Brief History of Wheaton College

Institutions, like people, are shaped by the experiences, people and events that fill their past. The forces that sparked the founding of Wheaton College began more than 165 years ago with a father’s wish to memorialize his recently deceased and much-loved daughter. Rather than erect a marble statue or another static structure, Judge Laban Wheaton, at the urging of his daughter-in-law, Eliza Baylies Chapin Wheaton, decided to create a living monument. Wheaton Female Seminary opened its doors on April 22, 1835, with three teachers and fifty pupils.

From its founding, Wheaton Seminary was a pioneering institution, offering young women the means to pursue serious study at a time when women’s educational options were few. In planning their school, the Wheaton family turned to one of the recognized leaders of the day in female education, Mary Lyon. Miss Lyon created the seminary’s first curriculum with the goal of equality with the curricula of men’s schools in science, philosophy, mathematics, rhetoric, history, composition, logic and religious studies.

Among those whose ideas and influence shaped the early Seminary was Caroline Cutler Metcalf. Strong-willed, conscientious and creative, Mrs. Metcalf served as Seminary principal from 1850 to 1876. Finding and retaining outstanding teachers was high on her list of priorities. Caroline Metcalf sought educators willing to put aside tradition and custom to employ the most effective teaching methods possible. In 1870, graduates paid tribute to Mrs. Metcalf’s many contributions to their lives and to the institution by creating the Wheaton Alumnae Association in honor of Caroline Metcalf’s twentieth year as principal. The group also elected Mrs. Metcalf as its first president. One of the oldest such organizations in the country, today the Wheaton Alumni Association numbers more than fourteen thousand members worldwide.

Educators of vision

Lucy Larcom, who taught writing, literature and history from 1854 to 1862, may be the best known of Wheaton’s nineteenth-century faculty. She certainly characterized the innovative teacher-scholars who would follow her as Wheaton faculty members. The founder of the student literary magazine, Rushlight, which still remains in publication, Miss Larcom was also the catalyst behind the creation of “Psyche,” an intellectual discussion group. In the classroom, she defied accepted methods of teaching history and English literature, eschewing recitation and memorization in favor of discussing ideas and inaugurating the study of English literature. A close friend of poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, Miss Larcom compiled several anthologies published under his name, from which she received steady royalty income.

Seminary teacher, Mary Jane Cragin, meanwhile, made significant contributions in mathematics. Nicknamed “Miss Why?” by students, Miss Cragin, a graduate of Bridgewater Normal School, pioneered the teaching of geometry without textbooks, encouraging her pupils to think through and solve mathematical problems on their own. This teaching method earned Miss Cragin national acclaim after she left Wheaton to teach at the St. Louis Normal School in Missouri. Five years after her death, the National Teachers Monthly praised Mary Cragin as “a woman who came as near the ideal of true teacher, everything considered, as any that we have known.”

A third outstanding educator during Wheaton’s early history was Clara Pike, class of 1866, who taught science from 1869 to 1901. At her urging, Wheaton built science facilities and acquired equipment unusually sophisticated for a female seminary. Miss Pike regularly attended classes at the Women’s Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and invited MIT professors to lecture at Wheaton. In planning the seminary’s science courses, Miss Pike consulted extensively with Ellen Swallow Richards, the founder of the Women’s Laboratory at MIT.

From seminary to college

Eliza Baylies Chapin Wheaton played an ongoing part in the life of the seminary. In the mid-1890s she was among the first to recognize that the age of the seminary was ending. Four-year colleges were becoming the rule rather than the exception, for women as well as men. Indeed, Wheaton’s enrollment in 1897 was a mere 25 students. Convinced that Wheaton should seek collegiate status, Mrs. Wheaton called upon trustees to appoint the Reverend Samuel Valentine Cole as the seminary’s first president. Within six months of assuming the position, Rev. Cole announced his intention to seek a college charter “at some future time if circumstances shall seem to warrant.”

So began a massive revitalization project that resulted in an expanded and strengthened curriculum and several new buildings. The effect of these improvements was dramatic. By 1900, Wheaton’s enrollment had more than tripled. In November 1911, trustees announced their decision to apply for a college charter, which was granted by the Massachusetts Legislature in February 1912.

The first half of the 20th century brought further expansion. In planning the physical development of Wheaton’s campus, President Cole consulted with the young Boston architect, Ralph Adams Cram, as early as 1897. Cram’s pencil sketch of a “Court of Honor”– a rectangular, open space surrounded by groups of buildings — became a blueprint for campus development. A gymnasium, science building, chapel, powerhouse, three dormitories and an observatory were constructed between 1900 and 1925. Ralph Adams Cram would later become the supervising architect at Princeton, Rice, MIT and the US Military Academy at West Point.

