The History of Lafayette College

Bust of the Marquis de Lafayette

Lafayette College was founded in 1826 by citizens of Easton, Pennsylvania. In 1832, classes in mathematics and the classics began in a rented farmhouse on the south bank of the Lehigh River. In 1834, the College acquired seven acres of land on an eminence across Bushkill Creek from Easton. Formally named Mt. Lafayette, the elevation soon became more familiarly known as College Hill. Later that year, on its summit, the first of the College’s own buildings was built, on the site now occupied by South College.

Throughout its history, the College has continually shaped itself in ways that best serve its educational purpose, remaining supportive of the tradition of liberal arts education while being responsive to changes and challenges of society and the times.

For the first seven years of its existence, Lafayette was a manual labor school. For part of each day, students worked in the agricultural department (gardening, hauling manure, cutting hay, and digging potatoes) or in the mechanical department (making boxes, trunks, and agricultural implements) to make money for the College and to offset their tuition. In 1857, Lafayette became the first American college to establish a chair for the study of the English language and literature, with emphasis on philology. Francis A. March, its first incumbent, achieved international acclaim for his work in establishing English as a pivotal subject in the liberal arts curriculum. In 1866, as industrialism was changing the Western world, the College established courses in civil and mining engineering. In the 1940s, the College introduced its first interdisciplinary courses. As the role of women in society underwent redefinition, the College began coeducation in 1970 to prepare both women and men to lead the nation into a new century.

Today, Lafayette is an independent, coeducational, residential, undergraduate institution with a faculty of distinction and about 2,400 full-time men and women students of high intellectual promise and diverse backgrounds. The student body is 53 percent men and 47 percent women.

The most ambitious and successful fundraising campaign in the College’s history concluded in 2001 with $213 million in gifts and pledges, of which more than $100 million was dedicated to strengthening excellence in academics. The campaign enabled the College to transform its campus with more than $150 million in new and renovated academic, residential, and recreational facilities. Between 1993 and 2005, Lafayette’s endowment grew from $284 million to more than $565 million. Today, Lafayette’s endowment, nearly $700 million, places it among the top 10 percent of all institutions in the country in endowment per student.

The College’s curriculum is distinguished by the rare combination, on an undergraduate campus, of degree programs in the liberal arts and in engineering. Lafayette students may choose among a range of discipline-based and interdisciplinary courses and pursue the Bachelor of Arts degree in 37 fields and the Bachelor of Science degree in nine fields of science and four fields of engineering. Students may also design an individualized, interdisciplinary major or participate in a five-year, two-degree program leading to a B.S. in engineering and an A.B. in international studies. Those who pursue professional career preparation do so within programs rooted in and enriched by the liberal arts.

More than half of Lafayette’s students participate in some form of study abroad, and for more than 70 percent of these, this takes place in non-Anglophone countries. In 2009, the College appointed its first full-time director of off-campus and international education.

Recent curricular advancements include a revision of the Common Course of Study, following a thorough review and analysis by the faculty, refocusing the CCS from exposing students to a wide variety of subjects to meeting core learning outcomes. Greater emphasis on interdisciplinarity, consistent with the College’s strategic plan, has resulted in the development of interdisciplinary A.B. degree programs in environmental studies, film and media studies, theater, and women’s and gender studies and a significant recasting of the international affairs major. Interdisciplinary minors have been developed in health and life sciences and Italian studies. In 2011, the College welcomed two faculty members who were the first to be hired specifically for interdisciplinary programs.

Initiatives are also under way to build on the College’s traditional strengths in engineering, supporting the strategic goal of strengthening the integration of engineering offerings into the educational experience of non-engineering students and liberal arts programming into the experience of engineering majors. These include a review of the engineering curriculum consistent with the objective for “increased curricular flexibility to provide for new pedagogical initiatives” that was identified in the Engineering Division’s 2010-15 Strategic Plan.

Effective and challenging teaching is the first priority of the faculty, both in the classroom and in a variety of independent and collaborative learning experiences. Easton’s proximity to New York City and Philadelphia helps students extend their learning experiences, as do Lafayette’s co-curricular intellectual, cultural, athletic, and social programs. Faculty research and scholarship are encouraged and supported in the belief that such professional involvement extends the individual faculty member’s intellectual resources, strengthens and complements teaching effectiveness, facilitates student/faculty research, and contributes to the scholarly and professional communities outside the College.

Lafayette alumni remain unusually active and supportive of the College and its goals. Several initiatives made possible by major gifts are in progress. These include the development of the Williams Arts Campus, with new facilities for the programs in theater and film & media studies, and the creation of the Oechsle Center for Global Education. They also include the conversion of an existing building into Grossman House, a residence hall for students with a special interest in global topics; a new endowment to support strategic initiatives in the Division of Engineering; and the transformation of the Quad and central campus and into a greener, more accessible area.

In addition to a campus of great beauty, Lafayette offers a well-equipped physical plant. Its programs are supported by a library with more than 545,000 volumes and an extensive array of electronic resources; modern computer facilities and laboratories accessible to students; thriving centers for the performing and visual arts; a large College center for dining and other communal activities; an athletic complex compatible with its intercollegiate Patriot League commitment and its extensive intramural and recreational program; two chapels serving a variety of religious commitments; and a variety of residential options for students.