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The History of Santa Clara University in a Nutshell

The History of Santa Clara University in a Nutshell

College and Mission City Grow Up Together

It was 1851. The original 49er’s Gold Fever was peaking and, in 1850, California had just become a state when the Society of Jesus founded Santa Clara College—now Santa Clara University—on the site of Mission Santa Clara de Asis, established in 1777 as the eighth of California’s 21 Franciscan missions.

Founded under the leadership of Italian missionaries John Nobili and Michael Accolti, it is the only California university that began as a mission. It is further distinguished as California’s oldest operating institution of higher learning.


Initially, the college offered preparatory courses, then added college-level courses in 1853. Enrollment grew after the Civil War, reaching 277 in 1875. It transitioned from college to university—the University of Santa Clara—in 1912. In 1925, its high school became Bellarmine College Preparatory for boys in San Jose.

Then in 1961, more than a century after the university’s founding, women were admitted as undergraduates, making it California’s first co-educational Catholic university. Santa Clara University (SCU) was adopted as its name in 1985.

The town of Santa Clara, which had been incorporated in 1852, became a state-chartered city in 1862. Known informally as “the Mission City,” it grew up around the small, Jesuit-run college destined to become a distinguished university that, today, still adheres to its Jesuit Roman Catholic roots, believing scholarly excellence to be vital to achieving moral excellence.

The History of Santa Clara University in a Nutshell


Santa Clara University, no longer owned by the Society of Jesus, is governed by a Board of Trustees made up of laypersons and Jesuits. About 50 Jesuits teach or serve in administration. Their salaries are paid to the Jesuit community, which contributes part to student financial aid.

SCU has kept enrollment low to maintain small class size and close interaction between the almost 900 full- and part-time faculty and the students. For the 2012 – 2013 academic year, undergraduates—about equally men and women–numbered more than 5,000 and graduate students more than 3,000.

The campus, located downtown on the east side of Santa Clara, comprises more than 50 buildings on 106 acres. The restored adobe brick lodge and adobe wall from 1822 are all that remain of the original mission buildings.

National Recognition

Santa Clara University—as does the Mission City of Santa Clara—continues to distinguish itself.

In 2011, “Forbes Magazine” ranked Santa Clara University 67th in its Best Colleges listing of the 650 best undergraduate institutions. SCU ranks second in the “U.S. News” 2012-13 Regional University West Rankings. It is on the 2012 U.S. President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for community service programs and student involvement.

In introducing SCU’s 2011, five-year strategic plan, President Michael E. Engh, S.J., writes, “this plan is rooted in our Jesuit commitment to academic excellence. The plan reflects Santa Clara’s vision of creating an academic community—faculty, staff, students, and alumni—that educates citizens and leaders of competence, conscience, and compassion and cultivates knowledge and faith to build a more humane, just, and sustainable world.”


  1. Carl Palm 3 years ago

    My research is telling me that santa clara university was founded on April 28, 1851. Is that correct? Thanks, Carl Palm.

    • Weekly Staff 3 years ago

      Hi Carl, I’m not positive about the April 28 part, but yes SCU was founded in 1851. You can find more details here:


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