Whitworth College

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 4/21/2007
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8125

The genesis of Whitworth College of Spokane was the coeducational Sumner Academy, founded in 1883 in Sumner, 12 miles south of Tacoma. Such a school had been the dream of founder George F. Whitworth (1816-1907), a Presbyterian minister who traveled over the Oregon Trail to arrive in the Puget Sound area in 1854. From humble beginnings, with classes held in a church, the school became Whitworth College in 1890, moved to Tacoma in 1899, and finally to Spokane in 1914. There it has become a distinguished link in the state’s chain of private colleges and universities. Like that of most church-founded schools, Whitworth’s faculty has evolved over the years from a high component of ministers to teacher-scholars with doctorates in their fields, and the curriculum has expanded from the classics and the Bible to a broad range of arts, sciences, and professional schools. Yet Whitworth College (a university as of July 2007) is rare among church-founded institutions of higher education in having retained strong ties with its sponsoring denomination (Presbyterian) while broadening its ecumenical appeal, strengthening its academic competitiveness, and increasing its impact on its community and beyond. Founder, longtime trustee, and benefactor George Whitworth exerted enormous influence on the early decades of the college, and his goal of educating both heart and mind has guided Whitworth throughout its history.

George Whitworth's Dream

George Whitworth’s original intention was to establish in the Puyallup Valley a Presbyterian colony whose centerpiece would be an academy to educate its young. He proposed in The Presbyterian Magazine of April 1852 "a good parochial school for the benefit of the children and youth of the colony" and that "no child or youth, connected with the colony, shall ever be permitted to grow up without the benefit of a good English education, and a thorough religious training" (Gray, 13). But the colony did not materialize, and the academy idea took 30 years to become a reality.   

By the 1880s the prosperous hops-growing Puyallup Valley was increasing in population and needed a school. On December 12, 1883, George Whitworth and four others established Sumner Academy, which opened on January 7, 1884, in the Sumner Presbyterian Church with the Rev. George A. McKinlay as principal. It was mainly a high school, but also had a class for younger children. By the late 1880s, it advertised four courses of study: classical, scientific, normal (teacher training), and musical, and could assure parents of “Influences Moral and Religious but not Sectarian” (Gray, 32).  Children of leading families of the Puyallup Valley arrived by horseback or train. By 1889, with the help of a $4,000 loan from L. F. Thompson, a trustee and leading hops grower in the area, a long-delayed and ornate building was completed specifically for the academy.

Becoming a College

As public schools increased in the area, the need decreased for the private academies that had typified the territorial period. Therefore, the trustees of Sumner Academy decided to incorporate as a college with the remaining academy as a “feeder,” a typical pattern of the time. In February 1890, they renamed the school Whitworth College of Sumner with the Rev. Amos T. Fox (b. 1854) as president. The early curriculum of Whitworth College was based on that of Eastern universities, featuring “the classical department and the scientific department,” but also offering courses in music, art, and commercial subjects and, of course, a strong emphasis on the Bible. Furthermore the first catalog was committed to “guarding well the moral and religious life of the students, ever directing them in the pursuit of that learning and culture of the heart and mind that makes the finished scholar” (Soden, Venture, 17).

In those early days, students were required to attend daily chapel and Sunday church services, and strict propriety was maintained between male and female students. Yet the fun and pranks typical of college life were common. One Halloween, the lads strung a cable from the main building to the home of a student across the street and festooned it with chamber pots. The next morning, a professor shot them down with a rifle. Of course the strategic relocation of outhouses was a standard prank of the time. Early Whitworth students also excelled in intercollegiate sports, especially baseball and track. 

Difficulties and Hard Times

After only seven months as president, Fox was succeeded by his father-in-law, the Rev. Calvin W. Stewart (b. 1830) under whose leadership and fundraising abilities the college began to thrive. Prosperity was short-lived, however, because of a failure of the hops market beginning in 1892 and the Panic of 1893. During the lean 1890s, enrollments dropped, and the students who remained often paid their fees in produce rather than money. The college went into debt but was unable to get much help from the Presbyterian Church. George Whitworth’s long tenure as chairman of the board and major donor helped to ensure the new college’s survival. In addition, President Stewart secured a gift of $50,000 from H. O. Armour, a member of the meatpacking family, then the largest gift on the West Coast to a denominational college. 

