The George Washington University has had 16 presidents since its founding. An understanding of their individual accomplishments and of the events that surrounded each of their tenures provides a “snapshot” of GW’s growth and evolution.
Rev. William Staughton, 1821-1827
In 1821, in order to assume the presidency of Columbian College, the Rev. William Staughton resigned as pastor of the Samson Street Baptist Church in Philadelphia and, at the request of the board of trustees, familiarized himself with European educational methods. His tenure as president saw the founding of the law school, the departments of classics, medicine and theology and a preparatory school. Guests at the first Columbian College commencement, held in 1824, included President James Monroe, members of his cabinet, members of the Senate, House and U.S. Supreme Court and the Marquis de Lafayette. Columbian College was then located on College Hill, a tract of land bordering Florida Avenue and 14th and 15th Streets.
Stephen Chapin, 1828-1841
Stephen Chapin, formerly a professor of theology at Waterville College (now Colby College) in Maine, arrived at Columbian College in 1828 to begin 13 years of ceaseless struggle—most of it financial rather than intellectual. Under his administration, the first Master of Arts degrees were awarded. An Act of Congress conferred on the school a federal grant of $25,000 in city lots. At the end of Chapin’s tenure, Columbian College was free of debt.
Joel Smith Bacon, 1843-1854
Joel Smith Bacon came to Columbian College from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He oversaw the transition as the Columbian’s Department of Medicine moved to the old jail in Judiciary Square and became the National Medical College, one of the nation’s first teaching hospitals. Other innovations under his leadership included a program in natural science leading to the degree of Bachelor of Philosophy, the college’s first alumni association and the awarding of the first Doctor of Laws degree.
Joseph Getchell Binney, 1855-1858
Joseph Binney’s experience as a missionary in India, where he founded a seminary for the training of ministers, resulted in a brief presidency at Columbian College. In 1855, Columbian College awarded the degrees of Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts and Bachelor of Philosophy. German was also added to the curriculum during Binney’s tenure. He resigned in 1858 to begin missionary work in Burma but died during the voyage and had a sea burial in the Indian Ocean.
Rev. George Whitefield Samson, 1859-1871
The Rev. George Whitefield Samson, formerly pastor of the E Street Baptist Church, had the difficult task of guiding Columbian College through the Civil War. In 1861, many students left, many to return to their homes in the South. College exercises were continued for the few remaining students. Under an executive order from President Abraham Lincoln, the government occupied the campus for war-related hospital purposes. By 1867, Samson had overseen the restoration of the school to its former status, and 419 students were in residence. The Medical College now shared the College of Law Building on 5th Street, while a new building donated by W. W. Corcoran made it possible to introduce an “Advanced Course” for a Master of Arts degree.
James Clarke Welling, 1871-1894
James Clarke Welling, previously a president of St. John’s College in Maryland and former holder of the Chair of Belles Lettres at Princeton University, was the first layman to lead the college. During his distinguished tenure at Columbian College, which became Columbian University following an Act of Congress in 1873, the school relocated from the outskirts of Washington to a midtown location. All its departments were moved to new buildings at 15th and H Streets. The board of trustees became a self-perpetuating body, the National College of Pharmacy was chartered, the Medical School became a three-year program, the Dental School was established, the National Veterinary College was organized and the Corcoran Scientific School was established. In 1888, the first female students entered Columbian University. In 1892, the School of Graduate Studies was created.
Benaiah L. Whitman, 1895-1900
Formerly the president of Colby College in Maine, Benaiah Whitman led an administration that established the University Extension Program, added library science to the curriculum, erected a new law school building and began nurses training at the university’s new hospital. The hospital’s female superintendent was also the first woman to appear on the official faculty list. President William McKinley and his cabinet attended the opening of the School of Comparative Jurisprudence and Diplomacy.
Charles Willis Needham, 1902-1910
The presidency of Charles Willis Needham, a Baptist layman and former dean of the law school, sat at the helm of the university at a time of lasting accomplishments. In 1904, Congress authorized a change in the name of the school from Columbian University to The George Washington University. (The school’s new seal and flag were displayed in 1905 at the first convocation following the change.) A new charter allowed the university to organize colleges. Thus, the National College of Pharmacy, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Engineering and Mechanical Arts became part of the university. The expansion of schools and courses, combined with the costs of construction and maintenance, created a heavy economic burden for the university.
Charles Herbert Stockton, 1910-1918
President Charles Stockton provided the guidance needed to weather the financial stress. He reorganized the university in 1911 to reduce expenditures and he sold property to increase revenue. Through his urging, the Department of Arts and Sciences was moved in 1912 to 2023 G Street, the area that George Washington had selected as the site for “his” university. Foggy Bottom was established as the new central location.
