by Professor of History Alan Jones ’50 (1927–2007), updated by Professor of Political Science H. Wayne Moyer
Shortly after the territory of Iowa was organized in 1838, idealistic young missionaries from Andover and Yale Seminaries came west to found churches and a college. In 1846, the year Iowa became a state, some of them formed the Board of Trustees of Iowa College (later Grinnell College). Two years later a one-room school opened in Davenport to preparatory classes. College classes began in 1850, and in 1854 William and John Windsor received B.A. degrees, having completed 50 required courses, 28 in Greek, Latin, and mathematics.
The College’s antislavery and antisaloon sentiments aggravated the Davenport city council, which twice cut streets through College grounds, forcing the College further west with little more than its ideals to J.B. Grinnell’s new prairie colony. Classes began here in 1861, but most of the young men went off to the Civil War. Women in a “ladies course” — which gave diplomas but not degrees — carried on during the war years and graduated in 1865 when the College’s first president, George Magoun, was inaugurated.
Magoun was an imperious Calvinist, which was necessary for the College’s survival during years of poverty, fire, and the "great cyclone" — a tornado — of 1882. Jesse Macy, class of 1870, later a professor, thought Magoun “liberal” because he allowed the teaching of evolution. More “liberal” was Magoun’s successor, George Gates, inaugurated in 1887. Gates replaced Magoun’s “rule of law” with “the law of liberty” and the “ideal of service.” A modern college emerged in the 1890s with football teams, glee clubs, and a curriculum in which science began to displace Greek and Latin. More noteworthy, if not notorious, was Gates’ Social Gospel, reinforced by the radical lectures of George Herron, a professor of Applied Christianity who did not believe in private property or marriage. The faculty defended him on grounds of academic freedom, but Herron left in 1900, followed by Gates. When Herron ran off with Carrie Rand, Gates’ lady principal, worried Congregationalists and capitalists considered their fears confirmed. Trustees sought a “safe” president in Dan Bradley, who did not last.
John Hanson Thomas Main became president in 1906. He secularized Gates’ Social Gospel with forward-looking ideals attuned to pre-World War I Progressivism. Main created the modern residential system and brought a provincial western college to national prominence. He said, “If the end of life is service, as we believe, it is the duty of the College to do more than hold up an ideal of service,” a view echoed by Harry Hopkins 1912. Hopkins and a few Grinnell alumni served in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Other graduates of these years served in the “Grinnell-in-China” program.
After the disillusioning experience of World War I, ideas of success replaced ideals of service. Main spent his last years trying to pay off prewar debts. He died in 1931 as the Great Depression struck, and his successor, John Nollen, had to contend with continuing deficits, low enrollments, faculty cuts, and a 20 percent slash in salaries. His successor, Samuel Stevens, began with ambitious plans in 1940, but another world war, followed by the Cold War and Korean conflicts, diminished his energies and capacities. The now nostalgic era between 1946 and 1950 gave way to years of budget difficulties and student unrest. By 1954 Stevens had lost the support of faculty, students, and trustees.
Howard Bowen’s presidency between 1955 and 1964 moved the College forward again—raising standards, restoring old ideals, attracting able faculty, and rebuilding the campus. In his inaugural address on “The Free Mind,” he said, “One of the special tasks of small liberal arts colleges like Grinnell [is] to help keep this freedom alive.” Students accepted that task and more in the dissent and protest of the 1960s — endured with grace by Bowen’s successor, Glenn Leggett, president from 1965 to 1975. Curricular and residential “reforms” made the College a “free and open” place. But with the presidency of A. Richard Turner after 1975, the 1970s ended in drifting discontent.
Great endowment growth and a new prosperity came to the College during the 1980s through the gifts and risk-taking investments of such loyal trustees as Joe Rosenfield ’25 and Bob Noyce ’49, and the generosity of such alumni as John ’39 and Lucile Hanson Harris ’40. The 1979–91 presidency of George Drake ’56 saw the renovation of buildings, the restoration of trust, and, as he said in his 1980 inaugural address, a vision of the “future in the past.” He meant that the College’s pioneering history — its missionary foundations, its antislavery sentiments, its Social Gospel and Progressive ideals of service, and its traditions of scholarship, academic freedom, and liberal dissent — gave promise of a purposeful future. His successor, Pamela Ferguson, 1991–97, echoed these views in remarks at the 1995 rededication of Goodnow Hall, opening the College’s sesquicentennial year: “I represent the many individuals who have shaped Grinnell and the strong convictions which have formed a core of values that sustain and nurture this College.” She aimed to advance these values in a new era of diversity at the College, and she launched a development campaign to finance new facilities for the arts and sciences, including the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts and its Faulconer Gallery.
Grinnell’s 12th president, Russell K. Osgood, 1998–2010, presided over the development and implementation of a master plan that included a significant increase in enrollment, faculty size, and expanded programs, including establishment of the Office of Social Commitment; a major rebuilding and expansion of the physical plant, including new and renovated residence halls, administrative structures, the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center, the Robert Noyce ’49 Science Center, and the Charles Bear ’39 Recreation and Athletic Center; and new initiatives in the relationship between the College and the Grinnell community.
With the selection of Raynard Kington as Grinnell’s 13th president, the College is poised to advance into the last third of its second century of service to its students, its community, and — through its graduates — to the nation and the world.