What you need to know about CWRU’s history

A tale of two universities


Courtesy of Edward Kuekes/The Plain Dealer

Editorial cartoon in The Plain Dealer on Jan. 6, 1966, anticipating the consolidation of the Case Institute of Technology and the Western Reserve University

Shreyas Banerjee, Executive Editor

Case Western Reserve University is an institution that tends to always look forward toward the future. We are always growing and focusing on new endeavors, new research initiatives and new modes of education. This is a good thing—universities should be places of change and be constantly evolving. However, this does not mean that we cannot look back on the history of our institution because much of it informs our present and determines to some extent what identity we all have as a university. There is much to learn from the stories of those who came before us and there is also much to be proud of. It also helps that CWRU’s history is endlessly fascinating. Unlike most universities, we are not one thing, but rather a conglomeration of many things and many identities. To celebrate this Homecoming weekend, we here at The Observer have compiled a brief history of CWRU following much research perusing the archives, reading books and talking to our university archivists and historians. Through this endeavor, we hope that both students and alumni will be able to learn and gain an appreciation for the essentials of their university’s history.

We may have the clunkiest name of any university in the United States, but it’s for a good reason. In 1967 Case Western Reserve University was formed following the union of Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University, and the federation brought together both of the universities’ histories and values in an uneasy union. Both institutions had long histories and had been linked together almost since the beginning. 

Our university’s story began in 1826 when the Western Reserve College was founded in the village of Hudson, Ohio following the work of the town’s founder, David Hudson, to bring a university to the area. Hudson is 30 miles southeast of Cleveland and though looking back you would think that it makes more sense to locate the university in a bigger city from the beginning, it was a pragmatic decision. In the 1820s, Hudson wasn’t too much smaller than Cleveland, with both having populations just in the hundreds. It was not certain that Cleveland would become the metropolis it is today. Additionally, with most of Ohio’s population more concentrated in the southern and central areas of the state, Hudson allowed for greater proximity to more potential students. There was also the matter of protecting the students of Western Reserve from the unsavory sorts that would frequent the lake port of Cleveland, such as foul-mouthed sailors who might corrupt the minds of the youth. Western Reserve was largely modeled on Yale University, from the architecture to the curriculum. The first teacher, Ephraim Sturtevant, was a Yale alumnus and taught all 23 students that made up the first class of Western Reserve.

Hudson, and consequently Western Reserve, was also a hotbed of anti-slavery sentiments. Hudson was a stop on the Underground Railroad, with many people involved in Western Reserve College being active in the operation of it. This included David Hudson and Owen Brown, who was also the father of John Brown—the leader of the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry to free slaves by force. There was much debate at the time over whether those in the town and the college should be colonizationists, who advocated for returning emancipated slaves and free Black Americans in Africa, or abolitionists, who believed in the peaceful coexistence between races post-emancipation. Some of this debate played out between professors and students through letters and editorials in the 1830s Hudson newspaper, The Observer and Telegraph—the paper that we, The Observer, are named after. Most of Hudson and Western Reserve were originally colonizationists, but things started to change when Western Reserve’s first president, Rev. Charles Storrs, was converted to abolitionism after a student at the college gave him a copy of William Lloyd Garrison’s influential abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. This conversion led to much controversy and conflict between Storrs and the board of trustees of Western Reserve, and the debate continued for decades, though the town and college was united in disgust of slavery. Famed abolitionist and former slave Fredrick Douglass gave the annual commencement address at Western Reserve College in 1854 and spoke on the necessity of considering all races to be truly equal, punctuating just how big of a center of anti-slavery we were at the time. Western Reserve College graduated John Sykes Fayette, its first Black student, in 1836, far earlier than many other peer institutions. Western Reserve founded its medical school in 1843 in Cleveland, Ohio, foreshadowing the future move of the entire institution. Between 1852 and 1856, the medical school graduated six of the first seven women to ever receive a medical degree from a U.S. institution, though soon after women would soon again be banned for a time.

When the Civil War finally began in the United States in the 1860s, Western Reserve mobilized, with the college forming a company of students who joined the Union army, led and trained by physics professor Charles A. Young and philosophy instructor Carroll Cutler, who acted as captain and lieutenant of the company, respectively. Cutler would later become the president of Western Reserve in 1871. In his inaugural speech, he announced that Western Reserve would admit female students immediately and treat them equally to the male students, much to the surprise of the college’s faculty and trustees. Under his tenure, Western Reserve College moved to Cleveland thanks to the financial support of Amasa Stone, a railroad industrialist. The move occurred in 1882, with Stone’s gift happening under the condition that the school be renamed to the Adelbert College of Western Reserve University. Adelbert was Stone’s son who had tragically died in a drowning accident during his time at Yale at the age of 21. The College for Women at Western Reserve would later be named after Stone’s daughter, Flora Stone Mather, literally making them brother and sister institutions. Amasa Stone would take his own life in 1883 in his mansion on Euclid Ave.

At the same time, Leonard Case Jr., the son of a local politician and real estate investor, resided in his family property in downtown Cleveland. He and his friends often met there and were avid naturalists. During their meetings they discussed the geology, plant and animal life of northeast Ohio and showed off their respective collections of flora and fauna, almost like a geeky club. They named their building the Ark and referred to themselves as Arkites, after Noah’s biblical ark. It was out of this interest in the natural sciences that Case was inspired to create an institution of scientific learning, and he started secretly assembling real estate in downtown Cleveland, along with funds needed to start a new university. Upon his death in 1880, the trust was revealed and the Case School of Applied Science was founded. Soon thereafter, Case moved from downtown to the neighborhood that would become University Circle, right next to Western Reserve University, thanks to Amasa Stone’s financial gift. It has been theorized that Stone’s gift of additional land for the Case School to move next to Western Reserve was a move to overshadow Case, as they had both clashed in earlier years. Since then, the two institutions have been irrevocably linked.

