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West Virginia University was founded February 7, 1867, by an act of the West Virginia Legislature. The school was created as a federal land-grant institution under the Morrill Act, which Congress passed in 1862 to support agricultural colleges in each of the states through grants of public lands located mostly in the West and Midwest. Originally the university was called the Agricultural College of West Virginia.

As lawmakers debated the location of the new institution Sen. William Price of Monongalia County swayed the decision toward Morgantown when he offered the sites, buildings, and assets of the Monongalia Academy, which also encompassed the Woodburn Female Seminary. This property furnished the site for the university’s historic downtown campus.

Land-grant colleges established under the Morrill Act were required to emphasize agriculture and the ‘‘mechanic arts,’’ but other fields of study were not excluded. The legislature directed that the new institution’s Board of Visitors establish ‘‘such departments in literature, science, art, and agriculture, as they may deem expedient, and as the funds under their control may warrant.’’

The college opened its doors in September 1867, with three instructional departments: collegiate, scientific, and agricultural. Its first class totaled 124, six at the collegiate level and 118 in preparatory work. Tuition for a term of 13 weeks was $8 for the college level, $5 for preparatory school. Room and board was $3.50 a week.

The institution’s first president, the Reverend Alexander Martin, stated at his inaugural in June 1867, that the true concern would be ‘‘to educate men, as men, and not as machines.’’ The president looked forward to a time when the infant school should be to West Virginia ‘‘what Yale is to Connecticut, Harvard to Massachusetts, Charlottesville to her parent state, Ann Arbor to Michigan, or Oxford to old England — her brightest ornament and crowning glory.’’

To that end, Martin pushed Governor Arthur Ingraham Boreman to eliminate the word ‘‘agricultural’’ from the school’s title to remove the suggestion that it was a farmers’ school. Thus, its name officially was changed to West Virginia University in 1868.

The legislature provided no financial support the first year. It did, however, authorize the use of $5,000 from assets received from the Monongalia Academy to acquire land contiguous to the Woodburn Seminary grounds. The seminary burned in 1873, robbing 30 students of their lodging but providing the site of Woodburn Hall. Originally called ‘‘New Hall,’’ Woodburn was completed in 1876 at a cost of $41,500. Wings were added in 1900 and 1911. Today, Woodburn Circle includes the university’s three oldest buildings: Martin Hall, completed in 1870, Woodburn Hall, and Chitwood Hall (originally Science Hall) completed in 1893. Woodburn Circle is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is the signature landmark of WVU. The university has a total of 18 buildings on the National Register.

The school faced many challenges in its early years, including interference by the legislature. Faculty turnover was high due to inadequate compensation. The university lacked statewide support, particularly among southern West Virginia legislators who believed it was too far removed to be of benefit to the rest of the state. Nevertheless, WVU showed signs of leadership and innovation.

In November 1887, the first issue of the Athenaeum, a student literary publication, circulated. It became the Daily Athenaeum newspaper in 1933 and continues today.

In September 1889, WVU admitted the first 10 women as degree candidates, although women had been sitting in on classes occasionally for several years. In 1891, Harriet Lyon became the first woman to receive a degree from WVU, graduating at the head of her class. The College of Law, in existence since 1878, was one of the first law schools in the nation to admit female students, graduating its first woman, Agnes Westbrook Morrison of Wheeling, in 1895. Morrison was admitted to the bar in 1896 and became one of a relatively few women at the time to practice law. Women were permitted to enter all departments and schools except the military by 1897.

The football team received its start in 1891 when two enthusiastic students raised $160 to buy uniforms and a rule book and recruited players. Four years later, the school fielded its first outstanding team, led by Fielding ‘‘Hurry Up’’ Yost from Fairview, Marion County. WVU hired its first full-time coach in 1896.

As these changes occurred, WVU was becoming more diverse academically. President Jerome Hall Raymond (1897–1901) hired the first female faculty and added art, music, and domestic science programs to attract more women. He also hired the university’s first trained librarian and the first graduate students to assist faculty, and he merged individual department libraries into one main library. A summer session was established.

In 1895, Montgomery Preparatory School was established in Montgomery as a branch of WVU. It later became West Virginia Institute of Technology, an independent institution, and in the 1990s re-affiliated with WVU. Keyser was the university’s second preparatory education site, later becoming Potomac State College of WVU. A two-year school of medicine initially operated as an affiliate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Baltimore, until it became an independent two-year program in 1912.

In 1904, West Virginia University reached an impressive intellectual milestone when student Charles Frederick Tucker Brooke was selected to be in the first group of Rhodes Scholars, who were chosen from around the world to train at Oxford University. More than a century later, WVU ranks among the top institutions nationally for prestigious scholarships, including 25 Rhodes Scholars, 26 Truman Scholars, 70 Fulbright Scholarships, 46 Goldwater Scholarships, 29 Boren Scholarships, 39 Critical Language Scholars, and 6 Udall Scholars.

