Whitman College

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 10/19/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8337
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Whitman College began as Whitman Seminary, a pre-collegiate academy for pioneer boys and girls.  Cushing Eells (1810-1893) obtained the first charter for the school in 1859, to memorialize his missionary colleagues Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, who had been killed in 1847.  In 1882, with support from the Congregational American College and Education Society, Whitman College began offering curricula at the college level.  In 1907, the college became an independent school and began seeking broader financial support.  During the course of the twentieth century, Whitman College passed through periods of struggle but emerged as a premier liberal arts college.

The Founding Vision (1859-1881) 

In 1859, soon after the United States military declared that the land east of the Cascade Mountains was open for resettlement, Cushing Eells traveled from the Willamette Valley to the abandoned mission site at Waiilatpu, near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, where 12 years earlier Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and 12 others had been killed by a group of Cayuse Indians. While at Waiilatpu, Eells determined to establish a “monument” to his former missionary colleagues in the form of a school for pioneer boys and girls.  Eells obtained a charter for Whitman Seminary, a pre-collegiate academy, from the Washington territorial legislature.  From the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, he acquired the Whitman mission site.  Eells soon moved to the site with his family and began working to establish Whitman Seminary.

Despite Eells’s desire to locate Whitman Seminary at the Whitman mission site and his donation of more than half of the site’s land to the school, local pressure and resources provided a way for the school to open in Walla Walla, a town that had began to take form in late 1859.  In 1866, Walla Walla’s wealthiest denizen, merchant Dorsey Syng Baker (1823-1888), donated land near his home.  A wood-frame building was quickly erected and classes began later that year.  The school’s first principal, local Congregational minister Peasly B. Chamberlin, resigned within a year and Cushing Eells was called upon to serve as principal, which he did until 1869.   After Eells’s resignation in 1869, the school struggled -- and often failed -- to attract students, pay teachers, and stay open for each term.

The Beginning of the College (1882-1894) 

By 1882, Whitman’s trustees had concluded that their school could not compete with other local private and public schools and survive as an academy, but that it might succeed as the region’s first college.  With this end in view, the trustees called Alexander Jay Anderson (1832-1903), the recently resigned president of the Territorial University (later the University of Washington) in Seattle, to organize Whitman College and serve as its first president.  Following the model of New England colleges such as Williams, college curricula were developed, the school purchased its first few library books, and classes began with 60 students on September 4 -- Marcus Whitman’s birthday.  President Anderson, his wife Louisa, and his son Louis made up the senior faculty.  The next year a new charter was obtained for Whitman College and a second building, College Hall, was built for the school.

Through the Congregational American College and Education Society, a Boston organization that helped remote Congregational colleges gain financial assistance, Whitman College received money and books from the East.  As its enrollment, faculty, and facilities grew, local support came for the school as well.  But financial and governance troubles persisted, and despite his many successes Anderson fell out of favor with some of the school’s supporters. He resigned in 1891.  After a promising start, his successor, Congregational minister James Francis Eaton, also encountered financial troubles in a worsening economy, fell out of favor with nearly everyone, and resigned in 1894. 

President Penrose (1894-1934) 

Whitman’s third president, Stephen Beasley Linnard Penrose (1864-1947), a local Congregational minister who had served as a trustee of the college, rescued the college from its precarious position and began laying a firmer foundation for it.  With the support of Chicago philanthropist D. K. Pearsons, Penrose established the college’s endowment, built the college’s first masonry buildings -- the Whitman Memorial Building and Billings Hall (both completed by 1900) -- and strengthened the college’s faculty.  Penrose was able to gain support for the college by publicizing the life and accomplishments of Marcus Whitman, including the disputed claim that Whitman had been instrumental in the United States’s acquisition of old Oregon.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Whitman College was seeking new ways to raise funds and enrollment and enhance its reputation in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.  Following its 25th year as a college, in 1907, a plan called Greater Whitman was launched.  This ambitious plan, which looked more to Massachusetts Institute of Technology than to Williams College for inspiration, sought to expand Whitman’s curriculum and transform the school into a regional center for advanced technical training.  

But in 1912, the campaign for Greater Whitman was abandoned and, after a more modest but successful campaign to raise funds to cover the college’s debts, Whitman College returned to its first model -- a small, residential liberal arts college.  In 1920, the year in which a Phi Beta Kappa chapter was installed at Whitman and the first Rhodes scholarship was awarded to a Whitman graduate, Penrose stated that “the noblest aim for Whitman is to be a small college, with a limited number of students to whom it will give the finest quality of education” (Edwards, The Triumph of Tradition, 424).

A number of other important events occurred during Penrose’s tenure that had an impact on the emerging identity of Whitman College.  Near the beginning of Greater Whitman, to gain broader support, the college ended its affiliation with the Congregational Church and became “undenominational.”  Near the end of this campaign, Whitman closed its academy and fraternities and sororities became part of the college.  Beginning in the 1920s, campus activities became more important and the opportunities for participating in honoraries, athletics, music, drama, clubs, and societies increased for both men and women. 

In the Shadow of Penrose (1934-1948) 

Penrose finished his presidency blind, disappointed, and in one of the worst years of the Great Depression.  The college was again in a precarious financial position but believed that it had found an ideal successor to Penrose in Rudolf Alexander Clemen (1893-1969), a Congregational minister with an impressive background in academia and business.  Clemen commissioned an institutional study and immediately began making changes --  reorganizing the college’s administration and making improvements to its physical plant. 

