As linguistics became established as a separate, independent field of study in the United States (in no small part due the leadership provided by linguists at Michigan), it became clear that an independent Department of Linguistics was needed at the University in order to coordinate both undergraduate teaching and graduate training, and to promote research in linguistics. This became a reality in 1961, when the Regents approved the creation of the new department at their July meeting. This momentous moment in the history of our Department is documented as follows in the very formulaic and unimaginative language that is typical of this kind of official documentation: At the request of the Dean and the Executive Committee of the College of Literature, Sciences and the Arts and upon the recommendation of the Vice-President and the Dean of Faculties, the Regents approved the establishment of a new department in the College of Literature, Sciences and Arts to be called the Department of Linguistics.
Although the creation of the Department was approved in 1961, the Department itself only came into existence in 1963. The initial group of linguistics faculty was drawn from various language departments, and all kept their formal affiliation with their original departments. Professor Herbert H. Paper from Near Eastern Department was the first chair of the new department. He served as chair until 1968, when he was followed by Professor John C. Catford, who served until 1971. Professor William J. Gedney chaired the department until 1975.
Together these three early department chairs were responsible for determining the character of the department in its early years. As was typical of linguistics departments of this era, the Michigan department had a close affiliation with several language departments across campus, and even shared most of its faculty with these departments. Linguistics was also responsible for language instruction in various languages that did not fit comfortably in well-established language departments (some examples include Thai, Indonesian, Hindi-Urdu, Tamil and Sanskrit). For many years, although there was formally a separate Department of Linguistics, these close ties to language departments and commitment to language instruction presented challenges for maintaining a cohesive focus. As a result, the Department was reorganized as the Program in Linguistics in 1985, retaining its existing infrastructure as well as its undergraduate and graduate programs.
The Linguistics Department remained a nexus for basic linguistic research on campus, attracting and retaining key faculty. In 1980 Deborah Keller-Cohen was the first woman to be tenured in the Department. The Department and Program also granted numerous doctoral degrees during the 20th century, with several graduates going on to achieve great prominence in the field. Graduates from this era include Kenneth Pike (Ph.D. 1942 and president of the LSA in 1961), Ilse Lehiste (Ph.D.1959 and president of the LSA in 1980), Charles Fillmore (Ph.D. 1962 and president of the LSA in 1991), and David Lightfoot (Ph.D. 1971 and president of the LSA in 2010).