Special Reports

Higher education rose on Sehome Hill

A century ago, Western Washington University was a small school in a drained marsh atop Sehome Hill, training mostly young women to be teachers in the rustic fishing, logging and farming communities throughout the new state.

Back then it was called New Whatcom State Normal School, and everything from classrooms to the library was housed in Old Main, whose construction had been fueled by the Yukon Gold Rush.

Some students spent just a year at the Normal School - that's all the training they needed to become an elementary school teacher at the turn of the 20th century. Some also took high school-level courses, because there were no high schools in parts of the state.

But as requirements for teachers changed, so did the Normal School's curriculum. By 1926, the school began offering general education courses, which would eventually evolve into academic departments and, later, colleges.

The Normal School itself became a college in 1933, the same year Western Washington's College of Education granted its first bachelor's degrees. By then, the state required all teachers to have at least three years of schooling.

The Great Depression and World War II pummeled the enrollment and finances of the new college. Faculty had to swallow a 25 percent pay cut during the Depression, but likely considered themselves lucky compared to those who had lost their jobs.

And with students going off to war or to work in war-related industries, enrollment dropped to 254 in 1943 - the lowest in decades.

But they all came back after the war, filling residence halls and the military barracks brought on campus to accommodate the veterans and their families who used GI bills to pay for college.

Many of those new students weren't at the college to become teachers. In 1947, Western began granting bachelor of arts degrees outside of education.

Student life at the time was much more constricted for women students than for men. Women who broke the rules of dress, decorum or curfews risked being "campused" - essentially grounded - while men faced no such restrictions.

Those rules loosened up by the late 1950s and early '60s, when Western went through a decade-long expansion in which enrollment tripled by 1969. Fourteen new buildings went up on campus during the '60s, including five new residence halls.

Then, in 1961, Western became known as Western Washington State College.

The '60s marked Western in other ways. Students protesting the Vietnam War held sit-ins, rallies, teach-ins and other events. Campus protesters blocked Interstate 5 for several hours in the days after the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State University.

Meanwhile, new, smaller colleges formed. The interdisciplinarian, free-spirited Fairhaven College and Huxley College of the Environment both began in 1968.

In 1977, Western Washington State College became Western Washington University. By the mid-1980s, Western was becoming a regular entry in regional and national rankings of universities.