Viterbo University had its beginnings in the early academic endeavors of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA). Its direct predecessor was St. Rose Normal School, fully organized in 1890 for preparing Sisters to teach in elementary schools.
Collegiate courses were introduced in 1923 and steps were taken toward the development of a regular four-year college program. By 1931–1932, St. Rose Junior College had been formally established and approved by the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Further development followed and, by 1939, the College was approved as a four-year, degree-granting institution for the preparation of teachers for elementary schools. The first commencement exercises were held in 1940. Graduates from the program were certified by the State Department of Public Instruction.
In 1937, as plans were being made for the erection of a new building, the name of the College was changed from St. Rose College to Viterbo College. Lay women were admitted in 1943; in 1970 men were admitted.
In the 1950s Viterbo expanded its program in the liberal arts and in the preparation of teachers for secondary schools. In 1952, this program received the approval of the University of Wisconsin Committee on College Accreditation.
With its status as a four-year liberal arts college achieved, Viterbo sought accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. It was attained in 1954 and re-confirmed in 1979.
On Sept. 4, 2000, Viterbo marked another milestone—the change from college to university status. The change to Viterbo University formalized, in name, what had already occurred internally. In fact, in 1994, the U.S. Department of Education reclassified Viterbo as a "comprehensive institution (university)" due to its phenomenal growth in enrollment and its expansion of graduate, undergraduate, and outreach programs.