Central Washington University

  • By Karen Blair, Ph.D.
  • Posted 12/10/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8822
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The antecedents of Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington, go back to 1891. It was statehood in 1889 that spurred Washington's initiative to create public schools and train teachers for the classroom. The state legislature quickly authorized State Normal Schools in Cheney and Ellensburg (spelled Ellensburgh until 1894).  Ellensburg's institution opened its doors to 51 students in September of 1891 and graduated its first class of eleven students in June, 1892.  By the 1930s, its offerings had grown considerably and the school offered a four-year bachelor’s degree in education.  The name change in 1937 to Central Washington College of Education reflected the advanced educational rigor then provided. The school continued to expand its undergraduate courses, majors, and degrees (including a master's degree in Education in 1947). By 1961, the state authorized another name change, to Central Washington State College, for it had become a school that offered liberal arts training in many fields in addition to education.  Curricular growth continued and master's degree programs in education and other fields were created, so by 1977 the new appellation, Central Washington University, demonstrated new status as a comprehensive university.

Washington State Normal School at Ellensburgh

Statehood in 1889 moved Washington’s legislators to create teacher training schools that would provide schoolchildren in the new public school system with instructors.  To that end, the Washington State Normal School at Ellensburgh opened its doors in September 1891. 

In light of the major academic institution it would become, the facilities and programs looked quite modest at the start. With no campus and no buildings, Principal Benjamin Franklin Barge (1834-1926) supervised his faculty of three in the brand new classrooms on the upper floor of Ellensburg’s spacious new elementary school building.  His 50 enrollees, who had demonstrated mastery only of eighth grade material for admission, ranged in age from 15 to 50. When they completed their academic coursework (the equivalent of the first three years of high school), they trooped downstairs to observe classes in grades 1-8 and refine their pedagogy skills by assisting classroom teachers.

The “normal” school, borrowed from the French term, école normale, referring to a secular, non-parochial teacher training institution, did not charge for tuition or books for those who pledged to teach for at least two years in Washington state’s schools.  This arrangement had great appeal to a student body composed largely of young women from a rural background and modest circumstances. Only a handful of men signed on and these often became school principals and county superintendents of schools rather than country schoolteachers. All students boarded with householders in town, for no dormitories were provided until 1915, for women, and 1927, for men.

It was not until 1894 that a proper academic facility was constructed, on donated acreage on 8th Street. Later named to honor Barge’s early contribution to the infant institution, it was opened by a new principal, Phares A. Getz (1859-1939). A massive three-story brick building, it housed classrooms, offices, library, bookstore, auditorium for daily assemblies, a gymnasium in the basement for athletics as well as dances, and even facilities for elementary children, on whom Normal students practiced professional skills.

The early curriculum was delivered by a handful of Eastern-trained professors, mostly women.  They ensured mastery of algebra, English grammar, civics, U.S. history, physiology, geography, penmanship, drawing, geometry, botany, bookkeeping, letter writing, physics, physical education, school law, chemistry, geology, and elocution.  The faculty also advised extra-curricular activities such as the required literary societies (Crescent and Eclectic), debating clubs, and YWCA. They directed glee clubs, guided hikes in the nearby hills, and coached sports, notably women’s basketball.  They chaperoned gatherings, administered paperwork for admissions, credentials and graduation.  They hosted after-church Sunday dinners for students. In addition, Normal’s staff took their own professional development seriously, joining state and national professional organizations, giving papers at conventions, taking holiday trips abroad, and enrolling in summer courses, especially at renowned teacher’s colleges, Columbia Teachers College in New York City and the University of Chicago. The hardworking and ambitious faculty included Dr. Ella Harris (1902-15), an English professor with a Ph.D. from Yale University, who translated the writings of Seneca from Latin to English, and Dr. Mary Grupe, head of the department of psychology.

