History of the College
In 1836, a few miles from the current city of Walla Walla, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman established a Christian mission and a school to teach the Cayuse Indians to read and write their native language. Later, the Whitmans provided assistance to Oregon Trail travelers. In 1847, Rev. Cushing Eells resolved to establish a school in the Whitmans’ honor. The Washington Territorial Legislature granted a charter to Whitman Seminary on December 20, 1859. On November 28, 1883, the legislature issued a new charter, changing the seminary into a four-year, degree-granting college.
From its beginning, Whitman College has prized its independence from sectarian and political control. Whitman has remained small in order to facilitate the close faculty-student interaction that is essential to exceptional higher education. In 1913, Whitman became the first college or university in the nation to require undergraduate students to complete comprehensive examinations in their major fields. The installation of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1919, the first for any Northwest college, marked Whitman's growing reputation.
Visit Whitman’s “Portraits of the Past” digital exhibit, which features an exploratory collection of photographs of the College’s history, to see an interactive timeline of Whitman College’s history.
Beginning in 1882, Whitman College has had fourteen presidents. Sarah Bolton is currently serving the college as our fifteenth president. To understand part of Whitman’s history, read the interesting stories of the past presidents who steered the college to where it is today.
Sarah R. Bolton
Dr. Sarah Bolton is a physicist, professor and administrator with more than 25 years of experience in higher education and a steadfast commitment to the liberal arts. She became the 15th president of Whitman College in July 2022.
Bolton holds a Bachelor of Science in physics and biophysics from Brown University, as well as a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. She began her faculty career at Williams College, where she was a physics professor for 15 years before becoming Dean of the College. In 2016, she assumed the presidency of The College of Wooster, completing a record-setting campaign that resulted in 71 new scholarships and three new endowed professorships, among many other new endowed funds.
The recipient of multiple teaching awards and fellowships, Bolton has authored more than a dozen articles in science journals and been invited to present at conferences across the country. She has served on the boards of Wayne Economic Development Corporation, Culture of Respect, the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities, as well as the Five Colleges of Ohio and Great Lakes College Association.
Kathleen M. Murray
Kathleen Murray became the fourteenth president of Whitman College in July, 2015. During her Installation ceremony on September 18th, 2015, President Murray delivered an address titled “The Frontier of the Liberal Arts.” Drawing on the early history of the college situated on the frontier of the Pacific Northwest, and acknowledging it as the land of the Walla Walla, Yakima, Cayuse and Umatilla tribes. President Murray also envisioned a frontier that “inspires a spirit of exploration and discovery, intellectual stimulation and growth, with a focus on those areas that could help to distinguish Whitman from the other fine liberal arts colleges across the country.” She also reiterated her priority for the college: “our business is student learning.” President Murray holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Illinois Wesleyan University, a Master of Music in Piano Performance from Bowling Green State University and a Doctor of Music in piano performance and pedagogy from Northwestern University. Prior to coming to Whitman, she taught at Lawrence University, served as provost at Birmingham-Southern College, and was provost and dean of the faculty at Macalester College.
George Bridges was Whitman College’s thirteenth president; he served in that capacity from 2005 until June, 2015. President George Bridges came to office on July 1, 2005. Holding a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania, Bridges led a distinguished career as a nationally recognized scholar studying the causes of racial disparity in rates of incarceration. As Dean and Vice Provost for the University of Washington, he led initiatives to advance innovations in teaching and learning. Throughout his tenure as president at Whitman, Bridges has instituted a number of academic and social changes for the betterment of the school. He and his administration have been responsible for promoting diversity in the student body and faculty, expanding study abroad options, and increasing financial aid for students and individual academic programs. Bridges also provided strong leadership and vision to Whitman’s Now is the Time campaign, which aims “to perpetuate and build upon Whitman's historic strengths.” In spring of 2014, President Bridges announced to the Whitman community that he would be stepping down as president at the close of the 2014–2015 school year.
