The institution was originally chartered as South Carolina College on December 19, 1801. Its establishment was a response to the changing political landscape in the Palmetto State at the outset of the nineteenth century. South Carolina’s political leaders saw a new college as a way of bringing together the sons of the Federalist elite of the lowcountry with the sons of the upcountry Jeffersonians in order, in the words of the college charter, to “promote the good order and harmony” of the state. It was intentionally sited in the relatively new capital city of Columbia to demonstrate independence from the influence of Charleston interests. Chartered by the General Assembly with an initial appropriation of $50,000, South Carolina College got under way remarkably quickly. In little more than three years of planning and preparation, the board of trustees hired a distinguished president and a faculty, established a curriculum, and constructed the first building on the new campus. Located a short distance southeast of the State House, the college opened on January 10, 1805, and in subsequent years enjoyed the generous annual support of the General Assembly, an unusual luxury for a state college in that era.
South Carolina College provided students a cosmopolitan education. Many early faculty members, as well as the college’s curriculum and rules governing student behavior, were drawn from the leading New England universities of the time. Early faculty included renowned European scholars such as Thomas Cooper and Francis Lieber, as well as respected American scientists such as John and Joseph LeConte.
By the end of the antebellum era, the institution stood as a bulwark of conservatism. The curriculum was a traditional classical one, focusing primarily on the study of literary works in Latin and ancient Greek and emphasizing the mastery of oratory. “The object of College education,” said trustee William Harper, “is not to advance the student in any particular profession, but to give him that liberal knowledge of general intelligence which is equally valuable in every profession.” Boasting a distinguished faculty, a handsome campus, the latest scientific equipment, a large library, and generous public funding, South Carolina College ranked as one of the nation’s premier institutions of higher education, and it educated most of the state’s antebellum elite.
Then disaster struck. South Carolina’s secession unleashed the devastation of the Civil War, and South Carolina College paid dearly. In 1862 the institution was forced to close for want of students, and its buildings served as a military hospital during wartime. In 1866 state leaders revived the institution with ambitious plans for a diverse University of South Carolina. However, with a nearly empty state treasury, the university that emerged was barely a shadow of its former self. For the next century the institution struggled to regain the status it had once held.
After the war the political controversies of Reconstruction buffeted the university. In 1869 the Republican General Assembly elected the first African American trustees, and in 1873, when Republicans insisted that black students be admitted, influential faculty resigned and the state’s white elite largely abandoned the institution. The school’s first black students enrolled that year, as did the first black faculty member, Harvard graduate Richard T. Greener. Between 1873 and 1877 the institution was racially integrated and was the only southern state university to admit and grant degrees to black students during Reconstruction.
In 1877, members of South Carolina’s white leadership, led by Governor Wade Hampton, closed the institution to purge it of the Republican influences that they believed had sullied it. They reopened it in 1880 as an all-white Morrill Land Grant Institution: the South Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanics. This institution thereafter became caught in the political upheaval of the last two decades of the nineteenth century. It went through several reorganizations in which the curriculum frequently changed and its status shifted from college to university and back again. During a brief period in the mid-1880s, it made significant strides toward regaining its antebellum glory, but again outside forces intervened to lower the college’s status.
The low point came in the late 1880s when Benjamin R. Tillman harshly attacked the institution. Tillman was the champion of those in South Carolina who thought the state should support an agricultural college, not a liberal arts university. Tillman convinced the state to establish Clemson Agricultural College in 1889 as an alternative to the University of South Carolina. In 1890 South Carolina’s voters elected him governor. Tillman stirred up class resentments and made attacking the university a central part of his program, calling it “the seedbed of the aristocracy” and promising to close it forever. Although he never followed through on his threats, the attacks crippled the institution. Enrollment fell to just sixty-eight students in 1893–1894, and in 1895 the institution’s entire book budget was only $71.
By the late 1890s the institution, again with the name South Carolina College, began a slow recovery from neglect. Women were admitted for the first time in 1895, and in the first decade of the twentieth century the curriculum was broadened. Enrollment began a slow rise, and the state rechartered the college as a university for the final time in 1906.
