History of the College

From modest beginnings in the rented basement of a Hartford church, Trinity has become one of the nation’s leading independent liberal arts colleges.

The College was founded in May of 1823 as Washington College (the name was changed in 1845). It was only the second college in Connecticut, and its founding marked the climax of a 35-year struggle by the state’s Episcopalians to break the educational monopoly of Congregationalist-controlled Yale. The Connecticut General Assembly decision to charter the College reflected the same forces of religious diversity and toleration that had caused it to disestablish Congregationalism as the official state church five years earlier. Appropriately, the charter prohibited the imposition of any religious test on any student, faculty member, or other member of the College.

The trustees’ decision to locate the College in Hartford, instead of in New Haven or Middletown, resulted from the greater support of Hartford residents for the fledgling institution. In addition to substantial monetary gifts from such prominent merchants as Charles Sigourney and Samuel Tudor, Jr., offers of assistance came from scores of laborers, artisans, and shopkeepers. Typical pledges included those of Samuel Allen, a stonemason, who provided 10 dollars’ worth of labor, and James M. Goodwin, who promised $150 worth of groceries. Such strong support from the Hartford community has continued throughout Trinity’s history.

Nine students attended the College when classes opened on September 23, 1824—six freshmen, one sophomore, one senior, and one young man who was not ranked. The faculty numbered six—the president, Bishop Thomas C. Brownell, who taught natural and moral philosophy; a tutor in Greek and Latin; and professors of belles lettres and oratory, agriculture and political economy, chemistry and mineralogy, and botany. The presence of the two latter professors attests that Trinity, unlike many early 19th-century colleges, was committed to the natural sciences as well as the classical curriculum. This commitment characterizes the College to the present day.

A year after opening, Trinity moved to its first campus—two Greek Revival-style buildings on an elevated tract of land now occupied by the Connecticut State Capitol. Within a few years the student body had grown to nearly 100, a size that it rarely exceeded until the 20th century.

Undergraduate life was arduous during the College’s early history—students arose for prayers at 6:00 a.m. (5:30 during the summer semester), and classes began at 6:30. Because most students entered the College at age 15 or 16, the faculty attempted to regulate their behavior strictly. Students were forbidden to gamble, to drink intoxicating beverages, to throw objects from the windows of College buildings, to engage in any sort of merrymaking without faculty permission, and so forth. One regulation prohibited students from keeping a sword in their rooms—a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that the pre-Civil War student body included many “chivalrous” young men from the Southern states. Of course, the regulations were not always scrupulously observed, and in his history of Trinity, the late Professor Glenn Weaver found several instances of riotous student behavior. On one occasion in the late 1820s, the students barricaded themselves within the College, forcing President Brownell to batten down the door with a fence post. A favorite end-of-semester practice was to conduct a ritual burning of the textbook used in some required course which students had found especially onerous. (The course in “Conic Sections” was often singled out for this treatment.)

In 1872 Trinity took an important step toward the future when it sold the “College Hill” campus to the City of Hartford to provide a site for a new State Capitol. Six years later, the College moved to its present location. Bounded on the west by an escarpment and on the east by gently sloping fields, the new site had been known in the 18th century as Gallows Hill. (Local legend has it that several Tories were hanged here during the Revolution.) The Trustees chose William Burges, the distinguished English architect, to design the new campus. Influenced by the architecture of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges, Burges proposed an elaborate scheme of four enclosed quadrangles extending north and south from a massive Gothic chapel. Financial and other considerations made it impossible to implement most of Burges’ plan, but Jarvis and Seabury Halls (completed in 1878) and Northam Towers (1881) bear his distinctive stamp. Generally viewed as the earliest examples of “collegiate Gothic” architecture in the United States, these buildings were to exert an important influence on academic architecture for several decades to come. Together with the imposing Gothic chapel, completed in 1932, they are a compelling reminder of the medieval origins of collegiate institutions.

The late 19th century was a seminal period in the history of American higher education. Not only did the modern university begin to emerge, but many undergraduate colleges sought to recast their curricula and institutional practices in forms more appropriate to a rapidly industrializing society. The forces of change were seen at Trinity in the increased proportion of Ph.D.s on the faculty, the introduction of more electives into the curriculum, the addition of a program in biology, the strengthening of the other natural sciences, and the doubling of the number of library holdings. There was also talk of transforming Trinity into a university. But as had been true of earlier proposals to establish schools of medicine, law, and theology, nothing came of this plan. Thus the College’s commitment to undergraduate liberal arts education was reaffirmed.