The trustees began to realize that the college would have to move to a more populous area to increase enrollment. They seriously investigated Seattle, Port Townsend, and Tacoma, with the choice going to burgeoning Tacoma. In 1899 the trustees were able to buy the mansion and surrounding buildings of real estate developer Allen C. Mason on Tacoma’s Inspiration Point. Its grounds and “portico” provided a spectacular view of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Mt. Rainier, and even Mt. Baker. The campus eventually encompassed 14 acres and included additional dormitories, classrooms, library, and gymnasium. Financial difficulties persisted, however, again alleviated somewhat by a $100,000 donation from H. O. Armour.

Giving Humanities First Place

In 1899 Whitworth acquired a new president, Franklin B. Gault, the first to hold a Ph.D. rather than a seminary degree. He emphasized more the liberal arts and sciences than the commercial courses offered during the Sumner years, asserting that “Whitworth College gives the humanities first place among studies ...” (Soden, 25, Venture) and that “it seeks to impart Eastern Atlantic culture and refinement and democratic spirit” (Soden, Venture, 27). Accordingly Gault expanded offerings in philosophy, foreign languages, sciences, and the arts. The college continued to require a strong component of Biblical studies, but Gault assured that the school would remain a liberal arts rather than a Bible college. Subsequent presidents continued Gault’s priorities during the Tacoma years. In 1908, Frederic D. Metzger (1887?-1961), a student leader equally outstanding in academics and athletics, became Whitworth’s first Rhodes Scholar and later a Tacoma attorney. Other distinguished graduates of Whitworth at Tacoma became attorneys, medical doctors, academics, ministers, and teachers.   

Enrollment in Tacoma peaked in 1908-09 with 235 students, including those in the preparatory department. The atmosphere was homey and friendly, with “an appealing campus life -- dynamic, intellectual, and just plain fun” (Soden, Venture, 28).  Banquets, clubs, boating excursions on Puget Sound, and minstrel shows provided social life. The fun, however, did not include card playing or dancing, nor, of course, smoking or drinking. During this period, Whitworth added football to its roster of sports.

Gault’s successor, the Rev. Barend H. Kroeze, devoted most of his efforts to fund raising, at one point securing a pledge of  $25,000 from Andrew Carnegie. After his resignation in 1909, Whitworth was without a president for some time, and chronic financial problems were becoming intractable. Furthermore, the College of Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran Academy were competing with Whitworth both for financial support and for students. Neither the Presbyterian Synod of Washington nor the city of Tacoma showed much interest in supporting Whitworth.   

The Move to Spokane

Donald D. MacKay became president in 1911. By 1912 it was clear that a move would more likely ensure the future of Whitworth College. At the same time, the Spokane Presbytery (the local governing unit of the Presbyterian Church) and Spokane boosters were expressing a desire for such a college in Eastern Washington, preferably in Spokane. The leading local advocate was railroad and real-estate magnate Jay P. Graves (1859-1948). Realizing that proximity to a college would enhance the value of lots he was selling in his Country Homes Addition just north of the city, Graves donated land for a campus near the development and his own English-style country estate. He would become a trustee and lifelong supporter of Whitworth and, at his request, his ashes were scattered on the campus.

The Whitworth trustees agreed to move if the Spokane community could contribute $70,000 and the Synod of Washington $30,000 for facilities: By September of 1914 two gracious brick buildings housed the new Whitworth College in Spokane. Under President MacKay, the next few years brought an increase in facilities and enrollment, as well as enthusiastic community support, with the board of trustees adding many of the business and civic leaders of Spokane. Until World War I, the college provided an increasing student body with a sound academic environment, varied social life, and a strong athletic program.

War Years

The prosperity was short-lived. World War I actually brought about the closure of the college for the 1918-1919 academic year and the leasing of the facilities to the U.S. Army Tractor School. When classes reopened, enrollment was strong, but an ensuing rapid turnover of presidents and faculty created an atmosphere that one former student recalled “chaotic” (Soden, Venture, 50). On March 8, 1927, Ballard Hall, one of the original buildings, burned to the ground, but it was soon rebuilt. Throughout this unstable period, Seattle’s Rev. Mark Matthews (1867-1940), a longtime board member, asserted his characteristic aggressive leadership, securing financial commitments from the Presbyterian Church and preserving Whitworth’s independence by heading off a proposed merger with other struggling colleges.

