Washington State University, Part 1

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 5/22/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5701
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Founded in 1890 as a land-grant college, Washington State University has become one of the top public research universities in the United States. Known affectionately (if unofficially) as Wazzu (a pronunciation of its acronym, WSU), the institution has grown from one tiny building on a barren hillside in Pullman to a statewide system that includes a 600-acre main campus; branch campuses in Spokane, the Tri-Cities, and Vancouver; a network of 10 Regional Learning Centers that extend the university’s educational reach to distant parts of the state; and Cooperative Extension offices in each of Washington’s 39 counties, bringing the practical applications of varied research to the public. In keeping with its land-grant heritage, WSU has consistently blended the liberal arts and sciences with practical education and public service. This is Part One of a two-part Snapshot History, covering the school’s first half-century.

A “Liberal and Practical” Education

Shortly after Washington became a state on November 11, 1889, the Legislature took steps to claim a land grant to create an agricultural college under the terms of the Morrill Act. This act, adopted by Congress in 1862 and revised in 1890, encouraged states to create colleges “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts … in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life” (Morrill Act). Another federal law, the Hatch Act of 1887, established an agricultural experiment station program (basically, experimental farms), to be operated in conjunction with the land-grant colleges. The federal government supported such colleges not only with land but with annual cash payments. The mission was to provide a broad-based but practical education to the working classes of a nation that was still largely rural.

An Enabling Act to create the Agricultural College, Experiment Station and School of Science of the State of Washington passed the Legislature on March 28, 1890, and was signed into law by Governor Elisha P. Ferry (1825-1895) a few days later. The act made the state eligible for a grant of 190,000 acres of federal land, along with an annual appropriation of $15,000 (later increased to $25,000).

The enabling legislation stipulated that the college be located in the southeastern corner of the state but left the selection of a specific site up to a three-member committee, appointed by the governor. The plans set off a spirited bidding contest among several small towns in the region, including Pullman, located in the Palouse wheat-ranching country near the border between Washington and Idaho. The committee visited each of the contenders but disbanded without making a recommendation. A second committee was initially deadlocked between Yakima and Pullman but finally selected Pullman, perhaps swayed by the town’s promise to provide a quarter section of city land for the campus. Pullman also boasted good train service to Spokane, Washington, and to Portland, Oregon. The town’s boosters pointed to the rail system in arguing that Pullman had commercial and cultural connections to the larger world.

The decision, announced on April 27, 1891, set off a two-day celebration in the self-styled “little star of the Palouse,” during which all the businesses closed -- except for the three saloons, considered “indispensable to the occasion” (Frykman, 2).

Meanwhile, the Legislature passed a second law concerning the nascent college, appointing a five-member Board of Regents and expanding the educational mission to include general arts and sciences in addition to agriculture and “mechanic arts.” The regents then chose George W. Lilley (1854-1904) to be president of the college. Lilley was a genial Midwesterner whose background contained “ambiguities,” as one historian delicately put it (Frykman, 5). Apparently the most significant factor in his selection was his long-standing friendship with one of the regents. Other regents were less impressed with him, and he was “released” after just one year.

Construction of the campus’s first building began in May 1891. A one-story red brick structure, it stood all alone on an immense, treeless hill (on a site now occupied by the New Library between the Compton Union Building and Holland Library). It was nicknamed the “CRIB” -- the cradle of an infant college.

At a meeting in Pullman the following December, the regents decided that the college would initially offer three major fields of study: agriculture, engineering, and domestic science; along with a two-year non-degree pharmacy course and a one-year college preparatory department. The regents also stipulated that tuition would be free to residents of Washington State.

Washington Agricultural College

The Agricultural College, Experiment Station and School of Science of the State of Washington opened its doors to 59 students on January 13, 1892. Of the inaugural class, only 13 were admitted as freshmen to the college itself; the rest were relegated to a preparatory department -- a reflection of the fact that the state had few high schools or academies that could prepare students for college. The students boarded with families in Pullman for most of the first year, until the completion of a five-story dormitory on campus. The cost of sharing a room in the dormitory was $17 a year; meals in the dining hall cost about $8 a month. A 225-acre college farm, adjacent to the campus, supplied both produce for the dining hall and training for the agricultural students.

Despite descriptions of an elaborate curriculum in the college catalog, the actual choices were limited, with no clear distinction between the classes taken by the prep students and the matriculated freshmen. There was a faculty of five, plus Lilley, the college president, who taught mathematics and elementary physics in addition to his administrative duties. The students were the sons and daughters of farmers, laborers, and shopkeepers; many of them walked to campus from nearby farms.

Much of the momentum for college’s cultural life came from the students themselves. Within a month, they were publishing a newspaper and had organized a literary society and an athletic club. The relative isolation of the campus fostered a collegial spirit that would characterize Washington State students for decades to come.

At the end of the year, the regents fired Lilley as president and replaced him with John W. Heston (1854-1920), president of Seattle High School. Whatever Lilley’s faults, he was popular with the students. When his successor arrived on campus for the first time, accompanied by one of the regents, students armed themselves with fresh eggs and rotten cabbages from the college farm and chased the two men off campus. It was the first and most disruptive student demonstration in the history of the institution, involving the largest proportion of the student body and setting a standard that even the generation of students in the 1960s and 1970s could not match.