Another significant development in the late 19th century was the movement to loosen Trinity’s traditional ties with the Episcopal Church. Although never a “church school,” Trinity was closely linked with the Diocese of Connecticut, particularly after 1849 when the bishop of Connecticut was made ex officio chancellor of the College. The charter was amended in 1889 to end this practice, an important step in the secularization of the College. Secularization proceeded apace throughout the 20th century. Today a substantial majority of undergraduates comes from non-Episcopalian traditions, but the College still values its Episcopal heritage.

The achievements of the 1880s and ’90s notwithstanding, difficulties marked the early years of the new century, in part because of the notoriety brought by the faculty’s 1899 decision to suspend the entire sophomore class for six weeks as punishment for the brutal hazing of freshmen. Enrollments declined sharply (only six students graduated in the Class of 1904), and the College began to look increasingly to the Hartford area for many of its undergraduates. For a while it seemed that Trinity’s destiny might be strictly regional. In the late 1920s, however, the College began to reestablish itself as a national institution. In 1929, the trustees fixed 500 as the ideal size of the student body and directed that applicants be sought from all parts of the country. Admissions standards were raised and financial aid expanded.

Although the Great Depression entailed severe hardships for many colleges, the 1930s were years of growth for Trinity. The faculty expanded steadily and the student body surpassed 500 in 1936. Four residence halls were added, as well as the Clement Chemistry Building and the Chapel. Rapid growth continued after World War II. In 2010, Trinity had a total enrollment of 2,312 traditional undergraduates and a faculty of 193 full-time professors.

The 20th century saw the construction of an architecturally eclectic collection of buildings, among them the library, Downes Memorial Clock Tower, Mather Campus Center, McCook Academic Building, the Austin Arts Center, the George M. Ferris Athletic Center, the Albert C. Jacobs Life Sciences Center, and, more recently, the Koeppel Student Center, Hansen Hall, the Vernon Social Center, several additional dormitories, and a computer science-engineering-mathematics facility that opened in January 1991. A master plan for further campus renovation and expansion resulted in the new Summit dormitory complex that opened in 2000, a major enlargement and technological upgrade of the Library—now the Raether Library and Information Technology Center—completed in the spring of 2003, and a new admissions and career development building. Even as it moved forward, the College never forgot its origins. In August 2008, it completed a major renovation of the two oldest campus buildings, Jarvis and Seabury Halls, carefully restoring and preserving their historic exteriors while modernizing the classrooms, faculty offices, and residential spaces within.

Of course, a college is much more than enrollment statistics, or faculty size, or bricks and mortar. In an age of constant social and intellectual transformation, a college must be a living community that can respond imaginatively to changing circumstances, while preserving pertinent parts of its heritage. Thus, innovation, tempered by a respect for the past, has been the hallmark of Trinity’s recent history. Curricular reforms have reinvigorated the liberal arts tradition by restating it in terms that speak to the concerns of men and women whose lives and careers will continue well into the 21st century. Students have been given an enlarged voice in institutional decision-making and governance through the addition of their elected representatives to various faculty and trustee committees. An institutional Common Hour was scheduled in the fall of 2008. The Common Hour is designed for events and gatherings that will interest the entire College community, from students to faculty and administration. Scheduled on Thursdays from 12:15 to 1:20 p.m., it is a time for the entire College community to come together as a true academic family. The Thursday Common Hour was so successful that the same time slot has been set aside in the Tuesday schedule for meetings and presentations.

In 1968, Trinity made a commitment to the admission of a substantially larger number of African-American and other minority students. Less than a year later, the Trustees voted to admit women as undergraduates for the first time in the College’s history. For the first five years of coeducation, male enrollment was held at a minimum of 1,000. But in January 1974, the trustees abolished this guideline so that henceforth gender would not be a criterion of admission any more than race, religion, or national origin. In September 1984, Trinity passed a milestone when it enrolled the first entering class in its history in which women outnumbered men. Coincident with these developments, the College has acted to increase the number of women and minority group members on the faculty and in the administration. Approximately 200 older, nonresident students also pursue the Trinity bachelor’s degree through the Individualized Degree Program, established in the early 1970s.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Trinity continued to adjust its practices and programs in accordance with changing academic values and student needs. The nature and quality of social and extracurricular life were a subject of considerable discussion. While faculty members vigorously pursued their research and creative projects, there was no lessening of the traditional emphasis on excellence in teaching. In fact, the two activities are inextricably linked; serious commitment to scholarship betokens the kind of intellectual vitality that is essential to effective classroom instruction. Moreover, a college of Trinity’s stature believes the faculty is obligated not only to convey existing knowledge to students but also to be energetically engaged in the pursuit of new knowledge.

