The University of Michigan, an encyclopedic survey ... Wilfred B. Shaw, editor.
University of Michigan.

THE study of Romance languages at the University was provided for in 1846 by the appointment of Louis Fasquelle to the professorship of modern languages, a chair that had been specifically listed in the organic act of 1837 as one for which provision should be made. His actual service did not begin, however, until May, 1847.

French was the first modern language taught in the University; it has been given continuously since the spring of 1847. According to the Catalogue, a short course in Italian was introduced in the fall of 1848 and one in Spanish in the spring of 1849, but, when German was begun the next fall, Italian and Spanish were dropped, and neither was revived for about twenty years.

This early development of modern language instruction was in accord with a general recognition among Eastern colleges of the desirability of these studies. Longfellow had been appointed professor of modern languages at Bowdoin in 1829 and professor of modern languages and belles-lettres at Harvard in 1836. Nevertheless, few permanent chairs in the modern languages were established; most of the colleges offering such studies gave them only sporadically and unsystematically. The early appointment of Fasquelle to a professorship of modern languages — perhaps the first to be maintained in the Middle West — was evidence of the progressive spirit characteristic of the framers of the curriculum, although the claim made by the Board of Visitors in 1848 that "in this respect the University possesses superior privileges" no doubt indicated a limited point of view (see Part III: Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures).

Throughout the period 1847-87 there was a professor of modern languages. A second full professorship was set up in the department in 1867, when Adam K. Spence, who had taught French continuously since the fall of 1859, as well as Greek (1858-67) and Latin (1860-63), Page  715was appointed Professor of the French Language and Literature. In the autumn of 1870, upon the resignations of Spence and of Edward P. Evans, Professor of Modern Languages, the Board of Regents found the time opportune for a change of policy. Henry S. Frieze, who was then Acting President, later described the situation in the following words:

In 1870 the resignation of the professors of German and French in the University of Michigan led the regents to adopt the plan of organizing the instruction in modern languages under one professor with assistant instructors; and they authorized the Acting President to engage someone competent to take charge of the department.


(Frieze, p.70.)

The professorship of the French language and literature was thereupon discontinued for the time, and an attempt was made to bring in foreign-born instructors to teach the elementary work in their native languages. Soon afterward two instructors in French and one in German were giving the elementary and intermediate work, and the department head was teaching the intermediate and advanced French and senior German, in addition to a class in Italian.

In 1887 the Regents granted a departmental petition requesting the formation of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures and the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures.

In 1889 special courses in French and German for engineering students were segregated. The Department of Engineering was made a separate unit in 1895, but until 1904 the French and Spanish credited toward graduation in engineering continued to be given in the Department of Romance Languages. In May of that year the Regents appointed William Henry Wait (Northwestern '79, Ph.D. Allegheny '88), who had conducted German classes for engineering students since 1901, Professor of Modern Languages in the Department of Engineering, and it was not until 1928 that the work in German and the Romance languages was transferred back to the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. In 1931, by a vote of the faculty of the College of Engineering, foreign languages were eliminated as subjects required for graduation, and as a result the enrollment in Romance languages dropped from 2,571 (1930-31) to 2,201 (1931-32). As early as 1914, to provide for the special needs of students in science, Alfred O. Lee, then Assistant Professor of Modern Languages in the Department of Engineering, offered a course in the reading of French scientific works and current journals.

Aside from the changes in the method of providing language instruction for engineering students, the only major change in the structure of the Department of Romance Languages was the introduction in 1933 of the new form of administration by a committee acting with the chairman, similar to the reorganized government of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts which went into effect in August of that year (see Part III: Administration and Curriculums).

During the past hundred years the Romance language staff has been augmented to meet increases in enrollment, courses have been multiplied to satisfy the growing demand and a constantly developing interest, new fields of study have been opened up in response to various needs as these became apparent, and graduate work has been fostered and intensified. From its very modest beginnings the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures has expanded until at the present its staff numbers three professors, seven associate professors, seven assistant professors, thirteen instructors, and four teaching fellows. In 1940 it had an enrollment of 1,893 at the end of the second semester and offered Page  716forty courses — seven elementary, nine intermediate, and twenty-four advanced.

The old Museum was remodeled for the use of the department in 1928 and was designated the Romance Language Building.