Few higher education institutions have seen such rapid development as Christopher Newport University (CNU). Named for the English mariner who helped establish Jamestown in 1607, CNU evolved in less than 50 years from a small, local college to a respected senior institution in Virginia's higher education system. First located in a donated public school building, the campus now has first-rate academic and residential facilities, as well as a world-class performing arts center. While continuing its original charge of educating Virginia Peninsula residents, CNU now draws students from all over the commonwealth and beyond.
However, this young university's evolution has not always been an easy one, due to challenges ranging from budget shortfalls to political battles. Nevertheless, dedicated work by generations of students, faculty, alumni, and staff, along with friends from the outside community, has kept Christopher Newport University moving forward.
CNU can trace its origins to a group of late-1950s Tidewater Virginia businessmen who were interested in enhancing the region's higher education system. Booming population growth and consolidation of localities prompted many civic leaders to reevaluate the region's educational infrastructure. In 1958, the NorfolkJunior Chamber of Commerce and interested citizens throughout Hampton Roads requested that the then-U.S. Office of Education analyze the area's higher educational needs. The office's 1959 report noted the region's increasing number of college-bound students and recommended that the Commonwealth of Virginia create a new two-year college in the North Hampton Roads area (the Peninsula) as a feeder school for the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.
Delegate Lewis A. McMurran Jr. lobbied successfully to locate the new college in his native Newport News, supported by businessman E.]. "King" Meehan and others who wanted such an institution in that area. As an influential member of the Virginia House of Delegates, McMurran later sponsored the bill authorizing the establishment of the proposed "two-year division of William and Mary at Newport News" in the 1960 General Assembly session. Although the City of Hampton also placed a bid for the new college, Newport News officials sealed the deal when they donated the old John W. Daniel School in downtown Newport News for use as a temporary site. Further, they agreed to supply land for a permanent campus at a later date.
Meanwhile, William and Mary officials began preparing budget estimates to open the two-year branch in September 1961. They appointed William and Mary's dean of admissions and student aid, H. Westcott Cunningham, as the college's first director (and later first president) on September 15, 1960. Around the same time, William and Mary's board of visitors adopted "Christopher Newport College" as the institution's permanent name. A group of officials, including Cunningham and McMurran, chose the name to honor Captain Newport's Peninsula ties and for his role as Virginia's "true founder."
Christopher Newport College (CNC) opened formally on September 18, 1961, in the old Daniel school with eight full-time faculty members and about 170 students. On that day, President Cunningham later recalled "hearing that bell ring at ten to eight on a Thursday morning and having chills go up and down my spine, thinking 'a college is born.' " As students attended classes, Cunningham and his staff scrounged for library books, furniture, and other supplies from whatever sources possible. They also began seeking appropriations to start building on the permanent campus site known as the "Shoe Lane tract," a stretch of land in central Newport News.
Although the new college's presence on that largely residential site was somewhat controversial, construction began in December 1963. At the time, student enrollment surpassed 600 students. On the Shoe Lane property, Christopher Newport Hall opened on September 1, 1964. Thereafter, students had to shuttle between the Daniel school and the new campus until Gosnold Hall was completed in February 1966. The campus-building boom continued into the early 1970s with the construction of Ratcliffe Gym (1967), the Captain John Smith Library (1968), Wingfield Hall (1970), and the Student Center (1973).
President Cunningham also led the young college's transition from two-year to four-year status in the late 1960s, a pivotal moment in its history. With the student body exceeding 1,000, both campus officials and community residents sought a more comprehensive academic curriculum. They argued that Christopher Newport could be best utilized by serving local youth and adult learners, allowing the Williamsburg campus to maintain its focus as a national university. Although William and Mary president Davis Y. Paschall expressed concerns regarding the young college's readiness for this step, he was a steadfast supporter of the school, and he wanted the institution to prosper. Paschall therefore agreed to Christopher Newport becoming a baccalaureate institution, which took effect in 1971.
