The first two colleges in California were founded at the height of the Gold Rush in 1851, both in the small agricultural town of Santa Clara. Less than a year after California was granted statehood, Santa Clara College, forerunner of Santa Clara University, was the first to open its doors to students and thus is considered the state's oldest operating institution of higher education. Shortly after Santa Clara began instruction, the Methodist-run California Wesleyan College (now known as University of the Pacific) received a charter from the State Superior Court on July 10, 1851—the first granted in California—and it began enrolling students in May of the following year. Santa Clara's Jesuit founders lacked the $20,000 endowment required for a charter, which was eventually accumulated and a charter granted on April 28, 1855. Santa Clara bears the distinction of awarding California's first bachelor's degree, bestowed upon Thomas I. Bergin in 1857, as well as its first graduate degree granted two years later.
California mission era
Mission Santa Clara de Asis in 1849
Inheriting the grounds of Mission Santa Clara de Asís, Santa Clara University's campus, library holdings, art collection, and many of its defining traditions date back to 1777, almost 75 years before its founding. In January of that year, Saint Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan friar, established Mission Santa Clara as the eighth of 21 Alta California missions. Fray Tomás de la Peña chose a site along the Guadalupe River for the future church, erecting a cross and celebrating the first Mass a few days later. Natural disasters forced early priests to relocate and rebuild the church on several occasions, moving it westward and away from the river. Built of wood, the first permanent structure quickly flooded and was replaced by a larger adobe building in 1784. This building suffered heavy damage in an 1818 earthquake and was replaced six years later by a new adobe edifice.
Mission Santa Clara de Asis prior to the 1925 fire
The mission flourished for more than 50 years despite these setbacks. Beginning in the 1830s, however, the mission lands were repossessed in conjunction with government policy implemented via the Mexico's secularization, and church buildings fell into disrepair. The Bishop of Monterey, Dominican Joseph Sadoc Alemany, offered the site to Italian Jesuits John Nobili and Michael Accolti in 1851 on condition that they found a college for California's growing Catholic population when it became part of the United States following the Mexican–American War (1846–48).
In 1912 Santa Clara College became the University of Santa Clara, with the addition of the School of Engineering and School of Law. In 1925 the Leavey School of Business was founded. Women were first admitted in 1961 to what had been an all-men's university. In 2012, Santa Clara University celebrated 50 years of having women attend Santa Clara University. This step made Santa Clara University the first Catholic university in California to admit both men and women.
In 1985, in part to avoid confusion with the University of Southern California (USC), the University of Santa Clara, as it had been known since 1912, changed its name to Santa Clara University. Diplomas were printed with the new name beginning in 1986.
In 2001 the School of Education and Counseling Psychology was formed to offer Master's level and other credential programs.