Bishop Patrick R. Heffron, the second bishop of Winona, founded Saint Mary’s as a college in 1912 to provide higher education for young men in southern Minnesota’s Diocese of Winona and surrounding areas. In its early years, the university operated as an academy and junior college. In 1925, it became a four-year liberal arts college. The descendants of 19th-century settlers in Minnesota and Wisconsin thus received a classical education from a highly educated faculty composed primarily of diocesan clergy. The students of the early decades became religious, professional, and business leaders in their communities.
The Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, an international Catholic teaching order founded in France in 1680 by Saint John Baptist de La Salle, purchased Saint Mary’s College from the Diocese of Winona in 1933. Soon thereafter, the university obtained formal accreditation of its bachelor degree programs by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Enrollment increased from 200 to 500 students over the next 15 years, aided by an influx of graduates from De La Salle Christian Brothers’ high schools in Minneapolis, Saint Paul, Chicago, Kansas City, and St. Louis.
The Saint Mary’s College curriculum, combining the traditional liberal arts and sciences with career-related studies, served the interests of both students and faculty in pursuing an integrated liberal and career education. Major programs included accounting, business administration, preparation of secondary-school teachers, and strong pre-professional majors in natural and social sciences, mathematics, law, medicine, theology, philosophy, and the humanities. All students completed a general education in the liberal arts in addition to their chosen major. These historical components of Saint Mary’s College exist in today’s curriculum, alongside the career-related applications that have evolved in recent years.
Many Saint Mary’s graduates from the 1940s through the 1970s later earned advanced degrees in law, medicine, dentistry, ministry, science, and humanities. In a national study conducted during the 1980s, Saint Mary’s University achieved a ranking in the top 15 percent nationally in the proportion of its graduates who later went on to earn a doctoral degree. In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, when enrollment reached the 1,000 mark, the college expanded its physical facilities significantly, especially to accommodate housing needs for the high representation of students (85 percent) electing to live on campus.
Between 1968 and 1974, the college experienced one of the greatest periods of change in its history with the establishment of an independent Board of Trustees, all but the president being from outside the university. During this time the college administration separated from the district administration of the De La Salle Christian Brothers. In 1969, the institution became coeducational, starting with a very small class of women.
Vigorous growth took place in graduate study offerings with the decision to move core centers for graduate studies to the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area and to Rochester, Minnesota. Graduate study offerings were also expanded on the Winona campus during these years.
The academic administration of the university was divided into schools during these years in order to more effectively concentrate on the wide range of offerings being made to an increasingly diverse student body. In addition to these many changes, a new campus was established in Nairobi, Kenya, offering bachelor and master degree programs through 2019. In 1995, Saint Mary’s College was renamed Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.
Saint Mary’s University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission. Saint Mary’s completed its last comprehensive visit in 2017.
Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs
The history of the Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs parallels the dynamic growth experienced by the university as a whole during the 1980s. From 1950 to 1980, the graduate program consisted primarily of summer institute offerings in psychology, education, mathematics, biology, and human development.
From the 1970s to mid-1980s, Saint Mary’s College offered graduate programs in Saint Paul with small groups of students at Cretin High School, then at Saint John’s Hospital. In 1984, Saint Mary’s decided to offer graduate programs in the Twin Cities metropolitan area on a larger basis.
In 1984, the Minneapolis center moved to its current location at 2500 Park Avenue. An affiliation with Abbott-Northwestern Hospital made a full range of support services available including a library facility with state-of-the-art online information retrieval services.
The Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs also offer degree programs on the university’s Winona Campus. Currently available are master degree programs.
The bachelor degree completion programs were founded in the early to mid-1990s and undergraduate certificate programs have been added since. In keeping with the student-centered vision of Saint John Baptist de La Salle, all of the programs remain clearly focused on meeting the needs of adult students.
The Rochester center opened in 1985. Currently, master degrees and the doctoral degree programs in leadership isoffered at the center.
During 1997 and 1998, a campus bookstore was added to the Minneapolis Campus, along with a meditation chapel. Other improvements included upgrades to telecommunications equipment and computer labs. In addition, campus offices were restructured to improve student services. Also in 1997, Saint Mary’s University introduced its doctoral degree program — the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Leadership.
Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota rededicated its Minneapolis Campus as the Twin Cities Campus in November 1998. This change was made to reflect the scope of the university’s courses offered throughout the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area and beyond. Graduate education courses and several bachelor degree courses are delivered at locations in the metropolitan area, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Since 2000 Saint Mary’s University has expanded bachelor and master degree programs in the areas of business and technology and health and human services. The education specialist degree was also added.
The ever-changing campus in the Twin Cities celebrated its 20-year anniversary in 2004, commemorating two successful decades of serving adult learners in the metropolitan area and beyond. In addition, the name of the school was changed in the spring of 2004 to the School of Graduate and Professional Programs in order to recognize the growth of bachelor degree completion, master degree, certificate, specialist degree, and doctoral degree programs.
In May of 2007, the School of Graduate and Professional Programs changed its name to the Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs (SGPP) and created four schools; the School of Professional Programs, the School of Education, the School of Business and Technology, and the School of Health and Human Services.
The Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs’ Council of Regents was established in 2007 to provide advisory expert counsel to the President of Saint Mary’s University in matters relating to SGPP. The SGPP Council of Regents, established by the President of Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and endorsed by the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota Board of Trustees, derives its powers solely from the President to whom it reports.
Saint Mary’s Institute for Lasallian Studies was founded in fall of 2008 to provide Lasallian formation and accompaniment to members of the regional and international Lasallian family.
As of 2009, the SGPP celebrates its 25th anniversary of providing education centered around the needs of adult learners at its Twin Cities Campus.
The Saint Mary’s University Center opened to the public in March 2013. The University Center, formerly known as the Harrington Mansion and Event Center, was acquired in June 2011 to strengthen the university’s academic programs and its engagement with corporate and community partners. Providing flexible space that can accommodate meetings and events including corporate gatherings, fundraising galas and weddings, the University Center is a desirable venue for both university events and outside groups.
In spring 2018, Saint Mary’s opened a new 10,000-square-foot addition to the university’s Cascade Meadow facility. The addition houses the university’s Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs in Rochester.