But Clemen’s approach to change was not well received and, although many of the changes he sought were later made, he was forced to resign in 1936 after only two years in office.  Wary of bringing in another outsider, the college elevated its dean and former mathematics professor Walter Andrew Bratton (1874-1943) to the presidency.  Bratton restored the relationships that Clemen had damaged; when Bratton retired, in 1942, he was celebrated for his success at managing internal affairs.

In the midst of the crisis of World War II, Whitman selected Rollins College Dean Winslow Samuel Anderson (d. 1948) as its next president.  Anticipating the enrollment challenges facing the college, Anderson, with the help of Whitman’s most influential alumnus, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980), brought the Navy’s V-12 officer training program to the campus.  This program enabled the college to keep its enrollment up, maintain high standards, and preserve its liberal arts tradition.  Like many other colleges, after the war Whitman faced the problem of too many students.  But growth meant that, after waiting 21 years, the college was able to add a new building, a student center, to the campus.  As Anderson was planning to capitalize on this growth, he became ill and died of a brain tumor in 1948.

New Leaders and Momentum (1948-1975) 

In 1948, Chester Collins Maxey (1890-1984), a Whitman College alumnus (class of 1912), political science professor, and dean, became president.  Maxey brought a long experience of the strengths and weaknesses of the college to his presidency and significantly improved the school’s financial and academic standing.  According to college historian G. Thomas Edwards, “much of the modern college’s structure originated in the 1950s” under Maxey’s direction (Edwards, Tradition in a Turbulent Age, 312).  One of Maxey’s concluding accomplishments was the erection of a long-awaited Penrose Memorial Library in 1957.

Maxey was succeeded in 1959 by Louis Barnes Perry, who had been an administrator at Pomona College.  At Whitman, Perry created a development office and launched major fundraising and building campaigns, which dramatically increased the size of the college’s asset base, endowment, number of buildings, faculty, and student body.  In 1967, tired of raising money and frustrated by rising student unrest, Perry resigned to become an insurance executive. 

Whitman experienced a great turnover of presidents during the eight years that followed Perry’s retirement.  Maxey returned as interim president until 1968, when Donald Henry Sheehan (1917-1974), a Smith College professor with extensive administrative experience, was selected president.  Sheehan continued the fundraising and building plans that Perry had begun and also responded to demands for change that came from increasingly vocal student activists. Although student unrest at Whitman was less disruptive than it was at larger universities, student pressure did result in the relaxation of housing rules and dress codes and the opening of coed dormitories.  Responding to larger social changes, Whitman also began to seek ways to become more diverse, particularly by recruiting more minority students.  In 1973, in the midst of these and other changes, cancer forced Sheehan to resign and Provost Kenyon Knopf, who had been the college’s principal administrator during Maxey’s second term, acted as president until 1975.

Prosperity and Prestige (1975-2007) 

In 1975, Robert Allen Skotheim, dean and provost at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, became president of Whitman College.  Skotheim made a strong school stronger, by furthering the professionalization of the faculty, increasing the size of the faculty, enhancing the curriculum, and running a successful fundraising campaign.  By the end of his tenure, in 1988, the college’s endowment had nearly quadrupled and Whitman was recognized as one of the best liberal arts colleges in the Northwest.

As the Pacific Northwest became an increasingly visible region in the 1990s, Whitman College continued to grow in prosperity and prestige.  David Evans Maxwell, former dean of undergraduate studies at Tufts University, served as president from 1989 to 1993.  In 1993, Thomas E. Cronin, a political science professor from Colorado College, became president.  During Cronin’s tenure a number of building projects were completed, including the renovation of several older buildings, and great improvements were made to the campus grounds, including the addition of 20 sculptures and some 1,000 trees.  The college’s endowment tripled, applications doubled, and student graduation rates greatly increased.  Cronin was succeeded in 2005 by George S. Bridges, former dean and vice provost of undergraduate education at the University of Washington.

In 2007, which marked the college’s 125th anniversary, Whitman had 120 full-time faculty members, about 1,450 students, and offered the Bachelor of Arts degree in 44 fields of study.  U.S. News & World Report ranked Whitman as the top liberal arts college in the Northwest and among the top five in the West.  Whitman ranked on nine of The Princeton Review’s top-20 “Best” lists, including “Best College Library,” “Happiest Students,” and “Professors Make Themselves Accessible.”


G. Thomas Edwards, The Triumph of Tradition: The Emergence of Whitman College, 1859-1924 (Walla Walla: Whitman College, 1992); G. Thomas Edwards, Tradition in a Turbulent Age: Whitman College, 1925-1975 (Walla Walla: Whitman College, 2001); Myron Eells, Father Eells, or, The Results of Fifty-Five Years of Missionary Labors in Washington and Oregon (Boston: Congregational Sunday-School and Publishing Society, 1894); Stephen B. L. Penrose, Whitman: An Unfinished Story (Walla Walla: Whitman Publishing Co., 1935); Frances Copeland Stickles, Another Sort of Pioneer: Mary Shipman Penrose (Milwaukie, Ore.: Castle Island Publishing, 2007); Alan Wood, “The Skotheim Legacy: An Interview with Bob Skotheim,” Whitman, Spring 1988, 2-11; “About Whitman,” Whitman College website accessed October 2, 2007 (http://www.whitman.edu).

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