William & Mary has traditionally dated its transformation from a college into a university to a set of reforms of December 4, 1779. On that date, Thomas Jefferson and his fellow members of the Board of Visitors reorganized William & Mary, eliminating the grammar school and the two chairs in divinity and creating chairs in law, modern languages, and medicine.Five days after the reforms were adopted, a William & Mary student wrote that “William & Mary has undergone a very considerable Revolution; the Visitors met on the 4th Instant and form’d it into a University....” Just over three years later, when Jefferson received an honorary doctorate in civil law from William & Mary, his Latin diploma stated that it was granted by the “president and professors of the university or College” (universitatis seu collegii) of William & Mary in Virginia. In the late 1770s and early 1780s, there certainly seems to have been a campaign to broadcast William & Mary’s status as a university, and William & Mary grounds its claim to be the oldest university in the United States in that historical moment. There is a strong argument to be made, however, that William & Mary became a university long before the reforms of 1779. In fact, it was granted the status of a university in its royal charter of February 8, 1693.
Few scholars appear to have noticed the relevant language in the charter.There are good reasons for that. The term used in the charter is not one that is familiar to us today. The drafters did not use the word “university.” Instead, they used a technical term for a university that developed in the Middle Ages, one that had gone out of regular use in the British Isles even by the seventeenth century. Moreover, it only really becomes clear that William & Mary was granted the status of a university in the Latin version of the charter. In the English version, the terminology is hidden behind an overly literal translation. In the English version of the charter, the one that is read every year at William & Mary’s Charter Day celebration, William III and Mary II declare that they are granting their license “to make, found, and establish a certain Place of universal Study, or perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences.” The key words are “place of universal study.” In the English, they do not look significant. But they are a translation of a very significant phrase that appears in the Latin charter: studium generale.
McSweeney, Thomas J.; Ello, Katharine; and O'Brien, Elsbeth
"A University in 1693: New Light on William & Mary's Claim to the Title "Oldest University in the United States","
William & Mary Law Review Online: Vol. 61
, Article 4.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmlronline/vol61/iss1/4