George Atherton: Patron Saint of Penn State

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If you increase your college’s enrollment by 1,129 percent during your tenure as president, you deserve a statue and a grave right there on campus. George Atherton both notched this achievement and received this honor, presiding over Pennsylvania State University from 1882 to 1906 before becoming a permanent installation on the north side of the Schwab Auditorium.

Admittedly, the graduating class in Atherton’s first year was made up of just seven students. But still, it was his vision as president that truly helped to transform a tiny agricultural college into an academic powerhouse. (It may also bear noting that Penn State fielded its first official football team the very same year that Atherton took office).

Atherton stewarded Penn State in its fledgling years as a land-grant college, ushering in academic innovations that not only redefined his university but also served as a model for countless others.

If you’re wondering why Penn State so routinely ranks at the top of our lists here at The Best Schools, the tradition inspired by Atherton is at least a partial answer. Atherton was only 45 when he took office at Penn State, but he had already amassed a lifetime of admirable achievements.

From Cotton Mill to Captain

George Atherton was born in Boxford, Massachusetts, in 1837. His father died when George was just 12, making him the primary earner for his family. He supported his widowed mother by working on a farm and at a cotton mill. As with most cotton millers, the logical next step for George was Yale University. His studies were interrupted only by his service to the Union Army in the Civil War, where he quickly rose to the rank of captain before ill health forced him off the battlefield. He returned to Yale and graduated in 1863.

Atherton spent the next several years putting some serious meat into his résumé, first teaching at the Albany Academy in New York, then serving on the University of Illinois faculty, and subsequently becoming a political science professor at Rutgers University. He also earned a law degree and undertook a spirited but unsuccessful bid to be elected a New Jersey congressional representative.

Farmers High School

George Atherton was already well respected in academic circles when he arrived at Penn State. The college itself was only beginning to nurture its reputation. One thing Atherton and Penn State had in common — they both came from humble beginnings.

Founded as the Farmers High School in 1855 (and renamed the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania in 1862), Penn State spent its first several decades serving the agrarian education needs of Centre County.

The year 1863 saw enactment of the Morrill Land-Grant Act, and with it, sweeping change to the landscape of higher education. The small agricultural college with big aspirations transformed itself into the only land-grant college in the state of Pennsylvania.

Sadly, the transformation was not met with great excitement in the halls of the state capitol. Its first two decades as the State College of Pennsylvania were marked by a downward spiral in enrollment, minuscule funding appropriations, and state-level threats to slash what little staffing and facilities did exist.

Atherton Arrives

When the board of trustees installed George Atherton as the school’s seventh president, Penn State was languishing. It’s impossible to overstate the transformative effect that Atherton would have on his school, and almost immediately at that.

He fought, sometimes bitterly, with state leadership to recalibrate the school’s mission and orientation. Atherton foresaw the importance of preparing students for a rapidly industrializing nation. As America moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial one, Atherton pushed hard for Penn State to recast itself as a technical school, one that celebrated a classical education but made it secondary to the development of applicable skills, most particularly as an alternative to the former preeminence of agricultural studies.

In the face of a resistant governor, meager funding, and angry farmers (seriously), Atherton had the brilliant idea to undertake a massive (for the time) public relations campaign designed to raise the profile and reputation of Penn State while also signaling a change in the school’s direction. In less than a decade, Atherton had recast Penn State as one of the top ten engineering colleges in the nation.

A Campus Blossoms

As enrollment grew around him, Atherton gained the full confidence of the school’s trustees. Yet more transformative changes followed, including the development of a full liberal arts curriculum, the expansion of the school’s library, and the segmentation of the university into seven distinct colleges. Atherton also installed deans to head academic departments for the first time, and personally oversaw the development of summer school, correspondence courses, and mechanical skills programs.

Atherton was well-liked by students too, in spite of the fact that his military background predisposed the university to fairly rigid rules of conduct (we’re guessing the non-ROTC students among you wouldn’t be too keen on random room inspections or artillery drills). But then, it was also under Atherton’s watch that fraternities first arrived at Penn State, that the football program got in gear, and that construction began for Beaver Field. His tenure also saw the founding of the school’s first student newspaper, yearbook, marching band, and theatre troupes.

In 1875, Penn State dropped the word “agriculture” from its name, and enrollment bottomed out at 64 undergraduate students. Atherton took over in 1882. By 1906 — when Atherton passed away while still holding office — Penn State’s student body was 800 strong.

As long as we’re hitting you with impressive numbers, Penn State boasts around 46,000 undergraduates today. That’s a solid century of growth right there.

When Atherton departed us, he was a revered figure. While Penn State still had decades to go before it would emerge as one of America’s finest public universities, Atherton set in motion everything that would ultimately come to pass.

It was perhaps best said by Penn State’s dean of the School of Language and Literature, Benjamin Gill, who praised Atherton for seeing “from the first not the college that was, but the college that was to be”.

To learn more about the academic traditions made possible by the great George Atherton, check out the following lists. Penn State tops all of them!

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