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Our History

Opening the door.

The story of Roosevelt University is one of courage.

It all started in 1945. Edward J. Sparling, then president of the YMCA College in Chicago, refused to provide his board with requested demographic information regarding his student body, fearing they would instate a quota limiting the number of blacks, Jews, immigrants, and women enrolled. Sparling was an idealist and visionary, outspoken in challenging endemic inequality in an era that accepted it as second nature. After his refusal to meet the board’s request, Sparling resigned under protest. However, his moral courage inspired a brave exodus among the school’s principled faculty and staff. Nearly half left with him, vowing to create an independent, nonsectarian, coeducational institution of higher learning.

The new school was chartered as Thomas Jefferson College in 1945. Just two weeks later, Franklin Roosevelt, beloved president and champion of human rights, died in office. In honor of his contributions to equality and democracy, the school was renamed Roosevelt College. Touched by the tribute, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt – also a leading activist for peace and social justice – served as a beacon of encouragement and support for the institution and its vision, dedicating it "to the enlightenment of the human spirit."

"We can prepare to help the rest of the world and do it without fear, do it with good will; and they will sense that our own strength and our own example can give the rest of the world the hope that will lead us all to peace."

-- Eleanor Roosevelt, in her speech dedicating Roosevelt College on November 16, 1945.

Doing the impossible.

The school’s mission was clear: to make higher education available to all students who qualify academically, regardless of their socio-economic status, racial or ethnic origin, age or gender. Though they had no library, no campus, and no endowment, Roosevelt College did have financial backing from Marshall Field III, the Julius Rosenwald Foundation, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, among others.

Despite their challenges, President Sparling’s devoted team of faculty and staff got to work immediately, setting a high standard from the beginning. They were passionate and confident in their mission, determined to offer an accessible, quality college education to the public. With its flexible daytime and evening classes, progressive curriculum, rigorous emphasis on academics, and unwavering commitment to social justice, Roosevelt soon became one of the nation’s leaders in graduating diverse, well-rounded, community-minded citizens driven to make a difference in their greater society.

"If it is foolhardy for 68 men (including a significant number of women) to resign their jobs without assurance of future security, the faculty of Roosevelt was foolhardy. If it is impossible to remodel an 11-story building in 33 days, equipping it with classrooms, library, laboratories and offices, Roosevelt College was an impossibility."

-- Wayne Leys, Dean of Faculty, 1945

Eleanor Roosevelt tirelessly supported the school, stressing how important it is to "provide educational opportunities for persons of both sexes and of various races on equal terms and to maintain a teaching faculty which is both free and responsible for the discovery and dissemination of the truth." Her influence was invaluable and impacted some of the greatest minds of the 20th century. Early advisory board members include Marian Anderson, Pearl Buck, Ralph Bunche, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Gunnar Myrdal and Albert Schweitzer.

And now, more than sixty years later, Roosevelt continues to honor President Sparling’s founding principle of equal opportunity. The University still takes great pride in our diverse mix of students, from incoming freshmen to returning adult students; from those working full-time jobs to those working full-time on their degrees.

Because our outstanding faculty, staff and students still hold the University to the highest standards in academic and social leadership, we continue to honor our history of excellence while instilling within the next generation Franklin and Eleanor’s devotion to community, leadership and progress.