By 1912, WVU’s library had 46,500 books, and its agricultural roots had spread via 15 agricultural extension schools, five home economics schools, and 110 farmer institutes; 6,500 youth were enlisted in agriculture clubs throughout the state. Oglebay Hall was completed in 1918 for the College of Agriculture. In 1921, the Engineering Experimental Station was established, as was the state 4-H camp at Jackson’s Mill, the nation’s first.

By 1938, WVU had 3,500 students and 150 faculty. That year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a state’s colleges must admit African-American students to graduate courses that were not available at a state’s Black institutions. In 1941, WVU granted a graduate degree to its first known African-American student, Kenneth James. Victorine Louistall became the first known Black woman to earn a graduate degree in 1945. She returned to WVU in 1966 to teach library science, becoming the first known Black faculty member.

Enrollment soared with the end of World War II and the enactment of the GI Bill, in which veterans were granted federal funding for educational expenses. More than 6,000 students enrolled in the fall of 1946, causing a housing crisis. Five student veterans even lived in President Irvin Stewart’s house. By 1948, enrollment was 8,069.

Stewart’s tenure as president (1946–58) was an era of expansion, particularly in the medical sciences. The university acquired two farms in Morgantown that later developed into the Evansdale Campus and the Medical Center complex. Stewart originated a new approach to financing major construction by designating student fees for construction revenue bonds.

The years 1946 to 1960 were a golden era for WVU basketball, with such All-American legends as Leland Byrd, Mark Workman, ‘‘Hot Rod’’ Hundley, and Jerry West. West led the Mountaineers in the national championship game in 1959. The team lost by just one point, 71-70, to California. Football, too, was thriving with such stand-outs as Bob Orders, Bruce Bosley, Sam Huff, and Chuck Howley.

The School of Medicine took center stage in 1962 when Dr. Herbert Warden and his team performed the first open-heart surgery in West Virginia. The 1960s and 1970s also brought technological innovations, including WVU’s first computer, an IBM. Work began on the federally funded Personal Rapid Transit System (PRT), an experimental, computer-operated, mass transit system. Twenty years after its completion, the PRT was named the best ‘‘people mover’’ in North America, and it still serves the university today.

Athletics again took center stage as the 1970s wore into the 1980s. The Coliseum basketball arena opened on December 1, 1970. Governor Rockefeller made the final decision to build a new 50,000-seat football stadium, which opened in 1980. It was expanded to 63,175 seats in 1986, and now is “officially” listed as 60,000, although many more can be accommodated for big games. The football team, under Don Nehlen, experienced undefeated regular seasons in 1988 and 1993. Other new facilities included the Shell Building, which houses an indoor track, the Natatorium (now the Aquatic and Track Center at Mylan Park) for water sports, and the Evansdale Library.

WVU Hospitals (now WVU Medicine) separated from the university to become a nonprofit corporation in 1984. The hospitals include Ruby Memorial Hospital, which was designated the state’s first level one trauma center in 1989. WVU Hospitals also include Children’s Hospital, Chestnut Ridge Hospital, the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center, the Jon Michael Moore Trauma Center, and a network of affiliated facilities throughout the state.

During the last decade of the 20th century, West Virginia University significantly expanded its emphasis on research and was designated a research university (now classified as R1) by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The university also established a nonprofit corporate affiliate — WVU Research Corporation — to manage intellectual properties and the growing WVU research enterprise, including patents, copyrights, and trademarks. Sponsored contracts and research grants total about $180 million annually. WVU is a recognized leader in biometrics research, energy and alternative fuels research, forensics and investigative science, and the health sciences. In 2010, the university dedicated a Robotic Center as part of a cooperative effort with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center to support space exploration missions.

West Virginia University also is home to the National Resource Center for Coal and Energy, founded in 1978. The center focuses on energy and environment research; the university has one of the largest simulated underground coal mines in the world to facilitate training in mine rescue and mining.

In the health sciences, Mountaineer Doctor Television links WVU physicians with patients in rural areas, and the Health Sciences Center took the name of West Virginia’s senior U.S. senator, Robert C. Byrd. Senator Jay Rockefeller and his family provided significant funding in 1999 to establish the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute, the world’s first major institute focusing on human memory.

In the new millennium, WVU has remained true to its mission as a land-grant institution with extension service programs in all 55 counties. WVU Jackson’s Mill in Lewis County serves thousands of youth and adults annually, and it is the home of the West Virginia Fire Academy, a training center for volunteers and professional firefighters from the state and across the nation.

