The History of Southwestern University

Although officially chartered as Southwestern University in 1875, the school’s roots extend back to 1840, making it the oldest institution of higher learning in Texas. Located in Georgetown, a community just north of Austin, the school is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Its curriculum, however, is nonsectarian.

In 1870 the school was chartered as Texas University and first opened it doors in Georgetown in 1873. In 1875, however, the Texas Legislature revoked the school name. The school was renamed (from Texas University to Southwestern University) so that the earlier name could be reserved for a planned state public university (UT, which first opened in 1883).

Southwestern University had been formed from four earlier institutions: Rutersville College in Rutersville (near LaGrange in Fayette County), Wesleyan College of St. Augustine, McKenzie College of Clarksville, and Soule University of Chappell Hill. Rutersville College, the oldest of the four, had been chartered in 1840 by the Congress of the Republic of Texas. It is Southwestern’s link back to Rutersville College that provides the basis for its claim as “the first institution of higher learning in Texas.”

Note: Rutersville College had ceased operation in 1856. Its charter was revived in 1872 with the formation of Southwestern. Baylor University, chartered in 1845 (also by the Congress of the Republic of Texas), holds the designation of being the state’s oldest university continuously operating under its original charter.

Southern Methodist University was Southwestern’s main rival in the early 1900’s after an unsuccessful attempt to relocate Southwestern to Dallas which instead resulted in the establishment of SMU. When SMU’s student population became much larger, students at Southwestern began considering Trinity University and Austin College to be the school’s main rivals.

After World War II, Southwestern transformed itself into a small liberal arts institution, discontinuing its post-graduate degrees and disbanding its football team.

Southwestern has a history of drawing high-profile lecturers to campus, including William Jennings Bryan, Helen Keller, Bell Hooks, and alumnus J. Frank Dobie. Orators traveling by train often stopped off on their way to or from Austin, giving their lectures and catching the next train.

In January 2010 to further its goal to become carbon neutral, Southwestern signed an agreement with the City of Georgetown to get all of its electricity for the next 18 years exclusively from wind power. This deal makes Southwestern the first university in Texas to get all its power from renewable sources.

About Lyman

Lyman Hardeman has held a deep interest in Texas history. He spent his youth in College Station, Texas and received a degree in Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M in 1966. In 1995, Lyman created Lone Star Junction, a popular Texas history website that later merged with Lyman is a life member of the Texas State Historical Association and the author of Texas A&M The First 25 Years.