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A Brief History of Boston College

from the office of the university historian

Boston College was founded by the Society of Jesus in 1863, and is one of twenty-eight Jesuit colleges and universities in the United States. With three teachers and twenty-two students, the school opened its doors on September 5, 1864. At the outset and for more than seven decades of its first century, the College remained an exclusively liberal arts institution with emphasis on the Greek and Latin classics, English and modern languages, and with more attention to philosophy than to the physical or social sciences. Religion, of course, had its place in the classroom as well as in the nonacademic life of the College.

Originally located on Harrison Avenue in the South End of Boston, where it shared quarters with the Boston College High School, the College outgrew its urban setting toward the end of its first fifty years. A new location was selected in Chestnut Hill, then almost rural, and four parcels of land were acquired in 1907. A design competition for the development of the campus was won by the firm of Maginnis and Walsh, and ground was broken on June 19, 1909, for the construction of Gasson Hall. It is located on the site of the Lawrence farmhouse, in the center of the original tract of land purchased by Father Gasson, and is built largely of stone taken from the surrounding property.

Later purchases doubled the size of the property, with the addition of the upper campus in 1941, and the lower campus with the acquisition of the Lawrence Basin and adjoining land in 1949. In 1974, Boston College acquired Newton College of the Sacred Heart, a mile-and-a-half from the main campus. With fifteen buildings standing on forty acres, it is now the site of the Boston College Law School and residence halls housing almost 900 freshmen.

Though incorporated as a university since its beginning, it was not until its second half-century that Boston College began to fill out the dimensions of its charter. The Summer Session was inaugurated in 1924; the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1925; the Law School, 1929; the Evening College, 1929; the Graduate School of Social Work, 1936; the College of Business Administration, 1938. The latter, along with its Graduate School established in 1957, is now known as the Wallace E. Carroll School of Management. The Schools of Nursing and Education were founded in 1947 and 1952, respectively and are now known as the William F. Connell School of Nursing and the Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch School of Education. 

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences began programs at the doctoral level in 1952. Now, courses leading to the doctorate are offered by twelve Arts and Sciences departments. The Schools of Education and Nursing, the Carroll Graduate School of Management, the Graduate School of Social Work, and the School of Theology and Ministry also offer doctoral programs.

In 1927, Boston College conferred one earned bachelor’s degree and fifteen Master’s degrees on women through the Extension Division, the precursor of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Evening College, and the Summer Session. By 1970, all undergraduate programs had become coeducational. Today, female students comprise more than half of the University’s enrollment.

In 1996, the Evening College became the College of Advancing Studies, offering a Master’s degree as well as the bachelor’s degree; in 2002, the College was renamed the Woods College of Advancing Studies. In July 1996, the University’s longest presidency, 24 years, came to an end when Father J. Donald Monan became chancellor and was succeeded in the presidency by Father William P. Leahy.

During the decade of the nineties, the University completed several major construction projects, including the expansion and renovation of Higgins Hall, the updating of residence halls on the upper campus and Newton campus, and the construction of a new office building for faculty and administration on lower campus. These projects provided on-campus housing for more than 80% of the college undergraduates. 

In recent years, major advances have also occurred in student selectivity. Between 1996 and 2006, freshman applications increased from 16,501 to 26,584, and the average SAT scores of entering freshmen increased from 1,248 to 1,325. During this same period, the dollar amount of sponsored project awards received by the University more than doubled. Since 1996, the University’s endowment has grown from $590 million to approximately $1.8 billion, the result of successful investment strategies and effective fund-raising campaigns. 

A milestone in the history of the University took place on June 29, 2004, when Boston College acquired 43 acres of land and five buildings in Brighton previously owned by the Archdiocese of Boston. In November 2004, St. Stephen’s Priory in Dover, encompassing 78.5 acres of land, was purchased by Boston College from the Dominican Fathers.  Boston College later purchased an additional 18 acres of land on the Brighton campus. On December 5, 2007, Boston College unveiled its 10-year, $1.6 billion expansion plan, including the addition of up to 100 new faculty members, a recreation complex, more than 600 beds for undergraduates, a fine arts district, and new athletic facilities.

In the fall of 2008, BC’s new School of Theology and Ministry opened its doors on the Brighton campus. In June 2008 the Weston School of Theology re-affiliated with BC, and joined the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry and C21 Online to form the new Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. In 2008, undergraduate applications to Boston College soared past the 30,000 mark, the highest figure in University history. University trustees approved an operating budget of $772 million for 2008-09, and an undergraduate tuition of $37,410.  In June 2009, the City of Boston approved BC’s expansion plans for the Lower and Brighton campuses. In 2010, Boston College announced plans for a Sesquicentennial Celebration to be held from May 2012 through the fall of 2013 in recognition of the University’s 150th anniversary.

Source: University Historian and Public Affairs

Father John McElroy, SJ
Father John McElroy, SJ, Founder and 1st President of Boston College.
Historic photo of Gasson Hall
Historic photo of Gasson Hall, the first building on the Chestnut Hill campus. Built in 1913.
Historic aerial photo of the Chestnut Hill campus, showing Gasson, Devlin and Fulton.
Historic aerial photo of the Chestnut Hill campus, showing Gasson, Devlin, and Fulton Halls.