West Virginia University has more than a dozen academic colleges on the Morgantown campus. The total enrollment on the Morgantown campus in fall 2023 was 23,431. WVU also has nearly 2,000 students enrolled on its regional campuses in Beckley and Keyser; six extended learning regional centers; WVU Health Sciences Centers in Charleston and Martinsburg; and 338 degree programs, although a 2023 proposal will cut that number by 28. A third regional campus, at Parkersburg, became independent in 2008 but remains affiliated as WVU Parkersburg. WVU confers more than 6,000 degrees annually. It has library facilities at five locations; the downtown library holds the largest historical archives relating to West Virginia in existence — the West Virginia and Regional History Center.

The university’s second-longest-serving president, David C. Hardesty Jr., one of the school’s Rhodes Scholars, stepped down in 2007 after 12 years of emphasis on infrastructure development and student support services. Controversy followed when the succeeding president, Mike Garrison, and two top administrators resigned less than a year into Garrison’s term. An independent investigation determined WVU administrators had improperly granted an MBA degree to Heather Bresch, the daughter of Governor Joe Manchin and an executive at Mylan, a pharmaceutical company whose then-chairman Milan Puskar was a major donor to the university and supporter of Manchin. C. Peter McGrath, a leading academic and president at several universities, was named interim president until James P. Clements, a former provost of Towson University, was selected WVU’s 23rd president in 2009. On December 31, 2013, Clements became president of Clemson University, and former WVU and Ohio State University president E. Gordon Gee was selected as interim president. On March 10, 2014, the Higher Education Policy Commission confirmed Gee as the 24th president of WVU. As of 2023, his 13 years at the helm (1981-85, 2014-present) make him the school’s longest-serving president.

One of the school’s most significant crises unfolded in 2023. In 2014, when Gee became president for a second time, he inherited a university with about 31,000 students and predicted that number would grow to at least 40,000 within a decade. Instead, by 2023, enrollment had declined to 25,384 (including its Beckley and Keyser campuses), with projections it could drop to 21,000 by 2033. Some of this decrease likely was attributable to expanding 21st century post-high school options for students, the rising cost of attending college, West Virginia’s declining population, and lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on enrollment. Since most of the school’s revenue is generated from tuition and other student costs, WVU was facing a $45 million shortfall by summer 2023, with future losses projected to reach $75 annually. This financial problem was exacerbated by legislative budget cuts to higher education totaling about 25 percent over the last decade.

Cuts were made to various programs, including a 30 percent budget reduction for WVU Libraries. Then, in August 2023, WVU officials proposed eliminating 32 majors and 169 faculty positions. After an appeals process, the university’s Board of Governors officially cut 28 majors (about eight percent) and 143 faculty jobs in September. These cuts eliminated all majors in mathematics and world languages, as well as all courses in foreign languages except for Spanish and Chinese, with additional reductions targeted for programs that generate negative revenues. The university’s decision to reduce offerings will directly affect hundreds of students and faculty immediately; however, the full impact may not be understood for some time. WVU is currently reviewing a wide range of additional cuts, including potential reductions in extension services, courses at its Beckley and Keyser regional campuses, and the following programs: ADVANCE Center; Career Services; Center for Veterans, Military and Family Programs; CLASS; Community-based Testing Center; Honors College; Institutional Research; Libraries; LGBTQ+ Center; Office of Accessibility Services; Office of Global Affairs; Office of Graduate Education and Life; Registrar; Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative; STEM Center; Teaching and Learning Commons; University Testing Center; Women’s Resource Center; WVU Online; and WVU Press.

Critics of President Gee have pointed to the costly expansion of WVU Medicine facilities — a separate nonprofit corporation affiliated with the university — and to lavish administrative spending. In early September 2023, Gee lost a no-confidence vote of the WVU Faculty Assembly 797 to 100; the majority of votes in support of Gee came from faculty associated with the School of Medicine. In 2021, a similar no-confidence vote against Gee had failed.

The decision, monitored closely by universities and news outlets across the nation, comes on the heels of financially struggling Alderson Broaddus University’s decision to close at the end of 2023, suggesting that higher education in West Virginia could be at a crucial juncture.

West Virginia University website

This Article was written by Elizabeth Jill Wilson

Last Revised on October 10, 2023

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Doherty, William T. & Festus P. Summers. West Virginia University: Symbol of Unity in a Sectionalized State. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 1982.

Cook, Tony & Barbara J. Howe, et al. West Virginia University Year-by-Year 1862-2000. West Virginia University Alumni Magazine, (Winter 2000).

Howe, Barbara J. A People's University. West Virginia University Alumni Magazine, (Winter 2000).

Cite This Article

Wilson, Elizabeth Jill "West Virginia University." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 10 October 2023. Web. 14 June 2024.


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