There is much in Honolulu’s news today about the seventeen furlough Fridays that, driven by declining state revenues, have been inserted into the 2009-2010 public school calendar. Understandably, the cutback is of concern to all and a challenge to the education of the students involved. But, rest assured, this experience is not unique. It happened before in Hawaii, and to the students of Punahou School/Oahu College no less.
On May 23, 1853 the petition to convert “the Punahou School into a college was granted” and Oahu College became a reality. Hesitation had been expressed by school president, Daniel Dole, and trustees regarding using the name College from the beginning. But advice from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which directed the Hawaii mission, was that the name was necessary if an endowment was to be raised.
Having a college in Hawaii was seen as fitting given the emergence of the Hawaiian nation and the pending independence of the Sandwich Islands missionaries. Noted W.D. Alexander, “We need such an institution to develop the intellectual resources of the country. Mental and moral power more than money is the real standard of a nation’s strength.”
Mr. Edward Beckwith, then principal of Royal School, was selected as the College’s first president and began his service on September 25, 1854. He wrote of the first freshman class that, “It will consist of 4 pupils, of whom Sammie Armstrong is one. They are few in number, but, if we go on, I should not fear to have them stand with any graduating class in any New England College, to be examined, four years hence.”
The building blocks were in place but the school’s existence was precarious. A trustee wrote to the American Board in July 1854 that:
the cost of supporting the children at the school was so great as almost to place it beyond their reach. … There was no very wealthy men at the Islands. The few who possessed a little property were liberal, but funds for endowing professorships must come mainly from the States. (Punahou 1841-1941, p. 189)
Clearly, an endowment was critical to the school’s survival. Even the students knew of this situation as evidenced by a letter written by Henry Alexander: “We are now waiting anxiously to hear from the States, whether the measures for getting an endowment for Oahu College are likely to succeed. If the endowment is not raised, all hope of getting an education on these Islands is pau.”
By early 1857 the question of an endowment was considered of such great urgency that the doors of Oahu College were closed. President Beckwith was himself sent to the East Coast to “wind up the business of securing an endowment.” He was also to select a Greek professor, class books for the library, apparatus, and to “get posted up” anew on educational matters. It was while on this trip that former Punahou student William DeWitt Alexander was hired. This began his fifty-five year relationship with the school as a teacher, president and trustee.
School did not resume for ten months, until the return of President Beckwith. Some money had been obtained but the school was still without a solid endowment. Tuition, room and board were raised to help cover expenses. It would be more than a century, and several financial scares later, before the school would begin amassing a viable endowment.
Editor’s Note: The information in this post was gleaned from Punahou, 1841-1942 by Alexander & Dodge. The book is an excellent reference regarding Punahou School’s first century.