Skip to Main Content Skip to Footer Toggle Navigation Menu

Macalester’s History

The Founder’s Vision. Macalester College was founded in 1874 with a commitment to making it one of the finest colleges in the country. Its founder, the Rev. Edward Duffield Neill, served as a chaplain in the Civil War and held positions in three U.S. presidential administrations. Journeying to the Minnesota Territory in 1849 to do missionary work, he founded two churches and served as the state’s first superintendent of public education and first chancellor of the University of Minnesota.

Having shaped the education of the Northwest’s citizens, Neill turned to the education of its leaders. He believed that only a private college could offer both the academic quality and the values needed to prepare for leadership. He planned a college that would be equal in academic strength to the best colleges in the East. It would be Presbyterian-affiliated but nonsectarian, making it inclusive by the standards of his day.

Charles Macalester, a prominent Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist, made the establishing gift by donating the Winslow House, a noted summer hotel in Minneapolis. With additional funding from the Presbyterian Church and from the new college’s trustees, Macalester opened in 1885 with five professors, six freshmen, and 52 preparatory students.

Defining Excellence. In 1887, a young classical scholar named James Wallace joined the faculty—and forever changed the future—of Macalester College. Over the next 50 years, as faculty member, president, fund-raiser, donor, and role model, James Wallace helped the College define its special values and its standards of excellence.

Wallace quickly established himself as a fine and demanding teacher, and he earned a national reputation for scholarship when he published two Greek textbooks that were widely used across the country. When he took on added duties as dean of the college and then as president, he dedicated himself to creating the strongest possible academic experience for Macalester students. He recruited excellent faculty members and carefully added new areas of study to the curriculum.

In spite of academic success, James Wallace’s early years at Macalester were financially difficult. Gradually, his unceasing efforts built up a group of donors whose support, together with tuition from a growing student body, put the college on steady footing. By the time he rejoined the faculty in 1906, Wallace had enabled the college to pay off its debt, maintain a balanced budget, and begin to establish an endowment to offer some protection against hard times.

Until shortly before his death in 1939, James Wallace taught religion, Greek, and political science. He inspired students to set high aspirations, strive for the best, and serve humanity on a global basis. His interest in world affairs intensified throughout his lifetime, and just before his 90th birthday he published a third book, this one on international peace and justice.

Distinguishing Values. In the 1940s and 1950s President Charles J. Turck gave new emphasis to the college’s internationalism by recruiting foreign students, creating overseas study opportunities, and hiring faculty from diverse backgrounds. As a symbol of commitment to international harmony, he raised the United Nations flag on campus in 1950, and it has flown every day since then, just below the United States flag. Under his leadership, the college also broadened its base of community service and intensified its continuing interest in civic and national affairs. President Turck wrote a regular column in the student newspaper, often discussing social justice at home and abroad.

Macalester engaged in a remarkable period of advancement throughout the 1960s. Under the leadership of President Harvey M. Rice, the college strengthened the academic credentials of its faculty, enhanced the academic program, and increased its visibility, attracting students from across the nation and around the world. A major building campaign resulted in a fine arts center and new science facilities, which were among the best in the United States. All of this was made possible by the generous gifts of many friends, led by DeWitt and Lila Wallace, founders of the Reader’s Digest and major benefactors of Macalester. Mr. Wallace, who died in 1981, was the son of President James Wallace and a member of the college’s class of 1911.

Along the way, Macalester committed itself to a liberal arts curriculum and asserted five traditional and distinguishing values: involvement of students with faculty in the pursuit of learning; creation of a diverse campus community; incorporation of an international perspective in the curriculum and campus life; involvement of the college in the life of the metropolitan area; and espousal of service as a way of life.

The stories of four alumni provide evidence of the historic nature of those values:

Catharine Deaver Lealtad became Macalester’s first African American graduate in 1915; as a physician she spent a long career treating children affected by poverty, war, and famine around the world.

Esther Torii Suzuki was admitted to Macalester in 1942, freeing her from the internment camp where her Japanese American family was placed during World War II; she became a social worker and human rights activist.

Walter Mondale, who grew up in southern Minnesota, was part of the Class of 1950; he went on to become vice president of the United States, a U.S. senator, and U.S. ambassador to Japan.

Kofi Annan came to Macalester from Ghana; after his 1961 graduation he began a career with the United Nations culminating in his election to the post of U.N. Secretary General and his receipt of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.

