As Xavier University plans to celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2006, its future has never been more promising. The University is entering a new epoch, a novel and distinctive phase in its history. It is undertaking a major transformation in the way it conducts teaching and learning, in the way it relates with its external communities and in the way members of the University community relate with one another. While it is carving out new and fresh directions, the institution is also rekindling its rich Catholic and Jesuit tradition. Indeed, Xavier University has a story to tell.
This saga traces the University’s beginning in 1831 to its present distinct place within the gallery of American colleges and universities. Its story is one of constant change and adaptation. In every period of its history, the University has been influenced by the growth, flux and ferment in society. The expansion from a small downtown college numbering fewer than 200 students in 1831 to an urban university with an enrollment of more than 6,600 involved more than geographical expansion, physical growth and academic development. Xavier’s history is an account of the adventures of the institution—its ups and downs, its wanderings, trials and accomplishments.
While the University’s narrative reflects a series of struggles, challenges and ordeals, it is also an account of considerable achievement in higher education. It also takes into account Xavier’s own unique combination of institutional prerogatives. Throughout its 175 years it has encountered new constituencies and engaged in new tasks. It has stretched its resources to support new ventures. Through it all, it affirmed and sustained its Catholic and Jesuit heritage.
Like Xavier, most of the colleges and universities founded in the United States before the 20th century had a strongly religious character. Most of these institutions, which were usually Protestant Christian, have no significant religious identity today. In the wake of the Civil War, the leading individuals in these institutions subscribed to the idea of creating a national, nonsectarian Protestant public culture. As the institutions became more secular, religious sentiment became identified more with public service, religious beliefs became more the object of scientific study and many of the institutions abandoned any legal relationship to the founding denominations.
In contrast, Xavier’s history, like many other Catholic, Jesuit colleges and universities, is characterized by its growth as a multi-purpose institution that continued to add functions and responsibilities without disregarding older commitments to its Catholic, Jesuit identity. One of the most formidable challenges faced by Xavier was adapting its European Jesuit educational heritage to an American milieu, to the realities of American life. Maintaining a balance between those two dynamics was—and continues to be—a central theme of the Xavier saga. While it remained committed to its religious and educational tradition, the University always proved flexible enough to provide the education essential to the needs and dreams of its students and to the needs of potential employers. In the process, it always attracted students from less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds.
Significantly, 12 moments proved pivotal in the history of the University. Each one reflected a turning point in the life of the institution. The first came in 1840 when, upon the invitation of Bishop John Baptist Purcell of Cincinnati, the Society of Jesus assumed control of the diocesan College, called the Athenaeum, and renamed it St. Xavier College.
Second, when the Jesuits in 1850, in the face of financial difficulties, considered abandoning the College and decided instead to close the boarding school and conduct a day college only.
A third occurred in December 1888 when two dozen alumni formed the alumni association to assist the College in its work. Over time, it proved to be an enduring source of support and strength to the College.
A fourth turn of events took place in 1911 when Jesuit officials bought 26.7 acres of property in Avondale, on the eastern edge of Cincinnati, to move the College from its downtown location. In the 1920s, six buildings of the Tudor Gothic type of architecture were erected and, in 1930, St. Xavier College became Xavier University. The new campus and name change significantly altered the identity of the institution.
The fifth pivotal moment occurred when the University, in the wake of the economic depression of the 1930s and World War II, saw its enrollment increase substantially with the return of the war veterans, established a graduate school and began expanding its facilities.
A sixth key event is when University officials, in the midst of surging enrollments, affirmed the institution’s long-established Jesuit commitment to its classical course of studies by establishing in 1948 the Honors Bachelor of Arts program, Xavier’s first honors program. The seventh telling moment witnessed, from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, the modernization and unprecedented expansion of the University. Under the guidance of President Paul L. O’Connor, S.J., the University saw a huge expansion in enrollments, especially at the graduate level, a corresponding expansion in the number of lay faculty, growth and diversification of academic programs, and the erection of eight new buildings on campus.
From 1969 to 1972, three significant changes mark the eighth special moment. During this period the University became fully coeducational, the board of trustees elected six laymen to the board and the trustees launched the first capital campaign in the history of the institution.
The ninth pivotal moment was when the University in the late 1970s and early 1980s acquired properties on Ledgewood Drive and Herald Avenue, on the eastern side of campus, and purchased Edgecliff College, formerly Our Lady of Cincinnati, from the Sisters of Mercy. While the new properties opened up opportunities for future expansion, the acquisition of Edgecliff College enabled the University to broaden and enrich its course of studies.
In 1979, six years after the University dropped football from its intercollegiate sports, Xavier successfully invigorated its athletic program by making a pledge to build a competitive national level Division I men’s basketball program as well as comply fully with federal guidelines for women’s athletics under Title IX. That 10thpivotal moment and commitment not only helped increase the quality of Xavier athletics but helped increase the national visibility of the University.
The 11th key moment consisted of the University’s conscious decision in the late 1980s to initiate and foster greater collaboration among Jesuits and the lay people to help sustain and nurture Xavier’s Jesuit identity and the decision by the board of trustees in 1990 to establish a permanent Jesuit Identity Committee to maintain and promote the Jesuit character of the University.
Significantly, under the leadership of President James E. Hoff, S.J., the University in the 1990s, by raising its “sights and expectations,” witnessed not only significant renovation and physical growth as well as the most successful comprehensive financial campaign in its history, but a dramatic, unprecedented change in its self-esteem and stature.
Building upon Hoff’s foundation and inspirational legacy, in 2001 the trustees and new University President Michael J. Graham, S.J., helped launch what promised to be an academic renaissance, potentially the 13th pivotal moment.
As the University celebrates its 175th anniversary, it acknowledges proudly its tradition. It is clear about what it is, where it has been and where it wants to go. In its own special way, each generation of faculty, students, administrators, alumni, trustees and friends has sought to retrieve and reinvigorate the sacred values of the University’s Catholic, Jesuit traditions and bring them in line with the challenges and demands of their times.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it cared about its local reputation. Throughout much of the 20th century, it carefully built up and tended to St. Xavier College’s and later the University’s regional and national reputation. In more recent years, Xavier programs have attracted even greater public attention to the University. That has become a permanent part of the University’s governing strategy. But the commitment and dedication of its people have been, and continue to be, the strength of Xavier University. Without the support of the trustees, administrative and support staff, faculty, alumni and other friends of the University, Xavier would not be what it is today.
Excerpted from To See Great Wonders: A History of Xavier University, 1831-2006 by academic vice president and provost Roger Fortin . The book will be published by the University of Scranton Press in August 2006.