A Proud History

Celebrating our 175th Anniversary

Acadia University held a year-long celebration of its founding in 2013-2014. We hope you enjoy looking back over our history on these pages.

In the beginning

On November 15, 1838, meetings took place in Horton, N.S. (now Wolfville), and then in Nictaux, where plans were laid for the establishment of a college from which no one – student or faculty – would be barred on the basis of denominational affiliation.

Plans went forward swiftly, and on January 15, 1839, the college opened with two faculty and 21 students in attendance, initially sharing facilities with the boys’ school, Horton Academy, that had been established in Horton by the denomination a decade before. What would become Acadia University was born.

Through the 1840s, the college prospered modestly. The first class, numbering four, graduated in 1843 (Bachelor of Arts was the only degree then offered), and Acadia’s first building, College Hall, was built in that same decade, largely through the dedication and perseverance of Professor Isaac Chipman, to whom the college owed so much. However, the next decade showed how fragile a new institution could be, entirely dependent as it was upon denominational giving and very low tuition fees. The drowning death of Chipman and his students while on a geological expedition, and the loss of a substantial portion of its painfully-acquired endowment fund, nearly brought Acadia to its knees.

Significant changes

Weathering these storms, for the rest of the century Acadia saw modest growth and significant changes. By 1900 there were over 120 students on campus, a remarkable number in the Canadian post-secondary scene of that era. And by this time, the student body also included women. When Acadia was initially founded, the general view in North America was that higher education should be provided for males only. Attitudes slowly changed, and Acadia graduated its first female student in 1884. Women have been an important component of the Acadia community ever since. Before the end of the 20th century, females constituted more than 50 per cent of the student body.

Acadia was also one of the first institutions in the Commonwealth to admit students of African heritage. In 1893, Acadia admitted its first African Nova Scotian, which marked the beginning of a connection to this important Nova Scotia community. Many of the province’s most influential African Nova Scotian community leaders throughout the 20th century were Acadia graduates.

Changes in curriculum would take place during this time as well, as Acadia gradually moved away from the traditional classical education based on Latin and Greek, introducing modern languages, more sciences, and other subjects, and eventually a separate Bachelor of Science degree. More specialized education, as opposed to the general curriculum of the 19th century, began to predominate. Although it was never the intent that Acadia be primarily a training ground for Baptist ministers, theology was added to the curriculum, and eventually degrees in that area were established as well.

Student life was enriched by the beginning of campus, and eventually interuniversity sports, with cricket, tennis, football (rugby) and track-and-field being among the early favourites. The student newspaper, The Athenaeum, began in 1874, and the first students’ council was established in the 1880s.

The warm attachment that its students have always held for Acadia is reflected in the founding of the Acadia Alumni Association in 1859, which has supported and encouraged Acadia and its students ever since.

Dramatic growth

The 20th century would be one of dramatic growth for the institution. The student body would grow fivefold in the first 50 years and quadruple again in the last half of the century. Campus changed significantly as well, with dozens of new buildings being erected, while fires destroyed some of its earlier landmarks.

The academic offerings expanded significantly as well, with new programs in such fields as music, computer science, business, nutrition, education, and kinesiology. Campus became increasingly diverse, as Acadia attracted a wider array of international students.

Significant changes took place in student life on campus, beginning at mid-century with student demands to control more of their own lives while attending Acadia, and to have a greater say in the affairs of the University. Co-ed residences, student representation on the Board of Governors and the Senate, and increasing autonomy of the students’ union were important signs of change at Acadia and in North America.

Acadia faces the 21st century with both major challenges and exciting opportunities. It remains one of the select few small, first class, primarily undergraduate institutions in the country where small classes and individual attention is possible. However, this also comes at a significant cost, and it will be Acadia’s task to ensure that it can continue to provide such a specialized, high-quality education and survive financially, maintaining the high standards and rich educational experience that have characterized its first 175 years.

Special thanks to the author of this overview, Dr. Barry Moody (’67), Acadia University professor of History and Classics, and the author of Give us an A, a historical look at Acadia published in 1988.