Following Samuel V. Cole’s death in 1925, the Reverend John Edgar Park became Wheaton’s second president. He began his tenure by modernizing the curriculum. Among his accomplishments were introducing departmental honors and senior seminars, instituting a system of academic majors and minors and establishing a Wheaton chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

The year 1935 brought Wheaton’s centennial anniversary, which the College commemorated with a two-day celebration that included commencement, alumnae reunions, historical exhibits and the performance of a pageant written by English department members Ellen Ballou and Louise Barr MacKenzie. Student enrollment and the number of faculty increased steadily during Dr. Park’s presidency, and new buildings continued to appear on the campus horizon based on the campus plan originated by Cole and Cram. Wheaton’s growth and vitality during these years is particularly noteworthy in the context of two major world events, the Great Depression and World War II.

Growth and transformation

A. Howard Meneely began his seventeen-year tenure as Wheaton president when Dr. Park retired in 1944. By the mid-1950s, pursuing a college education had become an increasingly desirable goal for growing numbers of students nationwide. Noting Wheaton’s own steady enrollment growth since World War II, President Meneely voiced his concern that unless college facilities and the number of faculty increased across the country, a crisis in education could result. At the same time, Dr. Meneely believed that Wheaton should remain a “small” college, continuing to provide students with individualized attention and a homelike atmosphere.

While agreeing with President Meneely in principle, trustees acknowledged the changing definition of a small college and voted, in 1955, to increase Wheaton’s enrollment by 250 students. This initiative, combined with another vote taken six years later, doubled enrollment to 1,200 students. In turn, such growth allowed Wheaton to expand and improve its curriculum, faculty and building program.

On the academic front, Wheaton established a major lecture series through the generosity of Henry Witte Otis in 1959. Two of Mr. Otis’s daughters graduated from Wheaton. Wheaton professor of religion, J. Arthur Martin, developed the idea for the Otis Lecture Series to give students, as he put it, “an opportunity to hear and to come to know distinguished theologians and philosophers, and to profit from the inspiration and guidance of a person of such intellectual stature as is usually found in our leading universities.” Among the earliest Otis lecturers were Paul J. Tillich (1961) and Eleanor Roosevelt (1962). Today, the purpose of the Otis Fund has broadened to support a colloquium in social justice — a forum through which the Wheaton community may address key contemporary social issues. In 1990, the first Otis Social Justice Award was presented to former US Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop. Two years later, the award went to Jonathan Kozol, author and critical observer of American public education. The annual Miriam Lee Tropp Memorial Lecture, meanwhile, has featured CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, class of 1963, economist, Elizabeth Janeway, and Chinese political observer, William Hinton, among others, and the Wright-Shippee Memorial Lecture has brought to campus well-known artists and art historians.

During the last year of Dr. Meneely’s presidency, the administration of the College fell increasingly to Dean of the College, Elizabeth Stoffregen May. Dr. May was named acting president upon Dr. Meneely’s death and served in that capacity from 1961 to 1962 during the search for a new leader.

The trustees found President Meneely’s successor in Dr. William C. H. Prentice, a psychology professor and administrator from Swarthmore College who was to hold the Wheaton presidency from 1962 to 1975. In completing the building program necessary to accommodate growing enrollment, President Prentice oversaw the creation of Wheaton’s Watson Fine Arts building, Meadows residence hall and Clark Recreation Center. Additionally, in 1966, the college constructed the Elisabeth Amen Nursery School to replace the school built in 1931, one of the first laboratory nursery schools in the country.

Faculty-student collaboration

Wheaton built on its long-standing commitment to student and faculty research in the sciences with the opening of a new science facility in 1968. Since the late 1950s, students had been conducting original research in ultrasonics under the direction of professor of chemistry, Bojan Hamlin Jennings. Grants from the National Science Foundation, the American Chemical Society and other prestigious groups funded the purchase of scientific equipment and provided financial support for student researchers to study high-frequency sound. Professor Jennings and Suzanne Townsend Purrington, class of 1960, described this research in an article published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry in 1961. Wheaton’s tradition of faculty-student collaboration in the sciences continues. Professor of Astronomy Tim Barker and his students, with support from the National Science Foundation, seek to uncover supernovae in other galaxies. In June 1994, the team logged its first discovery, a dying star some 65 million lightyears away. Professors Betsey Dyer and Mark LeBlanc work with students to contribute to the deciphering of DNA. Their work influences both their teaching and curricula.

Another of Wheaton’s most distinguished faculty members was Rhodes scholar, Ernest John Knapton, professor of history from 1931 to 1968. An authority on the French Revolution in general and the Napoleonic era in particular, professor Knapton wrote more than fifty scholarly articles and book reviews as well as ten books, including Empress Josephine, the definitive biography of Napoleon’s wife. In May 1969, Jack Knapton was the only American invited to the Third International Congress of Napoleonic Studies, held at Portoferraio, Elba, to commemorate the bicentennial of Napoleon’s birth.

