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A Ceremony’s Centennial

By Rebecca Vander Linde

President Wilson addresses the crowd at American University's dedication on May 27, 1914.

President Wilson addresses the crowd at American University's dedication on May 27, 1914. Photo by G. V. Buck, courtesy of the University Archives.

“May 27, 1914, forever will be the historic day of American University. Every auspice was favorable. A cloudless day had wrapped in beauty the noble westward slope whereon lies the great university campus.” - The American University Courier, Volume XXI, No. 1

American University marked the 100th anniversary of its opening and dedication on May 27, 2014. Twenty-one years after AU was chartered by an Act of Congress and approved by President Benjamin Harrison, George Washington’s dream of a prestigious national university in the country’s capital was realized.

President Woodrow Wilson, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, and Methodist bishops were among the dignitaries who gathered to speak and celebrate a university dedicated to scholarship and guided by religion.

Over one thousand Methodist leaders and church members flocked to Washington, D.C. for the festivities. “Every train that arrived at the Union Station throughout the morning brought more churchmen for the exercises,” The Washington Times reported. Spectators traveled from Union Station to AU’s campus on a new electric street car track, which also opened that day.

President Wilson told the assembled crowd, “The only thing that one can do in opening a university is to say we wish to add one more means of emancipating the human mind, emancipating it from fear, from misunderstanding, emancipating it from the dark and leading it into the light.”

Wilson's speech continued AU’s early and ongoing tradition of presidential involvement and endorsement—in 1893, President Harrison signed the Act of Congress chartering the university; in 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt spoke at the cornerstone laying for the McKinley Building, named for Roosevelt’s predecessor, President William McKinley; and both Roosevelt and McKinley served on AU’s Board of Trustees.

The university’s initial goals as an educational institution were to create a place for coeducational graduate study; to allow students to take advantage of the unique resources in Washington, D.C.; to attract scholars to teach its students both in D.C. and elsewhere; and to publish scholarly lectures and theses. The university awarded its first master’s and doctoral degrees in 1916 and awarded its first degree to a woman, Claudine Elizabeth Clements, in 1917. Looking at American University 100 years later, these principles continue to guide its path.

At the opening ceremony, the notes of the Star Spangled Banner, played by the Marine Band, accompanied the flag raising, forever cementing the university’s motto – “Pro Deo et Patria” – for God and Country.

“’For God and Country’ has been the shibboleth of every notable contest in the history of the world,” Secretary of the Navy Daniels said. “May [American University] fulfill its high mission and be a leading factor in the agencies working to make the national capital a mecca for education as it is the mecca for statesmanship!”

Of all the words spoken that day, perhaps Wilson’s charge to future American University scholars resonated most deeply with the university community.

Wilson spoke of a man lost in a desert: “His whole validity as a man depends upon his knowledge of the points of the compass and where everything else in the world is.” Wilson explained that if a man knows where east is, “we can steer for any part of the compass by relating ourselves properly to the east.”

“So we are here setting up on this hill as upon a high pedestal once more the compass of human life with its great needle pointing steadily at the lodestar of the human spirit. Let men who wish to come and look upon this compass and thereafter determine which way they will go!” Wilson concluded. The lodestar and compass became American University's official symbols through the 1960s.

Bishop William Fraser McDowell, president of the board of education for the Methodist Episcopal Church spoke of his vision for American University’s future: “It would be easy to grow prophetic and to foresee the day not far off when there shall be a thousand scholars, gathered out of all the land, bearing the advanced degrees of the world’s universities and bound together as Fellows of the American University.”

Prophetic words, indeed.

See additional photos and documents from AU’s first operational decade in the University Library’s exhibition Pro Dea et Patria: Graduate Education at American University (1914-1924). The exhibit will be on display on the first floor of the Library through the middle of July.