In 1784, Lyman Hall, then Governor of Georgia, persuaded the Georgia legislature to grant 40,000 acres (160 km²) for the purposes of founding a "college or seminary of learning." Beside Hall, credit for founding the university goes to Abraham Baldwin who wrote the original charter for University of Georgia (UGA). Originally from Connecticut, Baldwin graduated from and later taught at Yale University before moving to Georgia. The Georgia General Assembly approved the Balwin's charter on January 27, 1785 and UGA became the first university in the United States to gain a state charter.[note 1] The task of creating the school was later given to the Senatus Academicus, which consisted of the Board of Visitors – made up of "the governor, all state senators, all superior court judges and a few other public officials" – and the Board of Trustees, "a body of fourteen appointed members that soon became self-perpetuating." The first meeting of the university's Board of Trustees was held in Augusta, Georgia on February 13, 1786. The meeting installed Baldwin as the university's first president.
For the first sixteen years of the school's history, the University of Georgia only existed on paper. By the new century, a committee was appointed to find suitable land to establish a campus. Committee member John Milledge purchased 633 acres of land on the west bank of the Oconee River and immediately gifted it to the university. This tract of land, now a part of the consolidated city–county of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, was then part of Jackson County. As of 2013, 37 acres of that land remained as part of the North Campus.
Franklin College depicted in 1851.
Because Baldwin was elected to the U.S. Senate, the school needed a new president. Baldwin chose his former student and fellow professor at Yale, Josiah Meigs, as his replacement. Meigs became the school's president, as well as the first and only professor. After traveling the state to recruit a few students, Meigs opened the school with no building in the fall of 1801. The first school building patterned after Yale's Connecticut Hall was built the year later. Yale's early influence on the new university extended into the classical curriculum with emphasis on Latin and Greek. By 1803, the students formed a debate society, Demosthenian Literary Society. Meigs had his first graduating class of nine by 1804. In 1806, the school dedicated the first legacy building, Franklin College (named after Benjamin Franklin). The building is now known as Old College.
After the tenure of the next two presidents, John Brown (1811 – 1816) and Robert Finley (1819), a timeframe which saw enrollment drop, presidents Moses Waddel (1819–1829) and Alonzo S. Church (1829–1859) worked to re-engage new students. By 1859, enrollment had risen to 100 students, the university employed eight faculty members and opened a new law school. During this timeframe, the university erected the New College building followed by the Chapel in 1832. Church was the longest-serving president in UGA history. In 1859, the state legislature abolished the Senatus Academicus, leaving the Board of Trustees as the only official governing body. When Church retired, Andrew A. Lipscomb was appointed to the newly renamed position of chancellor in 1860.
Civil War era and late 19th century
The Arch, modeled in 1857 after the Great Seal of the State of Georgia, serves as the main entrance to campus.
UGA closed in September 1863 due to the Civil War and reopened in January 1866 with an enrollment of about 80 students including veterans using an award of $300 granted by the General Assembly to former soldiers under an agreement that they would remain in Georgia as teachers after graduation. The university received additional funding through the 1862 Morrill Act which was used to create land grant colleges across the nation. In 1872, the $243,000 federal allotment to Georgia was invested to create a $16,000 annual income used to establish the Georgia State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (A&M), initially separate and independent from the UGA. However, A&M's funding was considered part of the university, which helped save it from bankruptcy during the Reconstruction era. As a land-grant school, UGA was required to provide military training which the university began to offer in the 1870s.
Several of the university's extracurricular organizations began in the late 1800s. In 1886, fraternities at UGA began publishing the school's yearbook, the Pandora. The same year, the university gained its first intercollegiate sport when a baseball team was formed, followed by a football team formed in 1892. Both teams played in a small field west of campus now known as Herty Field. The Demosthenian and Phi Kappa literary societies together formed the student paper, The Red & Black, in 1883. In 1894, UGA joined six other southeastern schools to form the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA).
