Wilkes’ Path to Modernization: Processing the Christopher N. Breiseth Papers, 1863-2013, bulk 1984-2001

Wilkes University Archives has a guest blog post written by Emily Cherkauskas, a sophomore double major in Communication Studies and English with minors in creative writing and women’s and gender studies. Emily is a staff member of The Beacon as an editor for the Life, Arts & Entertainment section and will work as Editor-in-Chief for the Fall 2021 semester. She plans to go into a career that allows her to utilize and enhance her writing and research skills.  For Spring 2021, Emily processed the Christopher N. Breiseth papers and created a finding aid that can be found here. The inauguration film, digitized by Media Preserve, LLC, can be found here. Below are her reflections on the collection. 

This Spring, I processed the Christopher N. Breiseth papers. Christopher N. Breiseth served as Wilkes’ fourth president from 1984 to 2001. This collection includes institutional files from 1863-2013, with the bulk of the materials dated from 1984-2001. It is important to note that the majority of documents in the Christopher N. Breiseth series contain sensitive or confidential information and are restricted from public use at this point in time. Restricted materials such as memorandum, correspondence, and committee meeting minutes and agendas have been identified in the finding aid and should be available within 50-80 years from the time of their creation.

Although many materials are restricted, this collection will be helpful for researchers who are studying higher education leadership, fundraising, and development. President Breiseth’s initiatives have expanded Wilkes University into the institution that it is today. 

Christopher N. Breiseth, 1974.

Born in 1936, Breiseth grew up during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, all of which had placed a strong impact on his educational pursuits. He graduated from the University of California with a BA in History in 1958. In 1962, Breiseth earned a Bachelor of Letters in Modern British History from Oxford University. And in 1964, he earned a PhD in Modern European Intellectual History at Cornell University. Breiseth served as a trustee (1959-1963) and a chair (1963-1965) of the Telluride Association, and later became President of the association from 1965-1967. During these times, he also worked as an Assistant Professor of History at Williams College and a History professor at Sangamon State University. Just before coming to Wilkes, Breiseth served as President of the small and elite Deep Springs College, located in California, from 1980-1983.

As the first external candidate to assume the Wilkes presidency since Farley, Breiseth was an outsider to the Wilkes-Barre community. This fresh perspective of Wilkes allowed for an easy transition to new changes under Breiseth’s leadership. During his tenure, Breiseth oversaw many improvements of Wilkes’s curriculum and programs, campus, and student life.

One of his most impressive achievements was the elevation of Wilkes from college to university status in 1990. The change from Wilkes College to Wilkes University allowed the school to have greater recognition in higher education. Additionally, Breiseth and his administration raised standards for many academic programs and established new ones. Some examples include the nursing program receiving higher distinction and praise after detailed improvement of courses and the creation of the pharmacy program in 1996. After studying the economic need of graduate experience in employees, Breiseth and his administration created graduate and doctoral STEM and medical programs, such as Master’s degrees in management information systems, nursing, electrical engineering, and engineering and applied sciences. The Arts and Humanities academic programs and majors separated into their own distinct programs with the goal of providing more unique courses to students.

Breiseth initiated the construction and dedication of important buildings and structures on campus. These included the Henry Student Center, constructed and dedicated in 1999, the Marts Center, constructed and dedicated in 1989, the Burns Bell Tower and Carillon, constructed and dedicated in 1987, and a number of city buildings and houses turned into campus dorms and apartments. Breiseth’s rigorous fundraising efforts and campaigns provided Wilkes with the money needed to complete these projects. 

During his presidency, President Breiseth corresponded with numerous local, national, and international organizations and institutions. Wilkes maintained connections to various high schools, junior colleges, and research universities for different transfer agreements. Breiseth also established partnerships with student programs from Bulgaria, Japan, Malaysia, Poland, the Soviet Union, and Sweden—decisions that helped increase Wilkes’s international student population and prestige. Additionally, Breiseth collaborated with federal educational and political organizations. Within the collection, there is personal correspondence to members of the Department of Education and various congressmen, senators, and governors.

The collection also contains important documents and transcripts relating to the various commencements, convocations, seminars, and lectures that Wilkes hosted during Breiseth’s time as president. Various marketing materials are represented in the collection, which reveal how we take pride in our unique local history and influence in the Northeastern Pennsylvania region. 

Breiseth’s presidency propelled Wilkes to modernize while still honoring our rich institutional history. His vision allowed Wilkes to become a more competitive university in the region, offering a vast catalog of academic programs and many buildings and halls for students to live, study, and work in–leading to a strong sense of community and influence that is still present today on campus.

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