In the early part of the new century, the University of South Carolina struggled to compete for funding with five other state colleges (Clemson, Winthrop, the Citadel, the State Medical College, and the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College—later known as South Carolina State). A small, poor state, South Carolina simply could not afford to support six separate colleges and maintain a high standard of scholarship at any of them. When the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) was founded in 1895, not a single college in South Carolina—public or private—qualified for membership. The University of South Carolina became the first state-supported institution in South Carolina to qualify for SACS membership in 1917.
During the 1920s there was a brief revival at Carolina. The student body more than doubled (from 621 to 1,419), state appropriations grew, and the university added academic programs in music, art, and electrical engineering; Ph.D. programs in history, English, and education; and new schools for pharmacy and journalism.
For all the successes of the 1920s, serious problems remained, largely owing to the persistent poverty in South Carolina. For example, in 1925 the annual appropriation for the University of North Carolina exceeded that for all of South Carolina’s state colleges combined. The Great Depression ended the brief period of promise of the 1920s. State appropriations plummeted, and the hard times forced the state to pay faculty salaries, already woefully inadequate, in scrip. The administration raised student tuition and severely curtailed graduate programs.
The outbreak of World War II revived and transformed the university. As students left school in droves to enter the armed forces, the university initiated programs to help train civilians for defense-related industries. In 1943 the campus became home to officer training programs of the U.S. Navy and the trainees filled the dormitories, outnumbering civilian students. In the aftermath of the war veterans filled the campus, expanding the student body to new records and taxing the capacity of campus facilities.
However, the state continued to provide inadequate resources, and the University of South Carolina ranked at or near the bottom in comparisons with its peers in other states. In 1951 trustees named Donald Russell president, and he began a reform program that put the university on the road to recovery. He recruited prestigious faculty, established new academic programs, and revived old ones. With the support of the General Assembly, Carolina began a wide-scale construction program that modernized the campus. To meet the growing demand for higher education, in the late 1950s the institution began establishing regional campuses in communities such as Florence, Conway, and Beaufort.
With increasing levels of state funding and the arrival of the baby boom generation during the 1960s and early 1970s, Carolina grew from a student body of about 5,000 to nearly 25,000. Degree offerings expanded likewise, and under the leadership of President Thomas Jones, graduate education and research received growing emphasis.
Change was constant. The increasing size of the student body was matched with changes in the nature of those students. As the result of a federal court order, on September 11, 1963, Henrie D. Monteith, Robert Anderson, and James Solomon became the first of an ever-growing number of African American students to enroll at the university in the late twentieth century. Increasing numbers of international students came to Columbia as well.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the university’s physical growth slowed but new degree programs and schools and colleges such as the College of Criminal Justice, the medical school, the College of Library Science, and the undergraduate Honors College helped expand educational opportunities. Renovations of older areas such as the Horseshoe ensured that the historic heart of the campus survived. Private fund-raising became a priority as state funding continued to lag behind growth, and the university emphasized international programs that attracted national attention. The quest for national recognition briefly stumbled when the university’s aggressive president James B. Holderman was driven from office in 1990 in the wake of a highly publicized spending scandal.
In the 1990s the University of South Carolina continued the drive for national recognition, emphasizing increased levels of faculty research and outside research funding. In 2001 the institution celebrated a legacy of two hundred years of educating South Carolinians by dedicating itself to continued improvements in the quality of service it offers to the Palmetto State.
Burke, W. Lewis, Jr. “The Radical Law School: The University of South Carolina School of Law and Its African American Graduates, 1873–1877.” In At Freedom’s Door: African American Founding Fathers and Lawyers in Reconstruction South Carolina, edited by James Lowell Underwood and W. Lewis Burke, Jr. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Green, Edwin L. A History of the University of South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: The State Company, 1916.
Hollis, Daniel Walker. University of South Carolina. 2 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1951–1956.
La Borde, Maximilian. History of the South Carolina College. Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans & Cogswell, 1874.
Lesesne, Henry H. A History of the University of South Carolina, 1940–2000. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
Sugrue, Michael. “South Carolina College: The Education of an Antebellum Elite.” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1992.
White, Pamela Mercedes. “‘Free and Open’: The Radical University of South Carolina, 1873–1877.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1975.