Stockton had served as dean of the law school and as acting president before his appointment to the presidency. But his most significant qualification for guiding the university during World War I was his status as a retired rear admiral. As the United States drew toward full involvement in the conflict, Stockton placed the university at the government’s disposal.
William Miller Collier, 1918-1921
Formerly U.S. minister to Spain, William Collier assumed the presidency when the United States was at the height of its involvement in World War I. In practical and symbolic ways, the school became part of the war effort. A unit of the Student Army Training Corps and a U.S. naval unit were established “for the duration.” In 1918, at a special convocation, the university first bestowed an honorary degree upon a foreign leader, Albert, king of Belgium. In 1921, having presided over the centennial celebration of the university, Collier resigned when President Warren G. Harding nominated him for an ambassadorship.
William Mather Lewis, 1923-1927
William Lewis, who made the transition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to The George Washington University, was known as a brilliant speaker, in demand by groups throughout the nation. During his presidency, a gymnasium was erected and the alumni elected Mrs. Joshua Evans Jr. as the first female on the board of trustees. After leaving the university, Lewis assumed the presidency of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.
Cloyd Heck Marvin, 1927-1959
The 32 years of Cloyd Marvin’s presidency was the longest in GW history. By the 1930s, the university was well established in the Foggy Bottom area. Advanced degrees in professional fields became the responsibility of the professional schools. The Graduate Council was given the supervision of all work leading to the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, and an autonomous Junior College was established to administer the work of freshman and sophomores. Marvin reorganized the university administration and, with the assistance of the board of trustees, strengthened its financial structure. The School of Government was established. In 1950, the College of General Studies was founded to provide courses for special groups on and off campus.
Marvin’s vast building program included the construction of a medical laboratory building, Lisner Library, the Hall of Government, Lisner Auditorium, Tompkins Hall of Engineering, the University Hospital, James Monroe Hall, Warwick Memorial Building, Samson Hall and the Student Union. The grounds were landscaped with roses, which continue to grace the campus.
Thomas Henry Carroll, 1961-1964
Thomas Carroll served as vice president of the Ford Foundation before assuming the presidency of the university. Before his sudden death in 1964, he oversaw the beginning of work on the new wing of the University Hospital and the university’s participation in a new consortium of local universities. The consortium made the facilities of each member school available to graduate students attending the others.
Lloyd Hartman Elliott, 1965-1988
Lloyd Elliott’s 23 years at the university brought financial stability and continued growth through academic development and building programs. His proudest achievement was the building of the three libraries: the Melvin Gelman Library, the Jacob Burns Law Library and the Paul Himmelfarb Health Sciences Library. In addition, the Academic Center, (comprised of Smith, Rome and Phillips halls), Funger Hall and the National Law Center’s Theodore N. Lerner Hall were completed. The Charles E. Smith Center was put in use in 1970, the same year that Elliott opened the Cloyd Heck Marvin Student Center, a high priority because of the great need for additional space for student activities.
In 1973, GW’s medical training program was moved from downtown to the Walter G. Ross Hall. With the relocation of the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, the university was for the first time centralized in one area. Elliott launched the Educational Opportunity Program and created the faculty rank of “university professor.” He increased the number of endowed professorships to 20, from three. He is also credited with the tremendous growth in the university’s endowment—to $200 million in 1988 from $8 million in 1965. Following Elliott’s retirement in 1998, GW’s School of International Affairs was rededicated as the Evelyn E. and Lloyd H. Elliott School of International Affairs.
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, 1988-2007
Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president emeritus and university professor of public service, served as GW’s 15th president. He came to GW after serving as a vice president and academic dean at Boston University and as president of the University of Hartford. He is a widely published author of books and articles on higher education and leadership. He has served in numerous bodies involved in higher education, foreign affairs and governance, and he has been the recipient of many awards, honorary degrees and accolades.
Trachtenberg’s years were marked by an unmatched growth in GW’s profile and prestige. He helped define the main campus in Foggy Bottom as a discrete unit within the city, while leading efforts to organize the GW medical center, acquire the Mount Vernon and Ashburn, Va., campuses and nurture school spirit and traditions. GW opened or renovated nearly a dozen buildings during his tenure, among them the Media and Public Affairs Building and Duquès Hall, home to the School of Business. Trachtenberg also brought aesthetic improvements to campus, including the Mid-Campus Quad and Kogan Plaza, as well as campus icons such as the GW hippo, the Professors Gate and the Tempietto. The Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholars program started by the university in 1989 has provided more than 85 academically talented D.C. Public High School seniors with full four-year scholarships covering tuition, room and board, books and fees.