Building on tradition

The 1970s also saw the inauguration of Wheaton’s first female president, Alice F. Emerson, former dean of students at the University of Pennsylvania. During her sixteen-year tenure, President Emerson continued the tradition of campus improvement and curricular innovation. Physical changes included a major addition to the library, a complete renovation of Wheaton’s oldest building, Mary Lyon Hall, and the creation of the Balfour-Hood Student Center. The latter two initiatives were part of a major fundraising campaign that the college conducted from 1983 to 1986. Alumnae, parents, friends, corporations and foundations contributed more than $26 million for student scholarships, faculty development, library acquisitions and other priorities. Such support was characteristic of the renewed sense of purpose and pride with which Wheaton celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1984 to 1985. Some additions to campus facilities since the mid-1980s include Haas Athletic Center, which opened in 1991 and supports Wheaton’s growing array of intercollegiate, intramural and recreational sports programs, Gebbie Hall, a residence for about fifty students funded by a grant from the Gebbie Foundation of Jamestown, NY, and a new bookstore.

In January of 1987, Wheaton trustees recommended, in principle, that the 152-year-old women’s college open its doors to young men. After several months of discussion among alumnae, parents and friends, the board approved the move in May of that year. Wheaton’s first coeducational class of 412 young men and women arrived on campus in September 1988.

On July 1, 1992, Dale Rogers Marshall became Wheaton’s sixth president. The former Wellesley College academic dean succeeded President Emerson, who left office in November of 1991. Hannah Goldberg, provost and academic vice-president since 1983, served as acting president during the interim. Dr. Marshall, a political scientist who specializes in urban politics, holds degrees from Cornell University, the University of California at Berkeley and UCLA.

In addition to the appointment of a new president, 1992 brought two other milestones, the graduation of Wheaton’s first coeducational class and the enrollment of the largest first-year class in the College’s history. The latter propelled total enrollment to an all-time high.

At Dale Marshall’s inauguration ceremony on October 3, 1992, trustees urged her to “heed the proud history of Wheaton College, recognizing the promise of the future in the strengths of the past.” The new leader also was charged with engaging the whole of the Wheaton community — students and their parents, alumni, faculty, staff members and friends — in articulating and pursuing the mission of the College.

Toward that end, a strategic planning effort began in the fall of 1992 to identify and prioritize goals for the coming decade. The effort involved the entire College community, including alumni and friends, and resulted in the adoption of a plan, Excellence and Equilibrium: Wheaton in the 21st Century, for ensuring the institution’s strength for the future.

Central to the plan was the Campaign for Wheaton, successfully concluded in June 2000 with $90 million in support for the College. The final total, which far exceeded the original $65 million goal, included a $10 million gift from trustee, Adrienne Bevis Mars, class of 1958, and her husband, John, the largest gift to Wheaton in its history. The effort created a wealth of new resources in diverse areas, including more than seventy new student scholarship funds, twelve new endowed faculty chairs, new programs, such as the Davis International Fellows program and the Jane E. Ruby Lecture Series, and a host of new facilities. The campaign was capped by the the construction of Mars Arts and Humanities and the expansion of Watson Fine Arts.

Following the campaign, the College’s faculty conducted a comprehensive review of the curriculum, which resulted in the adoption of an innovative new educational program. The Wheaton Curriculum reaffirms the College’s commitment to the traditional breadth and depth of the liberal arts and sciences while encouraging students to explore connections among their academic, co-curricular and work experiences, and to think, learn, analyze, evaluate, understand and express themselves within and about all aspects of their lives.

On July 15, 2004, Ronald A. Crutcher became Wheaton’s seventh president. The former provost of Miami University in Oxford, OH, who was inaugurated on April 16, 2005, pledged to bring the college greater recognition as a “preeminent liberal arts college.” Toward that end, President Crutcher undertook a strategic planning process to envision how the college could build upon its historical strengths.

In recent years, Wheaton has enjoyed an outstanding record of student achievement. The College produced eighteen national scholarship winners in 2005, including its second Rhodes scholar in five years. Since 2000, more than forty Wheaton students have won national scholarship awards, including the Truman, Fulbright, Madison, Watson, British Marshall, Goldwater and Rotary International scholarships. Wheaton is one of only a handful of liberal arts colleges in the country to have produced two Rhodes scholars in recent years. The college also was named a Truman Foundation Honor School for its focus on Truman scholar candidates and students interested in pursuing careers in public service.

The young women and men now on campus share with past generations the rich academic tradition of the liberal arts and sciences. At the same time, today’s students benefit from a host of curricular initiatives begun during the past two decades — new programs that help undergraduates explore ideas and concepts across academic disciplines, link academic study with learning outside the classroom, appreciate diversity in all its forms and see themselves as active members of a global community.

Despite the diversity of the courses and programs that constitute the Wheaton curriculum, all draw on the College’s historic commitment to the liberal arts and sciences, and all help us meet the challenge confronting every institution of higher learning, to prepare young people for lives of consequence in the 21st century and beyond.