Thomas E. Cronin
President Thomas E. Cronin received his Ph.D. from Stanford University in political science and served as Whitman's President from 1993–2005. It was said that Cronin could recognize all 1,400 students on sight, but he modestly stated that he knew only about twenty to thirty percent of the students’ names. In an interview in the same edition of the Pioneer, Cronin stated that “Faculty is key, you can have great buildings but without good faculty it wouldn’t be much of a college.” During his time as president, Cronin greatly increased the size of the faculty, recruited highly-qualified new faculty members, and aimed to develop a national reputation for the college. During his tenure, Cronin’s administration increased the graduation rate to eighty-seven percent, added approximately two dozen new faculty positions, and oversaw a substantial rise in several national college rankings. He erected the Bratton Tennis Center and the Reid Campus Center, and renovated the Hall of Science and the Penrose Memorial Library. Following Cronin’s arrival in 1993, the college endowment tripled and a life cycle funding program was implemented. Academic programs and support systems added by Cronin include the Undergraduate Conference, Semester in the West, the Center for Community Service, the Fridays-at-Four music series and the implementation of twenty-four hour access to the library and computer labs. On July 1, 2005, Cronin “graduated” from Whitman.
David Evans Maxwell
Although Maxwell left Whitman after four years, he departed amicably citing his own interests in pursuing other opportunities and his wife’s desire to rekindle her design work. Maxwell’s contributions to the college include instituting the curriculum review process, increasing diversity in the student body and renovating several buildings. Maxwell’s presidency emphasized that “as we look for ways in which to make Whitman truly distinctive, truly unique, we must look to ways in which to enhance and improve upon our traditional strengths.”
Robert Allen Skotheim
During his fourteen years as Whitman’s president, Robert Skotheim focused on developing an interdisciplinary course of study as well as the overall human development of students as athletes and citizens. Skotheim was a pragmatist in achieving these goals. He sought ways to remove unnecessary expenditures in order to provide funding opportunities for as many student activities as possible.
As an example of his fiscal pragmatism, when Skotheim and his administration chose to dissolve the football team in 1977, they cited the disproportionate amount of resources that the team was using which bolstered the activities of a relatively few number of students. They elected to reallocate those resources to other athletic activities such as the newly-created intercollegiate soccer teams, the swim team, the track team, the wrestling team and intramural activities. In doing so, Skotheim facilitated many students to grow both as athletes and academics. Even though his decision was unpopular, a comedic poem composed for Skotheim’s ten-year anniversary pointed out that faculty and students “grouse from habit, not from heat; / though seeming a contentious brood, / we sometimes like your attitude.” Skotheim was well-liked and admired by the campus community.
Donald H. Sheehan
During President Donald H. Sheehan’s short presidency, he was admired by students for his willingness to listen to their concerns and by faculty and alumni for improving the campus. Upon coming to the office in 1968, following the short reinstatement of Chester Maxey, Sheehan wrote to the Whitman Pioneer that his presidency would be based on the principle that “to do nothing to adjust to profound changes is to invite irrelevance; to attempt to respond on too many fronts is to insure mediocrity.” This philosophy would guide his presidency as he handled Whitman students’ protests against the Vietnam War through Monday afternoon “coffee hours” during which he would sit down with students to discuss their ideas and grievances.
Louis B. Perry
Whitman College conducted a more thorough search for its new president in 1959 than it had ever previously done, and the result was the hiring of Louis B. Perry, who served as president through 1959–1967. Perry approached the position from the philosophy that “intellect alone will not save the world. Rather, what is required is a more balanced concern for mind, body, and spirit.” Perry instituted this philosophy by helping to raise funds for a variety of different buildings including Jewett Hall, the Science Building, Cordiner Hall and the Sherwood Athletic Center.
Louis Perry embodied the Whitman belief that a college must educate the whole student and not just the mind. In addition, Perry introduced a more democratic administration by facilitating broader interaction between the governing Board of Trustees and the faculty. Direct communication between these groups brought the Whitman community and the campus closer together. Even after his resignation on March 28, 1967, Perry continued to offer advice to presidents such as George Bridges who recounted Perry’s sage advice over a lunch. Perry earned several degrees in economics from UCLA, including his doctorate in 1950, and continued a career in business after resigning from Whitman. President Perry passed away on September 28, 2013 in Walla Walla.
Chester C. Maxey
Chester C. Maxey, a 1912 Whitman graduate, led the college from 1948–1959. “I'm the one who should be wearing a green dink these days!” said Chester Maxey in an interview with the Whitman College Pioneer on December 3, 1948. Maxey had recently replaced Winslow S. Anderson as the President of Whitman College and was referring to the traditional green hats that incoming first years were once required to wear until after a tug-of-war match with the sophomore class. Chester Maxey was responsible for the building of Anderson Hall, Penrose Memorial Library and the Harper Joy Theatre. Maxey was a “native son” of Whitman, having been born in the region, given a scholarship to attend Whitman as an undergraduate (for his first year), returned to the college as a professor, and taken various administrative positions prior to becoming president. When Maxey retired in 1959, the Pioneer ran a five-part series detailing the successes of his life and Presidency. The articles detailed Maxey’s life in Ellensburg before Whitman, his time as a student, and his tenure as a professor and president. The Pioneer pointed out the diversification of the curriculum, the addition of extracurricular activities, and many of Maxey’s other achievements. Maxey was greatly loved by the students as both a president and a professor.
