Founding and Re-Founding Mary Baldwin University

Administration Building, circa 1844

In the early 1840s a New England Presbyterian minister arrived in Staunton. His name was Rufus Bailey, and he had a proposal for the leaders of the First Presbyterian Church: he wanted to establish a school for young women under the auspices of and with the support of the church. You have to understand that this was a period when public education was nonexistent, and while there were a few private academies for young men, nothing existed for young women. The result of Dr. Bailey’s vision was the founding in 1842 of a small institution called Augusta Female Seminary (“seminary” being a term that meant a place to acquire learning, not a school to prepare ministers or priests). What Dr. Bailey wanted to do and in fact did do was to provide girls the same educational opportunity as boys, and the founding of the school was based on the assumption — not shared in those days by everyone — that girls were as capable as boys of learning history, mathematics, science, and languages.

Administration Building, circa 1844

Dr. Bailey was a visionary, but he was also apparently unable to settle into the task of nurturing the school he had established: his interest was in new projects, and after a short time he resigned from the seminary and left Staunton to seek new challenges, eventually founding the school in Sherman, Texas, that became Austin College.

The seminary made it to the middle of the Civil War under the supervision of a series of male administrators. But with the war and the erratic arrival and departure of those administrators, the seminary met its first existential challenge: either find a way to keep going or close the doors. In 1863, the Board of Trustees, perhaps in desperation, turned to a young woman who had been in the first class of the seminary: her name was Mary Julia Baldwin, and she was given the task of keeping the school open despite the war and making it flourish academically and fiscally. She succeeded, perhaps to the astonishment of the men who handed her the task. She kept the school open throughout the war (often by negotiating with families to pay tuition in meat and produce rather than the increasingly worthless Confederate dollars), and after the war she — along with her assistant Agnes McClung — acquired additional property, increased the size of the student body from under 100 to 300, and developed a curriculum that was considered the equivalent of that of most four-year colleges.

By the time Miss Baldwin retired, Augusta Female Seminary had earned a reputation as a first-rate institution for the education of young women. So powerful was Miss Baldwin’s vision and her single-minded intensity of purpose that the seminary became informally known as “Miss Baldwin’s School,” so it seemed a natural step for the Trustees to rename the institution “Mary Baldwin Seminary,” which is what they did in 1895. When she died in 1897, she seemed to have left a solid place of learning, designed, as her motto had it, “Not for time but for eternity.”

Students at the newly re-named Mary Baldwin Seminary, circa 1895

However, without her leadership the school began to struggle. The first three decades of the 20th century witnessed the second existential challenge of the institution. The primary issue was whether the school would continue as a seminary for younger women or become a true college, accredited and recognized as such. It took 30 years for all the issues involved — adequate facilities, faculty with appropriate terminal degrees, support from all constituencies including primarily alumnae — to be resolved. In 1923, the seminary assumed “junior college” status. And finally, in 1929, it became Mary Baldwin College, fully recognized and endorsed by all the requisite accrediting agencies. This is the moment we might want to consider the second founding of Mary Baldwin.

Commencement in 1929, the year Mary Baldwin became a college

The years from 1930 to 1975 were years of struggle, achievement, and growth. These years — which spanned the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the great civil rights movement of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s — witnessed Mary Baldwin College developing and implementing its mission of providing a values-based education in the arts and sciences focusing primarily on the needs of young women.

I will mention two persons whose vision and commitment were central to the middle-of-the-century period in the college history: Martha Grafton and Samuel Spencer. Today’s students know the former from the name of the on-campus library, and they know the latter from the name of Spencer Residence Hall and the Spencer Center for Global and Civic Engagement.

Mary Baldwin's fifth president Sam Spencer; Dean Martha Grafton

Dean Grafton was the main academic officer (called in those days “Dean of the College”) from the mid-1930s to 1970, and she was a source of stability and continuity. She had a way of pulling everyone together to get done what had to be done.  When I arrived here in 1964 as a fresh young English instructor, she told me that I would be teaching three composition courses with 25 students in each and one world literature section which had been so well advertised that it had enrolled 75 students! Though that meant I was to teach 150 students in courses which required almost weekly essays, she presented the situation to me in such a way that I left her office pleased and flattered.

