By Denise Alexander
Truth is ageless. Though Marymount long ago evolved from a two-year college for women to a comprehensive, coeducational university, the sentiment above – written by the institution’s second graduating class – still reflects what a Marymount education is all about. The University’s mission is timeless: education of the whole person that promotes intellectual, spiritual, and moral growth.
Six decades have wrought amazing changes at Marymount. Programs and services have multiplied, buildings have sprung up, and the student body has grown exponentially. But through it all, the institution’s operations have remained firmly rooted in the philosophy of its founders, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. With its Catholic mission and identity as a guiding light, Marymount has consistently responded to the needs of its students, its community, and the wider world with a spirit of innovation and a commitment to the individual.
At its inception in 1950, Marymount was a beacon of higher education for women. In a time when the majority of American women did not attend college, Marymount offered its students associate degree programs that combined a liberal arts education with career preparation. The college’s first catalog outlined two tracks of study: one designed to give students the academic foundation necessary to transfer to a four-year institution, and the other offering a broad general education combined with specific vocational preparation.
When the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s swept across the nation, Marymount responded to its students’ ambitions first by becoming a four-year college and then by introducing graduate programs open to both men and women. In 1986, the institution became fully coeducational and achieved university status.
Today, Marymount University enrolls nearly 3,500 students from across the nation and around the world. Its curriculum includes a diverse array of undergraduate majors, 18 master’s degree programs, and two doctoral programs. And more than 27,000 proud Marymount alumni are making positive contributions to their professions, families, and communities. It’s surprising to realize that this institution, which has been influential in so many lives, began with a simple conversation between a bishop and his aide.
In the late 1940s, Bishop Peter L. Ireton of the Richmond Diocese thought that a Catholic high school for girls was needed in the rapidly growing northern Virginia area. Bishop Ireton shared his idea with Monsignor Justin McClunn, who subsequently contacted Mother Gerard Phelan, superior general of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM), an order known for its commitment to education. Mother Gerard and Bishop Ireton met to discuss the matter, and the initial steps to establish a Marymount high school in Arlington were soon underway.
The search for the right property culminated with the purchase of a parcel of land on North Glebe Road – the former home of Admiral Presley M. Rixey, personal physician to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. The RSHM paid $295,000 for the 21-acre site, which included a stately Georgian home and a stone hunting lodge. They opened Marymount High School in 1948 and, a year later, added the Marymount Junior School for younger children. Seeing the great success of the Sisters’ early efforts, Bishop Ireton suggested that the natural next step would be to open a junior college, where Marymount High School graduates and other young women could complete their education. Thus, Marymount Junior College was formed and officially opened its doors on October 12, 1950. Its first president was Sister Elizabeth Gallagher, RSHM.
The college’s initial class of 13 students called themselves “the Pioneers.” They had four courses of study to choose from: Liberal Arts Terminal, Liberal Arts Transfer, Medical Secretarial, and Secretarial. The catalog spelled out the college’s academic philosophy: “The study of literature, history, philosophy, and modern languages acquaints a student with the progress of thought, and thereby aids in coping with the complexities of present-day life.”
For the Pioneers and succeeding classes in the 1950s and early 1960s, dealing with the “complexities of present-day life” included following a strict set of rules. The college enforced a dress code, early curfews, and mandatory attendance at chapel and meals. Dinner was served on china; smoking was prohibited until after dessert.
Marymount Junior College quickly established a good reputation, and its enrollment and academic programs began to expand. In 1958, under the leadership of its second president, Sister Berchmans Walsh, RSHM, the institution applied for and received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
In 1960, the college was incorporated and its name became Marymount College of Virginia. That was a milestone year for another reason, as well, for it was then that Sister Majella Berg, RSHM, became Marymount’s third president.
“Mother Majella,” as she was widely known, would guide the institution for the next 33 years – making her the longest-serving female college president in the nation at the time of her retirement.
