SUI or UI – What’s In A Name?

Many folks, both in and out of the State of Iowa, get confused when they see the name: The State University of Iowa, or the initials SUI.


Because today, we have three state universities in The Hawkeye State.

University of Iowa (Iowa City), Iowa State University (Ames), and University of Northern Iowa (Cedar Falls)

Yet, for nearly 120 years (1847-1964), my beloved alma mater in Iowa City was known as SUI – The State University of Iowa. So, allow me here to tell you the story behind both the name and the why and when it all changed…

Click here to read more about the strange heavenly occurrences surrounding February 25, 1847 in Iowa City.

It all began on February 25, 1847 – 59 days after Iowa became a state – when the State Legislature, meeting in the Old Stone Capitol in Iowa City, approved the recommendation that the state sponsor a University. In this second official act of the General Assembly, lawmakers declared that the fledgling school would serve as the state’s institution of higher learning, one that would provide the state its future doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. In an 1878 publication on Iowa history, we find these details…

The first General Assembly, by act approved February 25, 1847, established the “State University of Iowa” at Iowa City, then the capital of the State, “with such other branches as public convenience may hereafter require.” The “public buildings at Iowa City, together with the ten acres of land in which they are situated,” were granted for the use of said university, provided, however, that the sessions of the Legislature and State offices should be held in the capitol until otherwise provided by law.

And so…it started.

Now, as you know, simply naming an organization or a new business doesn’t necessarily mean that this organization is actually doing anything important! So it was with The State University of Iowa. Between 1847 and 1855, there was really very little activity happening in Iowa City that resembled the existence of a state university.

Nearly a decade later, in March of 1855, a small step was taken when the State approved the rental of the Mechanics Academy, often called the The Cradle of the University. Since the Capitol Building was fully occupied with state government offices, the Academy building, located about two blocks east of Capitol Square, became the best option for SUI classroom space.

A view of “Iowa State University” campus in Iowa City—not Ames—from the 1870-71 General Catalog.

With these humble beginnings, a true state university started to take shape, and by 1882, with the Old Stone Capitol (1840) being vacated – the state capital moved to Des Moines in 1857 – three new buildings were put in place, South Hall (1861), North Hall (1865), and the Medical Building (1882), making University Square – the ten acres surrounding Old Capitol – the new home for The State University of Iowa.

1882SUI’s University Square contained (left to right) The Medical Building, South Hall, Central Hall (Old Capitol), and North Hall.

One of the biggest bugaboos that kept the State University of Iowa from gaining traction in Iowa City in those early years (1847-1855) was the fact that the state legislators, when proposing a state-sponsored university in 1847, tipped their hat as well to other Iowa communities outside Iowa City, suggesting they might also host “branches” of the state university. You can read more details here, but suffice to say that between 1847 and 1860, cities such as Fairfield, Dubuque, Oskaloosa, Mt. Pleasant, Davenport, and Keokuk all hosted SUI classes in their fair communities.

On September 3, 1857, ten years after its formal birth, the Iowa City campus finally got what it so badly needed; a game plan to focus all state efforts on building one school in one city…

Article IX, Section 11, of the new State Constitution, which went into force September 3, 1857, provided as follows: The State University shall be established at one place, without branches at any other place; and the University fund shall be applied to that institution, and no other.

Article XI, Section 8, provided that: The seat of Government is hereby permanently established, as now fixed by law, at the city of Des Moines, in the county of Polk; and the State University at Iowa City, in the county of Johnson.

In the new Hall of Natural Science (Macbride Hall), built in 1906, the “official” SUI seal was included in the main entrance floor.

Yet, despite this state-wide decision to focus exclusively on Iowa City, in 1858, legislators decided to break their own laws (isn’t that always the case?) and established the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm in Ames. Then in 1876, they went one step further, adding the Iowa State Normal School in Cedar Falls, a state-sponsored academy focused exclusively on training teachers.

(C-0038) State University of Iowa – this envelope from the late 1880’s features a beautiful cachet etching of the University campus.
(C-0265) Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm – called Iowa State College in 1958 – celebrated their 100th anniversary (1858-1958).

As author, David McCartney, writes:

During these early years of public higher education in Iowa (1847-1950’s), only the Iowa City institution included the word ‘university’ in its title. This exclusive status seemed to allow SUI administrators to take liberties with the school’s name, referring informally to it in catalogs and other publications as “Iowa State University…”

By the 1920’s, Iowa City had taken the SUI name and made it into a city slogan: SUI – See Us Increase.

But, the “State University of Iowa- SUI” plot thickens. Author, David McCartney, explains:

In 1898, meanwhile, the Ames campus was renamed Iowa State College of Agricultural and Mechanic Arts; in 1959 it was again changed to its present-day Iowa State University of Science and Technology. The Cedar Falls campus changed its name in 1909 to Iowa State Teachers College, and again in 1961 to the State College of Iowa before finally adopting the University of Northern Iowa in 1967.

Let’s see: By the early 1960s, Iowa’s three public institutions shared the words state and Iowa. What’s worse, two of them even shared the words state, university, and Iowa. Confusion ensues. What to do?

McCartney continues…

Mason Ladd (23BA), dean of the State University of Iowa College of Law, anticipated this situation in 1957, when officials at Ames proposed renaming that campus. Ladd, in a Dec. 7, 1957, memo to SUI president Virgil Hancher (18BA, 24JD, 64LLD), pointed out that changing the Ames campus name to Iowa State University would be an “unconstitutional act” … furthermore, it would involve great confusion in our statutes and require material revision in wording throughout the Code where either the State College or the University are mentioned.” Apparently, President Hancher did not pursue Dean Ladd’s objection—or if he did, it was not successful—and ISC became ISU in 1959.

By 1964, this name confusion that Dean Ladd had predicted became a reality, frustrating both SUI and ISU officials. Howard Bowen, SUI president at the time, had an answer: Shorten the name of the State University of Iowa (SUI) in everyday usage to the University of Iowa (UI), while retaining its full, original name for legal and other purposes. On Oct. 22, 1964, the State of Iowa (not Iowa State!) Board of Regents approved a resolution authorizing just that … making it all official.

Listen to the sounds of the SUI/UI campus as recorded by Frank Patton during the 1964/1965 school year – the year of transition from SUI to UI.

So now, you know the REST of the SUI story.

On a personal note, as we close. For me, a Hawkeye to the core, there will always be only ONE State University in Iowa! As I tell my friends in Ames and Cedar Falls, “I love you, but I consider my work with you as cross-culture missions!” Ba-boom.

(M-0116) A beautiful SUI pennant from the good ole’ days.

On Iowa! Go Hawks! Go SUI!

DYK-March 11, 2022
DYK-January 20, 2023

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

The State University – Iowa City, Johnson County, History of the State of Iowa, The History of Black Hawk County, Iowa, The Western Historical Society, 1878, p 188

Old Gold: What’s in a Name?, David McCartney, Iowa Center for Advancement: Iowa Stories

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