In the late 19th century, Gunnison was a progressive cattle and mining town establishing itself as a cultural leader of Colorado’s Western Slope. Placed on the leading edge of the American frontier, Gunnison sought to establish educational programs for the citizens of the area. A bill was introduced in 1885 to establish a college, and in 1901, that bill was approved by the state Legislature.

This was the beginning of the Colorado State Normal School, the predecessor to what is now Western Colorado University.

The cornerstone of North Hall (now known as Taylor Hall) was placed in October 1910, becoming the first building on the Normal School’s campus. The following year, the two-year teaching college welcomed its first class of 13 students, establishing the first college on Colorado’s Western Slope.

In 1923, the Normal School became a four-year institution, and was renamed to Western State College. Western State College was a liberal arts school designed to produce teachers for the Western Slope. In 1923, under the direction of Biology professor John C. Johnson, Ph.D., students constructed a large “W” on Tenderfoot Mountain just south of campus with rocks extending 450 feet up the mountain.

History of Western

Continuing Western's impact, Johnson bought land at Gothic, a once-great silver mining camp 35 miles north of Gunnison, and founded the famed Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in 1928. Today, the lab conducts pioneering research on climate change, attracting students and professors from all over the world.

Western continued to grow through the 20th century. In the late 1940s, Mountaineer Bowl was carved out of solid rock on the side of Smelter Hill—creating the highest collegiate football stadium in the nation at 7,771 feet of elevation.

Following World War II, Western entered a new period of expansion, with a student enrollment of 3,200 in the late 1970s.

From that point onward, Western became nationally renowned: the college became known as one of the top outdoor education schools in the nation, Athletic Director Paul Wright became known as “the father of intercollegiate skiing” (when he convinced the NCAA to adopt it as an official sport in 1953) and Ski Coach Sven Wiik became known as the “father of Nordic skiing in the U.S.," serving as the U.S. Olympic coach and turning out more than 20 Olympic skiers. In that same regard, the men’s and women’s cross country teams have won 12 NCAA titles and produced four Olympians.


Western gained university status in 2012, and is now regarded as one of America’s top universities by Forbes magazine. Elevation Outdoors magazine rates the school as the Top Adventure College in the Rocky Mountains.

Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science and Engineering

Academically, Western has renowned programs in Environment & Sustainability, Biology, Geology, Energy Management, Exercise & Sport Science, Business and Recreation & Outdoor Education. Western also gained a graduate school, and graduate enrollment has tripled since 2010.

Western has also benefitted from many generous donations, which provided funding for several state-of-the-art facilities including the new Mountaineer Field House, Borick Business Building, University Center and residence halls.

In September of 2018, alumnus Paul M. Rady donated a historic $80 million to establish the Paul M. Rady School of Computer Science & Engineering. This gift was part of a larger effort to establish a ground-breaking partnership between Western and the University of Colorado-Boulder to provide students in Gunnison with access to a high-quality Computer Science education and Mechanical Engineering within the attentive and personal environment of a smaller university. 

Today, Western Colorado University is an institution that is dedicated to promoting intellectual maturity and personal growth in its students, and graduating citizens prepared to assume constructive roles in local, national and global communities. Read our full mission statement.