In the curricular area, the faculty voted to approve new majors in theater and dance, computer science, neuroscience, public policy studies (now public policy and law), anthropology, educational studies, and, most recently, environmental science. The faculty also established a program in women’s studies to ensure that scholarship by and about women is diffused throughout the curriculum, and in 1992 created a major in women’s studies, which in 2002 was reconfigured as a major in women, gender, and sexuality. The program of student internships, begun in the late 1960s, was greatly expanded and now takes advantage of Trinity’s urban location by placing students in state and local government offices, business and financial institutions, social agencies, museums, and the like. Through internships, undergraduates integrate practical fieldwork with academic study under the supervision of a faculty member, thereby testing theoretical and conceptual perspectives, at the same time exploring possible career interests. Beginning in the later 1990s, numerous other measures were adopted that use Hartford as a richly varied educational resource, including the Community Learning Initiative, which links courses to the neighborhoods surrounding the campus through research and service projects. Increased attention is also devoted to international and global issues, and a network of “global learning sites” has been established in cities around the world, among them Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Vienna, and Paris. These sites join the campus Trinity has maintained in Rome since 1970.

The College’s “open” curriculum, adopted in 1969, was the subject of growing debate as the 1980s advanced. In 1983, 1984, and again in 1985, faculty committees put forward detailed plans for curricular innovation, including the establishment of non-major requirements. Though they differed in important particulars, these plans shared a concern for writing and quantitative skills, breadth of study, and interdisciplinary study. Early in 1986, the faculty gave final approval to a package of curricular reforms that took effect with the class entering in the fall of 1988. These included requirements in writing and mathematical proficiency and the integration of knowledge across at least three disciplines. (The latter requirement was discontinued in 1997, but the curriculum continues to have a distinct interdisciplinary flavor.) In the spring of 1987, the faculty voted to supplement these measures with a modest distribution requirement designed to ensure suitable breadth in every student’s program of study. The curriculum changed again in April of 2007, when the faculty voted to adopt several additional general education requirements, including a first-year seminar requirement, a two-course writing intensive requirement, a global engagement requirement, and a second-language foundational requirement, all of which took effect with students matriculating in the fall of 2008.

Under new presidential leadership, the College began in 1995 to devote greatly increased attention to the needs of the surrounding neighborhoods, which were troubled by many of the social and economic problems typical of late-20th-century American cities. In partnership with the nearby Hartford Hospital, Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, Institute of Living, and Connecticut Public Television and Radio and with strong government support at the municipal, state, and federal levels, Trinity launched a multifaceted neighborhood revitalization initiative that attracted national attention and received backing from the business community and major foundations. The goal was to enhance educational and home-ownership opportunities for local residents and to generate new economic activity in a 15-square-block area adjacent to the campus. Central to this project is the Learning Corridor, which opened in September of 2000 and includes a public, Montessori-style elementary school, a new neighborhood middle school, a math-science high school resource center to serve suburban as well as Hartford young people and teachers, the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, and the first Boys and Girls Club in the country to be located at a college. Trinity students have numerous opportunities to engage in volunteer work, internships, and research projects in conjunction with these institutions and other elements of the neighborhood initiative, as do members of the faculty. Simultaneously, a “Smart Neighborhood” initiative made Trinity’s state-of-the-art computing resources available to local civic organizations and others.

Amidst all the changes of recent decades, Trinity has maintained its bedrock commitment to liberal education—a commitment founded on the conviction that through rigorous engagement with the liberal arts, students can best discover their strengths, develop their individual potential, and prepare themselves for personally satisfying, civically responsible, and socially useful lives. Periodic reviews of the curriculum as a whole, as well as of individual academic departments and programs, help ensure the continued vitality of liberal learning. The same is true of a comprehensive “Cornerstones” planning project initiated by President James F. Jones, Jr., shortly after he took office in July 2004—a project that is shaping the College’s academic and other priorities as it moves into the second decade of the 21st century.