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According to Ezra Stiles, who became president of Yale in 1778, Francis Alison, “was without doubt the greatest classical scholar in America, especially in Greek,” and he went on to praise Alison as “a great literary character” for his knowledge of ethics and history.
According to Ezra Stiles, who became president of Yale in 1778, Francis Alison (above), “was without doubt the greatest classical scholar in America, especially in Greek,” and he went on to praise Alison as “a great literary character” for his knowledge of ethics and history.

An abridged history of UD

Photo courtesy of University Archives

As the University celebrates its 275-year history, associate professor Jonathan Russ reflects on its defining moments

Editor’s note: As the nation prepares to celebrate its 242nd anniversary in July, the University of Delaware this year is marking the 275th anniversary of the establishment of Francis Alison’s academy, to which UD traces its roots. In this article reprinted from the University of Delaware Messenger, historian Jonathan Russ, an associate professor at UD, looks at the institution’s distinguished past.

When Francis Alison opened an academy in 1743, his first class was composed of 11 students, three of whom would go on to be at the forefront of the American Revolution and the founding of the Republic. His academy was located in New London, Pennsylvania, and soon became celebrated as a leading school in the middle colonies.  According to Ezra Stiles, who became president of Yale in 1778, Alison, “was without doubt the greatest classical scholar in America, especially in Greek,” and he went on to praise Alison as “a great literary character” for his knowledge of ethics and history. Shortly before the Revolution, the academy moved to Newark, Delaware.

Jonathan Russ for Excelence in Teaching Plaque.      5-21-04   photo by: Kathy Atkinson
Jonathan Russ

While it became known as the Academy of Newark in 1769, it was in 1833 that the institution was chartered by the state as Newark College, and then as Delaware College a decade later in 1843. Like most colleges of its time, the school’s curriculum focused on Greek, Latin, history, philosophy, the natural sciences and literature. Although it was well regarded, the College nevertheless struggled financially. The trustees were committed to providing scholarships to students in need, but with no funding from the state and a shrinking endowment, by the 1850s it was on the brink of shutting down entirely.

It was at this very juncture that the U.S. government enacted the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862. The program was designed to provide federal land to colleges in support of their curriculum in agriculture and the mechanical arts. For those institutions located in the Western states, this came in the form of physical land grants, but for the older states in the East, where widespread acreage was in limited supply, the colleges were given warrants for land elsewhere that they could in turn sell to raise capital. Overall, the program was well received, although Delaware’s Willard Saulsbury, himself a graduate of Delaware College, was a state’s rights Democrat who voted against the measure in the U.S. Senate. Regardless, the measure passed the Republican Congress easily, and funds provided by the Morrill Land Grant gave Delaware College the means it needed to not only stay afloat, but to prosper. This helped the College build an academic agricultural program, and as a result, bring new techniques to Delaware farmers through the Cooperative Extension Program.

Still, Delaware lawmakers of Saulsbury’s ilk were reluctant to adopt the federal program, but eventually in 1867, Delaware accepted the grant. The warrants sold slowly, and thus the College’s finances remained precarious, but through fits and starts its situation stabilized.  Because the student body was slow to grow, a growing chorus of voices called for the all-male institution to become coeducational. As other land grant colleges such as Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin, Maine and Cornell became coeducational, in 1872 the Board of Trustees approved the admission of women to the College in part to help boost revenue. But with few applicants, the plan was abandoned after a year, and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that there was widespread support for opening higher education to white women in the state. African-American women, on the other hand, could attend the State College for Colored Students (now Delaware State University) since its founding in 1891, but there were no institutions of higher learning for white women within the state.

However, all of that changed in 1914. The driving force behind the opening of the Women’s College was a philanthropist by the name of Emalea Pusey Warner. Although she herself was not a college graduate, she was passionate about opening a college for women in Delaware, and she had the financial and social ability to press her case, despite the fact that women did not yet have the right to vote. (In 1928, Warner would become the first woman on the University’s Board of Trustees.) With additional pressure from parents wanting local educational options for their daughters, widespread support among the all-male student body, and financial backing by the state Assembly, the Women’s College finally opened. It was initially a modest endeavor; the Women’s College had one dormitory, and one building for instruction of the sciences. The impact upon the state was enormous. In 1918, University patron Pierre S. du Pont retired from the DuPont Company, but in the spirit of public service, subsequently became the state’s assistant secretary of education. Pierre du Pont was passionate about improving public education in the state, and he saw tremendous potential in the Women’s College to realize his goals. Women had limited professional opportunities at the time, but teaching at the primary and secondary levels was a viable option.

