For a variety of very good reasons, Washington College has made it a point to ensure that all prospective students, and their parents, are keenly aware that George Washington very deliberately allowed the College of Chester to be named after him, and backed that up with the largest personal donation to get the school off the ground.
And at the same time, the College rightly hammers home the exceptional fact that the man who convinced Washington to do so, the Very Rev’d William Smith, perhaps the most distinguished academic leader in the New World at the time, was the gifted visionary who created the college after his remarkable collaboration with Benjamin Franklin in starting what is now known as the University of Pennsylvania.
It is hard to imagine a more impressive beginning for any school, and yet what gets lost in this very accurate narrative is the fact that the town of Chestertown was the entity that founded the 10th oldest college in America. While Washington and Smith were the unique ingredients that made Washington College what it is, it was its citizens of the Mid-Shore that asked for it to be created in the first place.
Unlike almost every other private liberal arts college in the country, WC was not the result of a wealthy patron, a religious order, or a state government but a town that wanted a college. And it was this community that made the unprecedented decision to start the first independent and secular college of a new nation. (1)
In fact, Kent County was already a leader in education at the time with the formation of the Kent County School, which was so well established that in 1742, the headmaster, Charles Peale, none other than the father of the renowned painter Charles Willson Peale, submitted the following advertisement seeking students:
Kent County School in Chestertown Maryland is where young gentleman are bordered and taught the Greek and Latin tongues, writing, arithmetic, merchants accounts, surveying, navigation, the use of the globes, by the largest and most accurate pair in America.
The genesis of a college started in 1780 when town leaders, with such local names like Barroll, Paca, Piper, Sewall, Wickes, and Wilmer, recruited Smith to develop the curriculum, hire professors, and fundraise for the project. Smith did this with exceptional skill. In total, almost three hundred residents on the Eastern Shore donated to start the school and build its first classroom building in what would be the third largest in the new world.
The take-home message from all this is that from its very beginning, Washington College has been intimately intertwined with the town that created it. And because of this extraordinary heritage, there has always been an acute and lasting interest in how the school operates and functions even as the governance and financial ties between the town and the college have long separated.
And over those 235 years, Washington College and Chestertown have collectively felt the good and bad times in unison. From the thrill of having scholars as neighbors and the sight of international luminaries walking on High Street to the devastation of campus fires and periodic downtown economic downturns, these two institutions have found creative ways to fortify each other during challenging times.
We are in one of those challenging times.
The town remains explicitly confronted with the harsh reality that large scale manufacturing and storefront retail, staples of Chestertown’s economy, will never return to the historically high levels of the past since both of these have radically been altered by offshore factories and the rise of web-based shopping.
And while the College remains strong in recruitment and academic achievement, virtually every rural liberal arts school in the country is now facing the painful reality of a dwindling pool of prospective students as a result of demographic shifts, a growing popularity of more urban campuses, and most disconcerting, the rising costs of education.
With sober forecasts predicting modest economic growth rates and a shrinking number of college-bound students for the foreseeable future, both the town and college will undoubtedly feel the stress of this precarious environment, particularly at a time when both institutions seek major infrastructure improvements to attract visitors, entrepreneurs, and a new freshman class.
It would seem reasonable, perhaps even obvious, that the best course of action is for these historically linked entities to work strategically together to advance each other’s mission. And for many years now, leaders of both have demonstrated at least an intellectual agreement with that concept, but it is the “how” part that continues to trip up plans for sophisticated collaborative strategies and mutually supported projects like the waterfront, downtown revitalization (hotel), and North Chestertown’s development.
That “how” part is not an easy one. For many years now, initiatives have begun and ended, strategic planning gets started but then proposed, and just a few years ago, a blue-ribbon town-gown task force had to be suddenly abandoned due to a stunning error in administrative oversight and the overzealous and premature use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of a local reporter.
And yet even with these extraordinary setbacks, it is the Spy’s contention that Chestertown and Washington College still has the motivation, the leadership, and the emotional bonds to find a constructive and meaningful way forward in the years and decades ahead.
That is why the Chestertown Spy will be moderating an unprecedented public forum on April 11 with Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino and Washington College President Sheila Bair to share with the community their current strategic plans and discuss how those plans can be strengthened through collaboration. It also is a time for community residents to share with these two leaders their own ideas and dreams for a new vision of what this college town, or, if you prefer, a town with a college, can look like in the 21st Century.
It is unlikely that one meeting will have any direct impact on long-term solutions, but it is a start in getting these two important parts of our community starting to act as a family rather than respectful if slightly distant neighbors.
We welcome your participation that evening.
The Future of Chestertown and Washington College Forum will be held on April 11 at 5 pm at the Decker Theatre on the campus of Washington College.
(1) Although other institutions claim founding dates between 1770 and 1781, none possessed college charters or were empowered to grant degrees, and most were merely “log-cabin grammar schools” that evolved much later into full-fledged colleges, according to the authoritative book on the subject, Donald G. Tewksbury’s The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War (Columbia University Press, 1932). Tewksbury accorded Washington College standing as the nation’s tenth-oldest institution of higher learning, directly after the renowned “Colonial Nine.”