The present Robert College is the consolidation of two renowned schools – the old male Robert College and The American College for Girls.
The first school, the old Robert College, was born in 1863 in the village of Bebek by the Bosphorus, when Christopher Robert approached Cyrus Hamlin with his desires and found a receptive audience. Hamlin, an American schoolmaster, had been running a school, a bakery and a laundry in Bebek at the time. Robert was a wealthy American industrialist desiring to establish in Turkey a modern university along American lines with instruction in English. These two men, an educator and a philanthropist, successfully collaborated to found Robert College.
In 1864, the Board of Regents of the State of New York granted a charter to Robert College enabling it to confer the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Also, in 1864, a Board of Trustees was formed with Robert as its first Chairman. It is this very same Board of Trustees which has continued governing and supporting the school since then. Robert’s initial personal contribution of $30.000 has since been augmented by the generosity of countless individuals.
Five years later, another kind of charter was secured, an imperial decree, an ‘’irade’’, from the Sultan. It confirmed the right of the college to operate as an educational institution and gave it permission to build a proper campus on the heights of Rumelihisar by the Bosphorus. Hamlin immediately set to work on the new campus. His first building is a good example of the innovative aspect of the college spirit. Citing Hamlin Hall as the first example of truly modern use of steel girders, the historian Arnold Toynbee noted, ‘’…it was built by an imaginative amateur on the shores of the Bosphorus, (and) not until the following century did the seeds sown by Hamlin begin to bear fruit in North America and in Western Europe.’’
What Hamlin and Robert planted indeed flourished. Under the subsequent leadership of George Washburn (1877-1903) and Caleb Gates (1903-1932) the college grew in size and scope through the help of benefactors such as John S. Kennedy, Olivia Stokes and members of the Dodge and Huntington families. By the early 20th century, Robert College had become a leading institution in the Middle East.
Always responsive to new ideas, the college adapted to changes in its environment. Originally the composition of its student body reflected the diverse ethnicity of the Ottoman Empire. With the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the school focused on educating the young of the Republic.
The transition was a smooth one, helped by past graduates. Indeed, the first Turkish co-director of the school, Hüseyin Pektas, was a double milestone, by also being the first Moslem boy to graduate from the college. Throughout the transitional period of the Turkish nation from a monarchic empire to a modern republic, the college maintained the strict political neutrality expected from an academic institution. Thus, its education of the leaders of the future went on without interruption, much to the benefit of the young republic.
Another idea of Cyrus Hamlin, of earth shattering novelty and importance for its time for Turkey, underlines the contribution of Hamlin to the college spirit. Having started Robert College for boys, Hamlin also wanted ‘’ … a female college or institution, which shall hold the same relation to female education that Robert College does to male.’’
Hamlin did not fulfill this goal, but someone else did. In doing so she created a second source of the present college spirit. When Hamlin Hall was but four years old, a young American woman joined the faculty of the Home School in Üsküdar, on the eastern side of the Bosphorus. Like Cyrus Hamlin, Mary Mills Patrick was a person of many parts – a scholar, an administrator, a fundraiser and a believer in certain perilously modern ideas. She firmly believed in and advocated the equality of nations, the equality of the sexes, and higher education for women. With the help of Caroline Borden, an American philanthropist, she transformed the ‘’Home School’’ into an institution of higher learning for girls. In 1890, a charter from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was obtained, empowering her school to confer the degree of Bachelor of Arts. Thus was The American College for Girls created, with Mary Mills Patrick as its president, a post she was to hold until 1924.
ACG, an institution of rare scope and depth, outgrew its original site, as had Hamlin’s Robert College. After the destruction of a major building by fire, Patrick said, ‘’We shall build again. But this time not in Asia, but in Europe.’’ Land was found on the Western side of the Bosphorus and a connected row of seven buildings in the Beaux-Arts style was planned. By 1920, five of these buildings were completed, bearing the names of their benefactors – Sage, Woods, Mitchell, Gould and Bingham, all philanthropists without whom even the best educational ideas would remain but idle dreams. In Patrick’s case dreams became reality, and the Arnavutköy campus became an elegant manifestation of the college spirit.
