hall, which was dedicated in 1956, housed an arena, gym, pool, locker rooms and handball courts, as well as classrooms, offices and the first on-campus cafeteria. The closure of DePaul Academy, an independent all-boys high school initially affiliated with the university, brought Byrne Hall into the university's fold in 1968. Byrne Hall became the new home for the department of psychology. The first student residence was erected in 1970, a six-story building called Clifton Hall - now Munroe Hall. Six years later saw a major expansion as DePaul acquired seven new acres and five buildings from the McCormick Theological Seminary's old campus in Lincoln Park.

DePaul's curriculum evolved during these years, in part due to the establishment of two new schools. In 1972, DePaul launched the School for New Learning, which was one of the country's first schools dedicated to adult learning. That same decade, aspiring thespians found a new home at DePaul when the university acquired the Goodman School of Drama, known today as The Theatre School, in 1978.

Members of the Black Student Union, 1960s

Members of the Black Student Union pose for a photo in the late 1960s. Some of the students raise their clenched fists in a show of solidarity and support for the Black Power Movement. (DePaul University/Special Collections and Archives)

During this period, the student body became an increasingly diverse group. During the 1960s, the number of African-American students grew from approximately 150 to 500. The still-active Black Student Union was established in 1968.

Diversity and leadership: 1980 - 1999

In 1980, DePaul had the second-largest enrollment of African Americans and Hispanics among private universities in Illinois, with 18 percent of students identifying as people of color. Efforts to increase these percentages intensified when DePaul joined Loyola University and Mundelein College to form the Hispanic Alliance in 1982. The alliance focused on improving educational opportunities for Hispanics in Chicago; for example, it created the Hispanic Women's Project in 1985 to focus specifically on higher-education access for Hispanic women.

DePaul rose to national prominence with several other high-profile initiatives. In 1982, the university was the first in the country to establish a Center for Church/State Studies, which was housed in the College of Law. Three years later, the College of Law launched the Health Law Institute, now the Mary and Michael Jaharis Health Law Institute. Also in 1985, the School for New Learning introduced the first competence-based master's degree program in the nation.

During the 1990s, DePaul turned outward as it sought solutions for both international and local issues. For example, the College of Law founded the International Human Rights Law Institute, the first such center in the Midwest.

The College of Commerce also strengthened its international scope. Thanks to a $9 million gift from The Kellstadt Foundation, the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business was established in 1992. One of its premier offerings launched two years later: an 18-month international MBA program in marketing and finance, the first such program in the country.

Domestic outreach strengthened ties between DePaul and its vibrant urban home. When the university purchased the Goldblatt building, now the DePaul Center, from the City of Chicago, the deal included the establishment of the $2.5 million Mayor of Chicago Leadership 2000 Scholarship Program to offer financial support to Chicago students committed to engaging in community service during their college years. The launch of the Monsignor John J. Egan Center in 1995 also offered a place for students and faculty to brainstorm innovative solutions for critical urban problems through partnerships with local organizations.

As DePaul grew in stature, the university also grew in size. Enrollment increased more than 50 percent in the 15 years leading up to 1998. That year, with a fall enrollment of 18,565, DePaul officially became the largest Catholic university in the country, a distinction it retains to this day.

Our connected world: 2000 - 2017

With more than a century of success under its belt, DePaul entered the new millennium poised to capitalize on its strengths, find new opportunities for development and growth, and continue to lead the country in social justice initiatives.

In 2000, DePaul was one of the first universities to host a virtual open house, with 20 chat rooms staffed by deans, administrators, students and parents. That same year, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, now the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, created an Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Center to explore the growing role of technology and science in people's daily lives.

DePaul's community service minor, introduced in 2001, emphasized the university's Vincentian roots. Harrison I. Steans made a $5 million gift that same year to establish and endow the Irwin W. Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning, which connects DePaul students with community organizations, integrates service work into academics and supports faculty scholarship. Meanwhile, the Vincentian Mission Institute, established in 2007, is a multiyear training program that brings together lay leaders from DePaul, St. John's University and Niagara University to learn strategies for strengthening each university's Catholic and Vincentian identity.

DePaul's dedication to serving the underserved has a physical embodiment in the Center for Access and Attainment. Established in 2008, the center brought together the Community Outreach Program, the federal TRIO programs and other initiatives designed to boost the enrollment, retention and academic success of low-income students.

Teaching, of course, is at the core of DePaul's leadership, and the past two decades have brought exciting new courses, programs, majors and schools into the fold. Highlights included the introduction of the country's first comprehensive digital cinema program in 2004; the program proved so successful that it helped lead to a new school within a newly named college. In 2008, CTI became the College of Computing and Digital Media. Today, CDM houses three schools: the School of Cinematic Arts, the School of Computing and the School of Design, which launched in 2015. The School of Cinematic Arts continues to be at the forefront of filmmaking, thanks in part to a partnership with Cinespace Chicago.

Meanwhile, DePaul launched two new colleges in the past 10 years. The College of Communication evolved from a department into its own college unit in 2007, quickly generating many accolades for its student groups.

The College of Science and Health developed out of several departments in LAS in 2011. CSH also introduced a new degree in health sciences and established a relationship with Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. The Alliance for Health Sciences gives CSH students opportunities to participate in accelerated degree programs and research collaborations.

Read the full story in DePaul Magazine