Wesleyan University was established in 1831 as a men’s college by the Methodist Church. The first president of the school, Wilbur Fisk, laid the groundwork for the innovation and progress in education for which the school is known today.
Ironically enough, a military institute originally occupied the first two buildings on what is now Wesleyan’s campus. Captain Alden Partridge’s American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy was founded in 1825, but the school closed a short four years later, with the Captain abandoning a career in education in order to travel around the country with his family in a luxurious stagecoach, amusing doting audiences with snappy musical numbers and bellbottom pants. Luckily for the residents of Middletown, who had already gone to the trouble of financing the construction of those first two Wesleyan buildings – North College and South College – the Methodist Church came to the rescue, establishing Wesleyan University in 1831.
Named for the Church’s founder, John Wesley, Wesleyan University catered to a fairly homogenous clientele—the brandy-sipping, ascot-wearing, yacht-sailing New England aristocrat—until 1872, when in a watershed moment in coeducation, Wesleyan began admitting members of the fairer sex in a historic policy shift dubbed “The Wesleyan Experiment.” Unfortunately for those women seeking to break free from a life of child-rearing and pie-making, the alumnae of Wesleyan realized that none of the other elite colleges of the time admitted women, so, in keeping with the status quo, Wesleyan should not do so either.
With that, the Wesleyan Experiment ended in 1910, and Wesleyan cruised along, content with its pasteurized populace, until the late 1960s, when coeducation resumed, coupled with an active pursuit of students from diverse racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Today, Wesleyan is home to about 2,700 undergraduate students, a slow-witted few of whom believe they are actually attending Captain Alden Partridge’s American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy.
Wesleyan's campus is pretty, grassy, and spacious. Foss Hill, the main quad, lies next to the football field and is surrounded by a representative jumble of buildings: a library designed by the same man as the Lincoln Memorial, a chapel-turned-theater, a glass pavilion, several dorms, and a gleaming new campus center that tends to appeal to adults but which students generally find oddly-designed, bland, and sterile.
Also bordering Foss Hill is WEShop, the campus convenience store. WEShop offers a lot more organic options than a store of its kind normally might, but as at many colleges, students complain about the unusually-high prices there.
Opinions are also mixed about the Center for the Arts buildings, or CFA. These buildings, designed in the passing Brutalist style, look cool to some, hideous to others.
Overall the campus is entirely walkable—many students own cars but one could certainly do without one.
Wesleyan University is located in Middletown, Connecticut, a town situated, surprisingly, in the middle of Connecticut. Despite its name, Middletown is in fact a city, with a bustling Main Street located down the hill from Wesleyan’s campus. Wesleyan students interact with Middletown in a variety of ways, utilizing the town’s commercial and gastronomic resources, as well as contributing to the greater Middletown community.
Wesleyan students offer more to Middletown than just their business. Through outreach efforts like tutoring at the local schools, mentoring at Traverse Square – an apartment complex next to one of Wesleyan’s residences – and holding classes at the Green Street Arts Center, a collaborative community effort run jointly by Wesleyan and Middletown, Wesleyan students have a strong relationship built on the tradition of service to the community in which they live.
A perennial tradition at Wes is Zonker Harris Day, one of a couple days where Reslife pays for a small outdoor concert with bands, refreshments, and some crafts. The concert is named after the former-druggie character Zonker in the comic strip “Doonesbury,” and is fairly strongly associated with getting drunk or high. Reslife sponsors a couple of these concerts every year - others include Duke Day (also for a “Doonesbury” character), and Buttstock (for the Butts, the dorm outside of which it is held). This last year, trouble popped up when the school president called the Day “stupid” and Reslife (the office of Residential Life) threatened to cut off funding to the event unless the name was changed. Alternate names for the day tossed around by students include “Honker Zarris Day” and “He Who Must Not Be Named Day.”
Another popular tradition at Wes is Spring Fling. People sit drinking on Foss Hill and watch a bunch of bands, beginning with a Wesleyan-related band, followed by around three bigger-name acts. Ghostface Killah, the GZA, and Andrew WK, have performed in recent years. One other relatively-recent group that performed at Spring Fling was The Roots, who were asked what their worst concert of all time was and they reportedly said, “Wesleyan, Spring Fling, no question.”