Heston lasted only eight months as president, departing in August 1893. He was replaced by Enoch A. Bryan (1855-1941), considered by many to be the institution’s true founder, who would guide the school for the next 22 years.

The Bryan Era

Enoch Bryan came to Pullman from a position as president of Vincennes University, a small two-year college in Indiana. He held a master’s degree from Harvard University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Indiana, where he had been a student of David Starr Jordan, an educational reformer who would later become the first president of Stanford University. Bryan later said he had never even heard of the Washington Agricultural College (as the school was then known) when he learned that a friend in Oregon had nominated him for the presidency.

Under Bryan’s influence, the curriculum included a strong liberal arts component. in addition to a practical orientation. Chemistry, American and European history, mathematics (including trigonometry), English literature, and two foreign languages were basic courses, required whether the students majored in agriculture or literature. Students also had to write and defend a senior thesis based on original research before they could graduate.

Bryan also expanded the curriculum to include formal instruction in music and art. He warned students that “mere empirical knowledge” was “helpless to give you the power you seek” (quoted in Stimson, 16). In 1905, he convinced the Board of Regents to authorize a three-year School of Music. He regarded music as not merely “an accomplishment,” but “an essential element in the education of the human soul.” (quoted in Frykman, 39). Despite its name, Washington Agricultural College was never devoted solely to training better farmers.

However, the college also was assiduous in carrying out its mission, as a land-grant institution, to advance agriculture through scientific research. This dual emphasis on liberal arts and the natural sciences put the little school in Pullman at the forefront of progressive developments in higher education at the turn of the twentieth century.

Campus Life

Student life in these years was fairly spartan by modern standards. Faculty and administrators took their roles as substitute parents (acting in loco parentis) seriously, and closely monitored the students’ moral and social lives. Dormitory rules required students to be up by 6:30 a.m.; to attend class or study from 8 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 3 p.m.; to study again from 7 to 10:15 p.m., and be in bed by 10:30 p.m.. Students could be disciplined for swearing, smoking, littering, trespassing on the grass, or otherwise committing “other offences against decency.”

By 1900, the college grounds were beginning to look more like a campus and less like a frontier outpost. There was a “Quad,” bordered by four bright red brick buildings of four or five stories. In all, the campus included six substantial buildings and a half a dozen smaller structures scattered across the broad and still largely treeless College Hill. The grandest of the buildings was the turreted, four-story Thompson Hall, completed in 1894 (and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973). Originally called the Administration Building, the hall today is one of the most recognized and photographed buildings on campus.

Students and faculty members formed a small, close-knit community. The entire student body (roughly 500 students by 1900) gathered for “chapel” each morning. Nearly all the students participated in nearly every activity -- student government, a literary or debating society, the newspaper or yearbook, the college orchestra or chorus, sports. As William L. Stimson pointed out in a history of student life at WSU, “For students of the era before World War II, college was more than a center for academic training; it was an exercise in society building. Student leaders worked to create an almost utopian community where everyone participated, everyone had fun, and everyone gained so much from the experience that they would treasure the memories for the remainder of their lives” (Stimson, 34).

As the college approached the end of its first decade, Bryan and others began to press for a new name. State Senator Herman D. Brow of Spokane introduced a bill in 1899 to change the name to Washington State College. Opponents accused Bryan of trying to create a second state university, at the expense of the University of Washington in Seattle. The bill was defeated, but it fueled a growing rivalry between the two schools.

Bryan persisted in trying to change the school’s image by changing its name. Supporters of the UW continued to oppose the move on the grounds that it would undercut the university’s stature. In addition, many farm groups objected to any new name that did not include the word “Agriculture.” Bills to change the name were rejected in the legislative sessions of 1901 and 1903 but finally, in 1905, the school was renamed the State College of Washington (quickly shortened, colloquially, to Washington State College, or WSC).

Go, State!

In 1915, Ernest O. Holland (1874-1950) succeeded Enoch Bryan as president of what was now Washington State College. Holland held a Ph.D. from Columbia University, where he had been a roommate and close friend of Henry Suzzallo, who became president of the University of Washington at the same time Holland took over the leadership of WSC. Their friendship soon dissolved into a bitter feud over the future of the State College.

The conflict between the two institutions had deepened in 1909, when a legislative committee (dominated by legislators from the western side of the state) visited WSC and found, among other things, a foreign language department of eight faculty members, an English department headed by a Harvard Ph.D., a thriving school of architecture, and half a dozen departments with graduate students. The committee recommended that the college be stripped down to trade school status. Suzzallo embraced this idea. In one letter to Holland, he promised to help make WSC “the greatest school of agriculture in the world” if only Holland would agree to leave virtually everything else to the University of Washington (quoted in Stimson, 29). Suzzallo proposed, specifically, to close WSC’s schools of architecture and pharmacy and to end all its graduate programs.

