The University of Nevada, Reno started in 1887 enclosed in one tiny building: two stories with a basement. Morrill Hall housed students and faculty, the library, cafeteria and classrooms. Within a decade, the university expanded to a whopping four buildings, one of which housed the new library, and can be identified today by the carving of an open book above the entryway.

Built on a hill overlooking Reno and the Truckee Meadows, the single structure of Nevada’s land-grant college sat as a beacon of enlightenment. Nearly 3,500 people lived in Reno when the college opened. Under the guidance of a few inspired professors and administrators, the university slowly grew, expanding its roots into the local community and the state. The number of students remained below 1,000 until 1927.

The university endured the Great Depression, while becoming a growing source of pride for many citizens of Reno. In 1960, the student body reached about 2,500, but the university’s reputation was growing. With the guiding forces of presidents Edd Miller and Charles Armstrong, the university began to gain respect as a research institution and as a center for furthering development in the professional and business worlds. In 1967, the medical school opened on the campus.

Through years of the state’s constant, turbulent change, the university struggled as well, but it built important ties to influential Nevadans. For many who graduated from UNR, Nevada remained home. As time passed, support grew from the community, and Reno seemed to become almost as much a college town as a gambling town, supporting the athletic teams, students and faculty.

Under Joseph Crowley’s administration, from 1978-2000, the university matured. In 1989, the University of Nevada, Reno Foundation received $120 million in donations—showing the community’s commitment to the school on the hill.

In 2001, John Lilley assumed his role as the university’s 14th president, beginning yet another period of change for UNR. Lilley’s administration redefined the colleges and created a more competitive atmosphere for research.

Today, the quad, which was conceived during a university president’s trip to the University of Virginia in 1911, remains the metaphorical center of campus for students. The John Mackay statue, donated by the state of Nevada in 1908, overlooks the quad, Morrill Hall, and then gazes into the distance over the city. From one building in 1887 to more than 60 today, the buildings themselves mark the tumultuous history of the University of Nevada, Reno.

For a more detailed history of UNR, check out James W. Hulse’s “A short history” at and Patrick McDonnell’s “Campus on the Hill” at from which much of this information was gleaned.

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