Ferment on the national level also affected Whitworth, particularly the issues of Prohibition and Darwin's theory of evolution. After the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, the 1926 catalog proclaimed that the college “... teaches that the Creator’s works in nature are never at variance with his revelation in the Bible when both are fully understood” (Soden, Venture, 53).  Yet student publications of this period reflect a lively intellectual and social life on campus. Athletics continued to flourish, and in 1926, the school adopted the name “Pirates” for its teams.  

Fortunately during the Depression era that followed the chaotic 1920s, Whitworth had at the helm one of its strongest presidents, Dr. Ward W. Sullivan, appointed in 1929. A Ph.D. himself, Sullivan hired a more academically trained faculty, secured full accreditation for the college, and greatly expanded curricular offerings. Depression-era students mostly had to work their way through college, faculty salaries were pitiful, and trustees in the wholesale grocery business supplied fare for the dining hall. Yet in spite of privations, students and faculty recall the creativity and camaraderie of the period.    

Presbyterian and Ecumenical

Whitworth College had always experienced some tension between its mainline Presbyterian elements and more conservative theological elements. Like other church-related colleges, Whitworth moved from generalist faculty members, many with divinity degrees, to subject specialists with advanced degrees in their fields. For most church colleges, this process led eventually to severing their denominational roots. Whitworth was an exception, but while it remained a denominational college, it continued to exhibit a broader Christian emphasis: “Whitworth’s non-sectarian evangelicalism and its concurrent identification with the Presbyterian Church saved its Christian distinctiveness to the present day, but meant that the college has never quite fallen completely into either camp” (Soden, Models, 165). (Note: "evangelical"here means theologically conservative, but not fundamentalist.)  President Sullivan exemplified the denominational end of this continuum.

Sullivan’s successor, Dr. Frank F. Warren (1899-1963), while maintaining a strong Presbyterian connection, would nudge the college back toward a more ecumenical and evangelical stance. Frank Warren, who was president from 1940 until his death in 1963, was from a conservative Free Methodist tradition and had been most recently dean of the department of religion at Seattle Pacific College. He believed that the bedrock of a church-related college was a faculty firmly committed to Christianity. His hiring practices reflected this conviction, although he imposed on faculty no specific statement of faith. Several legendary teacher/scholars who exemplified the highest academic standards joined the faculty during this time. Warren was also a leader in the Spokane community, as well as in the state, able to attract significant trustees and donors including timber baron C. Davis Weyerhaeuser. Overall, Warren "provided stability and leadership that would shape Whitworth for decades to come” (Soden, Venture, 75).

World War II and After

Warren arrived on campus just in time to have to deal with the impact of World War II. Alumnae and students joined the military, and those remaining on campus participated enthusiastically in home-front efforts. Whitworth welcomed a number of Japanese American young people who had fled the prospect of internment by moving east of the line west of which all people of Japanese ancestry were forced into internment camps. Materials for construction of new buildings became difficult to obtain, and President Warren personally secured nails and cement wherever he could. Students organized a “Brickskrieg” to help raise money for the new Jay P. Graves Gymnasium. In 1942 Whitworth absorbed the struggling Spokane Junior College. Warren, always known as an outstanding speaker, raised the wartime morale of Spokane with his weekly “Whitworth Chapel Hour” radio broadcasts.  

Immediately after the war, Whitworth received its share of veterans enrolling under the G.I. Bill. Many of these were married men and their families, housed in temporary war-surplus buildings. Permanent structures such as a new library, auditorium, classroom building, and dormitory were built during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Significant donors of this period were members of the William H. Cowles family, owners of the Spokesman-Review. Both the library and the auditorium bear the Cowles name.

Times Changing and Changing Again

The 1950s were a somewhat halcyon period for Whitworth, with strong enrollments from all over the West and even farther afield, including an influx of international students. Students tended to be more affluent and generally reflected the conservative middle-class assumptions of the period. Fewer held part-time jobs, and there was plenty of leisure for attending the games of the highly competitive Pirates teams and outstanding performances of Whitworth’s choirs and drama groups. Pranks abounded, engagements were announced, and life was generally light-hearted. As the decade waned, however, students increasingly chafed under campus rules governing social behavior.   

