Wesleyan University: A Brief History

Wesleyan University was founded in 1831 by Methodist leaders and Middletown citizens. Instruction began with 48 students of varying ages, the president, three professors, and one tutor; tuition was $36 per year.

Named for John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, Wesleyan is among the oldest of the numerous originally Methodist institutions of higher education in the United States. The Methodist movement originated in England in the 1720s, and was particularly important for its early emphasis on social service and education. From its inception, Wesleyan offered a liberal arts program rather than theological training. Ties to the Methodist church, which were particularly strong in the earliest years and from the 1870s to the 1890s, waxed and waned throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Wesleyan became fully independent of the Methodist church in 1937.

Wesleyan’s first president, Willbur Fisk, a prominent Methodist educator, set out an enduring theme at his inaugural address in September 1831. President Fisk stated that education serves two purposes: “the good of the individual educated and the good of the world.” Student and faculty involvement in a wide range of community service activities reflected President Fisk’s goals in the 19th century, and continues to do so today.

Wesleyan has been known for curricular innovations since its founding. At a time when classical studies dominated the American college curriculum, emulating the European model, President Fisk sought to put modern languages, literature, and natural sciences on an equal footing with the classics. When Judd Hall, now home to the Psychology Department, was built in 1870, it was one of the first American college buildings designed to be dedicated wholly to scientific study. Wesleyan faculty’s commitment to research dates to the 1860s.

The earliest Wesleyan students were all male, primarily Methodist, and almost exclusively white. From 1872 to 1912, Wesleyan was a pioneer in the field of coeducation, admitting a limited number of women to study and earn degrees alongside the male students. Coeducation succumbed to the pressure of male alumni, some of whom believed that it diminished Wesleyan’s standing in comparison with its academic peers. In 1911, some of Wesleyan’s alumnae founded the Connecticut College for Women in New London to help fill the void left when Wesleyan closed its doors to women.

Under the leadership of Victor L. Butterfield, who served as president from 1943 to 1967, interdisciplinary study flourished. The Center for Advanced Studies (now the Center for the Humanities) brought to campus outstanding scholars and public figures, who worked closely with both faculty and students. The Graduate Liberal Studies Program, founded in 1953, is the oldest liberal studies program, and the first grantor of the M.A.L.S. (Master of Liberal Studies) and C.A.S. (Certificate of Advanced Studies) degrees. In this same period, the undergraduate interdisciplinary programs, the College of Letters, College of Social Studies, and the now defunct College of Quantitative Studies, were inaugurated. Wesleyan’s model program in world music, or ethnomusicology, also dates from this period. Doctoral programs in the sciences and ethnomusicology were instituted in the early 1960s.

During the 1960s, Wesleyan began actively to recruit students of color. Many Wesleyan faculty, students, and staff were active in the civil rights movement, and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., visited campus several times. By 1968, women were again admitted as transfer students. In 1970, the first female students were admitted to Wesleyan to the freshmen class since 1910. The return of coeducation heralded a dramatic expansion in the size of the student body, and gender parity was achieved very quickly.

Wesleyan’s programs and facilities expanded as well, and new interdisciplinary centers were developed. The Center for African-American Studies, which grew out of the African-American Institute (founded in 1969), was established in 1974. The Center for the Arts, home of the University’s visual and performance arts departments and performance series, was designed by prominent architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo and opened in the fall of 1973. The Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies was established in 1987. The Center for the Americas, which combines American Studies and Latin American Studies, was inaugurated in 1998. The Center for Film Studies, with state-of-the-art projection and production facilities, opened in 2004.

Douglas J. Bennet, who started his tenure as Wesleyan's 15th president in 1995, began an ambitious academic planning process to ensure Wesleyan's continued leadership role in the 21st century. In pursuing this mission, the University placed a high priority on diversity in the faculty and administrative staff, in the student body, and in the curriculum. The primacy of the role of the teacher-scholar and the synergy of teaching and research set the keen and demanding culture of Wesleyan apart from its peers.

An addition to the Freeman Athletic Center opened in 2005, with a 1,200-seat gymnasium for basketball and volleyball, the 7,500-square-foot Andersen Fitness Center, and the Rosenbaum Squash Center with eight courts. In January 2005, the Wesleyan Campaign—which began in 2000—came to a close and raised more than $281 million for student aid, faculty and academic excellence, and campus renewal. Fall 2007 marked the opening of the Suzanne Lemberg Usdan University Center and the adjacent renovated Fayerweather building, which retains the towers of the original Fayerweather structure as part of its façade. The Usdan Center overlooks Andrus Field, College Row, and Olin Library and houses dining facilities for students and faculty, seminar and meeting spaces, the Wesleyan Student Assembly, the post office, and retail space. Fayerweather provides common areas for lectures, recitals, performances, and other events; it contains a large space on the second floor, Beckham Hall, named for the late Edgar Beckham who was dean of the college from 1973–1990.

Michael S. Roth became Wesleyan’s 16th president at the beginning of the 2007–08 academic year. He has undertaken a number of initiatives that have energized the curriculum, and he has increased grant support for Wesleyan undergraduates who receive financial aid. In 2009, the energy-efficient Allbritton Center opened as the home to two new programs: The Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, which links intellectual work on campus to policy issues nationally and internationally, and the Shapiro Creative Writing Center, which brings together students and faculty seriously engaged in writing. A multidisciplinary College of the Environment has been launched, and civic engagement has become more anchored in the University’s culture. In the last two years, Wesleyan has seen a 30 percent increase in applications for admission

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