Although its students come from most states and many foreign countries, as its central mission Lander University continues to serve the South Carolina Piedmont.
Founded in 1872 by the Reverend Samuel Lander as a private academy for women, by 1973 Lander University had become a regional public institution offering bachelor and graduate degrees.
When the Methodist church in Williamston requested a pastor who could supplement his meager salary by teaching, the bishop dispatched Samuel Lander, already a pioneer in women’s education. In lieu of a salary, the church rented an abandoned hotel building, where Lander established the Williamston Female College. The curriculum included primary and secondary instruction as well as collegiate courses in mathematics, natural science, Latin, and belles lettres. An ornamental department taught “Embroidery and other fancy accomplishments.” Within a decade the academy enrolled 138 pupils. Lander designed a unique “one study plan” at Williamston whereby students concentrated on a single academic subject for five weeks each term.
On January 14, 1903, Lander agreed to relocate his school to Greenwood, believing that the new county seat and railroad hub might generate increased enrollment and win the long-sought financial support of the Methodist conference. Local boosters donated land and pledged $25,000 to construct a college building.
Lander died on July 14, 1904, only weeks before the school, soon to bear his name, opened in an imposing new building in Greenwood. The board of trustees quickly selected Lander’s son-in-law, the Reverend John O. Willson, as president. Willson persuaded the Methodist conference to assume control of the college, a step that brought limited financial support from the church. The college enjoyed modest success during the early years in Greenwood. Enrollment gradually climbed to about four hundred students, and a revised curriculum included teacher preparation. Men were admitted to classes beginning in 1943.
Institutional debt and a limited endowment weakened the college through the Depression and after. Early attempts to gain accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools failed largely because of Lander’s fiscal instability. In 1947 South Carolina Methodists concluded that with three senior colleges the church’s commitment to higher education was overextended. A conference report found Lander College “decidedly deficient” in its physical plant, library resources, faculty, and endowment; it recommended that the church withdraw support from the unaccredited Greenwood school. Faced with the prospect that the college would close, a committee of local businessmen convinced the church to donate the school to Greenwood County under the condition that the property be used solely for educational purposes and that the school gain accreditation within ten years. A public corporation, the Lander Foundation, was chartered on March 17, 1948, to operate the college. The county council approved occasional appropriations to the college until 1951, when county voters approved a four-mill property tax to give the institution a more dependable financial base.
The Lander Foundation appointed Boyce M. Grier, a former public school superintendent, to head the county-owned college. Grier led the college from 1948 to 1966, a critical period when its survival was often in jeopardy. Grier supervised construction of new student apartments and secured financing for a student center. He launched a nursing program with the support of the Self Foundation and quietly managed the challenge of racial integration. His most significant achievement was to win full accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools by 1952.
Despite some success, the future of the small college that remained heavily dependent on local government funding was not promising. The administration, trustees, and local political leaders began exploring avenues for securing support from the state legislature. Initial inquiries received encouragement in 1968 from a report submitted to Governor Robert McNair by Moody’s Investment Services. The “Moody Report” recommended expansion of higher education to serve geographical areas of the state that historically had limited access to education beyond the high school level.
Greenwood County legislators promoted Lander’s interests in the General Assembly. The legislature reacted to the Moody Report by altering the status of three existing institutions–the College of Charleston, Francis Marion College, and Lander College–to create three senior state colleges. On June 14, 1972, Governor John West signed an act transferring Lander College to state control effective July 1, 1973.
Since 1973, under the successive presidencies of Larry A. Jackson, William C. Moran, and Daniel W. Ball, Lander University has constructed a modern campus, increased enrollment to nearly three thousand students, and expanded the undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Although its students come from most states and many foreign countries, as its central mission Lander University continues to serve the South Carolina Piedmont.
Bowen, Ann Herd. Greenwood County: A History. Greenwood, S.C.: The Museum, 1992.
Rogers, James A., and Delores J. Miller. Quantum Leap: A Story of Three Colleges. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1988.