Expanding Educational Opportunities. In 1968, in response to student activism, Macalester embarked on an ambitious plan to expand the educational opportunities of disadvantaged students previously underrepresented at Macalester. With the support of President Arthur Flemming, the Expanded Educational Opportunities (EEO) program was formally implemented in the 1969-1970 academic year. That year, the program brought 75 students on full scholarship to Macalester, raising the number of students of color in the incoming class to 15 percent. Prior to EEO, students of color represented 2 percent or less of the student body. While the incoming class was mostly black, the EEO also focused on recruiting Native American, Puerto Rican, and Mexican-American students (these were the terms used by EEO at that time), and white students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. When significant cuts to the program were announced in 1974, student protesters occupied the business office for 12 days, winning a short-lived compromise. Over its 15-year history, the EEO program changed student demographics, and increased awareness about issues of race, forever changing Macalester’s campus and culture. Those given EEO scholarships have gone on to prominent positions in their respective communities in the areas of business, education, politics, medicine and community activism.

Unprecedented Strength. The 1990s were another period of significant advancement for Macalester. In 1991, the college’s endowment became significantly stronger than it had been, enabling Macalester to pursue its high ideals with renewed vision and confidence. The college increased the number of faculty positions, adding new depth and more broadly diverse perspectives to the educational program. The improved student-faculty ratio also made possible more flexible and personalized teaching approaches, including significant enhancement of an already strong emphasis on faculty-student collaborative research and writing. The college also increased international study opportunities for students and faculty and strengthened co-curricular programs from athletics to residential life to community service.

Through a comprehensive campus improvement program, virtually every academic and residential building on campus was renovated, as were the athletic facilities. Extensive renovation of the science facilities, which merged two buildings into the Olin-Rice Science Center, was completed in 1997. George Draper Dayton residence hall opened in 1998, the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center in 2001, and the renovated Kagin Commons student services building in 2002. A comprehensive fund-raising campaign completed in 2000 raised $55.3 million to help support some of those building projects as well as scholarship funds, student-faculty research stipends, academic programs, and annual operations.

The college entered the 21st century with a planning process that reaffirmed its core values and key strengths. In Fall 2005, President Brian C. Rosenberg issued a vision statement that calls upon Macalester to respond to the world’s complex challenges with renewed academic strength and with a commitment to global citizenship on the part of the college and its graduates. Global citizenship begins with responsible and reflective local engagement that transcends parochial concerns and regards all human beings as fellow citizens. Macalester’s Institute for Global Citizenship, created in 2005, serves as a catalyst for strengthening programs by which students connect academic study with off-campus applications through internships and service-learning opportunities both in the United States and abroad, and programs by which students explore ways to engage some of the world’s most challenging issues through their chosen professions.

In fall 2008 Macalester publicly launched a $150 million campaign to raise funds for scholarships, faculty support, program enhancement, operating support, and new facilities. By the campaign’s conclusion in December 2011, the college had surpassed that goal by raising over $156 million. Many of the campaign’s milestones are visible on campus: the Leonard Center athletic and wellness complex, Markim Hall (home to the Institute for Global Citizenship), and the first stage of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center’s renovation and expansion, which created a central commons and state-of-the-art spaces for music at Macalester. In 2012, the Music building opened, followed in 2014 by the Joan Adams Mondale Hall of Studio Art.

In the fall of 2018, the college launched a $100 million campaign focused on access and excellence, which included the completion of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center renovation with the opening of the new Theater and Dance building in February of 2019. 

With the help of financial support from its alumni and friends, Macalester continues the traditions begun by its founders and carried forward throughout its history: providing an education of uncompromising academic quality to talented students from a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds and preparing them to make a significant and positive difference in the world.

Past Presidents of Macalester College

  • The Rev. Edward Duffield Neill,* D.D., 1874-1884
  • The Rev. Thomas A. McCurdy,* D.D., 1884-1890
  • The Rev. David James Burrell,* D.D., 1890-1891
  • The Rev. Adam Weir Ringland,* D.D., 1892-1894
  • James Wallace,* Ph.D., LL.D., D.D., 1894-1906
  • Thomas Morey Hodgman,* LL.D., 1907-1917
  • The Rev. Elmer Allen Bess,* D.D., 1918-1923
  • John Carey Acheson,* A.M., LL.D., 1924-1937
  • Charles Joseph Turck,* A.M., LL.B., LL.D., 1939-1958
  • Harvey Mitchell Rice,* A.M., Ph.D., L.H.D., LL.D., 1958-1968
  • Arthur S. Flemming,* A.B., M.A., J.D., 1968-1971
  • James A. Robinson,* A.A., A.B., M.A., Ph.D., 1971-1975
  • John B. Davis, Jr.,* B.A., M.Ed., E.Ed., LL.D., 1975-1984
  • Robert M. Gavin, Jr., B.A., Ph.D., 1984-1996
  • Michael S. McPherson, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., 1996-2003
  • Brian C. Rosenberg, B.A., M.A., Ph.D., 2003-2020