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Henry Parks Wright
Yale’s First College Dean

On November 23, 1912, a few hours before the Yale-Harvard game, a group of alumni gathered to dedicate Wright Memorial Hallon the Old Campus in honor of Henry Parks Wright, the first dean of Yale College. In a significant break from tradition, the new residence and lecture hall (which was renamed Lanman-Wright Hall in 1993) became the first building at Yale to be named in honor of a living person. But 25 classes had cherished Wright’s counsel and friendship, and upon his retirement in 1909, they came together to fund an edifice that would fulfill Wright’s dream of unifying undergraduate life.

Until 1884, Yale functioned without a dean, but as the enrollment approached 1,100, President Noah Porter informally asked Wright to help him by taking over the records of the junior and senior classes. For the first two years Wright stoically kept all of the records without a clerk, even as he continued to teach a full schedule as Dunham Professor of Latin Language and Literature.


“To arbitrate between a large body of impulsive young men and a College Faculty is no light matter.”

The dean had been accustomed to work and responsibility from an early age. A few weeks after his birth in 1839, Wright’s father died, and his mother died when he was 3. Raised by his grandmother, he became a schoolteacher at 17. Wright earned enough to attend Phillips Academy, but he left before graduating to join the Union army in 1862. After his regiment was mustered out in 1863, he finished preparing for college privately. Nearly 25 when he entered Yale in 1864, Wright graduated as valedictorian of the Class of 1868. While an assistant professor of Latin, he pursued graduate study and in 1876 received a doctorate from Yale.

Undergraduate life changed dramatically during Wright’s deanship. From 1884 to 1894, the college enrollment doubled to 1,150, and the few rooms left for freshmen were mostly uninhabitable, forcing the freshmen to room off campus. This led to the opening of privately owned residence halls around the campus, some of which were very luxurious. Over time, the students became widely separated by income and social standing. Wright described the situation as “a growing evil.” He felt that if the spirit of true democracy at Yale were to be perpetuated, it was essential that freshmen should at once be a part of the College and the University. The alumni committee of “Wright’s boys” responded by raising funds for a dormitory that for the first time would be a cooperative gift, rather than one person or family, and there were many contributors, rich and poor. Another unique feature of the alumni gift was that part of the income from the building was to provide a life pension for Wright.

At Wright’s retirement, Professor Bernadotte Perrin, Class of 1869, said: “In theatrical parlance, you have created the role” of dean and introduced “a new era” in student-faculty relations. “ To arbitrate between a large body of impulsive young men and a College Faculty, is no light matter. We all know how volcanic is the one, and how full of horned cattle is the other.”

In the difficult corner site formerly occupied by Alumni Hall, architect William Adams Delano, Class of 1895, designed an elegant Collegiate Gothic hall with a raised court. Accommodating 150, it was the largest dormitory on the Old Campus. The hall was also a memorial to others; two entries, five classrooms and twenty-five rooms were donated and named after deceased alumni. One suite was named for Wright’s son Alfred Parks Wright, Class of 1901, who died in May of his senior year. The new quadrangle begun with Farnam Hall in 1869 was now complete.

During the construction of Wright Hall in 1911, a poignant testimonial by a former student was published in The Heir of Slaves, by William Pickens, Class of 1904: “Dean Henry P. Wright of Yale, after reading the recommendations of my former teachers, had written that I could enter the junior class. This great scholar and good man has been a constant friend since that first acquaintance.”  the end


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