Our History

Our History

Historic photograph of Penn State Berks


From its beginnings as Wyomissing Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to becoming part of the Penn State system in 1958, the Berks campus has experienced many changes. WPI occupied the original Sacred Heart Church building on Hill Road, where the McDonald's Restaurant now stands, from 1930 to 1958 when its facilities were offered to Penn State to establish Penn State Wyomissing Center, now Penn State Berks campus. It moved to its present Spring Township location in 1972. With the addition of the residence halls in 1990, Berks became a residential and commuter campus. In 1997 Penn State Berks was granted "college" status and began offering a variety of four-year baccalaureate degree programs. Today Penn State Berks includes 30 buildings on 258 acres of land, and there are 231 full-time and adjunct faculty members. Residence halls provide housing for 805 students. The college celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008. Several unique projects documented our history at this time. Read about our anniversary projects »

History of Penn State Berks

Penn State University and Berks County share a long and productive relationship, dating back to 1914, when the University first offered agricultural extension courses to county residents. As Berks County evolved, so did its relationship with the University.

Textile Machine Works

The roots of Penn State Berks are in the textile industry, which captured the imagination of two German entrepreneurs who moved to Berks County to start their own business. Ferdinand Thun and Henry Janssen opened Textile Machine Works (TMI) in Reading in 1892. As their business expanded and they opened Narrow Fabric Company and Berkshire Knitting Mills, Thun and Janssen found they needed trained workers, so they started an education program in 1927, called the Educational Department of Textile Machine Works. Penn State instructors helped facilitate the program, which began with sixteen young men in the basement of TMI. Soon, the school opened its doors to the community.

Wyomissing Polytechnic Institute

In 1933, the school was granted a state charter and renamed the Wyomissing Polytechnic Institute (WPI), officially considered the predecessor to Penn State Berks. That same year, Penn State announced that it would give two years' college credit to graduates of the WPI program.
Despite its excellent reputation and popularity within the community, graduating approximately 1,500 during its history, WPI closed its doors in 1958, a victim of the difficult economic times for the textile industry.

Since WPI and Penn State had a long and successful relationship, its founders offered the WPI buildings to Penn State for the establishment of an extension center. The University accepted the offer.

The Wyomissing Center of The Pennsylvania State University

The Wyomissing Center of The Pennsylvania State University opened on July 1, 1958, the fourteenth commonwealth campus in the University's growing system.

Dr. Harold W. Perkins was named director in 1959, and quickly began establishing connections with the community, forming an advisory board, which was instrumental in helping the new center to achieve its goals.

Berks Center

By 1964, the school was renamed the Berks Center to reflect its widening service area, and by 1968, the first two years of nearly all University baccalaureate degrees were offered. As the school continued to grow in size and scope, it became apparent that it would need to move to a larger site.

Penn State Berks Campus

In 1972, the institution moved to a new 106-acre site in Spring Township, and was renamed Penn State Berks campus. The first campus structure, the Luerssen Building was built in 1972. It was followed by the Perkins Student Center in 1973, the Thun Library in 1975, and the Beaver Community Center in 1979.

Dr. Frederick H. Gaige, a Fulbright Fellow and South Asian scholar, succeeded Perkins in 1984. Gaige served as Penn State Berks Chief Executive Officer from 1984 until 2001 and transformed the campus into a residential college with four-year academic programs. In 1984, Penn State Berks had a student enrollment of 1,092 students. Under Gaige's leadership over the next sixteen years, enrollment grew to more than 2,000 students.

The campus continued to grow with construction of a classroom building, known today as the Franco Building. Expansion continued as the campus acquired a 110-acre farm in 1987, on which a greenhouse was constructed in 1990, as well as athletic fields and a stand-alone bookstore.
A major milestone was reached with the addition of student housing in the fall of 1990. The first phase housed 200 students, and the second phase housed an additional 200 students the following year. In addition, the Hintz Bookstore and Hintz Athletic Complex opened in 1991.

Penn State Berks-Lehigh Valley College

Another major milestone occurred in 1997, when Penn State University reorganized its campus structure, and as a result, Penn State Berks campus merged with Penn State Lehigh Valley campus to form Penn State Berks-Lehigh Valley College. This was significant because the new institution now had the authority to grant baccalaureate degrees.

During this time, Berks campus added a learning and technology addition to the library. An additional 400 beds were added in two phases in 1999 and 2000, bringing the total residential population to more than 800 students.

Gaige retired in 2001, and Dr. Susan Phillips Speece was named dean of the new college. With an impressive background in science, she brought an increased focus on technology and commitment to protect and preserve the environment to the college.

In 2003, the college was accepted as a provisional member of NCAA Division III, allowing students to participate in collegiate sports for all four year.

Penn State Berks, a college of The Pennsylvania State University

Although the new college was successful, the University decided to reorganize again in 2005, and two-campus colleges, including Berks-Lehigh Valley, returned to being individual campuses. Penn State Berks retained its college status.

In 2011, Dr. R. Keith Hillkirk succeeded Speece as Chancellor of Penn State Berks. Hillkirk previously served as Chancellor of Penn State Schuylkill. Prior he served as dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Southern Illinois University Carbondale; and as a faculty member, director of partnerships, and assistant dean for teacher education in the College of Education at Ohio University. Before that he served as an assistant professor of education at Penn State's University Park campus, and was a graduate assistant in Penn State's College of Education while earning his doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His scholarly interests include models of professional development and the creation and maintenance of partnerships among universities, schools and communities.

In 2011, construction of the Gaige Technology and Business Innovation Building was completed. The 60,000-square-foot academic building provides a state-of-the-art learning environment, new faculty offices, and professional conference spaces. The building has been awarded LEED gold level certification, established by the U.S. Green Building Council and verified by the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI). LEED is the nation’s preeminent program for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings.

In 2014, the Artificial Turf Athletic Field was completed. Built to expand both the college’s NCAA Division III sports programs, as well as to provide additional recreational opportunities for students, the artificial turf athletic field includes lights for night games and activities and permanent bleachers for 300 spectators.

Today, Penn State Berks has a total enrollment of more than 2,900 students, and offers 21 baccalaureate degrees, 4 associate degrees, 2 graduate degrees, and a wide variety of Continuing Education programs. The campus includes 30 buildings on 258 acres, with residence halls providing housing for 805 students.

Learn about Penn State's Land Grant Mission by watching the video The Legacy and the Promise: 150 Years of Land-Grant Universities »