History of Wesleyan University

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The President's House, erected in 1837–38 for Wilbur Fisk; it served as a home for the presidents of Wesleyan until 1904.

Wesleyan University is a private liberal arts college and "little university" located in Middletown, Connecticut. The now secular institution was founded in 1831 as an all-male Methodist college.[1]

Historian David B. Potts divides the history of Wesleyan into four periods. According to Potts, from its founding until 1870, Wesleyan was a "local evangelical enterprise", an amalgam of local financing and Methodist sponsorship. From 1870 to 1910, it was a "decidedly Methodist" institution. It evolved away from its specifically Methodist character and from 1910 to 1962 was one of many prestigious New England liberal arts colleges. (Ties to Methodism were formally broken in 1937.) Since 1962, capitalizing on the success of its endowment in the prior decade, it began a transformation into a "little university".[2]

College Row. From left to right: North College, South College, Memorial Chapel, Patricelli '92 Theater (Not pictured: Judd Hall)


Wesleyan was founded by Methodist leaders and prominent residents of Middletown, and was the first academic institution to be named after John Wesley, the Protestant theologian who was the founder of Methodism. Although sponsored by the Methodist conference, under the leadership of the first President Wilbur Fisk (also written as Willbur Fisk) the college did not have a denominational requirement for admission and in addition to seminarian studies it had an innovative curriculum including electives and modern languages.[1] Fisk also traveled to Europe during his presidency to purchase books and scientific equipment, including one of the first telescopes at a college or university, which is currently conserved at Wesleyan's Van Vleck Observatory. Wesleyan remained a leader in educational progress throughout its history, and erected the first building dedicated to the sciences on any American college campus, Judd Hall. It also has always maintained a much larger library collection than a comparable institution its size.

The campus predates the college. Several prominent citizens of Middletown sought to have a college on High Street, and by subscription raised the funds to build two buildings, today's South College, and the original North College, a Nassau Hall-type building. The first occupant of the buildings was Captain Alden Partridge's American Literary, Scientific, & Military Academy in 1825. That institution had a checkered career and became a center of controversy. In 1829, the military academy moved back to Norwich, Vermont when the Connecticut legislature declined to charter it to grant college degrees, and it later became Norwich University. Afterward, the Methodist Church agreed to buy the vacant campus, then consisting of five buildings, North College, South College, a dormitory that extended across the current campus to High Street, Webb Hall and President's House, (now the Latin American Studies Center).

In the 1840s, Wesleyan was already beginning to make a reputation for itself both for the abolitionist sentiments of its students, and with their ongoing association with the Transcendentalist movement. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Orestes Brownson were brought to the campus by the student literary societies, especially the Mystical 7. As national affairs moved closer to war, Wesleyan was put in a more awkward position than many other New England colleges; the Methodist Church was very strong in the South, and a significant number of students were from Southern states. These links were severed after 1861. Not every alumnus who served in the Civil War fought for the Union.

The "decidedly Methodist" era[edit]

In 1872, the University became one of the first U.S. colleges to experiment with coeducation by allowing a small number of female students to attend, a venture then known as the "Wesleyan Experiment". Because of the preponderance of female students preparing for college in that period, some of Wesleyan's alumni believed that opening the door to coeducation would eventually result in the student body becoming entirely female. Given that concern, Wesleyan ceased to admit women, and from 1912 to 1970 Wesleyan operated again as an all-male college. Wesleyan's decision to stop admitting women subsequently helped lead to the establishment of all-female Connecticut College in nearby New London, founded by Wesleyan alumnae in 1911.[1]

In the days before the invention of the forward pass, Wesleyan was a leader in the development of football as a college sport. For a little more than a decade, Wesleyan fielded teams that played against Yale, Michigan, and Harvard. However these much larger schools eventually were able to far outstrip Wesleyan, and one game, where Wesleyan lost 136 to 0 to Yale (still a record loss in the Northeast), proved that Wesleyan could no longer compete at that level. However, in their only meeting in history in 1883, Wesleyan beat Michigan 14-6.[3]

As detailed by David Potts in his history of Wesleyan, the last decades of the nineteenth century were crucial for Wesleyan. Wesleyan developed the patronage of several prominent families in New York City, (Harriman, Andrus, and to a lesser extent, Vanderbilt), and the institutional ties to those groups markedly increased, while that of the Methodist Church decreased. At the same time, Wesleyan went from being a colorful but minor sectarian educational center to being a well-connected New England college.