In 1970, Dr. James c. Windsor was named Christopher Newport College's second president. A longtime CNC faculty member and administrator, President Windsor was well prepared to oversee the college's growth into its second decade of existence. As course offerings as well as campus clubs and athletic programs continued to expand, Windsor and his colleagues envisioned the next major step in the college's evolution: independence from William and Mary. They believed this step would permit the young college to better manage its affairs and determine its own destiny. President Windsor initiated this process by securing CNC its own advisory board, an important step toward an independent board of visitors.
Although support for independence began to grow in the Newport News community, McMurran adamantly opposed splitting from the "ancient college," as he always called William and Mary. He did not want Christopher Newport to lose this special affiliation with the second-oldest college in the United States. However, after extensive consultation with CNC officials and community leaders, McMurran put his feelings aside to sponsor the necessary legislation in the General Assembly. Boosted by William and Mary's support, the bill passed, and independence was granted, taking effect on July 1, 1977.
As the CNC community rejoiced, however, challenges arose to threaten its continued welfare. State budget shortfalls sometimes left President Windsor with few resources to support the growing campus. Further, he contended with fallout from the 1973 Shaner Report, which resurfaced briefly in 1978. Named after a higher education consultant commissioned by the General Assembly to streamline educational costs, the report recommended closing Christopher Newport and sending its students back to William and Mary. Local state legislators assured President Windsor that such a plan would never take effect, and the idea was never considered seriously. However, the report left residual feelings of fear and insecurity among some CNC faculty and staff that persisted into the early tenure of Windsor's successor, Pres. John E. Anderson Jr. Despite these challenges, President Windsor finished his tenure on a high note in 1979, managing to secure construction funding for a new administration building and other campus facilities.
Additional budget problems in the early 1980s presented more institutional challenges. A weak economy eliminated potential funding for establishing graduate programs and building a residence hall, among other goals. Despite these setbacks, President Anderson accomplished other important objectives during his tenure, such as modernizing CNC's administrative structure. Student SAT averages increased, and the traditional-aged population grew, offering some balance to adult learners. The student population also grew toward its modern enrollment of nearly 5,000. By working with political and community allies, Anderson successfully secured resources to build a science building. He further strengthened the college's standing by establishing an educational foundation and forging new alliances with community members. During this period, Lewis McMurran was also recognized for his contributions to CNC when Christopher Newport Hall was renamed in his honor.
The college's fourth president, Dr. Anthony R. Santoro, continued CNC's progress by seeking to modernize its image and elevate its standing within the state. Although Christopher Newport had been a fully autonomous baccalaureate institution since the 1970s, some observers still considered it a two-year college or else mistook it for a community college. To correct this inaccurate picture of CNC, President Santoro worked to raise the college to its full potential. In collaboration with political and civic allies, he secured corporate support and was also successful in inaugurating the first graduate programs in 1991. Along with enhancing the quality of students and faculty, he also introduced new academic opportunities, such as study-abroad programs like the President's Summer Seminar in London. Most importantly, President Santoro, Delegate Alan Diamonstein, and Sen. Hunter Andrews led the effort that culminated in Christopher Newport achieving university status in 1992.
CNU continued its physical expansion during the Santoro administration with a large addition to the library and the mid-1990s acquisition of Ferguson High School, which provided additional classroom space for the growing university. The 1994 opening of CNU's first residence hall was another major milestone. The facility was named the Carol K. and Anthony R. Santoro Residence Hall to honor the first president and his wife for their accomplishments. Developing a residential student population later played a key role in the expansion of campus life and encouraged geographical diversity among the student body. Although the university had endured some growing pains, dedicated work by many in the CNU community from the 1970s through the early 1990s seemed to ensure its future prosperity.
By the mid-1990s, Christopher Newport University still faced significant challenges. Increased competition from four-year and community colleges led to flat enrollments. The university was still underfunded with only a small endowment, despite strong political support from area legislators. With the increased institutional competition, CNU also needed to find a new niche in Virginia's higher education system, even as it continued its original mission of serving Peninsula residents. Santoro's successor, former U.S. senator Paul S. Trible Jr., subsequently built upon the foundation laid by all of his predecessors to craft a bold new 21st-century role for Christopher Newport.