The passing years brought more variety and rigor in course offerings, higher admission requirements, an enlarged faculty, and rising enrollments. In 1909, the state permitted admission to those who did not plan to teach, but wished to begin an education they would complete elsewhere. These paid a tuition of $10. The third principal, William E. Wilson (1847-1930) lent more stability, leading the Normal school from 1898-1916. During his tenure the student population grew in size from 220 students and 11 faculty members to 322 students and 30 faculty. Growth was interrupted only with the opening of a Pacific coast competitor, New Whatcom (Bellingham) Normal School, in 1899.  Wilson expanded the school, adding Kamola Dormitory for women, Edison Hall for a laboratory school for grades one to eight, an ambitious summer program for returning teachers, cultivation of alumni to assist in job placement for new graduates, guest speakers of renown, and optional participation in literary societies.

It was Principal George H. Black (1873-1952) who modernized Normal, between 1916 and 1930. First, though, he faced the effects of World War I, which drew away most of the male students, and the influenza epidemic, which shut down classes for the 12 weeks from November 1918 through January 1919. Soon afterward, however, he hired a coach to initiate a competitive sports program that was sufficiently attractive to lure 65 young men to enroll.  He encouraged a strengthened student government association, expanded the school newspaper (Campus Crier) and yearbook (Hyakem), and built new structures -- dorms for men and women, and the Shaw-Smyser library and classroom building. As Washington state saw the establishment of more and more accredited high schools to prepare applicants for teacher training, Normal could require a high-school diploma for admission and even offer some three- and four-year degree programs. Rural schoolteacher preparation and health education were among the noteworthy new programs.

Black, a well-liked leader, was dismissed by governor-appointed trustees because of financial irregularities on campus.  Among these was the loss of revenue from offering campus meals to the community, under cost.  His faculty, of 17 men and 30 women, sent earnest expressions of affection upon his departure. Social science professor Selden Smyser (1870-1957) served as acting head until Robert Ervie McConnell (1897-1976) took the helm in 1931.

McConnell was the school’s first leader with a doctorate, in Education from University of Iowa, and he was the first top administrator to be titled president.  But his arrival coincided with the force of the Great Depression, followed by the strain of World War II, and finally the deluge of veterans seeking a subsidized education on the G.I. Bill.  His ability to lead for almost 30 years (1931-59), speaks to his strength against adversity.  Hard times in the 1930s reduced the number of students who could afford to reside in Ellensburg to acquire an education. An new women’s dorm, Sue Lombard Hall (named for the first woman trustee, 1915-1928), remained unused while women students sought cheaper lodgings in town. The state mandated severe cuts in state salaries, including those of the professors. 

McConnell cut corners in every way possible, including his infamous counting of paper clips, literally! His micromanagement could irk faculty, staff, and students, but he pulled the campus through the economic hardship successfully.  In fact, he used federal funds to expand the campus, replacing the antiquated Edison Hall in 1939 with a state-of-the-art elementary school that offered stunning amenities such as a tiled library fireplace, window seats, stained glass medallions in the kindergarten windows, one-way mirrors for classroom observation, statuary and fine artwork, and a protected playground with a pond for floating sailboats.  This would be named to honor the director of teacher training, Amanda Hebeler, and would serve as a lab school until budget cuts forced its closure in 1982.

McConnell snared monies for an 800-seat auditorium, which continues today to house campus gatherings. Fittingly, this stately, columned building was named for him. President McConnell also developed employment opportunities on campus for the neediest students, pioneered a program for the preparation of nursery school teachers, and embraced a pilot training program at the nearby airport. With the two other normal schools in Washington state, Cheney and Bellingham, he welcomed inspection by the national accreditation team for teacher’s colleges, which granted new status in 1937, meeting the standards to become a College of Education. This change reflected the school's ability to deliver the state-mandated four-year, college-level training now required of Washington schoolteachers.

College of Education, 1937-1961 

President McConnell had pinched pennies to get his school through the Depression of the 1930s, but he had much to celebrate at the campus jubilee in 1941.  New buildings, new programs, new degrees, an enrollment of 745, a faculty of 56, including many he had personally chosen for their advanced degrees, spoke well of a school that had weathered hard times.

