On January 30, 1770, Lieutenant Governor William Bull recommended the establishment of a provincial college to the colony’s general assembly so that young men in the area would not have to go abroad for higher education. Internal disagreements, political rivalries and the American Revolution delayed the progress, but after the war, South Carolinians returned their attention to establishing a college. On March 19, 1785, the College of Charleston was chartered to “encourage and institute youth in the several branches of liberal education.”
Several of the College’s founders played key roles in the nation’s independence and the creation of the new republic. Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton and Thomas Heyward were signers of the Declaration of Independence, and John Rutledge, Charles Pinckney and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney were framers of the U.S. Constitution. Other founders were or became federal and state lawmakers and judges; state governors; diplomats and Charleston councilmen; and mayors.
Robert Smith served as the College’s first president. Educated in England, he was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church and relocated to Charleston, where he served as rector of St. Philip’s Church. He later became the first Episcopal bishop of South Carolina.
In January 1790, the College conducted its first classes on the ground floor of Reverend Smith’s home on Glebe Street (now the residence for College of Charleston presidents). More classrooms for the College were fashioned out of an old military barracks located on public land that is now the Cistern Yard.
The College graduated its first class of six students in 1794. Unfortunately, President Smith left the College in 1797, and the school’s operations became sporadic and then completely closed down in 1811.
The College revived in 1824 with the hiring of Reverend Jasper Adams, who set up a curriculum broad enough to grant degrees regularly. He also reorganized the College and orchestrated the construction of the first building specifically designed for teaching: Randolph Hall. Reverend Adams efforts to enlarge the school met opposition both locally and from the state’s General Assembly, which found his plans antagonistic to the interest of the South Carolina College (today known as the University of South Carolina). In 1837, however, the City of Charleston decided that it would be in the city’s interest to have a “home college.” The city council took control of the school and assumed responsibility for its finances and for electing its trustees, making the College of Charleston the nation’s first municipal college. In 1850 Randolph Hall was expanded, and Porters Lodge and a fence around the Cistern Yard were constructed.
During the Civil War (1861-1865), many students and faculty left to serve the Confederacy. Despite dwindling student numbers and a long-running siege of the city by Federal troops, there was no suspension of classes until December 19, 1864, two months before the city was evacuated. A bombardment of the city by Federal troops left Charleston in ruins and the future of the College in doubt. To save the College of Charleston, Ephraim M. Baynard of Edisto Island gave $161,200. Classes resumed on February 1, 1866.
Until the turn of the century, the College endured a series of setbacks, from financial crises to hurricanes to the devastating earthquake of 1886. When Harrison Randolph assumed the office of the president in 1897, he noticed that the school only had students from the Charleston area. He revised the curriculum to be more in line with common course requirements at schools, built residence halls and created scholarships to attract students from other parts of the state.
Under President Randolph, a Bachelor of Science degree was introduced in 1900. Around this time, the College began aspiring to athletic prowess and football, baseball and basketball were introduced. After a time, only basketball continued along with other sports when talent was identified, such as fencing, golf, swimming and tennis.
In an effort to boost the student population during World War I, when many of the male students were fighting abroad, the College admitted its first 10 women on September 30, 1917.
Admitting women to the College had a positive effect. Enrollment increased from just 68 students in 1905 to 138 in 1920, of which 43 were women. In 1921, the Night School of Commerce and Administration was introduced to offer higher commercial training to adults. One hundred forty-nine students registered at the opening of the session, four times what was expected.
The Great Depression hit Charleston hard. Children from old Charleston families who would have normally gone to an Ivy League college instead attended the College of Charleston. During this time, a truly collegiate feel permeated the College with weekly dances and parties along with regular treks to Folly Beach and Sullivan’s Island.
In 1931, commencements were held on the Cistern. Women wore white dresses and carried a carnation (later a rose), and men wore a suit (since 1966 they have worn a white dinner jacket).
In 1939, for the first time, the number of female students exceeded the number of males 213 to 184.
World War II led the College to adjust its usual programming to accommodate the large number of students going to serve in the war. The requirements to graduate were shortened from four years to three. Facilities were turned over for use by military personnel, and the College participated in the Navy’s V-1 program of training, which included intense physical education requirements, for freshman and sophomores.
In the 1950s, the College saw a return to the collegiate environment of the 1930s. At the same time, the level of academic excellence soared. Of the 69 members of the 1951 graduating class, 18 received fellowships for post-graduate studies.
In 1955, the College launched the Marine Biological Laboratory (now known as the Grice Marine Laboratory). In 1960, the first women to live in a College of Charleston facility moved in. These ten women were supervised by a housemother who ensured they were in a dorm by 7 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on weekends. In 1962, the first female tenure-track faculty member, Maggie Thurman Pennington, joined the College and remained a beloved biology professor for 35 years.
The College’s athletic teams enjoyed remarkable success in 1964. The basketball team won its first Dixie Intercollegiate Conference and was the only team in South Carolina with a conference title. The bowling team won the first Dixie Conference bowling championship, and the tennis team won the Dixie Conference championship.