Sworn in as CNU's fifth president in January 1996, Trible used the political and leadership skills he had cultivated in the U.S. Congress to build support necessary for transformational growth. To build CNU's distinctive image for potential students across the region, President Trible stressed the university's greatest assets-small class sizes and a dedicated, caring faculty. In turn, he created a vision for Christopher Newport that focused on students obtaining the benefits of a private school liberal arts education for a public school price. By the late 1990s, this message began to resonate among students within Hampton Roads, throughout Virginia, and beyond.
During this period, the university also increased its admission of traditional-aged, residential students to cultivate an on-site learning community. This, in turn, would encourage students to complete their education there and graduate in a timely manner. Therefore, CNU embarked on a $500 million building campaign that included several new residence halls by the early 2000s, fundamentally reshaping student demographics. Large numbers of students from Northern Virginia and other parts of the state were enrolled, driving the residential student population to nearly 3,000. In time, the out-of-state student population also rose. The presence of brand new, state-of-the-art residence halls gave CNU a key recruiting edge over colleges with older facilities.
The university's building boom continued with the 2000 opening of the Freeman Center, providing a new home for the institution's athletic programs. CNU's 2001 establishment of a NCAA Division III football team was another important milestone in enhancing campus life. However, budget cuts brought on by a sluggish state economy in 2002 slowed CNU's rapid growth for a time. With only limited operational funds, the university was forced to make some painful decisions and eliminate worthy programs, such as nursing, from its curriculum. Despite some controversy over the change to its image, the institution rallied quickly and moved forward.
CNU enriched the cultural life of its campus and region with the construction of the I.M. Pei-designed Ferguson Center for the Arts, which opened in 2004. This facility has since hosted world-class performers such as Tony Bennett and Andrea Bocelli, drawing more than 583,000 guests. As the rapid increase in residential students placed a strain on its aging library and student center, the university focused on building larger replacements. The David Student Union (opened in 2006) and the Paul and Rosemary Trible Library (opened in 2008) provided state-of-the-art facilities for the growing student body. In addition, new academic buildings, such as an integrated science center and a new McMurran Hall, are planned for construction over the next few years.
Beyond enhancing the campus's facilities, President Trible has also focused on expanding academic opportunities and increasing financial support for the university. He has helped to expand foreign travel opportunities for CNU students, allowing them to study all over the world, including at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. Working with political and civic leaders, Trible has also secured millions of dollars for scholarships and academic programs from private donors and corporations such as Canon Virginia, Inc., Canon U.S.A., Inc., and Smithfield Foods, Inc. In 2005, Smithfield Foods, Inc., provided CNU with a $5-million gift, used in part to establish the Joseph W. Luter III School of Business, named after Smithfield Foods' former president. Further, in September 2007, an agreement was reached to house the renowned Mariners' Museum library collection at CNU, allowing students and scholars around the world a rare opportunity to access these valuable resources at the Trible Library.
As Christopher Newport has grown, its mission has also evolved. Citing a need for effective national and global leadership, President Trible has encouraged faculty to adapt CNU's curriculum to educate emerging leaders by launching a leadership studies minor as well as the President's Leadership Program. In 2008, the Luter School of Business was also transformed into the Luter College of Business and Leadership to further reinforce the university's commitment to leadership development and civic engagement. While continuing its original charge of educating the region's students, this new leadership focus has given the university a unique identity within the higher education community.
Overall, Christopher Newport's growing combination of first-rate facilities, expanding academic opportunities, and increased public interest has triggered an explosion in applications. From 1996 to 2006, the number of applicants grew by more than 500 percent. Moreover, this infusion of high-ability students prompted grade point averages to rise, along with an average SAT score increase of more than 200 points. The university has attracted national attention for this progress in both media and educational circles. As Christopher Newport University advances its modern mission of educating leaders for the 21st century, its future looks brighter than ever.