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A Brief 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 of its founders’ refusal to accept the limitations imposed on women’s intellectual achievement at other institutions.
A Quaker Legacy
The founding of Bryn Mawr carried out the will of Joseph W. Taylor, a 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 non-denominational. Bryn Mawr’s first administrators believed that excellence in scholarship was more important 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 to 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.
Academic Excellence for Women
At its inception, the College was adopted as 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 was the engine that drove Bryn Mawr to achievement—though it is important to understand that while M. Carey Thomas was an ardent proponent of higher education for women, she sought this privilege for wealthy white women only.
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 Thomas and James E. Rhoads, who served the College as president from 1885 to 1894, Bryn Mawr emerged as a leader in higher education. The College was, for example, the first institution in the United States to offer fellowships for graduate study to women; 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; and its faculty, alumnae, and students made discoveries that expanded human knowledge.
A Commitment to Engaging the World
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 country to offer a Ph.D. in social work. The department became the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research in 1970. In 1921, Bryn Mawr intensified its engagement with the world 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, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences 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.
Respect for the Individual
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 was 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 instituted 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 institution.
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—approximately 1,300 undergraduates, nearly a quarter of whom were women of color. During McPherson’s tenure, 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.
When McPherson stepped down from the presidency, she had led two successful capital campaigns, balanced the budget, instituted a program of long term planning, and overseen the creation of two new libraries. At the time of McPherson's retirement, Hanna Holborn Gray '50, then chairman of the board of trustees, remarked, "Pat's unwavering dedication to rigorous standards of intelligent thinking and constructive debate, combined with her humor and zestful delight in the variety and range of the human comedy, have communicated to all of us both her seriousness and her joy in enabling and enhancing the qualities that lie at the heart of our college."
Strengthening the Institution
Nancy J. Vickers, Bryn Mawr’s president from 1997 to 2008, began her tenure by leading the College community to a clear understanding of its priorities and the challenges it would face in the next century through the adoption of the Plan for a New Century. When she retired in June 2008, she left the College with a 40 percent increase in undergraduate applications, a completed fund-raising campaign that tripled the goal of the previous campaign and an endowment that had nearly doubled since she took office.
Beyond attaining a sound financial footing for the College, Vickers oversaw dramatic changes in the academic program, in outreach and in infrastructure, while remaining true to the College’s historic mission. Those changes include refining undergraduate recruiting messages and practices, initiating new interdisciplinary programs and faculty positions, improving student life, embracing cross-cultural communication, upgrading the campus’ use of technology, renovating many buildings, and achieving worldwide visibility through the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Medal.
Under Jane McAuliffe’s leadership, 2008 to 2013, the College committed itself anew to liberal arts for the twenty-first century. It initiated the innovative 360° Program, through which students investigate an issue or theme from multiple disciplinary perspectives, and became a national leader among liberal arts colleges in combining the strengths of online and classroom teaching—blended learning—in its liberal arts curriculum. McAuliffe spearheaded strategic partnerships with several universities and colleges across the globe. Addressing global needs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), Bryn Mawr continued to be a leader in preparing students for careers in these fields and recruited its first STEM Posse cohort of students.
Excellence in Action
Kimberly Wright Cassidy, president since 2014, articulates and pursues the College’s commitment to academic excellence that leads to meaningful engagement with the world.
During her nearly seven-year tenure as Provost and Interim President, Cassidy collaborated with Bryn Mawr’s faculty to make Bryn Mawr a leading innovator in liberal arts education. She led the development of the College’s interdisciplinary 360° courses, the introduction of new academic programs (including new majors in International Studies, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and a minor with Haverford College in Environmental Studies), and the advancement of digital initiatives within the classroom. She is committed to the value of the scholar/teacher model and its premise that the most exciting and powerful teaching is done by faculty who are actively creating new knowledge.
In Fall 2016, Cassidy and Haverford College President Kim Benston reaffirmed the two colleges’ decades’ long collaborative relationship with a formal Memorandum of Understanding. Cassidy has also worked to strengthen ties with the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore and played a key role in establishing Bryn Mawr’s 4+1 and 3+2 dual-degree opportunities for students, such as an A.B./M.A. program with University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering and Applied Science.
As president, Cassidy has been a public champion of women in STEM and has represented the College at a White House summit on STEM as well as a summit on college access, a value to which Bryn Mawr has long been committed. On campus, she is leading the effort to apply lessons learned from using blended learning in STEM subjects to the humanities. She also has launched the Leadership, Innovation, and the Liberal Arts Center (LILAC), which works with students to help them build pathways from their liberal arts education to their professional goals through career and professional development, experiential learning opportunities, and civic engagement. In addition, Cassidy has hosted three campus-wide gatherings to engage all campus constituents in dialogue about difference with respect to race and class, and is focused on creating a new ethos around joy and wellness, including the design and construction of a new student facility.
Today, Bryn Mawr College continues and expands its traditions of academic excellence, opportunity for women, respect for the individual, and purposeful action in the world.