The campus milieu began to change slowly during the early 1960s. A visit by John F. Kennedy in February 1960 during his presidential campaign was a major event but did little to shift Whitworth students and faculty from an overwhelming Republican majority. Of more immediate interest to students were numerous sports triumphs including the NAIA baseball championship under pitcher Ray Washburn, who went on to play with the St. Louis Cardinals for eight years. The Weyerhaeuser Field House was among the buildings added during this period.

 In 1963, within a month of each other, the deaths of President Kennedy and President Warren shocked the campus. Events in the broader society, particularly the civil rights movement, extended their influence. A succession of nationally known speakers came to campus, including activist-theologian William Stringfellow, who deplored the relative lack of black students. The result was Project Opportunity, during which Whitworth recruited young African Americans from Harlem and Seattle. Many were very militant and unprepared for college level work. Whitworth proved unable to meet their needs or relieve the culture clash that developed on campus. Furthermore, as Whitworth students became more politically active, they increasingly asserted their rights to govern their own behavior, and many of the in loco parentis restrictions had to give way. Not surprisingly, the Vietnam War was a highly divisive issue during the late 1960s and into the 1970s. The president who led the college during most of this difficult period was the Rev. Mark L. Koehler (1915-2003), an alumnus of Whitworth.  

Continuing Evolution

In 1970, Edward B. Lindaman (1920-1982) became president. He was a self-proclaimed “futurist” with a background in the aerospace industry, an unbounded faith in technology, and a commitment to community involvement. During this period the faculty overhauled the curriculum, increased opportunities for overseas study, reduced the Bible and theology requirements, and replaced chapel with a lecture and cultural series. Politically, both students and faculty began a shift to the left, with unresolved issues of Vietnam, racism ,and the environment continuing to divide the campus. It was a time of young, charismatic professors with loyal followings of activist students. Whitworth men’s athletic teams continued to excel and women’s sports increased. 

 The 1980s saw a swing back to a more conservative atmosphere throughout the nation. Whitworth College, presided over by President Robert H. Mounce, mirrored this trend. Furthermore, economic pressures caused many students nationwide to view college more as a step toward getting a good job rather than a way to broaden the mind. Accordingly, at Whitworth, business majors increased, while the liberals arts enrollments declined. The national resurgence of fundamentalism also affected the makeup of the Whitworth student body. Yet some students pursued the activism of the past decade, particularly in the area of human rights. The tradition of overseas study remained strong, and Whitworth established a Master’s Degree in Cross-Cultural Studies. The Pirates added swimming to its strong sports roster, with a new Aquatic Center. Outstanding drama and music professors established Whitworth’s national reputation in these areas.

 The current president, William P. Robinson (b. 1949), has been at Whitworth since 1993. Under his leadership, the college has increased endowment, constructed new buildings, strengthened undergraduate courses in the liberal arts and sciences, and added graduate and evening programs. Like an earlier long-term president, Frank Warren, Robinson is committed to maintaining both the Presbyterian and evangelical/ecumenical roots in Whitworth’s tradition. As did Warren and Lindaman, he has assumed considerable leadership in the Spokane community, including serving as chair of the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. He is also a leader in intercollegiate organizations. Whitworth has elected to remain relatively small and selective, with an undergraduate enrollment of 1,600, and a total of 2,400 including graduate students. Whitworth College will designate itself a university in July 2007. Founder George Whitworth’s goal of educating “heart and mind” continues to the present. 


Sources: Alfred O. Gray, Not By Might: The Story of Whitworth College, 1890-1965 (Spokane: Whitworth College, 1965); Dale E. Soden, A Venture of Mind and Spirit: An Illustrated History of Whitworth College (Spokane: Whitworth College, 1990); Dale E. Soden, “Whitworth College and the Presbyterian Church: Christian Higher Education and the Challenge of Secularization,” American Presbyterian, Vol. 70, No. 2 (Summer, 1992) 112-125; Dale E. Soden and Arlin Migliazzo, “Whitworth College: Evangelical in the Reformed Tradition,” in Models for Christian Higher Education: Strategies for Survival and Success in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Richard T. Hughes and William B. Adrian (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), 163-184;  “Whitworth President William P. Robinson website accessed March 22, 2007 (http://www.whitworth.edu/Administration/PresidentsOffice/Index.htm) “About Whitworth,” Whitworth website accessed March 22, 2007 (http://www.Whitworth.edu/GeneralInformation/Index.htm).  

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