Early 20th century
The turn of the century brought many changes in the administration and organization of the university including the naming of a new chancellor in 1899. Walter B. Hill became the first UGA alumnus to lead the university. A progressive and enlightened leader, his six-year tenure, before his death from pneumonia, was marked with increased enrollment, expansion of the university's course offerings, and the addition of state funding through appropriation, for the first time bringing the university's annual income to over $100,000 in 1902. Hill and his successors David C. Barrow (1906–1925), Charles Snelling (1926–1932), Steadman Sanford (1932–1935) would grow the school to take on the role of a true university. Many of the university's schools and colleges were established during Barrow's tenure. The School of Pharmacy (1903), the School of Forestry (1906), the School of Education (1908), the Graduate School (1910), the School of Commerce (1912), the School of Journalism (1915), and the Division of Home Economics (1918) were all established during this period. In 1906, UGA also incorporated the College of Agriculture by bringing together A&M and another college of science and engineering, both formed in the previous century. Connor Hall became the first building built in South Campus and first of several buildings that housed the university’s agriculture programs on what came to be known as "Ag Hill". In 1914, the first Phi Beta Kappa chapter in the state of Georgia was founded at UGA. In 1923, another honor society, Phi Kappa Phi, established a chapter at the university. In 1920, UGA's athletic program was among 14 of the 30 universities to leave the SIAA to form the Southern Conference.
With students limited to white males for the first century of its history, University of Georgia began admitting white female students during the summer of 1903 as postgraduate students to the State Normal School established in 1893 a few miles west of the campus. When UGA established a Graduate School in 1910, female students were permitted to attend summer classes and some were also unofficially allowed to attend regular classes as well. However, at that time only junior college transfers majoring in Home Economics were integrated into regular courses. Before official admission of women to the university, several women were able to complete graduate degrees through credit earned during the summer sessions. The first white woman to earn such a degree was Mary Dorothy Lyndon. She received a Master of Arts degree in 1914. Women were admitted as full-time undergraduates in 1918. Mary Ethel Creswell earned a B.S. in Home Economics in June 1919, becoming the first women to earn an undergraduate degree at the university. Two UGA dormitories were later named after these graduates:  and . In 1920, the university opened its first women's dormitory, Soule Hall.
In 1932, the reorganization of the university's administrative structure continued through the establishment of the University System of Georgia (USG) which brought UGA along with several other public colleges in the state under the control of a single Board of Regents. The State Normal School (later State Teachers College) was fully absorbed by the College of Education, with the former's previous campus becoming UGA's Coordinate Campus. UGA and Georgia Tech traded several school programs; all engineering programs (except agriculture) were transferred to Georgia Tech and UGA received Georgia Tech's commerce program in return. The title of the university's lead administrator was changed from chancellor back to the original title of president. Sanford was named UGA's first president since 1860 and was succeeded by Harmon Caldwell (1935-1948). In 1933, the Division of Home Economics was reorganized as the School of Home of Economics, with UGA's first female graduate Creswell appointed as dean. The university also became a founding member of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and established the University of Georgia Press in 1938.
Throughout this period, UGA's enrollment grew every year with student population reaching 3,000 by 1937 and almost 4,000 by 1941. Through President Franklin D, Roosevelt's New Deal, UGA received a $2 million infusion of funding and an additional $1 million from the state legislature. The university used the new funds to make a number of improvements to the campus from 1936 to the early 1940s. Many renovation projects were undertaken including the establishment of five new residence halls, a dining hall, eight new academic buildings, a nursery school and several auxiliary facilities. An engineering professor Rudolph Driftmier and architect Roy Hitchcock were responsible for the design of several buildings in the neoclassical style, giving the campus a homogeneous and distinctive appearance. The funds were also used to pave roads, build sidewalks and improve the campus's landscaping.
Racial integration and the mid 20th century
The dean of the College of Education in 1941, Walter Cocking, was fired by Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge in a controversial decision known as the Cocking affair. Talmadge was motivated by his belief that Cocking favored racial integration. The governor's interference in the workings of USG's Board of Regents prompted a response by the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools which stripped UGA and nine other schools in the system of their accreditation. The issue became a major point of contention in Talmadge's 1942 reelection campaign. After his loss, a constitutional amendment passed by the state legislature gave the Board of Regents independence from political interference, which led to the schools quickly regaining their accreditation.
As the United States entered World War II, enrollment among male students dropped significantly, allowing female students to outnumber male students for the first time in the school's history. In 1945, UGA accepted a donation of about 100 paintings from the New York art collector Alfred Holbrook and created the Georgia Museum of Art. In 1946, the School of Veterinary Medicine was re-established as a separate school, 13 years after it was discontinued as part of the agricultural college. The following year, the quarterly literary journal The Georgia Review began publication. After Jonathan Rogers' brief tenure as president (1949–1950), Omer Clyde Aderhold started his 17-year-long stint as UGA president. During his tenure, the university sold Coordinate Campus to the U.S. Navy. He opened the school's main library, the Ilah Dunlap-Little Memorial Library, in 1952, and in 1964, established the School of Social Work. The university also built a new Science Center on South Campus consisting of six buildings. After UGA's pharmacy school moved to the new facility on the South Campus, the two portions of the campus took on distinct characteristics, with North Campus focused on arts, humanities, and law, and South Campus focused on natural sciences and agricultural programs.