The school was to be no mere ‘’finishing school’’. In Patrick’s words, it was to provide ‘’ … not only practical courses in Domestic Science, (but) instruction in all arts and professions now open to women, and an adequate fitting for efficient service in such business careers as are already inviting the help of educated women.’’ In these ‘’inviting’’ professions she included medicine and dentistry, for which she planned a medical school. Patrick’s vision of women’s education was more advanced than many in her homeland.
The role which ACG has played in the education of women provided substantial support for the modernization of Turkey as implemented by its founding father and guiding spirit Kemal Atatürk. Indeed, Atatürk’s primary female associate, Halide Edip Adivar was the first Moslem girl to receive a degree from the college. The impact of the college spirit on Adivar is manifest in her address at the class of 1940’s graduation: ‘’ Without knowledge and learning for its own sake, humanity will deteriorate, and will eventually create a species with high practical capacity, perhaps, but with no ability to think deeply and highly. The superiority of the human species is in their capacity for pure thought.’’
Both the old Robert College and ACG, while fostering intense institutional loyalty, never lost sight of the individual student, whose education should equip him or her to become an independent thinker of broad vision. It seemed that their separate but strikingly similar streams were destined to unite.
This union occurred in 1971, after many years of cooperation and coordination. With this union, the Trustees of Robert College demonstrated once again their recognition of contemporary realities. One driving force at the time was the development of a National University system in Turkey which led Robert College to shift its emphasis from university education to secondary education. The other driving force was the realization of the need for co-education. Thus, the all-male Robert College moved from its Rumeli Hisari campus to the Arnavutköy campus and merged with ACG, to become a co-educational secondary school, an ‘’orta-lise’’ named Robert College.
There were two collateral consequences of these campus moves. One occurred when ACG vacated its campus on the Asiatic side of the Bosphorus. This site was utilized to found Üsküdar Girl’s School. The other happened when the old Robert College vacated its Rumeli Hisari campus, and donated its university facilities to the Turkish Government. In the words of the Protocol of May 18, 1971, the means were provided, ‘’…by which the Government of Turkey may utilize elements of Robert College Yüksek Okulu as the foundation for a university…’’ So was founded Bogaziçi University, as Robert College moved to the Arnavutköy campus.
A campus and its buildings are important, but the essence of a school is its people. Robert College is proudly responsible for the first female college professor, the first Chief delegate to the U.N., the first novel written in English by a Turkish author, the first Turkish actress to perform on American and English stages, the first Turkish Ambassador to China, the first TV director, the first Minister of Culture, the first Turkish playwright on Broadway, the first female Turkish piano virtuoso, the CEO of the largest Turkish non-government bank, the CEO of the largest Turkish Industrial company …
The list could continue. Suffice it to say that Robert College graduates are leaders in their fields in Turkey and the world. Robert College is continuing to prepare young people to distinguish themselves in higher education, in the world, and in the service of their society. It is certain that many among its present students will lead their peers in the 21st century to a better world.
The most concrete example of the health of the college spirit is that it has built again. A bold decision was taken in the late 1980’s to build three new buildings – a theater, a science facility and a gymnasium – and to expand the library into a modern research and media center. The ground of the buildings was broken in 1987 and construction was completed in 1989. To the original buildings are now added the Nejat Eczacibasi Gymnasium, the Feyyaz Berker Science Hall and the Suna Kiraç Theater.
As we celebrate the accomplishments of the past leaders of Robert College, we must realize that what we see as the glorious present, was for them an uncertain future. What enabled them to turn their future vision into a productive present, was the philantrophic support of those who believed in them and in the importance of the college for Turkey. The existence of the Hisar Educational Foundation is a reflection of that philantrophic potential and a means for its fulfillment. Set up in 1973 by a group of RC alumni, the Foundation, which carries tax-exempt status, accepts donations for educational purposes. Grants specifically made for Robert College initiate income, which helps support, the school each year.
Another example of the resourceful RC spirit is Bizim Tepe, the alumni center founded in 1983 by alumni. It serves as a focal point where graduates come together and where the school spirit continues to thrive.
(This article is an excerpt from the ‘’Celebrating the Past 1863, Building the Future 1988’’ brochure prepared for the 125th anniversary of the founding of Robert College.) A detailed History of RC link is being prepared and will be ready in the near future..)