Soon after their respective moves, collaboration between the two universities in some form or another soon took place. Famously, Western Reserve faculty member Edward W. Morley and Case faculty member Albert A. Michelson worked together in 1887 on an experiment to determine the speed of light passing through different mediums. Though it was considered a failure at the time, the data from the experiment was later used to inform Einstein’s theory of relativity in 1905, making it one of the most important physics experiments of all time. The two scientists worked together in Morley’s laboratory in Adelbert College. Part of this collaboration may have come about after the Case Main Building was destroyed in a fire in 1886, leading to Michelson coming to Morley’s facilities in Adelbert at Western Reserve. Funnily enough, the Adelbert Main Building would be destroyed in a fire a century later in 1991.

Though there was collaboration between the two universities, there was also a deep rivalry, as indicated by a literal fence that split the campus between Western Reserve on the north side and the Case School on the south side. The two competed in everything from dating, to clubs, to football. Games between the two teams, the Case Pioneers—later the Rough Riders—and the Western Reserve Red Cats would often draw crowds in the thousands, with the teams being forced to use stadiums in downtown Cleveland that were also used by professional sports teams such as the Indians. The two schools called each other “poets,” after Western Reserve’s association with the humanities, and “plumbers,” after Case’s predominance of engineering education. Western Reserve beat Case 40 times over the years, compared to Case’s 19 victories.

At the same time, the universities greatly expanded, corresponding with the rise of the city of Cleveland. Under President Charles Thwing’s tenure, which stretched 31 years between 1890 and 1921, Western Reserve expanded greatly, seeing the creation of schools of library science, social work, law, dentistry, pharmacy, education and graduate studies. Thwing was also a founding member of the organization that would become the NAACP, indicating that the progressive streak of the institution still remained. The Case School would make a move to offer doctorate degrees in 1929 under President William Wickenden, who was also extremely influential in redefining engineering education across the U.S. He was also among the first to encourage the two universities to join together someday. The universities briefly collaborated in 1925 to form the Cleveland College, a downtown center of higher learning which provided part-time education for adult students, akin to a community college. However, Case would drop out of the association in 1926, leading to the College to be solely associated with Western Reserve University.

Growth across both universities slowed during the Great Depression but rebounded following World War II and the G.I. Bill. In the 1940s, the Cleveland College actually saw higher enrollment than the rest of Western Reserve University, though that changed in the ‘50s, leading to the college being moved to University Circle and eventually reincorporated into Western Reserve. Meanwhile the Case School of Applied Science renamed themselves to the Case Institute of Technology in 1947 and admitted their first undergraduate class of women during the war under a temporary policy, though this was reversed once combat ended. Case wouldn’t start admitting women under regular undergraduate admission until 1960, under Kent Hale Smith, the acting president at the time.

It was around this time that the federation between the two universities started coming together. Though the two were still strongly competitive between each other, they had started making changes to meld together slowly over time, including sharing a common academic calendar, cross-registration between the two universities, shared facilities and cooperative academic programs. The final push came when the two universities each applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), an agency of the U.S. government that supports scientific research and education. The NSF was unwilling to give grants to both universities as they were so closely intertwined, thereby encouraging the two to merge. The two presidents at the time, John Millis of Western Reserve and Robert Morse of the Case Institute, pushed for the endeavor, with Millis saying that “We’ve been going together for about 19 years; we’ve been sleeping together for about five years—and it’s about time we got married.”

The federation occurred in 1967 quickly and suddenly, though it would take many more years for the two universities to completely become one institution, with much controversy. The two continued to play football games against each other until 1970 due to pre-existing agreements with their athletic conference, leading to CWRU students parading the sidelines with signs that read “If We Win We Lose, If We Lose We Win!” Eventually the two football teams merged and the new team selected the “Spartans” as their new team name—jokingly said to be a reference to the university’s “spartan” practice facilities. It was a shock for students, one almost tantamount to if Ohio State University and the University of Michigan suddenly decided to become one institution. Though The Observer was formed in 1969 with staff from both The Reserve Tribune and The Case Tech newspapers, The Case Tech refused to shut down operations for a number of years. Students continued to be divided between Case and Western Reserve for decades—the residence halls did not become fully integrated between the two schools until the 1990s. 

The university would face a number of financial challenges over the decades, due in part to the decrease in admissions after the Baby Boom of the ‘50s and ‘60s fell off and alumni stopped giving as much financial support following the federation. The conflict between the legacies of the two universities would come to a head in 2003 when CWRU famously tried to rebrand to simply “Case,” under the direction of President Edward Hundert, a newcomer to the university. This move led to massive backlash from Western Reserve alumni and a steep fall in financial gifts. Hundert also had a controversial and secretive leadership style, along with a “Vision Plan” that seemed unrealistic considering the financial situation of the university. In 2006, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences held a vote of no confidence in his leadership, leading to his subsequent resignation.

CWRU remained financially weak until the presidency of Barbara Snyder, the first female president of the university. She spearheaded the 2011 “Forward Thinking” campaign, which raised $1.82 billion dollars for the university. Under her tenure, the neighborhood surrounding CWRU saw immense change with the development of “Uptown,” which brought new buildings, shops and restaurants to the area. Snyder left the university in 2020, with Eric Kaler now being the president of the university. The university has continued to grow and change.

The story of CWRU is still being written. As an institution, we have continued to wrestle over our identity through the years and will probably continue to do so. What aspects we take from Western Reserve and what aspects we take from Case has been a continual debate. As we look forward, we must understand that both institutions are our legacy. It is up to us to determine what we keep and what we make of our future.