As it entered the 1960s, Marymount was innovative and responsive to the needs of students and the community. Fashion Design and Fashion Merchandising programs were introduced and quickly became popular. The success of the Medical Secretarial program sparked the development of a two-year Nursing degree. And, quite ahead of its time, the college was a leader in studyabroad programs, offering semester options in England, France, and Spain. New campus buildings went up, as well, to accommodate new programs and a growing enrollment.
But the picture changed in the early 1970s – a period of uncertainty for Marymount and similar institutions of higher education. Across the nation, community colleges were taking off, diminishing the demand for private two-year degrees. At the same time, more women wanted to earn a bachelor’s degree, and the doors of traditionally all-male institutions were beginning to open to them.
Marymount responded with characteristic foresight. Under Sister Majella’s leadership, the college developed a baccalaureate degree that could be earned in three years, including the summers. This “bridge program” proved popular and helped to stabilize Marymount’s enrollment. Around the same time, Marymount admitted its first male students, in the undergraduate Nursing program.
With the advent of baccalaureate programs, Marymount became a senior college. Soon the institution took its next major leap forward by introducing coeducational graduate programs – the Master of Business Administration and the Master of Education in Special Education, both launched in 1979.
By the end of the decade, it had become clear that, to thrive in a rapidly changing world, Marymount would need to become coeducational at all levels. That transformation was effected in 1986, and the institution marked its coming of age by changing its name to Marymount University.
The early ’90s saw a changing of the guard, but no change in mission. After more than three decades as Marymount’s president, Sister Majella Berg retired and Sister Eymard Gallagher, RSHM, assumed the presidency. One of Sister Eymard’s first priorities was the establishment of the Center for Ethical Concerns, created to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas about ethical issues in all fields of endeavor.
Another continuing emphasis was the University’s commitment to service. Marymount students had been involved in volunteer activities since the 1950s, when a number of them regularly traveled to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit with soldiers injured in the Korean War. In the mid-1990’s, the Campus Ministry Association “kicked it up a notch” by creating Spirit of Service (SOS), an organization that brought students together on a large scale to conduct service activities that would benefit the wider community. SOS instituted two Marymount traditions that are still going strong today: HalloweenFest and the Special Olympics Basketball Tournament.
Upon Sister Eymard’s retirement in 2001, Dr. James E. Bundschuh became Marymount’s first lay president. Under his leadership, the University has established an undergraduate Honors Program; the DISCOVER Program, focused on research and inquiry learning across the disciplines; and its first doctoral programs.
Dr. Bundschuh and Marymount’s Board of Trustees also recognized that the University’s facilities were not adequate to meet the needs of 21st-century students. A Campus Master Plan was developed and a capital campaign launched and, in spring 2009, work began on the 26th Street project – Marymount’s most ambitious construction initiative in four decades. The project, dubbed the “Miracle on 26th Street” by students, is slated to open in fall 2010. It includes an academic building focused on the sciences and health sciences, an apartment-style residence hall, and beautiful outdoor gathering spaces, all built over underground parking.
The past decade has also seen an expansion of campus activities; many new clubs have been chartered, and an Office of Spirit Programs established. The University’s NCAA Division III athletics program has expanded, as well. With the addition of men’s and women’s cross country teams in 2003, Marymount now fields 12 teams in seven different sports.
And the University’s commitment to serving others remains as strong as ever. Each year, Marymount students perform more than 16,000 hours of service work through on-campus activities; volunteer programs in the local community; and initiatives that reach out to help people in far-away places like Belize, Tanzania, and the Dominican Republic.
In considering Marymount’s evolution over six decades, it would be fair to fall back on a cliché: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” While growing from a small junior college to a thriving comprehensive university, this institution has provided generations of students with a values-based education that has proven to be a firm foundation for successful lives. Looking forward, the words of the 1953 Pioneer Yearbook still ring true: For generations to come, Marymount University will continue to help its students grow in “wisdom and knowledge and grace.”