Presidential Profile: Charles W. Needham (1848-1935)

During the late 1880s, the Columbian University made remarkable progress in expansion, outreach and academic quality. By the turn of the century, however, much of this progress was erased. The dishonesty of University administration officials created a financial and many believed it would not survive.

In 1902, during these “dark ages,” Charles W. Needham became University president. Under Needham, the financial situation of the University went from disastrous to catastrophic. A former dean of the School of Jurisprudence and Diplomacy, Needham promised to raise much-needed funds, but the University’s large debt, mortgages on University property and the financial drain caused by the 1903 opening of the University Hospital, dashed these hopes.

Also during his tenure, the schools of pharmacy, veterinary medicine and engineering opened, courses were expanded and new buildings were constructed, which added to the economic burden. University Historian Elmer Kayser later wrote in his book Bricks Without Straw, “Needham warned his board about incurring debts but kept on spending.”

A number of University trustees resigned as the U.S. Attorney General investigated reports of mishandling of funds. Needham was the main culprit, as he illicitly spent endowment funds to pay for his expensive enterprises. The Attorney General’s office forced the University to repay the endowment, and the major downtown properties were sold. Undergraduate studies continued in rented townhouses along I Street.

While Needham is remembered for nearly bankrupting the University, the reason for his resignation in 1910, he initiated some important changes in student life. The name of the school was changed to The George Washington University, the school dropped its religious affiliation and the colors buff and blue were set as GW’s colors. Needham also encouraged the creation of a student newspaper and yearbook.

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