The two presidents marshaled their regents, alumni, and political supporters and prepared for war. Holland and the State College claimed the victory in 1917, when the Legislature refused to curtail the academic mission of WSC. In the eyes of the Legislature, at least, the state college and the state university had reached educational parity.

Holland and Suzzallo continued to quarrel over matters involving curriculum and financing of their respective schools until 1926, when a new governor, Roland H. Hartley (1864-1952), forced Suzzallo out of office. Even then, the rivalry persisted in the form of an edifice conflict -- Holland wanted a library at the State College that would surpass the grandeur of the cathedral-like library built at the University of Washington in 1926 and named after Suzzallo. Those plans were thwarted when Hartley moved to block a $450,000 appropriation for capital expenditures at WSC. The money was ultimately released, but it was clear that the political winds still blew unsteadily for Holland and the State College. He did not get his library until 1950.

Go Cougs!

The Washington Agricultural College football team, called the Farmers, played its first varsity game on November 10, 1894, beating the University of Idaho at Moscow, 10-0. Football epitomized comradeship, hard work, risk, and determination -- values held dear by the students. Few people challenged its relevance to higher education, particularly after 1916, when Washington State College defeated Brown University of Providence, Rhode Island, 14-0, in the first annual Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

The game was the first to match a Western college against an Ivy League school. Washington coach William “Lonestar” Dietz declared that the Eastern school didn’t know what it was in for. His confidence was not misplaced. Three years later, Dietz’s team beat the University of California Bears by the same score, 14-0. A San Francisco newspaper cartoonist depicted the rout by drawing a hapless California bear trying to free itself from a Northwest cougar. Within a week, the cougar was adopted as the official school mascot.

Dietz was part of the famed “Carlisle Connection” -- a succession of three head football coaches who came to WSC from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania (Frank Shivley, Dietz, and Gus Welch). They were followed by other notable coaches, including Orin E. “Babe” Hollingbery, whose Cougars did not lose a home game from 1926 to 1935.

Among Hollingbery’s star players was Herbert “Butch” Meeker of Spokane, a diminutive halfback (and sometimes quarterback and place kicker), who led the team to several championship seasons. When Governor Roland Hartley gave the school a live cougar as a mascot in 1927, the students voted to name him Butch in Meeker’s honor.

The live cougar replaced a stuffed specimen that had been stolen by a marauding band of students from the University of Washington back in 1919. A series of Butches (six in all) -- each presented by the reigning governor after the demise of the preceding Butch -- served as Washington State’s mascots for a total of 51 years. The cougars spent their days in caged idleness, hauled out for football games and wheeled around the stadium when the human Cougars scored. Butch VI was euthanized in 1978, at age 15. The new mascot was a person in a cougar suit.

Hard Times

Washington State College’s early growth years came to an abrupt end with the Great Depression of the 1930s. The school’s budget was sliced by 25 percent in 1932 and by another third during each of the next two years. Enrollment dropped by more than 20 percent and did not return to pre-1930 levels until 1936. The teaching staff was reduced and the salaries of the remaining faculty and staff were cut. Salaries were not restored to their pre-Depression level until 1937, and then no allowance was made for increases in the cost of living.

The financial problems persisted throughout the decade. At one point, the administration could not dig up $3,500 to buy 30 microscopes for the College of Veterinary Medicine. It had to ask veterinary students to pay for them, through a special fee of $2 a semester.

In the midst of this, restrictive rules governing student behavior came to be an increasing source of friction between the students and the administration. Annie M. Fertig, appointed Dean of Women in 1924, took a stern and uncompromising approach to guarding student morality. For example, when the student radio station attempted to broadcast a play about a woman who won a lottery and traveled to Europe, Dean Fertig ordered production halted on the grounds that any woman traveling so far alone could only be bound for immoral adventures.

Simmering resentment over “Dean Annie’s Rules” gave rise to Washington State’s first general student strike, in early May 1936. Apparently inspired by a homily from then-President Holland about how students should be prepared to take control of their own lives, a group of students organized what they called the Student Liberty Association. Leaders demanded that dormitory closing hours be extended (to 11 p.m. on weeknights and 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights); that students be allowed to organize social “mixers” on Wednesday evenings; that compulsory class attendance be abolished, and “Ultra-conservative, dictatorial Administrative policies” be ended.

More than 3,000 students -- nearly the entire student body -- participated in a protest march on May 5. They carried signs reading, for example, “More Education, Less Regimentation” and “This May be a Cow College But We’re Not Contented.” A one-day student strike on May 7 attracted attention from newspapers around the state. A faculty committee recommended that the students’ demands be accepted, and Holland agreed. The episode ended amicably for everyone except Dean Fertig, whose zeal for regulating the behavior of students left her few friends on campus. Holland put her on leave without pay and then fired her.

To go to Part 2, click "Next Feature"


George A. Frykman, Creating the People’s University: Washington State University, 1890-1990 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1990); William L. Stimson, Going to Washington State: A Century of Student Life (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989); An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories Which May Provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts (the Morrill Act), Statutes at Large, 12, ch. 130, p 504; Washington State University, “WSU Highlights by Decade,” Washington State University Website accessed on May 22, 2004 (http://www.wsu.edu/WSU-history).

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