A Look Back: Financial distress marks nation, GW

Many of the changes experienced by GW in the early-twentieth century were products of a changing America. Much like today, world and national events affected University life and forced GW administrators to cope with new situations.

The most severe shocks to University life was the stock market crash and widespread bank failures known as the Panic of 1893. A severe economic depression followed which nearly destroyed the University and halted the rapid growth of the United States economy.

As economic activity decreased and public confidence in the economy plummeted, the University, led by President Benaiah Whitman, could not balance its budget as costs rose and income fell. Much of Whitman’s disastrous administration was spent trying to reverse the tragic effects of the depression, to little avail.

After President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and Theodore Roosevelt took his place, the financial health of the country began to recover. Charles Needham, elected president of Columbian University in 1902, was unable to muster the same success for the University.

In 1907, another economic depression caused the most complete collapse of the U.S. banking system since the Civil War. As unemployment rose and the stock market collapsed, Needham saw his endowment dry up, monetary gifts cease and mortgages and loans on University property accumulate.

The turn of the century was also marked by a number of wars, including ones between China and Japan, Britain and the Boer Republics, and the United States and Spain. The Spanish-American War, which would make a military hero out of Roosevelt, did not affect GW as much as other wars, but one student marched to war in 1898; William “Billy” Mitchell, the famous World War I aviator and GW’s first nationally-renowned graduate. In 1919, Mitchell finished his degree and graduated “as of the class of 1899.” Mitchell Hall is named in his honor.

William Howard Taft succeeded Roosevelt, who received an honorary degree from GW in 1909, as president of the United States in 1908. During the Taft administration, the U.S. Attorney General’s office investigated charges of mismanagement of funds by Needham, who resigned in 1910.

Such investigations of corporate mismanagement became characteristic of both the Roosevelt and Taft administrations. Under the banner of “progressivism,” the two presidents worked to regulate worker exploitation, support free trade and protect the environment.

A three-way election race between Taft, Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson led Wilson to a landslide victory in 1912. Under Wilson, the United States would move reluctantly to war in the coming years, and under University President Charles H. Stockton, GW slowly began moving out of its “dark ages” as the University established itself in Foggy Bottom.

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