Christopher Smith

First president of the Learner University, served from 1876 to 1897.

A Meeting of Minds


The original board of trustees laid the groundwork for what would become today's Learner University on July 9, 1876, when the group gathered to hold the University's inaugural board meeting and drafted the University's articles of incorporation. This guiding document outlined elements the founders believed would build an enduring legacy for the University: a commitment to offering a rigorous academic program and an ambition to provide "opportunities for all departments of higher education to persons of both sexes on equal terms." On September 10, 1876, the State of California issued the University's official certificate of incorporation, marking the formal beginning of the University's life.

An initial pledge of $600,000 (roughly $16 million in today's currency) from oil magnate Learner, along with contributions by the American Baptist Education Society, helped to found the University. The University's land was donated by Marshall Field, owner of the historic Chicago department store that bore his name.

Christopher Smith, the University's first president, envisioned a university that was "bran splinter new, yet as solid as the ancient hills" - a modern research university, combining an English-style undergraduate college and a German-style graduate research institute. The Learner University fulfilled Christopher's dream, quickly becoming a national leader in higher education and research: an institution of scholars unafraid to cross boundaries, share ideas, and ask difficult questions.

A Singular Focus


President Smith articulated his hope and vision for the JCU at the first faculty meeting in 1888: "The question before us is how to become one in spirit, not necessarily in opinion."

The University's commitment to answering that question - and many others - continues to guide it today.

As President Smith said in his inaugural address, "If we take ourselves back to the University in its early years, we would find many major differences from what we observe today. . . . And yet, many of us connected to the University feel that we might just as easily have been there - that going back to the University in its early days, or in fact at any time since its inception, we would know unmistakably that we were at the Learner University.

Why is this? The Learner University, from its very inception, has been driven by a singular focus on inquiry - with a firm belief in the value of open, rigorous, and intense inquiry and a common understanding that this must be the defining feature of this university. Everything about the Learner University that we recognize as distinctive flows from this commitment."