Munsell Hall: Maintaining a disrespectful history

Emma Cottrell

 Ferguson, Pfeiffer, Dodds, Dolan, Gulick: these dorms shape part of your experience at Illinois Wesleyan whether you like it or not. 

Deciding where and with whom you are going to live is one of the most exciting and stressful parts of living on campus. 

Many of these dorms are named after prominent and influential figures from Illinois Wesleyan’s history, supposedly people who helped make Wesleyan the educational institution that it is today. 

But this is not necessarily the case.

After attending the annual Evergreen Cemetery Walk, where you can watch actors play historical figures of Bloomington-Normal residing in the cemetery, I learned the unsettling history of Oliver Munsell, president of Illinois Wesleyan in the late 1850s to early 1870s. 

At the time Wesleyan was failing as an institution and in debt, so Munsell was called in to take over and try to save the dying school. 

He was successful in bailing the school out of debt and praised for his efforts. 

The reason his name graces one of our dorms is because he was the first president to open the doors for the female students. 

For this accomplishment, the first female dorm built on campus was named Munsell. 

Unfortunately, what comes later is cause for concern. 

In 1873, Munsell was accused of sexual harassment. 

The Pantagraph described Munsell as “somewhat profuse in his attention to some of the ladies, and that he kissed them rather too frequently. Nothing of a criminal nature is alleged against him by anyone connected with the students or faculty…an investigation…will at once take place.” 

This is exactly what happened which culminated in a trial on March 19 and 20, 1873.

Four faculty members and eight female students, including Mary Hood, testified against Munsell. 

Details of the testimonies were not put on record, so we will never know exactly what was said. 

The Pantagraph’s statement was confirmed by Mary Hood: Munsell would visit the girls at their boarding house and kiss them repeatedly. 

Munsell was called to resign. Because it was not a criminal trial, there were no criminal charges pressed, but Munsell’s actions were condemned by the school’s Board of Trustees. 

Their desire in doing this was to save the school’s reputation and move on. 

But if saving the school’s reputation was their intention, then why is the name Munsell still stamped on one of our buildings, leaving evidence behind.

The topic of sexual harassment and assault has come back into the spotlight within the last few years with sexual assault allegations coming out more and more against college students, celebrities and politicians. 

This is the perfect time for our school to make a change. 

The #MeToo Movement has given a voice to those who have been unheard for too long. Wesleyan has shown they care about this by not having Micheal Shermer speak at our convocation this year after based off sexual assault allegations against him. 

Wesleyan is supposed to be a place where people from all walks of life can find a community and a home. 

“If saving the school’s reputation was their intention, then why is the name Munsell still stamped on one of our buildings…”

Munsell’s name honors a past in which women were welcomed in and then thoughtlessly betrayed. 

Keeping all of this is mind, I propose the name be changed to something more appropriate for the first female dorm on campus. 

Possibilities include Mary Hood, the only name on record of who stood up against Oliver Munsell. 

Another potential name is Hannah Shur, the first female graduate of Illinois Wesleyan. Marietta Brown Reed Shay was the first female to graduate from IWU’s law school and was the sixth woman to practice law in Illinois. 

Rather than leave Munsell’s stain on our campus, I ask that we use this as an opportunity to celebrate the history of women on our campus and our home.