The historic founding of Iowa Wesleyan University is rooted in the religious, educational and cultural aspirations of early settlers in the frontier settlement of Mt. Pleasant. Their aspirations were shaped by an impelling vision and a bold determination to build an institute of learning in the rapidly developing southeast corner of the Iowa Territory. On February 17, 1842, the Territorial Legislature granted a charter for the Mt. Pleasant Literary Institute, later named the Mt. Pleasant Collegiate Institute.
On March 8, 1843, Aristides Joel Priest Huestis, a New Englander by birth, signed a contract, the first dated document of the Institute, to act as Agent for raising money and supervising construction of the Institute Building. Three days later, four Mt. Pleasant residents donated twenty acres of land in four adjoining plots so that trustees could “within three years from this date erect a substantial building on some part of said donation, which building shall be used and forever appropriated as an institution of higher learning.”
Nearly three years later, in their minutes of November 11, 1845, trustees record: “Resolved by the board of Trustees we deem it expedient to elect a faculty and open a school on the first Monday in January next.” On that same date, they also named Huestis the President of the Institute. Classes began in the Institute Building, now known as Pioneer Hall, with two professors: President Huestis, who taught Natural and Moral Science and belles lettres, and Johnson Pierson, who taught ancient languages and literature. Mathematics was added to the curriculum later that year.
James Harlan was named President of the Institute in 1853. Known as a man of national and political interests, Harlan, an Iowa City lawyer and businessman, determined to advance the educational status of the Institute. He successfully raised funds to construct a second building, now Old Main, and expanded the curriculum, adding political economy and theology, as well as piano, drawing, French and German classes. At his urging, on February 15, 1855, the Institute’s name was changed to Iowa Wesleyan University to emphasize its enlarged college program and its sponsorship by the Iowa Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, granted in 1849.
The first college-level graduate of Iowa Wesleyan was Winfield Scott Mayne, who earned a B.A. degree in 1856. In 1859, Lucy Webster Killpatrick was the first woman granted a B.A. degree at Iowa Wesleyan. Belle Babb Mansfield, the first woman to be admitted to the bar in the United States, graduated from Iowa Wesleyan in 1866. Susan Mosely Grandison, the first female black graduate, earned her degree in 1885. Keyroku Miazaki from Tokyo, Japan, attended 1890- 91, the first documented international student. In 1958, Iowa Wesleyan graduate James Van Allen ‘35 discovered the earth’s radiation belts. These radiation belts now bear his name and allowed modern space travel to the moon and the International Space Station; of which, Iowa Wesleyan graduate and NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson ‘81 became the first female commander of the International Space Station. She set numerous records on three missions in 2002, 2007-08 and 2016-17.
On July 1, 1912, Iowa Wesleyan University became Iowa Wesleyan College. Through the years, the College has pioneered in such features as coeducation, the laboratory approach to teaching in the sciences, and service learning, adopted in 1967. More recently it has implemented an experiential learning program that integrates its Life Skills emphases with service learning and career experience into each student’s education. To prepare students for responsible citizenship and fulfilling careers, this program combines a broad-based liberal arts curriculum with community service learning opportunities and field experience in the chosen field of study. In May 2015 the institution readopted its earlier name of Iowa Wesleyan University to better reflect its role in serving the students, communitites, and busineses of southeast Iowa.
Iowa Wesleyan maintains a close affiliation with the United Methodist Church, from which it derives its sensitivity for spiritual values in social justice and human welfare, local, national and international. In its distinctive role among the many institutions of learning in America, Iowa Wesleyan holds fast to the ideals of its founding vision, while fostering creativity and the pursuit of truth in its developing curricular framework of Learning in Community.