Up until that time, there were few standards for teachers or schools in Delaware, but du Pont believed that the Women’s College could help to change all of that. And indeed he was right. Whereas Delaware had ranked among the worst states in regard to the quality of its public schools in 1920, by the 1930s it had come to be ranked within the top 10. In large part this transformation occurred as a result of a challenging curriculum set by the College, and a coordinated effort to place these newly trained teachers in classrooms throughout the state.

Although Delaware College and the Women’s College academically were separate institutions that shared the same Board of Trustees, in 1921 they formally merged to become the University of Delaware. This was a significant development. Just as public school education in Delaware was improving in the 1920s, so too were there major advances in science and engineering. Firms such as DuPont required chemists and engineers to advance their new product lines, and the University became a pipeline for such expertise. It finally was all coming together; the University of Delaware was a sound institution providing its students with opportunities, and at the same time providing highly trained individuals to public and private institutions in the state.

Indeed, the newly combined University was a true innovator for its students. In 1923, for example, Pierre du Pont underwrote a grant to Professor Raymond Kirkbride to lead the country’s first study abroad program. Although today some 30 percent of the University’s students choose to study abroad in over 40 different countries, in 1923 this was a novel concept. Nevertheless, Kirkbride, a World War I veteran and a professor of French literature, persuaded Mr. du Pont that immersion in a foreign culture was the best way for students to learn foreign language skills.

This is not to say, however, that the University was a wholly progressive institution. Just as it had taken a long while to establish coeducation, the University remained an exclusively white institution until the mid-20th century. That changed, however, when Louis Redding, the only black member of the Delaware Bar, represented eight African-American students who sued the University for the right to apply for admission. To be clear, they weren’t demanding to be admitted, but rather were asking for the right to apply to the University. The case, Parker et al. v The University of Delaware, went before the Delaware Court of Chancery, and ultimately Vice Chancellor Collins J. Seitz, himself a Delaware alum, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. At the time, the state constitution provided for separate but equal facilities for the races, and he ruled that the University was unquestionably the premier institution in the state. Since the state wouldn’t provide equal institutions, he ruled that the University had to desegregate in order to allow access to all qualified students. The Board of Trustees did not appeal his decision, and as a result the University of Delaware was the first in the country to desegregate by court order.

Coeducational and desegregated, the University was poised for the rest of the 20th century. Well, it was sort of poised for the rest of the century. The next major challenge was how to cope with the influx of the baby boom generation. Defined as the generation born between 1946 and 1964, there were millions of young adults throughout the country seeking higher education, and Delaware was no exception. While the post-World War II G.I. Bill opened up opportunities for millions of returning veterans, the massive influx of college-bound students in the 1960s and ’70s was unprecedented. As if overnight, the University suddenly needed new dormitory and classroom space.

The University pursued a massive building campaign in order to meet its new needs. State and federal funding was vital, but so too was private philanthropy. In addition to annual fund donations, the University particularly benefited from local trusts such as the Unidel Foundation, the Crystal Trust and a wide array of corporate donors. The new buildings were comprised of classrooms and laboratories, in addition to entire new residential areas including the Harrington complex, the Rodney and Dickinson complexes, and the North campus, including Pencader and the Towers. Further downstate, the University built an entire campus dedicated to marine studies. It was a massive undertaking, and one that would change the nature of the University forever.

Although the building boom of the 1960s and ‘70s plateaued by the 1980s, the early 21st century saw the University expanding once again. New dormitories were constructed, as were new facilities for the performing arts and engineering. Moreover, the acquisition of a 272-acre plot of land where a Chrysler factory had once operated marked the largest single land purchase in the school’s history. Officially known as the Science, Technology and Advanced Research Campus, it is more widely known as the STAR Campus. As its name suggests, the campus seeks to attract both public and private investment, particularly in high tech research and light manufacturing. It’s a significant new chapter in the University’s history, and by building upon the core strength that the University developed over the years, it is intended to serve a whole new set of needs in the 21st century.

Despite an optimistic future, however, there are ongoing challenges for students and their families. The cost of education, for example, has long been a significant hurdle, but since its inception, the school has attempted to help students realize their academic dreams. Francis Alison allowed students to board in his home, and even during the grim financial days of the mid-19th century, the Board of Trustees granted as many scholarships as possible. More recently, the University established the Commitment to Delawareans program whose aim is to ensure that Delaware high school students have a very clear path to getting their degrees in four years at the lowest possible cost. It is commitment that draws upon the deepest legacies of the University.

From a handful of local boys to more than 20,000 students from around the world, the school has come a long way. And judging from the accomplishments of its alumni, it has been a journey well traveled. People from all walks of life have passed through its doors. The relationship between Delaware and its University has shaped the lives of people both near and far. Indeed, 275 years is a worthy milestone to recognize, and both the state and the University of Delaware have good reason to celebrate.

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