About the College
Mission | History | College as Community
The Mission of Bryn Mawr College
The mission of Bryn Mawr College is to provide a rigorous education and to encourage the pursuit of knowledge as preparation for life and work. Bryn Mawr teaches and values critical, creative and independent habits of thought and expression in an undergraduate liberal-arts curriculum for women and in coeducational graduate programs in the arts and sciences and in social work and social research. Bryn Mawr seeks to sustain a community diverse in nature and democratic in practice, for we believe that only through considering many perspectives do we gain a deeper understanding of each other and the world.
Since its founding in 1885, the College has maintained its character as a small residential community that fosters close working relationships between faculty and students. The faculty of teacher/scholars emphasizes learning through conversation and collaboration, primary reading, original research and experimentation. Our cooperative relationship with Haverford College enlarges the academic opportunities for students and their social community. Our active ties to Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania as well as the proximity of the city of Philadelphia further extend the opportunities available at Bryn Mawr.
Living and working together in a community based on mutual respect, personal integrity and the standards of a social and academic Honor Code, each generation of students experiments with creating and sustaining a self-governing society within the College. The academic and cocurricular experiences fostered by Bryn Mawr, both on campus and in the College’s wider setting, encourage students to be responsible citizens who provide service and leadership for an increasingly interdependent world.
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The History of Bryn Mawr College
When Bryn Mawr College opened its doors in 1885, it offered women a more ambitious academic program than any previously available to them in the United States. Other women’s colleges existed, but Bryn Mawr was the first to offer graduate education through the Ph.D. — a signal that its founders refused to accept the limitations imposed on women’s intellectual achievement at other institutions.
The founding of Bryn Mawr carried out the will of Joseph W. Taylor, a wealthy Quaker physician who wanted to establish a college “for the advanced education of females.” Taylor originally envisioned an institution that would inculcate in its students the beliefs of the Society of Friends (popularly known as Quakers), but by 1893 his trustees had broadened the College’s mission by deciding that Bryn Mawr would be nondenominational. Bryn Mawr’s first administrators had determined that excellence in scholarship was a more important consideration than religious faith in appointing the faculty, although the College remained committed to Quaker values such as freedom of conscience.
The College’s mission was to offer women rigorous intellectual training and the chance to do original research, a European-style program that was then available only at a few elite institutions for men. That was a formidable challenge, especially in light of the resistance of society at large, at the end of the 19th century, to the notion that women could be the intellectual peers of men.
Fortunately, at its inception, the College was adopted as a moral cause and a life’s work by a woman of immense tenacity, M. Carey Thomas. Thomas, Bryn Mawr’s first dean and second president, had been so intent upon undertaking advanced study that when American universities denied her the opportunity to enter a Ph.D. program on an equal footing with male students, she went to Europe to pursue her degree.
When Thomas learned of the plans to establish a college for women just outside Philadelphia, she brought to the project the same determination she had applied to her own quest for higher education. Thomas’ ambition — for herself and for all women of intellect and imagination — was the engine that drove Bryn Mawr to achievement after achievement.
The College established undergraduate and graduate programs that were widely viewed as models of academic excellence in both the humanities and the sciences, programs that elevated standards for higher education nationwide. Under the leadership of Thomas and James E. Rhoads, who served the College as president from 1885 to 1894, Bryn Mawr repeatedly broke new ground. It was, for example, the first institution in the United States to offer women fellowships for graduate study; its self-government association, the first in the country at its founding in 1892, was unique in the United States in granting to students the right not only to enforce but to make all of the rules governing their conduct; its faculty, alumnae and students engaged in research that expanded human knowledge.
In 1912, the bequest of an alumna founded the Graduate Department of Social Economy and Social Research, which made Bryn Mawr the first institution in the nation to offer a Ph.D. in social work. In 1970, the department became the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. In 1921, Bryn Mawr intensified its engagement with the world around it by opening its Summer School for Women Workers in Industry, which offered scholarships for broad-based programs in political economy, science and literature to factory workers until 1938.