Two of the leading faculty members of the period were William North Rice and Caleb T. Winchester. Rice was hired after his graduation in 1865 as the university librarian, and later became a Professor of Mathematics and Geology. In his 51 years on the faculty, he also taught every other subject as needed on an interim basis. His greatest professional success was in his contributions toward completing the first geological survey of Connecticut. He was also named an acting President of the university between two administrations. Some of his carefully hand-written library cards were still in use in the library card catalog until it was retired in the 1990s. Caleb T. Winchester was a Professor of English Literature who began his 50-year career at Wesleyan a year after Rice's. His senior year seminar on 'The English Essayists' won him national attention, and Sir Walter A. Raleigh wryly remarked after his tour of America that Winchester was the only educated American he had met.[4]

Wilbur Olin Atwater, a professor of Chemistry and director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, conducted pioneering tests in human metabolism in the new campus laboratory, the John Bell Scott Memorial, and his work shows the heightened presence of the sciences at Wesleyan in this period compared to some of its peer institutions.

There was a minor building boom on campus in the years just after the turn of the century, which included Fayerweather Gymnasium, (1898), Fisk Hall, (1903), the John Bell Scott Memorial, (1904), Alpha Delta Phi, (1906), Eclectic, (1907). The Van Vleck Observatory, Clark Hall, and the Tomb of the Skull & Serpent Society were designed at this time by the architect Henry Bacon, as was the Hall of the Eclectic Society.[5][6] Later, starting in the mid-1920s, the Johnstone Quadrangle was created, including Olin Memorial Library, Harriman Hall, Shanklin Hall, and the Hall Chemistry Laboratories.[7] This series of buildings was all designed by the well-known firm of McKim, Mead & White.[8] The completion of these two episodes of building finished the core of the campus and gave Wesleyan its basic layout through to today (although Shanklin Hall is currently threatened with demolition).

From the 1890s until World War II, Wesleyan men were probably most famous for their singing. There were many singing groups and a full men's chorus. There were various tours of singing groups through the early days of radio and especially in the 1920s. At that time, Wesleyan was best known as "The Singing University." Perhaps a culmination of this was a live radio performance at the White House in Washington, D.C.

Woodrow Wilson taught history and political economy at Wesleyan from 1888 to 1890. Before Wesleyan, Wilson taught at Bryn Mawr, where he felt "overworked, underpaid, and much less than enthusiastic about the higher education of women".[9] At Wesleyan, Wilson published, The State, a study of comparative government. This work won him tenure at the University.[10]

In 1909, then U.S. President William Howard Taft and U.S. Vice President James S. Sherman were two of the principal speakers (along with the president of the Wesleyan student body, Arthur T. Vanderbilt, and U.S. Senator and future Nobel Laureate Elihu Root) at the inauguration of William Arnold Shanklin as the ninth president of Wesleyan.[11][12]

List of Wesleyan Presidents[edit]