Wes students encounter one of Wesleyan’s traditions, Foss Cross, very early in Freshman Orientation. It’s a dance where everybody cross-dresses. It serves as a nice way to meet one’s hallmates, as everybody needs help from their neighbors to get dressed for the evening. However Foss Cross may be on its way out, as some charge that it’s sexist or homophobic.
Desperate Measures, an improv comedy group on campus, does a 24-hour show every year, where they and other performers put on a show that lasts a full 24 hours.
When it snows, students like to sled down Foss Hill on cafeteria trays.
Bradley Whitford (’81) star of the TV series “The West Wing”
Michael Bay (director of The Rock and Transformers, class of 1986)
Akiva Goldsman (screenwriter who won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, class of 1983)
Robert Ludlum, author of the Bourne series of spy novels, graduated in 1951
New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini, class of 1994
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, class of 1975).
Jed Hoyer, assistant general manager of Boston Red Sox
Daniel Handler (’92) author who writes under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket
Mark Hickenlooper (’74) Mayor of Denver, CO
The Wesleyan Cardinals compete at the Division III level and in the New England Small College athletic Conference.
As reported by Alex Gelman ’08:
Even considering that Wesleyan is on the lowest rung of the tripartite NCAA ladder, there isn’t an overwhelming abundance of school spirit towards athletics. Wesleyan does play in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), the most competitive conference in all of Division III. Some of the most popular teams, often tied to success, are the men’s lacrosse team, the men’s soccer team, and, recently, the women’s volleyball team. Also, it has been reported that Wesleyan’s men’s baseball team has the highest average attendance in all of Division III. However, it should be noted that the field where the Wesleyan sluggers play their games is located at the foot of Foss Hill, a popular lounging destination for students in the springtime looking to soak up some sun and relax. While hundreds of students can dot Foss Hill on a sunny April Saturday, the number of those who actually realize that a baseball game is going on is probably somewhere in the teens.
Wesleyan is known as one of those schools that attracts a lot of vegetarians—and it’s been that way for quite awhile: The Physiological Society, a student vegetarian club, began in the 1830s. They believed in the ideas of a guy named Sylvester Graham, who is most famous for being the inventor and namesake of the graham cracker.
President Woodrow Wilson taught history and political economy at Wesleyan from 1888 to 1890. He moved to teach at Wesleyan from Bryn Mawr, because he wasn’t enthusiastic about teaching women.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the baccalaureate sermon at Wes in 1964.
Wesleyan alums have won two Oscars: Allie Wrubel (’26) won for Best Song in 1947 for “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” from Disney’s Song of the South, and Akiva Goldsman (’83) won Best Adapted Screenplay in 2001 for adapting A Beautiful Mind.
The creators of the TV show “How I Met Your Mother” are Wes alums and make references to Wes on the show. For instance, the big law firm in the show “Nicholson, Hewitt & West” refers to the dorms Nicholson, Hewitt and WestCo.
The Wesleyan athletic teams have been called The Cardinals since the 1930s, when it replaced the previous name for Wesleyan teams, The Methodists.
At Wesleyan first and some second-year students live in the residence halls on campus, while returning students and upperclassmen have the option of living in fully-furnished apartments on campus, the fully-furnished Woodframe houses, or in various theme houses, including several of the officially-recognized fraternities.
As a first-year, students are mostly likely to live in the new dorms Fauver and Clark. Fauver, the very newest, is most notable for its large lobbies with big screen TVs. First-years also live in Nicholson (Nic), Hewitt, West College (Westco), Butterfield (The Butts), or 200 Church. Hewitt is notable for some single-gender floors (most dorms have co-ed floors) and some substance-free floors, and Westco has a degree of self-government. Known as one of the more “creative” dorms, Westco is unofficially clothing optional, though residents usually keep their clothes on.
The halls of the Butts wind around in an unusual pattern—they were designed that way to be riot-proof, and they may be one of the reasons the Butts are a little bit less sociable than the other dorms.
200 Church is located in a relatively old building which formerly housed the Chi Psi fraternity.