Still, his iron hand was resented by many faculty, staff and students, and when he fired Professor Joe Trainor for skipping the 1940 graduation ceremony to begin his sabbatical in Mexico, the uproar pushed the campus to found a chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1940. The AAUP agreed that McConnell’s reaction to a minor infraction was extreme and they imposed an official censure on the school for the leadership’s refusal to permit faculty governance. This was lifted in 1948 with the establishment of a Faculty Forum (the antecedent of the Faculty Council and Faculty Senate)  that permitted wider involvement in campus policy.

America’s entrance into World War II brought additional stresses.  Applications for admission dipped again, with college-age young men enlisting or being drafted.  Fewer professors were needed, so it was with relief that leaves of absence were requested by staff members, including art professor Sarah Spurgeon and historian Vernon Carstenson, for war service. The crisis caused the pilot-training program to grow, bringing cadets to campus. Professors now taught basic subjects to future flyers.  Music professor Wayne Hertz offered English language instruction, for example.  Twelve students and staff were killed in the war and four were honored when new dormitories were built:  Clifton Alford Hall, Cortland Carmody Hall, Hamilton Montgomery Hall, and Douglas Munro Hall.

The long-held domination of women students evaporated when the soldiers came home and free education was offered by the federal government to the GIs. The College of Education swelled in the post-war period, reaching 1,558 in 1949-1950. This was a dramatic increase over the 268 who had enrolled in 1943-1944. The physical plant could not sustain such numbers. 

“Vetville” tried to fill the gap, with wartime temporary housing being imported and recycled for enrolled veterans and their families. This sudden growth prompted the planning of several new buildings, both residence and academic structures.  McConnell, however, was not as ready as his newly appointed Board of Trustees to share decision-making regarding a changing campus. McConnell resigned in October 1959 for a federal job in San Francisco, thereby closing the longest presidency in campus history. For two years, interim president Perry Mitchell (1904-1978), the registrar, ran the campus during the search for fresh leadership.  The transition saw an evolution in campus organization, with increasing shared governance for faculty, staff, trustees, and students.

Central Washington State College, 1961-1977

President James Brooks  (b. 1926) arrived to usher in a new era for Central.  The recognition of its expanding offerings, beyond teacher preparation to many liberal arts fields, prompted the name change.  Here was the heyday of expansion, with huge enrollments of 2,266 in 1961 to 8,119 in 1975, new undergraduate majors and many master's of arts degree programs, a burst of hiring of professors with expectations that they quickly complete Ph.D. degrees, an acquisition of acreage that doubled the size of the campus to 226 acres, and an explosion of construction sites to provide new buildings.  Many of these structures were named to honor early educators on campus.

The late 1960s brought political activism, as it did on most college campuses, with student demonstrations addressing the Vietnam War, Black Power, campus regulations, and women’s liberation. Disruptions were not as great as those on many campuses, perhaps due to President Brooks’ willingness to engage in dialogue with the discontented.

One of Brooks’ early challenges involved a campus visit by Gus Hall, a Communist Party official.  During the Cold War, Hall’s offer to speak at colleges all over the Pacific Northwest engendered controversy. Washington and Oregon colleges, public and private, wrestled with free-speech issues. Some schools denied him access.  Others permitted him to speak. At first, Brooks did not squelch the student invitation to Hall, but objections from many local officials and organizations and midnight threats from right-wing opponents to Communism caused him to cancel at the last minute.  The action divided the campus. Finally the clash yielded a Symposium that featured controversial speakers of all kinds, including Timothy Leary and Stokely Carmichael. The series entranced the students who took the opportunity to enjoy extended exchanges with major figures in the headlines.  The Symposium, vibrant throughout the Sixties,  continues to trigger excited reminiscences from students and faculty who participated.

The heady days of growth and ferment halted with a state-wide economic decline in the 1970s.  Boeing Aircraft’s decline was felt by the state educational system. Brooks and his vice president of academic affairs, Edward Harrington, had to deal with sudden and extreme declining enrollments and legislative cutbacks. Like their predecessors, they attempted to cope with retrenchment by halting new hiring and new programs, and refraining from replacing faculty and staff who retired or left. Construction plans on the new library were trimmed. 

