The History of Western Carolina University

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Rural educators

Growth slows

Robert Lee Madison (1867-1954)

by Jeanine Ordoyne

According to University Chancellor John Bardo, there have been "three seminal events" in Western's history. The first was the school's founding by Robert Lee Madison in 1889.  The second was when The University of North Carolina System was established, and the third was Westernís joining the state university system.

Training rural educators

In 1888, Robert Lee Madison was editor of the Tuckaseigee Democrat. At that early point in his career, Madison developed his "Idea" to have better prepared teachers for rural schools.  The following year he left the Democrat and founded Cullowhee Academy, which is now known as Western Carolina University, and served as its first President.
By 1894 the school offered four programs: Classical, Normal, Commercial and Fine Arts. In May of that same year, 12 students were granted their first-grade teaching certificates from the Normal Department.

Growth slows

In 1910, the Cullowhee Normal and Industrial School, as it was then known, had one of its biggest problems since opening. Until this time the enrollment had grown substantially, but now, it stopped. A new womenís dormitory opened but housed only one female student. Madison, who had been a great administrator, was no longer performing adequately because the schoolís growth had exceeded his abilities. The next year brought another problem; a student decided not to continue his education because the junior college lacked vitality and course offerings. On top of these dilemmas, a rumor questioning Madisonís conduct began circulating.

The State of Affairs Board of Trustees met in the spring of 1912.  There were few records of Madisonís tenure as the principal of the school. After reviewing the available documents of his 23 years of service, the board decided to release Madison and to replace him with the superintendent of Buncombe County schools, Alonzo Carlton Reynolds.

Overall, Madison accomplished great things in starting the new school but ended his career badly.  Despite his removal, Madison is regarded as a model educator and honored as the founder of Western Carolina University.  

T. Burkett and T. Latimer contributed to this report.