The University of Denver was founded in 1864 and started out as Colorado Seminary. In 1880, the school was renamed to the University of Denver but is still legally operating as Colorado Seminary. But the name that causes the most confusion is the school’s iconic abbreviation, ‘DU’.
But why do we say DU and not UD?
It all goes back to what appears to be an unusual midwest practice. The University of Colorado, the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Nebraska, Oklahoma State University, Iowa State University, and Kansas State University were founding members of the Big Eight Conference. Each of the member schools inverts their abbreviation to CU, KU, MU, OU, and NU while the state-designated universities remain in order such as OSU, ISU, and KSU. The University of Iowa was an early member of the Big Eight Conference and held a joint affiliation with the Big 10 while consistently maintaining the more accepted UI abbreviation.
Standard practice for US universities to the north, south, east, and west was to abbreviate their schools in order. For example, the University of North Dakota in UND. The University of Michigan is U of M. The University of Arkansas is UA. The University of Texas is UT and the University of Washington is UW. The list goes on and on.
Why did the University of Denver adopt ‘DU’, a custom more ordinarily used by larger Big Eight state universities in the midwest? Well, no one knows for sure. DU’s sister school, Northwestern University, kept it simple by putting ‘University’ at the end and goes by NU. However, when a former Big Eight member institution, the University of Nebraska, joined the BIG 10 conference with an out-of-order NU, some Northwestern University faithful were perturbed with the addition of a reverse NU to the conference.
There are few other midwest private universities that begin with ‘University of’ and all are abbreviated in order. The University of Chicago is U of C., the University of Notre Dame is UND or ND and the University of Dayton is UD. But, DU it seems is the rare exception to the rule as a non-Big Eight member and appears to be the only private university in the land to follow this unusual convention.
Colorado College made it simple for their academically challenged students who were assured of identifying ‘CC’ correctly with an easily repeated palindrome.
A blog by John Gasaway, a Columbia University lecturer, suggests the following: One explanation that has perhaps been given a little too much credence is that this was somehow a “Big Eight thing,” and that in the 1960s the late lamented conference may have even required their “University of (State Name)” members to go with the “U” at the end. The first problem with this telling of the story is the presence of the University of Denver, known colloquially as “DU.” Denver was never a member of the Big Eight and thus was not subject to its decrees. The Pioneers just came up with the nutty abbreviation on their own. To add to the confusion, many of these same institutions were reversing their initials before the very formation of the Big Eight Conference.
There could be other reasons like how the abbreviation flows off the tongue or because older, more established schools already had taken their initials. The debate rages on Quora and Reddit but most of the discussion is based on uninformed opinions or humor.
So the pat answer to the question about DU’s origins? “It’s always been that way.” Or better yet, ask fabled DU historian Steve Fisher about the origins of the ‘DU’ abbreviation. You can find him at nearly every home Denver sporting event.