UGA was racially integrated in 1961, with the admission of Hamilton E. Holmes and Charlayne Hunter. Holmes and Hunter, who were previously denied admission in 1959, were allowed to enroll in spring 1961 after filing a lawsuit against the university in U.S. district court. On January 9, 1961, three days after the court decision granting them admission, Holmes and Hunter "walked through the Arch and into the Academic Building" to register for classes. On the 40th anniversary of the event, the university renamed the very same prominent campus building where they registered as the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building. Holmes graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was the first African-American student to attend the Emory University School of Medicine, where he earned his M.D. in 1967 and later became a professor of orthopedics and associate dean. Hunter (later, Hunter-Gault) graduated with a degree in journalism and had an exceptional career, earning several awards including two Emmys and a Peabody for excellence in broadcast journalism. In June 1961, Holmes and Hunter were joined by another African American, Mary Frances Early, who transferred to the school as a graduate student. Before Holmes and Hunter, Early became the first African American to graduate from UGA in 1962. The College of Education later established a professorship in her honor.
Late 20th century
In 1968, Fred Davison was appointed UGA president and served in the position for 19 years. During his tenure, the school's research budget increased from $15.6 million to more than $90 million. UGA inaugurated the School of Environmental Design, was designated as a Sea Grant College, and built 15 new buildings on campus. By the 1970s, the University of Georgia ranked among the top 50 research universities in the U.S. and in 1973, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education designated UGA as Research I university. By the time the school celebrated its bicentennial with a 15-month-long celebration, student enrollment had grown to about 25,000.
In the end, Davison's tenure as president was marred by the controversy surrounding the dismissal of Jan Kemp, a faculty member who also tutored student athletes. Kemp filed a lawsuit against the university which garnered national media attention and led to criticism of UGA's lax academic standards for students in its athletic programs. The courts awarded Kemp more than $1 million, leading to Davison's resignation in 1986.
A former president of the University of Miami, Henry King Stanford, briefly served as interim president before the appointment of Charles Knapp in 1987. Together with UGA alumnus and Georgia Governor Zell Miller, Knapp helped establish the state's HOPE Scholarship in 1993 with funds appropriated from the new state lottery. The campus hosted three events in the 1996 Summer Olympics: rhythmic gymnastics, volleyball, and the . In 1997, Knapp was succeeded by Michael Adams who served as UGA president for 16 years, well into the 21st century.
Adams began a strategic plan to grow the university's academic programs in the new century. In 2001, UGA inaugurated the College of Environment & Design and the School of Public and International Affairs, the first new schools to open since 1964. The strategic plan also chose medicine and health sciences as a major focus of growth and development. Together with Provost Karen Holbrook and Arnett Mace (who succeed Holbrook), Adams opened the Biomedical and Health Sciences Institute, the UGA Cancer Center, the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, and the Regenerative Bioscience Center. In 2005, the College of Public Health was created to bring together the various medical and health sciences programs. In 2011, UGA purchased back the former campus of the State Normal School from the U.S. Navy to create the UGA Health Sciences Campus in partnership with the Georgia Health Sciences University (now known as Augusta University). The newly reacquired campus also became home to the College of Public Health. The Odum School of Ecology (2007) and the College of Engineering (2012) became the fourth and fifth schools to open during Adams's tenure.
After Adams's retirement on June 30, 2013, Jere Morehead was appointed as UGA's 22nd president. Morehead is an alumnus of UGA's law school and previously served as provost and vice president of academic affairs. Under Morehead, UGA continues its focus on research with a $458 million budget as of the 2017 fiscal year, placing 54th on the National Science Foundation rankings. In 2015, the College of Veterinary Medicine moved it's teaching hospital to a new off-campus facility, leaving its previous building vacant. Two students became recipients of Rhodes Scholarships in 2013 and 2017, respectively, bringing the total number of students to receive the honor in UGA's history to 24. As of 2017, UGA ranked 13th among "Leading Institutions by Study Abroad Total", published in the Open Doors Report of the Institute of International Education. In September 2017, UGA used a combination of private and public funds to complete the second of three phases to build the Terry College of Business complex. The project has four buildings completed and will include a total of six buildings upon completion of the third phase.