During the presidency of Marion Edwards Park, from 1922 to 1942, the College began to work toward cooperative programs with nearby institutions — Haverford College, Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania — that would later greatly expand the academic and social range of Bryn Mawr students. In 1931 Bryn Mawr’s graduate school began to accept male students. During the decades of the Nazi rise to power in Europe and World War II, Bryn Mawr became home to many distinguished European scholars who were refugees from Nazi persecution.
From 1942 to 1970 Katharine Elizabeth McBride presided over the College in a time of change and growth. During McBride’s tenure, the College twice faced challenges to its Quaker heritage of free inquiry and freedom of conscience. During the McCarthy era, Congress required students applying for loans to sign a loyalty oath to the United States and an affidavit regarding membership in the Communist party. Later, at the height of student protest against the Vietnam War, institutions of higher education were required to report student protesters as a condition of eligibility for government scholarship support.
On both occasions, Bryn Mawr emerged as a leader among colleges and universities in protecting its students’ rights. It was the first college to decline aid under the McCarthy-era legislation and the only institution in Pennsylvania to decline aid rather than take on the role of informer during the Vietnam War. Bryn Mawr faculty and alumnae raised funds to replace much of the lost aid, and a court eventually found the Vietnam-era law unconstitutional and ordered restitution of the scholarship funds.
During the 1960s, Bryn Mawr strengthened its ties to Haverford, Swarthmore and Penn when it initiated mutual cross-registration for all undergraduate courses. In 1969, it augmented its special relationship with Haverford by establishing a residential exchange program that opened certain dormitories at each college to students of the other college.
During the presidency of Harris L. Wofford, from 1970 to 1978, Bryn Mawr intensified its already-strong commitment to international scholarship. Wofford worked hard to involve alumnae overseas in recruiting students and raising money for their support and for the support of Bryn Mawr’s extensive overseas programs. Wofford, who later became a U.S. senator, also initiated closer oversight of the College’s financial investments and their ramifications in the world.
Mary Patterson McPherson led the College from 1978 to 1997, a period of tremendous growth in the number and diversity of students — now more than 1,200 undergraduates, nearly a quarter of whom are women of color. During McPherson’s tenure in office, Bryn Mawr undertook a thorough re-examination of the women-only status of its undergraduate college and concluded that providing the benefits of single-sex education for women — in cultivating leadership, self-confidence and academic excellence — remained essential to the College’s mission. McPherson, a philosopher, now directs the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s program for liberal arts colleges.
Nancy J. Vickers, Bryn Mawr’s current president, is an acclaimed French and Italian Renaissance scholar who has examined the transformation of lyric from the sonnets of Petrarch to music videos. A powerful advocate for liberal education and the education of women, Vickers has led the College community to a clear understanding of its priorities and the challenges it faces in the next century. An extended series of consultations with faculty, students and alumnae contributed to the Plan for a New Century Vickers presented to the College’s Board of Trustees. The Plan was adopted in March 2000. Among the Plan’s initiatives is the creation of the Centers for 21st Century Inquiry, a group of four interrelated interdisciplinary centers that foster innovation in both the College’s curriculum and its relationship to the world around it.
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The College as Community
Believing that a small college provides the most favorable opportunity for students to participate in their own education, Bryn Mawr limits the number of undergraduates. While the class of 2004 was the largest in Bryn Mawr’s 119-year history, it was still just 359 undergraduate women. Bryn Mawr’s comparatively small size allows its students and faculty to work closely together and to know each other well as individuals. With a student-to-faculty ratio of nine to one, Bryn Mawr undergraduates enjoy the increasingly rare privilege of a mentor-apprentice model of learning and scholarship.
In addition to being a renowned college for women, Bryn Mawr has two excellent coeducational graduate schools — the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. The presence of the graduate schools contributes significantly to the strengths of the undergraduate program and the richness of the undergraduate experience. Qualified undergraduates may enroll in graduate seminars, participate in advanced research projects in the natural and social sciences, and benefit from the insights and advice of their graduate-student colleagues.
While retaining all the benefits of a small residential women’s college, Bryn Mawr substantially augments its resources and coeducational opportunities by cooperation at the undergraduate level with Haverford College, Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania. This cooperative arrangement coordinates the facilities of the four institutions while preserving the individual qualities and autonomy of each. Students may take courses at the other colleges, with credit and without additional fees. Students at Bryn Mawr and Haverford may also major at either college. Bryn Mawr also has a limited exchange program with Villanova University.
