The History of Western Carolina University

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Normal school

Four-year charter

Joining the club

In The Beginning . . . The Origins of Western Carolina University

by: Shaun Moss

Cullowhee Academy?  Where is that?  No, that is not the name that most alumni call Western Carolina University; however, that name holds a rich past of stories, history, and mountain memories.  It has been said that the local western North Carolina school has more than exceeded the expectations of its founders.

Normal school?

Western Carolina University was founded as a semi-public school in August of 1889. Lewis J. Smith was able to persuade Robert Lee Madison, a young Virginian to be the head of the academy. Area residents say they recall local stories as children of how Professor Madison was greeted by only 18 students.  Cullowhee Academy was chartered as Cullowhee High School in 1891.  It served the Cullowhee community in Jackson County, North Carolina, bringing students from across the state and bordering areas.

The first main focus of the school was placed on teacher training. In 1893, the first state appropriation established a normal department (teaching school). The normal department was said to have been so successful that, in 1905, the General Assembly changed the institution’s name to Cullowhee Normal and Industrial School.  Beginning around the year 1912, the status of the school was gradually raised to a two-year normal school or junior college. State support then increased, and work at the secondary level ended.  The name of the school was changed in 1925 to Cullowhee State Normal School.

Four-year charter

A new charter in 1929 authorized the school to extend its academic work up to the four-year level.  The school then become known as Western Carolina Teachers College.   World War II was successful in taking many young students out of Cullowhee, but after the war, the G.I. Bill made it possible for many veterans to learn in Cullowhee.  Special housing was built in Cullowhee for the veterans.  It was called “Boodleville,.”  which sounds like a name that college students would use today.

Exciting times were on the horizon in 1951 with the addition of the postgraduate year to the curriculum, and with the authorization of the Master of Arts in Education degree.  In 1953, the name became Western Carolina College, after the demand grew for liberal arts in the country.   Programs in other areas of learning were created, which led to an expansion of the school’s opportunities.

WCU joins the club

Western Carolina College was recognized in 1967 as a regional university by the North Carolina General Assembly and the name of the institution then became what it is today...Western Carolina University. In 1971, the state legislature reorganized higher education in North Carolina, but it was not until July 1, 1972, that Western Carolina University became a Constituent institution under The University of North Carolina system. 

Since the beginning of the school, Western Carolina University has grown by leaps and bounds.  Current construction, under the leadership of Chancellor John Bardo, is proof that Western Carolina University is on its way into the future, building the latest in technology and feeding the minds of young students.