Presidents of Wesleyan University.
No. Name President Term Profession Lifetime Buried
1. Rev. Willbur Fisk President 1831–1839 Minister 1792–1839 Campus cemetery
Augustus William Smith Acting 1835–1836 Mathematician 1802–1866 Annapolis, Maryland
Augustus William Smith Acting 1839–1841 Mathematician 1802–1866 Annapolis, Maryland
2. Rev. Stephen Olin President 1839–1841 Minister 1797–1851 ?
3. Rev. Nathan Bangs President 1841–1842 Minister 1778–1862 ?
2. Rev. Stephen Olin President 1842–1851 Minister 1797–1851 ?
John Johnston Acting 1851–1852 Mathematician 1806–1872 ?
4. Augustus William Smith President 1852–1857 Mathematician 1802–1866 Annapolis, Maryland
John Johnston Acting 1857–1857 Mathematician 1806–1872 ?
5. Joseph Cummings President 1858–1875 Minister 1817–1890 Indian Hill cemetery
John Monroe Van Vleck Acting 1872–1873 Astronomer 1833–1912 Indian Hill cemetery
6. Rev. Cyrus David Foss President 1875–1880 Bishop 1834–1910 Pawling, New York
7. Rev. John Wesley Beach President 1880–1887 Minister 1825–1902 Indian Hill cemetery
John Monroe Van Vleck Acting 1887–1889 Astronomer 1833–1912 Indian Hill cemetery
8. Bradford Paul Raymond President 1889–1908 Theologian 1846–1916 Indian Hill cemetery
John Monroe Van Vleck Acting 1896–1897 Astronomer 1833–1912 Indian Hill cemetery
William North Rice Acting 1908–1909 Geologist 1845–1928 Indian Hill cemetery
9. Rev. William Arnold Shanklin President 1909–1923 Minister 1862–1924 ?
Stephen Henry Olin Acting 1923–1925 Symposiast 1847–1925 College Cemetery
10. James Lukens McConaughy President 1925–1943 Governor of Connecticut 1887–1948 Indian Hill cemetery
11. Victor Lloyd Butterfield President 1943–1967 Philosopher 1904–1975 Wildwood Cemetery
12. Edwin Deacon Etherington President 1967–1970 President, NYSE 1924–2001 ?
Robert A. Rosenbaum Acting 1970–1970 Mathematician 1915 –
13. Colin Goetze Campbell President 1970–1988 Vice-president, NYSE 1935 –
William J. Barber Acting 1988–1988 Economist 1925 –
14. William Chace President 1988–1994 Dean, Stanford University 1938 –
Joanne V. Creighton Acting 1994–1995 Educator 1942 –
15. Douglas J. Bennet, Jr. President 1995–2007 President, NPR 1938–2018
16. Michael S. Roth President 2007–present Historian 1957 –

The secular era[edit]

Wesleyan severed its ties with the Methodist Church in 1937. In a further move towards a secular positioning of its academic focus, the administration ceased to define the curriculum as Christian in the 1960s, and also eliminated compulsory chapel at the same time. Today, many regard Wesleyan as a haven for counter-culture intellectuals, social progressives, and political activists.

During World War II, as college-aged men volunteered or were drafted to fight overseas, Wesleyan's enrollment was supplemented by the presence on campus of both the U.S. Navy V-12 officer training program and the U.S. Naval V-5 Flight Preparatory School,[13][14] which allowed the University to remain open.

In the mid-1950s, Wesleyan, under the presidency of Victor Lloyd Butterfield, began an ambitious program to reorganize itself into seven residential colleges. Three buildings were built as one complex west of the campus, and three more as a complex to the south of the campus. The programs were never fully developed, but the buildings of the residential colleges still serve as the Foss Hill and Butterfield dormitories. Two colleges still remain as academic programs: the College of Letters (COL) and the College of Social Studies (CSS); although they are not true colleges and do not have residential facilities or resident scholars. Nevertheless, both are considered exceptionally intensive study programs and are considered excellent preparation for later graduate work. Fund raising proved highly effective and by 1960 Wesleyan had the largest endowment, per student, of any college or university in America, and a student-faculty ratio of 7:1.[15]

The composer John Cage was affiliated with Wesleyan from the 1950s until his death in 1993. Cage collaborated with members of the Wesleyan music faculty, composed and performed on campus, and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in 1960–61 and 1969–70. Several of his books were published by the Wesleyan University Press.[16]

On June 7, 1964, The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the baccalaureate service from Denison Terrace and received an honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity.[17] King spoke at the University on four other occasions at campus rallies, church services, and colloquia.[18] A number of Wesleyan faculty, staff, and students were active with Dr. King in the civil rights movement.[19][20]

The student body became prominent in the political and counter-culture movement of the 1960s and '70s. In the tumultuous spring of 1970, which saw the Bobby Seale murder case in nearby New Haven, Connecticut and the killings at Kent State, Wesleyan undergraduates played a central role in organizing a nationwide boycott of classes. The college was closed down early for the summer as many students canvassed the community to protest racism and the Vietnam War, but not before the Grateful Dead played a free open-air concert in the middle of Andrus Field (on May 3, 1970.){fact}

Wesleyan was one of the first highly selective schools to actively recruit black and other minority students, and in the class entering in 1965 had the first substantial group of minority students, 14 young men—13 blacks and one Latino. In ensuing years, much press attention was directed to race relations at Wesleyan, leading to a much publicized 1968 article in the New York Times Magazine entitled "Two Nations at Wesleyan" which used a photo of a round table at which 8 black students were seated to argue that blacks and whites did not eat together or interact otherwise. Students responded that the article ignored the photo of an adjacent table at which four black and four white students were seated.

