Historically White: Lawrence University’s first BIPOC President

From the founding of Lawrence University to President Mark Burstein, the university has largely consisted of a white administration. Lawrence University was founded by Amos A. Lawrence, a wealthy merchant from Groton, Massachusetts, about 35 miles northwest of Boston. Amos was a descendant of John Lawrence, who was the first of the family to arrive in America from England in 1635 and later helped establish the town of Groton in 1660. More than a century later, Samuel Lawrence, a descendant of John Lawrence, established an academy in Groton, which is now called the Lawrence Academy at Groton. Samuel had five sons, one of whom was Amos. Amos became a successful businessman and distributed a large amount of his wealth to multiple causes, including the colonization of American Negroes in Liberia, the founding of Kansas State University and organizing regiments in the Civil War. Amos sought to use his wealth to improve his neighborhood and better the lives of those around him. 

Amos wished to establish a college on the land he owned in the Wisconsin territory and instructed three other white men, Rev. William Harkness Sampson, Rev. Henry Root Colman and Rev. Reeder Smith, to help him found Lawrence in 1847. Sampson became the first principal of Lawrence University, serving from 1849 to 1853, at the time when the university only functioned as a preparatory school. When Lawrence requested Sampson’s assistance in founding Lawrence University, Sampson resigned as principal of the preparatory school and served as a faculty member of the school. Edward Cooke would become the first president of Lawrence University, serving from 1853 until 1859. Before he became president of Lawrence, Cooke taught and served as principal at two schools, and was a pastor of a Methodist Church for six years. Cooke set high moral and academic standards for his students and established the strong foundation that exists today.  

During its early years, the university struggled with the effects of the Civil War and financial problems. However, President Samuel Plantz significantly improved Lawrence with his return back to his alma mater in 1984. During Plantz’ 30 years as president, the student body increased from 200 to 800, eight major buildings were constructed and the Conservatory of Music was established as a separate part of the university. In 1913, the university adopted the name Lawrence College. President Henry Merritt Wriston (1925-1937) articulated the commitment to a liberal arts education by stating the ideals of character, ethics and passion that are the foundations of a liberal arts education. Freshman Studies was then introduced by President Nathan Marsh Pusey (1944-1953) to broaden the areas of knowledge introduced to freshmen. In 1964, under the presidency of Curtis W. Tarr (1963-1969), Lawrence University was consolidated with Milwaukee-Downer College for Women. Merging with the women’s college was a step in the right direction toward gender equality, but the university’s first female president was not appointed until 2004 with the inauguration of Jill Beck. Beck broke the gender barrier, but the university still lacked racial diversity among its administration. 

While the university’s foundations are rooted in that of wealthy white men, Laurie A. Carter, who is an African American woman, will become Lawrence University’s first BIPOC president on July 1, 2021. Carter was born in New Jersey and attended Clarion University in Clarion, Pennsylvania where she received a Bachelor of Science degree in communications. She competed in track and cross country there. She received her master’s degree from Williams Paterson College and earned her JD from Rutgers University.  

Carter spent 25 years at The Juilliard School as its first African American administrator. Carter held many leadership positions at Juilliard, most recently standing as vice president, general counsel and executive director of Jazz Studies in 2013. Carter then left Juilliard to lead the arts education department at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Afterwards, she held office as vice president and university counsel of Eastern Kentucky University. In 2017, she was named president of Shippensburg University before she returned to her liberal arts roots.

Although Carter’s time at Shippensburg was brief, she established and implemented a variety of programs to further academic success, diversity and inclusion. Carter created a program for first-generation college students and established both a student success center and an academic center for student-athletes. As a part of Carter’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, Carter introduced the addition of a diversity officer, aided in the expansion of the Title IX office and created an Anti-Racism Institute. Because of Carter’s extraordinary efforts, she was named one of 25 outstanding women in higher education by “Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.”

By establishing programs to promote diversity and inclusion, Carter reinforces the ideals of moral integrity and high character that Lawrence University was established upon. The induction of Laurie Carter as Lawrence University’s 17th president marks the turn of the tide, with the university’s first Black president determined to foster a diverse learning community here in Appleton. Having a Black, female leader will amplify the voices of marginalized groups, which has previously been difficult to achieve with a historically white administration. Under Carter’s leadership, we are headed in the right direction to establish an ethnically and racially equitable environment that prioritizes the success of every student.  

We would also like to recognize the other faculty, staff and administrators of color here who are already contributing to our community to foster understanding without bounds. The effort of these individuals have been an integral part of making Lawrence University what it is today as we strive toward establishing ourselves as a truly anti-racist institution.