As Connecticut College celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding date on Tuesday, the tone of the events looked to the next century of education as much as the previous century.
The Founders Day events began with a lecture by Linda Eisenmann, a 1975 graduate of the college. Eisenmann is a professor of history and provost at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Eisenmann said the founding of the college took place at a more amorphous time in the nation’s educational institutions, with less clear definition among secondary and college education as well as degrees. She said Wheaton began admitting women in 1834, but was originally dubbed a seminary.
“The students often were looking to become teachers and missionaries,” she said.
Eisenmann said Connecticut College’s own story grew out of the collapse of women’s education at Wesleyan University in Middletown. That school began admitting women in 1871, though tensions lingered between the men and women on campus and women were barred from the gymnasium. A quota was eventually placed on admitting women and, coupled with a new university president and financial troubles, Wesleyan stopped accepting women in 1909.
Eisenmann said such restrictions were taking place in other schools as well. Northeastern University in Boston, fearing that women were increasingly dominating higher education, started an effort to recruit more men and direct more scholarship money to them.
Elizabeth Wright, a Wesleyan graduate, chaired a committee formed to establish a women’s college in response to the Wesleyan decision. Over two dozen towns expressed interest in hosting the new school but, as college president Leo Higdon, Jr. later said, New London showed “greater than average drive and determination.” Eisenmann said Wright was supported by Colin Buell, principal of a girls’ high school in the city who had been advocating a women’s college for 20 years leading up to Connecticut College’s establishment.
“Buell and Wright made a formidable team, once they realized the serendipity of their interests,” said Eisenmann.
A $100,000 fundraising goal was exceeded by $34,000, with local businessman Horton Plant donating $25,000 and later a $1 million endowment. The school was founded on April 5, 1911 and opened with a class of 151 students and 20 faculty members. The college opened to men as well in 1969, and today serves about 1,900 students. Eisenmann said that rather than overlooking its history, the college should be “building the future on the strength of the past.”
Frances Sears Baratz, a 1940 graduate of the college, recalled bygone traditions such as serenading the senior class on the steps of the library, hanging mayflowers at the junior dorms, and a freshmen parade. She remembered with a laugh how Wright became a bursar who was “very strict on making sure the tuition was paid up.” Baratz commuted to the school from Norwich with three classmates.
“I’m still friendly with several of them who are still alive,” she said. “We formed great friendships.”
The centennial Founders Day events also included 100 chimes of the Harkness Chapel bell and a human formation of the number 100 on the Tempel Green. A centennial song written by faculty musicians Richard and Ann Schenk, winners of a campus-wide contest, premiered with a performance by the college’s choir. Several people also signed a large greeting to the class of 2111.
“They’re going to unveil the charter at our 200th birthday, and all your signatures will be on it,” said Higdon.