The 1960s also saw the College refusing to sign the Compliance Act and agree to integration. The stance against integration resulted in the school not receiving federal funding. Students were refused loans and programs lost grants, putting the school on precarious financial footing. The Vietnam War and the increase in draft quotas in 1965 exacerbated the situation.
Since 1958, the school had been operating at a deficit and using endowments to offset the overages. By 1967, the endowment funds were depleted. Finding itself in dire financial straits, the College finally opened its doors to integration, and the first black students enrolled in 1967.
The tides were about to change with the appointment of Ted Stern as president of the College. He embraced integration and started the school on a more fiscally responsible path.
In 1970, on its 200th anniversary, the College of Charleston became a state institution. The move marked the beginning of a growth period. According to the 1970 legislative decree that incorporated the College of Charleston into the South Carolina state system, the College was to develop flagship programs in academic areas that capitalize on the unique natural and cultural strengths of Charleston and the Lowcountry, especially marine biology and fine arts.
In 1970, enrollment remained at about 500 students, but the student population began a steady rise to 1,500 by 1972 and to more than 10,000 in 2001. The physical facilities expanded, from fewer than 10 buildings to more than 100. Full-time faculty increased from 26 to 192.
In 1972, the College opened the Robert Scott Small Library, and its two-wing addition was finished in 1975. In 1974, the first intercollegiate soccer team was set up. Spoleto USA launched in Charleston in 1977, and the College became an integral part of the annual program with the Cistern taking center stage.
President Stern retired in 1978 after a highly successful tenure, and Edward M. Collins Jr. took over.
In 1982, the F. Mitchell Johnson Physical Education Center opened in honor of a star basketball player, and Clyde the Cougar became a permanent team mascot.
The College established the African American History and Culture Center in 1984 at the Avery Institute, an elite black school that had been founded in the 19th century.
In 1985, Collins resigned as president amid a steep decline in student enrollment and a lack of funding. Harry Lightsey took the helm with the goal of putting the College’s financial affairs in order.
The College established its computer centers in 1986. Free seminars were offered to students, faculty and staff. Use of the library shot up at this time, as many came to use the computers and then stayed to study.
In the mid-’80s, seven of the school’s intercollegiate teams progressed to national competitions, with the sailing team winning first in the nation.
Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston in 1989 and damaged 111 of the Colleges building at a cost of $32 million. Four massive oaks in the Cistern Yard were uprooted, breaking the hearts of many alumni. The Class of ’89 and the Lightsey family contributed to replacement trees, which required a 35-foot crane to put them in place.
In 1992, the University of Charleston, S.C., often referred to as the Graduate School, was founded as the home for graduate programs for the College. The University of Charleston, S.C. now offers 22 degree and 10 certificate programs and coordinates support for the College’s many nationally recognized faculty research programs.
When President Lightsey retired in 1992, he had increased enrollment by 80 percent, increased full-time faculty from 250 to 350 and tripled foundation and annual giving. Not only were all the damages by Hurricane Hugo repaired, many of the buildings had been renovated.
Another big achievement for the school was in 1992, when Robert Dukes of the physics department and his student Gabriel Drake discovered an eclipsing binary, a double star. The following year the College was chosen as a partner in the South Carolina Space Grant Consortium, and Sylvia Gamboa of the English department developed one of the first programs in Writing Across the Curriculum.
Under Lightsey’s leadership, the school became truly international. In 1994, students represented 40 U.S. states and 66 countries. In 1996, the College opened its first international campus in Trujillo, Spain. In 1997, a campus was set up in Annot, France, and a program was started in Cuba.
In 1996, the men’s basketball team received NCAA certification, and the 1996-97 basketball season was the most successful in school history. Of particular note: Anthony Johnson ’97 was the first College of Charleston basketball player to be drafted to the NBA.
In March 2000, the school broke ground for the Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library and, later that year, the athletics complex at Patriots Point opened.
Alex Sanders, who had assumed the presidency after Lightsey, created a more stable enrollment and a more diverse student body, and the College’s rankings improved in every major educational poll during his tenure.
President Lee Higdon assumed leadership, and the College embarked on an ambitious plan designed to enhance the overall student experience, increase the faculty and student support staff and upgrade and expand facilities. The College renovated many historic structures and opened several new buildings, including two new residence halls, the Beatty Center for the School of Business and new facilities for the School of Education, Health, and Human Performance. Most recently, the College opened the TD Arena, the Marion and Wayland H. Cato Jr. Center for the Arts and the School of Sciences and Mathematics Building on Calhoun Street.
P. George Benson assumed the presidency after Higdon, and the College continued to elevate its national profile through academic and athletics achievements, winning top scholastic honors and national championships. In 2013, the College joined the Colonial Athletic Association, expanding its footprint on the Eastern Seaboard.
Today, the College is led by Andrew T. Hsu, the 23rd president of the institution. President Hsu succeeds Glenn F. McConnell ’69, who served as president from 2014 to 2018. President Hsu officially began as president in May 2019 and has identified several early priorities for his administration: the need to raise the College’s national and international profile and the need for a strategic plan that will enhance the College’s academic core, expand the institution’s offerings in order to respond to its evolving student population and bolster its role in supporting and transforming South Carolina’s Lowcountry into an economic powerhouse.