History of Central Washington University

Did you know that Central Washington University has actually gone through four name changes? It’s only been CWU since 1977. Originally founded in 1891, its first name was “Washington State National School in Ellensburg.” How’s that for a mouthful?

Now it is filled with over 11,000 students annually, and was ranked “Top-rated four-year University in Washington,” by The Economist in 2015. Some other points of pride for the university include being honored for diversity (Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award from “INSIGHT Into Diversity” magazine), ranking high in online college affordability (Study.com) and being one of the top 35 schools in the West for “Best Bang for the Buck” (Washington Monthly College Guide).

CWU barge hall

The History

The “Washington State National School in Ellensburg” was originally founded to educated future teachers, and of its 51 students enrolled that first year, most of them were women. And it would stay a mostly female dominated school until much later on. Two years after opening its “doors,” the first official building was erected: The Barge Hall.

In 1915, the first dorms were built for women. Until that point, it had been mostly local students attending courses as they needed to be able to return home. Twelve years later in 1927, men would be allowed to live on campus as well, in their separated dorm building.

CWU campus

With over 24 million men registering for the draft during World War I from 1911 to 1918, the university lost thousands of male students. Top that off with a round of horrible influenza, and the school was suffering. But the principal at that time, George H. Black had an idea. He wanted to make being a student attractive, so he hired a coach to begin a competitive sports program. It worked. The school gained over 60 new male students just for that program alone.

Barge Hall

More Improvements

George H. Black did some amazing things during his time as president at what had become known as Central Washington College of Education (CWCE). He improved the school newspaper and yearbook, made the dorms available, and saw that a library and classroom buildings were constructed. Thanks to all of that hard work, the state of Washington took notice, and CWCE was able to require a high school diploma before people could register as a student.

After the recognition from the state, the school began offering three- and four-year degrees, one for rural school teaching and another for health education. Things were working out quite alright until the Great Depression.


Difficult Times

During the Great Depression, the school fell under hard times. With the new arrival of the first principal with a doctorate (in education), Robert Ervie McConnell had a hard task ahead of him. He led the school for close to 30 years, guiding it through the World War II, the depression and then the great expansion of students due to the G.I. Bill granting soldiers that returned home free admission in 1949. (Updated veterans information, here.)

But the Depression meant that many students were no longer able to afford tuition or housing which meant they had to drop out. McConnell was well known for being a penny pincher, and for literally counting the paper clips. Due to his annoying and sometimes upsetting diligence, the school made it through just alright. When the G.I.’s started coming in, the school went from 268 students to 1,558, which is when the school stopped being female dominated.

McConnell had the longest running presidency the school has ever seen, but wasn’t ready to make the changes that the Board of Trustees was seeking, so he left.


New Territory

In the years to come, new undergraduate majors would come, acreage expansion would happen, as would a new name in 1977. Central Washington University was the new name of this school.

wildcat statue

Sister campus relationships were built all over the world at this time as well. From Hungary, Japan, Mexico and China, the word was getting out about this great university.

The late ’90s and early 2000s brought about a lot of change for students and faculty alike. Computers had taken over. Then President Nelson, wanted to completely digitize the library catalogue and use email as the main form of communication. Under President McIntyre, faculty research and grant writing had taken off. Later she launched the first major fundraising campaign, garnering $21 million.


In 2006 the campus, still under McIntyre, signed its first union contract. With that came the retirement of professors, many of whom had been at the university for over 30 years. When hiring, minorities were more than welcome, and that brought about more changes to campus including new professors, new buildings and a music facility.

James Gaudino took over as president of CWU in 2009. In February 2020 he announced his plans for retirement in 2021.

If you’re in Ellensburg, consider a visit to Central Washington University. It’s worth a stroll around campus. For admissions information for Central Washington University, click here.

Photos by: Central Washington University

MacKenzie Passegger

MacKenzie Passegger is the face behind our various social media accounts, and also routinely writes articles on our blogs (that you’re hopefully enjoying). She's a Washington state native who found herself settling in Austria after bouncing around Europe. When her toddler isn’t keeping her on her toes, she enjoys cooking, craft beer & traveling back home. Being away from Washington allows her to have a different perspective and has deepened her love for the Evergreen State.

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