Lawrence, like the city of Appleton in which it is situated, owes its origins to the perseverance of frontier ministers and to the philanthropy of wealthy Bostonians. In 1847, the Boston merchant Amos A. Lawrence commissioned Rev. William Harkness Sampson, Rev. Henry Root Colman, and Rev. Reeder Smith to establish a school on land he owned in the Wisconsin Territory. Lawrence pledged $10,000 to endow the school, on condition that the Methodists, represented by Sampson and Colman, match his gift. Even before the money could be raised, the Territorial Legislature, on January 15, 1847, granted a charter to Lawrence Institute, a name that was changed to Lawrence University when classes first began on November 12, 1849.
The Early Years
During its first 40 years Lawrence struggled with the problems of a developing frontier: the failure of wheat crops, the disruptions of the Civil War, and the chaos of financial panics. Through it all, seven different college administrations held fast to the tenets of a strong classical education. The early curriculum, though constrictive by today’s standards, was, on the whole, rather broad for the time, and the alumni of that era attained distinguished careers in education, business, the ministry, law and politics.
The return of Dr. Samuel Plantz to his alma mater as president in 1894 marked a turning point for Lawrence. During his 30-year administration, the student body grew from 200 to 800; the faculty increased from nine to 68; the endowment grew from less than $100,000 to $2,000,000; and the physical plant was enhanced by the construction of eight major buildings. During these years, Lawrence’s pursuit of academic excellence was reflected in the selection of its first Rhodes Scholar in 1904 and the establishment of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1914.
During Plantz’s administration, the Conservatory of Music came into its own as a separate part of the university with the addition of six faculty members, the introduction of curricular offerings in public school music and music history and the acquisition of a building devoted exclusively to music instruction.
In 1913, the institution adopted the name Lawrence College to underscore its commitment to undergraduate liberal education. That commitment received further articulation during the administration of President Henry Merritt Wriston (1925-37), when the college charted a course that it has followed faithfully to the present day. In the words of the catalog of 1934, “The ultimate purpose of liberal education at Lawrence is the establishment and improvement of standards—standards of thought and expression, of taste and interest, of character and ethics, of health and sane living.”
While holding fast to these enduring goals of liberal education, Lawrence continually has reassessed and reshaped its academic program in response to the changing contours of knowledge and changing views on the nature of learning. The tutorial system, first instituted by President Wriston, has blossomed into a wide range of options for independent learning. Freshman Studies, introduced by President Nathan Marsh Pusey (1944-53), today remains a distinctive expression of the commitment of the entire Lawrence community to the examination of ideas of abiding importance.
With the introduction of a number of overseas programs in the 1960s, Lawrence enhanced its ability to broaden the horizons of its students through direct contact with other societies. The recent appearance in the curriculum of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary offerings in biomedical ethics, cognitive science, East Asian Studies, Environmental Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Gender Studies, among others, reflects a concern that new knowledge be available to Lawrence students along with the traditional courses in the arts and sciences.
Consolidation with Milwaukee-Downer College
Under the leadership of President Curtis W. Tarr (1963-69), Lawrence once again assumed the name Lawrence University, when it was consolidated in 1964 with Milwaukee-Downer College for Women. Milwaukee-Downer, named in honor of its trustee and benefactor, Jason Downer, was itself the product of a merger in 1895 between Milwaukee Female College and Downer College of Fox Lake. Both schools had pioneered in the education of women, and Milwaukee Female College had benefited early on from the interest of Catharine Beecher, a sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who provided the institution with an advanced program of high educational standards.