College of William and Mary - American EducationThe second oldest institution of higher education in the United States. Founded in 1693 by the Scottishborn churchman James Blair, William and Mary, like its predecessor HARVARD, was designed to help alleviate the acute shortage of ministers in the colonies. Fearful that without adequate ministerial shepherding, the colonists and their children would “fall prey to Satan” and grow barbaric, the bishop of London, whose diocese included Virginia, appointed Blair his commissary, or deputy, with authority to supervise the clergy in Virginia. At a clerical conference, Blair called for “the better encouragement of learning by the founding [of] a college in this country,” which would include a grammar school, a philosophy school and a divinity school. He returned to London to present his proposal to the head of the church and to King William and Queen Mary, all of whom approved the project. On February 8, 1693, a charter was granted for the new college, and Blair was named president for life. Blair imposed a Scottish university curriculum at William and Mary, requiring two years for a bachelor’s degree and four for a master’s degree. He also adopted the Scottish system of allowing students to live off-campus to save costs, and he banned the English university practice of allowing professors to accept fees from students.
Various Virginia governors interfered with construction, because they feared that the opportunity for betterment through education at the college would tempt planters away from their fields and reduce the colony’s revenues from tobacco. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the college’s first building was completed in 1693; it burned down in a disastrous fire in 1705, but was rebuilt. By the time of Blair’s death, there were three buildings at what was by then a well-established institution.
Sir Christopher Wren Building, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia. Built in 1695, it is the oldest academic structure in continuous use in America. (College of William and Mary)
Because of its location at the seat of political and economic power in the colonial South, William and Mary attracted an inordinately large number of young men born to the Virginia establishment who would one day assume power themselves. Not the least of these were Thomas Jefferson, JAMES MONROE, John Marshall and John Tyler. In 1776, students at the college founded PHI BETA KAPPA, the first American intercollegiate Greek letter fraternity.
Damage sustained during the Civil War and lack of money to rebuild forced the school to close in 1868. Although classes resumed a year later, the college closed again in 1881 and did not reopen until 1888, when a small group of professors attempted to revive the school. In 1906, the Virginia General Assembly assured its permanence by making it a state college. In 1918, William and Mary became coeducational, to train female public school teachers to replace the men lost in World War I. In 1967, the college assumed university status by granting its first graduate degrees. The school has a faculty of about 450 and total enrollment of about 7,750 students, of whom about 5,750 are undergraduates. More than 55% of undergraduates at the once all-male college are now women.