Sam Spencer was president of the college from 1957 to 1968. Under his leadership, the college doubled its enrollment and its campus buildings — adding Hunt Dining Hall, Grafton Library, Pearce Science Building, and Spencer Residence Hall. The college strengthened its academic program, especially its commitment to international studies, and its reputation as an outstanding liberal arts college led to its meeting the criteria in 1970 for the establishment of a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

By 1975, though, it was becoming clear that Mary Baldwin needed to expand in its self-understanding, its educational mission, and its clientele, the students it served. I think of this moment as the third existential challenge. Just as Dr. Bailey’s “Augusta Female Seminary” needed to be nurtured into Mary Baldwin Seminary, and just as Mary Baldwin Seminary needed to become Mary Baldwin College, so did Mary Baldwin College need to become Mary Baldwin University. The first transformation took 60 years. The second took 30 years. The last has taken 40 years.

While the journey to university status has been long and sometimes frustrating, it has been at its best methodical and deliberate, with changes grounded in a strong sense of mission and purpose, always asking what the institution’s strengths are and how those strengths can be maximized to meet the needs of our changing world.

The Adult Degree Program, now MBU Online, was founded in 1977.

The first step towards university status was the establishment in 1977 of the Adult Degree Program — now MBU Online — designed to meet the needs of older, non-residential students, both women and men. Just as this program was being developed, the college acquired the old Staunton Military Academy campus, tripling our physical space and providing capacity for new programs, particularly the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted and the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership. By the 1990s we were adding graduate programs in education, giving us official accreditation to add later graduate programs in Shakespeare and in business administration. By 2000 we were referring to ourselves as a “mini-university” in all but name. With the launching of the Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences in 2014, it became difficult to think of Mary Baldwin as other than a university, and the movement to that status, though it came after a year of meticulous planning and consultation with all our constituents, seemed as natural as taking the next breath. In 2017 with the establishment of University College, the university became co-ed, but uniquely so by maintaining the Mary Baldwin College for Women and by continuing — perhaps even more intentionally than before — its focus on the concerns, the needs, and the wellbeing of women. I believe that in achieving university status as a co-ed institution we have experienced our third founding, though perhaps “re-founding” or “transformation” is a better term.

Physician Assistant students at Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences, which opened in 2014

I have mentioned five names of persons who can be thought of as our founders or re-founders: Rufus Bailey, Mary Julia Baldwin, Agnes McClung, Martha Grafton, and Sam Spencer. There are hundreds who could be named and honored, too many for this talk. But before I conclude I should add three. They are the women who have served as presidents during the 40-year journey to university status and whose vision and leadership have done so much to shape this amazing institution: Virginia Lester (1976–85), Cynthia Haldenby Tyson (1985–2003), and Pamela Fox (2003 until — I hope — a long, long time from now).

Mary Baldwin presidents (l-r) Virginia Lester, Cynthia Tyson, and Pamela Fox

A lot has changed since 1842 and our first founding, and Rufus Bailey would be astonished if he could see what his small school has become. But I know he would find our current mission statement, though expressed in the language of the 21st century, true to his 19th century vision:

Mary Baldwin empowers leaders to pursue lives of purpose in a changing world. As a distinctive small university committed to its rich heritage as an inclusive, women-centered liberal arts college, Mary Baldwin fulfills its mission by providing undergraduate, graduate, and professional education to a diverse population of women and men. It emphasizes high ethical standards and the development of critical, creative, and reflective reasoning as the foundation for fulfilling, engaged, and meaningful lives.

My hope and expectation for Mary Baldwin University are that it continues to thrive by staying firmly grounded in its traditions and values while boldly moving into its exciting future.

New MBU students gather at orientation.

I am indebted to Patricia Menk’s history of Mary Baldwin, To Live in Time (Verona VA: Mid-Valley Press, 1992), for much of the information about the earlier years of the institution.

James Lott, dean emeritus and professor emeritus of English, delivered the keynote speech at Founders Day Convocation on October 3, 2019, at First Presbyterian Church, Staunton.