Under the leadership of fourteen presidents since its inception, Clemson’s mission continues to focus primarily on agriculture, engineering, and science, although academic offerings have expanded to include degree programs in the arts, humanities, education, and business.
Clemson University originated in a heated political contest during the late 1880s. The agrarian reformer Ben Tillman, leader of the politically powerful Farmers’ Association, had pushed for the establishment of a separate agricultural college in South Carolina since 1885. The movement had been thwarted by conservatives in state government, who did not want a new state-funded college to compete for funding or prestige with South Carolina College. However, Tillman and his supporters benefited from a propitious turn of events. In 1888 Thomas G. Clemson, son-in-law of John C. Calhoun, died and left his Fort Hill estate in Oconee County and an $80,000 endowment to the state in order to create a separate agricultural college. Tillman and his followers seized on the Clemson will and canvassed the state urging the General Assembly to accept the bequest and its terms. Conservative governor John P. Richardson and trustees of South Carolina College led the opposition, arguing instead that the Clemson bequest be used to strengthen the agricultural program already in place at South Carolina College. After almost a year of bitter public debate, in December 1888 the General Assembly passed the Clemson College bill, which a reluctant Governor Richardson signed the following year.
Besides the Clemson bequest, additional funding came from the federal government through the Hatch Act and Morrill Act, which provided funds in support of agricultural and land grant institutions. Clemson’s will created a unique board of thirteen trustees, seven of whom Clemson named as “life” trustees with the power to replace their members, while the remaining six trustees were to be appointed by the General Assembly. The trustees retained full power under the original state charter to set all rules, policies, and courses of studies. Through the life trustees majority, the mission of Clemson was to be forever upheld free from legislative influence.
Clemson Agricultural College opened in 1893. As Clemson was a land grant school, the Morrill Act required the inclusion of military instruction. Clemson took this requirement seriously and created a formal corps of cadets, whose members wore uniforms and were subject to strict military discipline. In 1893 the 446 cadets, ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-eight, reported to their barracks and learned the Cadet Rules of Conduct under the guidance of a West Point graduate and fifteen professors. The strict discipline met with periodic challenge from the student body. In 1908 some 306 cadets were expelled for leaving campus without permission as an April Fools’ Day prank, an incident that came to be known as the “Pendleton Guards Rebellion.” Student walkouts culminated in 1924 when 500 cadets left the campus to protest the military discipline, the lack of a student government, and poor mess hall conditions. College authorities responded by dismissing 23 students and suspending 112 others. The unpopular mess hall officer, Captain J. D. Harcombe, was retained and later memorialized when the Harcombe Food Center and Commons was named in his honor.
With the United States entry into World War I in April 1917, the entire senior class wired President Woodrow Wilson and collectively volunteered for military service. Graduation that year had more diplomas awarded in absentia than in person, and enrollment dropped to 662. The campus was largely turned over to military training, including the creation of the Student Army Training Corps, a training school for enlisted men. The postwar influenza pandemic reached Clemson in 1918 and 1919, resulting in two deaths and the temporary closing of the college. Clemson cadets served in World War II and Korea. In fact, Clemson supplied more officers to the army during the first two years of World War II than did any other institution in the country except Texas A&M.
Following World War II, Clemson’s enrollment grew dramatically, reaching 3,756 in the 1947–1948 academic year. But enrollment dropped as Clemson’s military discipline and all-male student body became less and less attractive to a new generation of students. By 1955 trustees bowed to change and Clemson College became a civilian, coeducational institution. The previous barracks became dorms, and other rules began to relax as social mores changed. More changes affected student-body diversity when a young black man named Harvey Gantt of Charleston enrolled at Clemson in 1963 as an architecture major. Trustees and local officials worked hard to make sure that integration at Clemson went smoothly and without the embarrassing riots that occurred in Mississippi. The Saturday Evening Post declared that Clemson’s plan was “the most complete and carefully thought-out one ever drawn up in the United States to meet the threat of racial violence.” Much of the change during this era took place during the presidency of Robert Cook Edwards. During his twenty-one-year tenure (1958–1979) Clemson saw its enrollment grow from 3,500 to 11,000, and in 1964 the General Assembly officially authorized Clemson’s status as a university.
In addition to academics, Clemson has also been known for its athletic programs, especially its football team. The program started in 1896 under the direction of Walter Riggs, who also introduced the school’s mascot, the tiger. In its first season Clemson beat Furman and Wofford but lost to the University of South Carolina (USC). This set up a rivalry unequaled by any other in the state between the Gamecocks of USC and the Tigers of Clemson, who have battled annually almost every year since their initial meeting. In 1934 the athletic program created an alumni giving fund that started with initial pledges of ten dollars a year. The “IPTAY” (“I Pay Ten A Year”) program has raised millions of dollars for scholarships and the construction of athletic facilities.
Under the leadership of fourteen presidents since its inception, Clemson’s mission continues to focus primarily on agriculture, engineering, and science, although academic offerings have expanded to include degree programs in the arts, humanities, education, and business. Since 1996 Clemson has been organized into five colleges, which offer bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in approximately 135 programs of study. Clemson offers degrees unique in South Carolina in architecture, forestry and agriculture, ceramic engineering, and textile engineering and management. In 2001 the student body of 17,101 included students from all fifty states and more than eighty foreign countries.
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(1994): 38–44. Bryan, Wright. Clemson: An Informal History of the University, 1889–1979.
Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1979. McKale, Donald M., ed. Tradition: A History of the Presidency of Clemson
University. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1988.