Wesleyan owns a publishing concern, Wesleyan University Press. For several decades a division of the Press, American Educational Publications, produced a series called My Weekly Reader which was a subscription service to elementary schools used across the country. It was sold in 1965 to Xerox Corporation for 400,000 shares of Xerox stock worth $56 million. The sale of AEP helped to finance Wesleyan's graduate programs and the Center for Advanced Study (now the Center for the Humanities).[21] The sale of AEP marked Wesleyan's entry into the stock market, and the next year in 1966, Edwin Deacon Etherington, president of the American Stock Exchange, was named president of the college. Wesleyan since that time has been investing its endowment, with various degrees of success. Wesleyan's endowment more than doubled from 1995 to 2005. At of the end of fiscal year 2008, it was worth approximately $720,000,000.


  1. ^ a b c "About Wesleyan". Wesleyan University. Archived from the original on March 30, 2009. Retrieved March 27, 2009. 
  2. ^ Potts 1992, p. xv–xvi.
  3. ^ "Wesleyan Football: Wesleyan vs. All Opponents". Wesleyan University. Archived from the original on 2008-09-05. Retrieved April 7, 2009. 
  4. ^ Preface to "A Group of English Essayists", C. T. Winchester, 1910.
  5. ^ "Olin Memorial Library History". Wesleyan University. Retrieved April 7, 2009. 
  6. ^ The front porch of the Eclectic building is of a vigorous Doric style, which Bacon later refined in his work on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
  7. ^ The pre-existing Clark Hall was considered part of the Quadrangle, the sixth building was never erected on the site of the current Science Tower.
  8. ^ Henry Bacon did not design Olin; he only did preliminary volume sketches.
  9. ^ David R. Potts, Wesleyan University 1831–1910: Collegiate Enterprise in New England.
  10. ^ http://millercenter.org/academic/americanpresident/wilson/essays/biography/print
  11. ^ http://middletowneyenews.blogspot.com/2009/11/from-1909-taft-at-wesleyan-shanklin.html
  12. ^ http://www.wesleyan.edu/president/pastpresidents/shanklin.html
  13. ^ U.S. Naval Activities, World War II, by State [Connecticut]. Ibiblio.org. Retrieved on October 17, 2011.
  14. ^ Guide to the Navy V-5 and V-12 Training Units Collection, 1941 – 1944 Processed by: Valerie Gillispie; machine-readable finding aid created by: Valerie Gillispie &hdrsca; 2006 Wesleyan University. All Rights Reserved. Machine-readable finding aid derived from XML authoring program. Date of source: August 2006 Description is in English Finding aid was prepared using DACS. Wesleyan.edu., Archives at Olin Library. Retrieved on October 17, 2011.
  15. ^ Albert E. Van Dusen, Connecticut" (1961) p 365
  16. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 27, 2010. Retrieved May 28, 2010. 
  17. ^ http://www.wesleyan.edu/libr/schome/FAs/me1000-78.html
  18. ^ https://wesleyanargus.com/2009/09/03/wesleyan-history-101-1831-2009/ Archived March 7, 2017, at the Wayback Machine.
  19. ^ http://www.americantowns.com/ct/middletown/organization/wesleyan_university
  20. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on March 30, 2009. Retrieved June 16, 2011. 
  21. ^ Wesleyan Facts and Trivia Archived May 27, 2010, at the Wayback Machine., Wesleyan University. Retrieved February 20, 2011.


  • Price, Carl F. Wesleyan's First Century (1932)
  • Potts, David B. (1992). Wesleyan University, 1831–1910: Collegiate Enterprise in New England. Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6360-9.