Named after the mother of American founding father and first president George Washington, the University of Mary Washington opened in 1908 as a teacher training institute for women. Now, 112 years later, it has developed into a successful public liberal arts and sciences institution that operates under the slogan “Where great minds get to work”. We spoke with Anna Billingsley, Associate Vice President for University Relations, who told us about the many ways in which UMW preserves direct links to America’s rich history, and in particular, to Virginia’s part in that narrative, while also keeping a keen eye on the future.
Mary Washington is an apt name for a Virginia university, given that Virginia is the state in which George Washington and his family rose to great economic and political eminence. It was also fitting that Washington’s mother be recognised by an institute geared towards the empowering of women in education. The university’s primary campus is even located in Fredericksburg, the same city where Mary Ball Washington lived; a set of classic red-brick, columned buildings on wooded grounds. This main campus enrolls about 4,500 undergraduates, but the university has expanded beyond this to two additional campuses dedicated to graduate work and non-traditional students. For example, one campus near a local naval base offers a series of science and engineering-focused courses, and elsewhere, the university runs a program of Continuing and Professional Studies, which offers classes and workshops in career advancement, personal enrichment, degree completion, and leadership development.
We spoke with Anna Billingsley about the university and the many elements that commend the University of Mary Washington (UMW). Speaking on the ongoing expansion to the main campus, Anna told us, “As the university has grown, so has its footprint. It now incorporates residence halls and athletic fields adjacent to the main campus. Our newest buildings include an academic building for the sciences featuring state-of-the-art laboratories, research areas and classrooms; a convergence center that features an ‘academic commons’ where a variety of technology, information and teaching resources come together in an environment that is modern, energetic, and vibrant; a massive University Center that serves as the campus ‘living room’, offering dining services, meeting spaces, game rooms, and a ballroom; and renovated residence halls that took original 111-year-old buildings and made them over into modern, functional spaces for 21st century living and learning.”
UMW has everything a university could need, but there are a few satellite facilities that stand out. The first is the James Monroe Museum & Memorial Library. Named after another Virginia-born founding father, the fifth president of the United States, this library is also dedicated to preserving Monroe’s legacy. If you need to know something about Monroe, the last president of the ‘Virginia dynasty’ (a run of Virginia-born presidents in the early years of America’s history), then the chances are you will be able to find the information here. “The facility owns the largest collection of Monroe artifacts, Monroe-related books, and significant archives including 700 letters to and from Monroe and 26,000 other original documents, including many focused on the Revolutionary and Federal periods of history.” This specialized resource benefits both students and other academics, as does the publishing project, ‘The Papers of James Monroe’.
‘The Papers of James Monroe’ seeks to help make sense of the Museum’s vast wealth of resources by publishing an accessible and comprehensive ten-volume collection of letters and papers by and about Monroe. Whilst ten volumes sound vast, this is still merely a selection of the full set of materials available in the museum. The latest volume in this series, Volume 7, was published earlier this year: the volume begins in 1814 and follows Monroe through his last years as Secretary of State through to his election as president in 1816. The next two volumes will follow Monroe’s presidential terms, and the final volume will presumably follow his life post-office.
Another piece of American history that makes UMW distinctive is the Gari Melchers Home and Studio, an estate and art museum at Belmont, a short distance from the Fredericksburg campus. UMW administers this estate, which is the former home of Gari Melchers, a famous 18th-century American figure painter. The Belmont grounds encompass 26 acres of wooded land that overlooks Fredericksburg’s Rappahannock River.
Unfortunately, both this stunning site and the James Monroe Museum have been temporarily closed to the public, due to efforts to help control the spread of the coronavirus. Like so many other incredible locations around the world, these sources of education and beauty must lay dormant for now, but their efforts to preserve history remain and mean that these cultural sites will still stand when the world returns to normal on the other side of this partial hibernation.
The same could be said for the university at large, which is continuing to support its students whilst also suspending some in-person classes in order to keep the student population and the wider population of Fredericksburg safe. This quiet is strange to observe in a state where tertiary education is so active. As Anna told us, “With 86 colleges and universities, including some of the most renowned in the U.S., the higher education landscape in Virginia has grown much more competitive.” In fact, Virginia’s higher-education system generates the second-highest graduation rates in America, despite receiving diminished funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia.
COVID-19 is not the only threat for traditional universities. “Four-year institutions in the U.S compete with dual degree/early college programs, community colleges, other regional campuses, and online providers,” Anna explained to us. “An even greater threat is the pending drop in the number of American high school graduates, expected to bottom out in 2026. Many colleges like UMW are striving to recruit more first-generation and minority students (especially Latino students), whose share of the population is growing, as well as adult students and non-traditional learners.”
Whilst the challenges that lay ahead for everyone are still partially unknown, UMW is heading into them from a strong position as one of the leading universities in the U.S. Smart Asset recently ranked Virginia the No. 1 higher education system in the country, based on graduation rates and returns on investment.
Even while students have been away from campus, construction projects have continued. Virginia Hall, one of the school’s oldest residence halls, is being upgraded, and Seacobeck Hall is being transformed in the College of Education. Before this virus caused the world to slow down, too, the university had other development plans in the works. One of these projects was an on-campus theatre that will be able to seat 300-400 people. Also, 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the university’s Philharmonic Orchestra. “The UMW Philharmonic Orchestra boasts approximately 80 members – a unique blend of both students and community members. True to UMW’s liberal arts roots, membership in the orchestra is open by audition to all UMW students, regardless of major, and to any community musician. In addition to touring the world, the orchestra has hosted and played with world-renowned musicians such as Itzhak Perlman and the Irish Tenors.”
Another distinctive undertaking that has needed to pause temporarily is the university’s annual ‘Crawley Great Lives Lecture Series’. “Beginning in 2004, during each spring semester, the University of Mary Washington offers a public lecture series/academic course titled ‘Great Lives: Biographical Approaches to History and Culture.’ Since the inception of the program, more than 200 figures have been covered in public lectures. Those individuals have been chosen to provide diversity, not just in terms of race and gender, but also in chronology and, especially, in fields of accomplishment. Participants have included a number who have won Pulitzer prizes and other prestigious awards, and the series has also investigated a few non-human subjects such as the racehorse Secretariat, as well as fictional characters including Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes. James McGrath Morris, former president of Biographers International Organization, has called it a ‘truly remarkable achievement,’ concluding that ‘quite simply, there is no other program comparable to it in the country.’”
Whilst pausing such programs must be difficult, the true mission of UMW has continued unabated. The heart and soul of the institution is its outstanding students and phenomenal faculty. They are carrying on Mary Washington’s great educational and cultural tradition.
“Institutions that started as women-only have a certain feel to them. A little friendlier. A little warmer. A little more inviting. Through the years, that’s created a palpable sense of welcome that’s very attractive to prospective students. More importantly, perhaps, this has shaped a culture that values inclusivity. Another factor that distinguishes Mary Washington is a strong connection to community. Not necessarily the community around Fredericksburg, but a community that encourages service and prepares students to be effective leaders. In other words, Mary Washington produces leaders who are connected to people they’re serving.”
These lessons are more important now than ever, and through imparting them to its students, UMW’s influence will likely have far-reaching consequences in the coming months, and in the world beyond it. As our cultures across the globe adapt to the changes we have experienced and the lessons we too have learnt during this time of crisis, caring leadership and an inclusive heart will be needed and should have the space to shine through. In that sense, the University of Mary Washington is a bright beacon.