Founded in 1770, the College of Charleston is the oldest educational institution south of Virginia, and the 13th oldest in the United States. During the colonial period, wealthy families sent their sons abroad for higher education. By the mid-18th century, many leading citizens supported the idea of establishing an institution of higher learning within the colony.
On January 30, 1770, Lieutenant Governor William Bull recommended to the colony's general assembly the establishment of a provincial college. However, internal disagreements, political rivalries and the American Revolution delayed progress on this front. 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 American Revolution and in the creation of the new republic. Three were signers of the Declaration of Independence and another three 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. During the American Revolution, he supported the patriot cause and even served as a soldier during the siege of the city. He later became the first Episcopal bishop of South Carolina.
The first classes were held on the ground floor of Reverend Smith's home on Glebe Street (now the residence for College of Charleston presidents). Later, rooms for the College were fashioned out of an old military barracks located on public land that is now the Cistern Yard. Instruction began there in January 1790. The College graduated its first class in 1794, which consisted of six students. By 1824, the College offered a curriculum broad enough to regularly grant degrees. During Reverend Jasper Adams' tenure as president, he reorganized the College and orchestrated the construction of the first building specifically designed for teaching – Randolph Hall.
In 1837, the College became the nation's first municipal college when the City of Charleston assumed responsibility for its support. The city provided funds, for example, in 1850 to enlarge the main academic building, to construct Porters Lodge and to fence in the Cistern yard, the block that is still the core of the campus. It remained a municipal college until the 1950s, when the College again became a private institution.
During the Civil War, 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. Classes resumed on February 1, 1866, and over the next four decades, the College weathered several financial crises, Reconstruction, hurricanes and the devastating earthquake of 1886.
Until the 20th century, students who attended the College were primarily Charlestonians.
Harrison Randolph (president, 1897-1945) changed that by building residence halls and creating scholarships to attract students from other parts of the state. Under President Randolph, women were admitted to the College and the enrollment increased from just 68 students in 1905 to more than 400 in 1935. For many institutions of higher education across the South, integration took place in the late 1960s. For the College, the first black students enrolled in 1967.
The enrollment remained at about 500 students until the College became a state institution in 1970. According to the 1970 legislative decree that incorporated the College of Charleston into the South Carolina system, the College was given a mandate 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. Today, the College's Grice Marine Laboratory is one of the Eastern Seaboard's leading research centers in the marine sciences, while the School of the Arts has grown from a fine arts department with a limited focus into one of the most comprehensive arts schools in the nation.
Theodore Stern was the College's 14th president. During his tenure (1968-1979), the number of students increased to about 5,000 and the physical facilities expanded, from fewer than 10 buildings to more than 100. Between 1979 and 2001, the enrollment continued to increase, climbing to more than 10,000 and attracting students from across the country and around the world.
In 1992, the University of Charleston, now called The Graduate School of the College of Charleston, was founded as the graduate program for the College. The Graduate School now offers 19 degree and nine certificate programs, and coordinates support for the College's many nationally recognized faculty research programs.
Under the leadership of President Lee Higdon (2001-2006), the College embarked on an ambitious, multi-year 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 (School of Business), the Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library 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. Plans are being developed for a new research and residence facility at the Grice Marine Laboratory and the first phase of construction at the Dixie Plantation site.
Today, under the presidency of P. George Benson (2007-present), the College of Charleston is embarking on a new strategic planning process designed to ensure that the important traditions in the liberal arts and sciences are retained while the institution responds to the needs of its evolving student population with cutting-edge academic programming and state-of-the-art facilities.