In 1890, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration founded St. Rose Normal School, a school to prepare religious sisters to teach in elementary schools. College courses were introduced in 1923. The school developed a four-year college program, and by the 1931-1932 school year became known as St. Rose Junior College. Lay women were admitted starting in 1934. In 1937, the school was renamed Viterbo College. In 1939, it received approval as a four-year degree-granting institution. The school became co-ed in 1970 when men were allowed to enter. On September 4, 2000 the college was renamed Viterbo University.
Viterbo is best known for its nursing and theater undergraduate programs, along with its master's program in education. The college enrolls some 1900 undergraduate and 700 graduate students in its 50 undergraduate majors, 27 minors, and 4 graduate programs.
Viterbo offers a master's degree in servant leadership. Classes are offered on both the Viterbo campus and in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul area. This program works to build an understanding of servant leadership, as defined by Robert Greenleaf, and to help students build the skills needed to implement servant leadership in their business and life.
Viterbo University has experienced rapid growth since its inception as a co-educational establishment in 1970. In 1971, the school's Fine Arts Center was completed. In 1987, the school's athletic center was built. In 2004, the Reinhart Center for Ethics in Leadership (the sciences building) was completed, and in 2005 the Mathy Center expansion to the 1987 athletics building was completed. The Mathy Center is a collaboration between Viterbo University and the local Boys and Girls Club of LaCrosse—the first such effort in the country. A remodel of the Todd Wehr Memorial Library within the Murphy main academic Building was completed in 2006, and the school bookstore was remodeled in the summer of 2006. Between 2009 and 2011, the Student Union was remodeled at the expense of the Student Government Association, in collaboration with the Residence Hall Council. The Union remodel included upgrades to the security desk, flooring, computer area, television, and furniture. The new school of nursing building is to be completed and open for the Fall 2011 semester.
Viterbo University teams, nicknamed athletically as the V-Hawks, are part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), primarily competing in the Midwest Collegiate Conference (MCC). Men's sports include baseball, basketball, bowling, cross country, golf, soccer and track & field; while women's sports include basketball, bowling, cross country, golf, soccer, softball, track & field and volleyball.