The cooperative relationship between Bryn Mawr and Haverford is particularly close because the colleges are only about a mile apart, and naturally, this relationship extends beyond the classroom. Collections in the two colleges’ libraries are cross-listed, and the libraries are open to students from either college. Student organizations on the two campuses work closely together in matters concerned with student government and in a whole range of academic, athletic, cultural and social activities. When there is equal interest from students at both campuses, Bryn Mawr and Haverford offer a housing exchange so that a few students may live on the other campus for a year.
Bryn Mawr itself sponsors a broad cultural program that supplements the curriculum and enriches its community life. Various lectureships bring scholars and other leaders in world affairs to the campus not only for public lectures but also for classes and conferences with the students. The Arts Program at Bryn Mawr supports and coordinates the arts curriculum and a variety of extracurricular activities in creative writing, dance, fine arts, music and theater. A regular schedule of concerts and productions is directed by the arts faculty at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, together with performances by the Theater Company, Dance Ensembles and other student-run groups. These activities are complemented and enhanced by an extensive program of readings, exhibitions, performances and workshops given by visiting artists.
Student organizations have complete responsibility for the many aspects of student activity, and student representatives join members of the faculty and administration in making and carrying out plans for the College community as a whole. Bryn Mawr’s Self Government Association, the nation’s oldest student self-government organization, provides a framework in which individuals and smaller groups function. The association both legislates and mediates matters of social and personal conduct.
Through their Self Government Association, students share with faculty the responsibility for the Academic Honor System. One of the most active branches of the association is the Student Curriculum Committee, which, with the Faculty Curriculum Committee, originally worked out the College’s system of self-scheduled examinations. The joint Student-Faculty Committee meets regularly to discuss curricular issues and to approve new courses and programs.
The Self Government Association also coordinates the activities of many special-interest clubs, open to all students; it serves as the liaison between students and College officers, faculty and alumnae. The Athletic Association also provides opportunities for a variety of activities, including intramural and varsity contests. Both the Bryn Mawr college news and Bryn Mawr-Haverford’s The Bi-College News welcome students interested in reporting and editing.
Students participate actively on many of the most important academic and administrative committees of the College, as they do on the Curriculum Committee. Undergraduates elect four rising seniors to serve with members of the faculty on the College Admissions Committee. Along with alumnae and faculty, three students participate in the policy discussions of the Undergraduate Scholarship Committee. Two undergraduates meet with the Board of Trustees, present regular reports to the full board and work with the board’s committees. Two undergraduates are also elected to attend faculty meetings. At the meetings of both the board and the faculty, student members may join in discussion but do not vote.
Bryn Mawr’s undergraduate enrollment and curriculum are dedicated to a respect for and understanding of cultural and social diversity. As a reflection of this dedication to diversity, Bryn Mawr’s student body is composed of people from all parts of the United States, from many nations around the world, and from all sectors of society, with a special concern for the inclusion of historically disadvantaged minorities in America.
The International Students Association enriches the life of Bryn Mawr through social and cultural events. Sisterhood works to address the concerns of African-American students, to foster their equal participation in all aspects of College life, and to support Perry House, the African-American cultural center, which sponsors cultural programs open to the College community and provides residence space for a few students.
Other student organizations include the Asian Students Association, BACaSO (Bryn Mawr African and Caribbean-African Student Organization), Barkada (Philippina students), Mujeres (Latina students), Rainbow Alliance (lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students) and South Asian Women. These groups provide forums for members to address their common concerns and a basis from which they participate in other activities of the College.
Students who wish to volunteer their services outside the College find many opportunities to do so through Bryn Mawr’s Community Service Office. The office supports numerous community-service and activist groups and projects by offering transportation reimbursement for off-campus volunteers, mini-grants for individuals and groups planning service activities, a database of internship and volunteer opportunities, and other resources for student volunteers. Through their interest and participation in these many aspects of the College community, students exemplify the concern of Bryn Mawr’s founders for intellectual development in a context of social commitment.
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