Prior to its founding in Georgetown, charters had been granted by the Legislature (Texas Congress 1836-1845) to establish four earlier educational institutions: Rutersville College of Rutersville, Texas in 1840, Wesleyan College of Saint Augustine, Texas in 1844, McKenzie College of Clarksville, Texas in 1848, and Soule University of Chappell Hill, Texas in 1856. Southwestern's founding date was 1840, when Rutersville opened its doors, thus making it Texas' first university (which is further supported by Texas gubernatorial decree). Southwestern is also the 2nd oldest coeducational liberal arts college west of the Mississippi.
None of these four institutions lasted very long, but in 1873, the union of these four institutions opened in Georgetown as Texas University, after a group had been founded for its creation in 1870 as Methodism's central university in Texas during a meeting in Galveston by church donors. Wanting the name for a state school of nearly the same name, the University of Texas, in Austin, the state granted the new university a charter in 1875 under the name of Southwestern University continuing in the tradition of the original charter for Rutersville.
Southwestern was a charter member of the Southwest Conference in 1915 and for decades the main sports rival was Southern Methodist University, as remembrance over the near-removal of Southwestern to Dallas, leading to the founding of Methodism's second institution of higher learning in Texas. SMU, however, grew to the point of no longer being near Southwestern in size. In the 1970s and 1980s, Southwestern transformed itself into a small rigorous liberal arts institution, getting rid of its post-graduate degrees and completely rebuilding the campus with a massive capital campaign. The endowment also rose substantially, as did academic standards.
Southwestern has a history of drawing prolific lecturers to campus, including Helen Keller, bell hooks, and alumnus J. Frank Dobie. These luminaries were stopping off from the train on their way to, or from, Austin, giving their lectures, and catching the next train. Speakers at the annual Brown Symposium have included author Isaac Asimov (through a video conference) in the early 1980s and Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in 2002. The Shilling Lecture series has drawn such names recently as presidential advisor Karen Hughes (2003), Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2004), former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (2005), and former Governor of New Jersey Thomas Kean (2006).
The university offers 37 majors and 33 minors in the Brown School of Arts and Sciences and the Sarofim School of Fine Arts, including offerings for pre-professional programs in Athletic Training, Law, Medicine, and Theology.
Loren Pope, former education editor for The New York Times, included Southwestern in his 1996 book, Colleges That Change Lives. He wrote, “[Southwestern] is one of the few jewels of the Southwest whose mission is to prepare a new generation to contribute to a changing society, and to prosper in their jobs, whatever and wherever in the world they may be.”
Respected sources like Money magazine and College: The Undergraduate Experience in America by Ernest Boyer say that smaller schools like Southwestern provide students with the best educational opportunities. According to these and other sources, colleges and universities with no more than 2,000 students provide a high percentage of students with a fulfilling and successful undergraduate experience.
Southwestern has been named a “Best Buy” in education by U.S. News & World Report, The Fiske Guide to Colleges, Money magazine and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. Most recently, Southwestern was named the nation's 7th “Best Value” undergraduate institution by the 2005 Princeton Review college guide, underscoring Southwestern’s value-added educational experience.
In 1998, Southwestern faculty, students, alumni, staff and trustees identified the University’s core purpose and core values. The core purpose: Fostering a liberal arts community whose values and actions encourage contributions toward the well-being of humanity. The core values: Promoting lifelong learning and a passion for intellectual and personal growth; fostering diverse perspectives; being true to one’s self and others; respecting the worth and dignity of persons; and encouraging activism in the pursuit of justice and the common good. A sixth core value, cultivating academic excellence, was added in 2008.
The National Survey of Student Engagement’s 2007 Institutional Engagement Index found that students at Southwestern University were more engaged than the national average in all five areas of educational practice measured for the sixth year in a row. These educational practices include: level of academic challenge, active and collaborative learning, student-faculty interaction, enriching educational experiences and supportive campus environment. Among both first-year students and seniors, Southwestern was in the top 10 percent of schools nationally in the areas of student-faculty interaction and enriching educational experiences. It also ranked in the top 10 percent in level of academic challenge,
In 2007, Southwestern president Jake Schrum appeared on the Today Show announcing that Southwestern University would not participate in the peer review section of the U.S. News and World Report's annual college rankings.
