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, the College's seventh president, served from 1997 to 2008. A powerful advocate for liberal-arts education and the education of women, Vickers 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/i contributed to the Plan for a New Century, which was adopted by the College’s Board of Trustees in March 2000. A key element of the plan was faculty renewal. During Vickers’ tenure, the College created 10 new tenure-track positions to achieve a total of 153 full-time tenured and tenure-track positions; enhanced the sabbatical program; and substantially increased outside grants for institutional and faculty research. Curricular innovation was another priority, which led the College to establish new majors, minors, and concentrations in Computer Science, Film Studies, International Studies, Environmental Studies, and Geo-Archaeology; to create the Centers for 21st Century Inquiry, a group of interdisciplinary centers that foster innovation in both the College’s curriculum and its relationship to the world around it; and to establish the Katherine Houghton Hepburn Center and the Center for Child and Family Well-Being. In addition, the College virtually transformed many of its historic buildings, including the Benham Gateway, Bettws y Coed, Cambrian Row, Dalton Hall, and the Marjorie Walter Goodhart Theater, and refurbished the Marie Salant Neuberger Centennial Campus Center and Rhoads. Vickers also led the largest comprehensive campaign in the College’s history, Challenging Women: Investing in the Future of Bryn Mawr, which raised $232 million.
Jane Dammen McAuliffe, the College's current president, is an internationally respected scholar of Islamic studies whose expertise is in the Qur’an and its interpretations, early Islamic history, and the interrelationships between Islam and Christianity. Prior to joining the College in July 2008, McAuliffe was Dean of Georgetown College at Georgetown University, where she enhanced faculty recruitment and diversity, developed initiatives to foster more effective teaching and student advising, and expanded the number of undergraduate majors and minors.