Despite efforts to improve morale through means such as faculty recognition awards,  the problem renewed faculty interest in unionization.  An invigorated chapter of the American Federation of Teachers invited the faculty senate to challenge presidential authority. The extraordinary growth of the previous decade had ended.  A geographer, President Brooks retired from the presidency to join the faculty in 1974 while a new president oversaw the transition to the school’s fourth name change, to Central Washington University. In 2003, the 1970s library was named to honor Brooks, who had presided over its construction (albeit scaled down from original plans due to budget cuts).

Central Washington University, 1977-2008

The trustees hired Dr. Donald L. Garrity (1928-1994), a sociologist who had previously served President Hayakawa as Provost in handling student protests at San Francisco State University.  His administration continued to cope with Washington state-mandated budget cuts, which did not abate for most of his leadership, through 1995. He and all three presidents of the modern era, including Dr. Ivory Nelson (b. 1934) and Dr. Jerilyn McIntyre (b. 1942), likewise juggled budgets in the face of shrinking legislative appropriations. All three looked to the state-wide branches for growth. All three, along with two-month 1992 interim President James Pappas (b. 1939), initiated new programs with caution. 

Nevertheless, the recent history reflects considerable innovation and creativity.  Garrity’s administration saw the growth of international programs, whereby students and faculty from abroad were hosted by Central while Central’s students and faculty traveled to sister campuses in Japan, the People’s Republic of China, Mexico, Hungary, and many other distant colleges. It is fitting that the Japanese garden on campus is named to honor President Garrity. It was also in the 1980s that psychology professor Roger Fouts brought Washoe and three other famed chimpanzees to campus, where their use of American Sign Language was studied.

President Nelson’s years, from 1992-2000, brought the age of technology to campus, putting a computer on every faculty desk, computerizing the library catalog, and launching email as the common form of communication. President McIntyre’s administration (2000- 2008) encouraged faculty research and grant writing to a degree that had not been seen before.  She launched the first major fundraising campaign, garnering $21 million between 2005-2008.

In 2006, four years after the state legislature voted to permit collective bargaining in Washington’s institutions of higher learning, her campus faculty signed its first union contract. With a turn-of-the-century wave of retirements by professors with 30 to 40  years in the classroom, new hires brought changing faces to campus, including stronger minority representation. New buildings, including a state-of-the-art science facility, modern student union and recreation center, and impressive music facility, greeted Central’s undergraduates, master’s students, and community members, including high-school students engaged in outreach programs of every stripe.  

The modern era also saw the development of extension programs. These had emerged in the early twentieth century, at first for schoolteachers who were required to expand their training via summer-school classes and teachers' institutes, but eventually for students in many other fields as well. Makeshift facilities were the norm in the beginning, but the twenty-first century has seen a new permanence in sites distant from Ellensburg, with the erection of modern buildings at community college campuses. Six Central Washington University centers are situated at Big Bend Community College (CWU-Moses Lake), Edmunds Community College (CWU-Lynnwood), Highline Community College (CWU-Des Moines), Pierce College (CWU-Pierce County), Yakima Valley Community College (CWU-Yakima), and Wenatchee Valley College (CWU-Wenatchee). In 2007, the Ellensburg campus instructed 8,227 students and another 1,603 students at the six centers.

James Gaudino assumed the presidency in January 2009.

Sources: Samuel Roop Mohler, The First Seventy-Five Years; a History of Central Washington State College, 1891-1966 (Ellensburg: Central Washington State College, 1967); Larry Lowther, Daniel B. Ramsdell, and Earl Glauert, with a foreword by Karen J. Blair, Education, Censorship and Teachers: Essays on the Centennial of Central Washington University, 1891-1991 (Ellensburg: History Department, Central Washington University, 1993); Glen L. Bach, art direction and photo research, and  Karen Blair, historical research, with a foreword by Jerilyn S. McIntyre, By Teaching We Learn: The Evolution of Central Washington University (Ellensburg: Central Washington University, 2008); Karen J. Blair, “The Central Years: The Evolution of Central Washington University,” unpublished manuscript in possession of Karen J. Blair, 2006.

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