History of Wichita State University

Fairmount College 1895-1926

Historical photo of WSU Standing proudly on the hill. That describes Wichita State University today as it did its predecessors Wichita University and Fairmount College.

Founded in 1886 by the Rev. Joseph Homer Parker, Fairmount College was affiliated with the Congregational Church. When class finally began in 1895, the Fairmount student body consisted of local residents who could not afford to go elsewhere or whose parents wanted their children to experience the values of a Christian College. One of the College's early slogans -- found on letterhead, rulers and a stamp -- was "Fairmount Builds Character." The phrase has been long forgotten, but one might venture to say that it still applies to the University today.

Trees were shipped to the barren hill top of Wichita from New England. The College grew in beauty and in faculty and student numbers.

Sports were of interest to students from the beginning. On the second day of school, some of the men met under a tree to discuss forming a football team. In addition to football, basketball, baseball, and track were added to the men's roster and basketball to the women's.

In 1905, under the glow of Coleman lanterns, the Fairmount "Wheatshockers" won the first-ever night football game played west of the Mississippi River. That same team instigated the first forward pass in collegiate history on Christmas day of that year.

By the mid-1920s, financial concerns threatened the young college. Public ownership seemed to be the obvious solution to loyal Fairmount supporters -- but the first campaign for public ownership failed at the polls in 1925. A renewed effort in 1926 was overwhelmingly approved, however, and the Municipal University of Wichita became the first in a new era of city institutions in the American West.

The Municipal University of Wichita 1926-1964

Opening in the fall of 1926 with 569 students, the small New England-style college blossomed into a university. By 1964 student enrollment reached almost 7,000. One-third of the students attended part time and 857 were graduate students.

From the very beginning, Wichita University served students whose financial and family responsibilities limited their options for higher education.

One favorite University tradition was the bonfire held the evening before the Thanksgiving football game with Friends University. At this event, freshmen could throw their green beanies and hair ribbons -- which they were required to wear for the first 3 months of school -- into the fire.

Even with the Great Depression and World War II, growth at the University was steady. Schools and colleges were added and the faculty became more diverse. Music was always a central focus on campus and throughout the Wichita community. In 1944, representatives from interested groups gathered in the home of WU alumni Robert and Myrabel Hollowell and organized the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. University faculty, students and alumni constitute the vast majority of the symphony even today.

Corbin Education Center Dormitories returned to the campus scene, and research emerged as a major part of the mission during the 1950s. In basketball, the Missouri Valley Conference became one of the strongest in the country, known to sports fans as the "Valley of Death," and Shocker fans enjoyed reaching the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) final four in 1965.

After WWII, the need to expand the campus quickly and inexpensively changed the look of the university significantly. A spate of building ensued which reflected the popular International style of architecture. The sometimes elaborate buildings included the Duerksen Fine Arts Center and the innovative "roundhouse," Levitt Arena. Capping off these four decades of construction was the Corbin Education Center, a facility for the College of Education designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

A long and arduous battle that began in 1955 finally culminated in 1963 with legislative approval of a new state university. The citizens of Wichita responded in the form of a 1.5 mill levy to pay the bonded indebtedness and provide a perpetual endowment for the new state institution.

Wichita State University 1964-Present

The first few years of the emerging Wichita State University were challenging. The University searched nationally for needed new faculty. In 1965 the Shockers (shortened from Wheatshockers) went to the Final Four in basketball. Cessna Stadium was built after students passed a referendum authorizing half the cost in 1968. Debate students won the national title that year.

The 1960s were turbulent times for campuses across the country. Wichita State, though, weathered the storm of continued controversy over the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, increasing racial tensions and the Vietnam War with reasoned dignity. The student movement resulted in cooperation among faculty, students and administration to pass the Joint Statement of Rights and Freedoms of Students. Wichita State was the first campus to offer the document to all campus constituencies, and to have all respond positively.

October 2, 1970 was one of the blackest days in Shocker history. One of two planes carrying players, staff and fans to a football game in Utah State crashed near Silver Plume, Colo., killing 31. Football was later discontinued in 1986 because of mounting debt.

A new college was formed in the 1970s in health professions and an outdoor sculpture collection was established that would in time grow. The Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art came into being. Doctoral studies grew and the University moved to more substantial research efforts.

In 1975, the Shocker women's bowling team won the national title, thus beginning a phenomenal tradition of achievement for men and women in that sport. Baseball returned in 1978 to intercollegiate sports. The team finished second in the College World Series in 1982 and won the national championship in 1989. 

The demography of the student body changed and women surged into the majority, graduate students tripled and ethnic minorities made up 12 percent of the University population. The campus now has the sixth largest number of international students found at any doctoral degree granting institution in the nation.

Wichita State marked its Centennial in 1995-96 with a year long celebration that saw higher education guru Dr. Ernest Boyer deliver one of his last public addresses to a recreation of that first night football game. The University has grown in students and faculty as well as in its physical plant. Yet, that old adage that described Fairmount College still holds true for Wichita State University today -- "Fairmount Builds Character."

- This history is a compilation loosely based on "Standing Proudly on the Hill -- A Pictorial History of Wichita State University" produced for the Wichita State University Centennial under the watchful eye of Dr. George Platt, Centennial coordinator.