Winslow S. Anderson
In 1943, the first navy cadets arrived at Whitman. They were brought to the campus largely due to the efforts of the newly instated president Winslow S. Anderson, and his presidency is inextricably tied in with the service men. Anderson and the trustees chose to open the campus to the military through a mix of practical and patriotic concerns. The practical concern was the possibility of falling enrollment due to men being drafted into the military, and by opening the doors of Whitman to the navy, the college retained male students who participated in classes at the school. Anderson believed that it was best to have the cadets be “regularly enrolled students in the college and pursue a regular liberal arts course with emphasis on mathematics and physics,” and the faculty agreed by refusing to compromise their high standards when faced with these atypical students.
Walter Andrew Bratton
Upon entering the office, Bratton was determined to solve the college’s debt problem that had plagued past presidents. He managed finances by refusing to build new buildings, offering higher level courses to retain upperclassmen, and creating a vocational school in order to increase income from tuition while simultaneously improving the school's academic standing. President Emeritus Stephen Penrose was quoted as saying that “President Bratton will not try to make a different Whitman but a better one,” and through his rigid budgeting and eventual cancellation of Whitman’s debt—he did just that.
Rudolf A. Clemen
Rudolf A. Clemen earned his Ph.D. in Economics and History from Harvard and was highly experienced when he came to Whitman. As president, he was primarily concerned with the aesthetics of the college and renovated the interiors of Billings and Reynolds Halls. He also aimed to improve the administrative organization of the college by revising the constitution and bylaws, soliciting outside evaluation and ending the historic reliance on support from eastern donors. Through these efforts, President Clemen set the college on a path towards becoming the attractive and self-sustaining institution that it is today. Clemen resigned in the fall of 1935 citing disagreement between himself and the trustees. Allen Reynolds, the chair of the board, accepted Clemen’s resignation saying that “though we may not always have seen things alike, I appreciate your earnest effort to build a better Whitman.” The decision to accept Clemen’s resignation was not unanimous and several trustees protested. In light of this support, Clemen attempted to withdraw his resignation, but the board voted to accept it and Clemen left Whitman after the spring semester of 1936.
Stephen B. L. Penrose
Penrose served for 40 years, retiring from the presidency in 1934. He remained for eight more years as head of the department of philosophy. When Stephen Beasley Linnard Penrose took office, the school had found itself upon hard times. That fall, only 36 students arrived on campus, the faculty had not been paid in several months, and the school had a $12,000 mortgage. Whitman was on the precipice of dissolving. Even before Penrose came into office, he set about trying to correct the financial situation by cutting his own salary and insisting on paying his transportation costs to Walla Walla. During this ambitious period, Penrose envisioned Whitman to be the greatest privately-endowed college in the Pacific Northwest and to fulfill for the region “much the same purpose as the great institutions, Harvard and Yale, do to New England, or Stanford to the South Pacific coast.” To this end, the entrance requirements were revised to be the same as those at Harvard, the required number of credit hours for graduation were raised to 128, more elective courses were offered, faculty compensation increases were sought, and the college expanded its facilities to support scientific and engineering courses of study. This latter effort was called the Greater Whitman Initiative. Ultimately, these maneuvers saved Whitman from ruin and the renovations greatly improved the campus.
James F. Eaton
James F. Eaton became the president in the fall of 1891. James Francis Eaton was nicknamed “Zeus” by the Whitman College staff and students because of his imposing figure, his strong and divisive personality and the long black beard he sported. While highly qualified, he served as president for only a short period of time.
Alexander J. Anderson
Alexander J. Anderson, resigned the presidency of the University of Washington in 1882 to come to Walla Walla. Anderson ended a long and productive career in higher education administration by helping to found Whitman College in 1883. Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1832, he and his family immigrated to the United States before Anderson was even a year old. The family settled in Illinois where Anderson eventually studied at Knox College.