The 2008 edition of The Best 366 Colleges, published by the Princeton Review, ranked Southwestern #7 in the country for Best Career/Job Placement Services. The list was compiled through a survey of 120,000 students at colleges included in the book.
As of 2007, 1,310 undergraduate students were enrolled, with 125 faculty. The class of 2011 is 63% female and 37% male, with SAT scores averaging at 1220. The class comes from 17 different states, but with a vast majority from the state of Texas. Fifty percent of the first-year students were in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class and 82 percent were in the top 25 percent of their high school class. Twenty-two percent of first-years are minority students. Southwestern University is very selective, accepting about a third of its applicants.
99% of the faculty have earned doctoral or similar terminal degrees in their respective fields. The student to faculty ratio is 10:1, with an average class size of 14 students, a major selling point for most students. This low ratio allows for students and faculty to engage in a less formal interaction as well as maintain a working relationship in the classroom. Collaborative research and publication with students is common.
The Roy and Lillie Cullen Building (formerly called the Administration Building) was completed in 1896 and houses the administration, admissions office, business office, and classrooms. Throughout different times in its history, it has also housed the campus auditorium, gymnasium, chapel, and library.
The Lois Perkins Chapel was built in 1950 and includes an Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ and stained glass windows along the east and west sides depicting Reformation leaders on one side and Methodist leaders on the other along with the educational institutions they were affiliated with.
The A. Frank Smith Library Center was opened originally in 1939 as the Cody Memorial Library as part of a WPA project. It was expanded in 1966 and again in 1989, receiving the new name as a result of the second expansion.
The McCombs Campus Center opened in 1998, replacing the Bishops' Memorial Student Union Building and University Commons, which includes dining facilities, the campus bookstore, ballrooms, and student organization offices. It is named for billionaire entrepreneur and Southwestern alum Red McCombs.
The Fayez Sarofim School of Fine Arts is housed in the Alma Thomas Fine Arts Building. The FAB has two recently completed additions, one which added space in 1998, and another in 2008 which encompassed a complete revision of the 700-seat Alma Thomas Theater. The FAB also includes the Caldwell-Carvey Foyer, numerous practice rooms, art studios, and an instrumental rehearsal hall.
Southwestern is a member of the NCAA Division III Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC). The school mascot is the pirate. Southwestern has not played football since the late 1940s, after the program fizzled following World War II. During the war years of 1944 and 1945 with Southwestern a participant in the Navy's V-12 College Training Program, the Pirates won the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. The college also has men's and women's lacrosse, which will transition from club to varsity teams in 2009. The men's team is a member of the Lonestar Alliance conference in the MCLA (Men's Collegiate Lacrosse Association), and the women's team is a member of the Texas Women's Lacrosse League (TWLL). In 2007, both teams won championships in their respective divisions. In addition, SU has a nationally ranked handball team who won Division II National Collegiate Championship in 2007.
Southwestern hosts several national social fraternities and sororities, including the fraternities Pi Kappa Alpha, Phi Delta Theta, Kappa Sigma, and Kappa Alpha Order, along with sororities Alpha Delta Pi, Delta Delta Delta, Alpha Xi Delta, and Zeta Tau Alpha. Over the past couple decades, the traditional Greek dominance of social life has lessened, with about 1/3 of campus belonging to a social fraternity or sorority, a decline from being a majority of students. There are also over 100 student organizations on campus, from political to special interest groups. The diverse student organizations have included everything from Gardening Club, Jewish Student Association, ASIA Club to Progressive Students Alliance, Amnesty International, and Equestrian Club. The school also hosts chapters of several academic honor organizations, including Alpha Chi, and Phi Beta Kappa. The national co-ed service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega also has a chapter, along with the national Christian fraternity Kappa Upsilon Chi and Christian sorority Sigma Phi Lambda.