It may be apocryphal that Horace Greeley directed Josiah Bushnell Grinnell to “Go West, young man, go West.” Yet it is fact that the 33-year-old minister left New England with fellow Congregationalists to forge a new life on the American frontier in the Iowa tallgrass prairie. Rugged idealists, ardent abolitionists, and firm believers in social reform, these pioneers brought moral values and an entrepreneurial spirit to found the town of Grinnell in 1854. By 1859, J.B. Grinnell’s dream of establishing a town with a university came to pass when Iowa College moved from Davenport to Grinnell, eventually taking the name of its new home’s founder, whose ideals the College shared.
Founded in 1846 by the Iowa Band of ministers from Andover Seminary, Iowa College embodied the aspirations of these early abolitionists and prairie radicals. Their belief in education as a cornerstone of social reform has endured, secularized long ago and adapted to each historical period at Grinnell College. J.B. Grinnell befriended and sheltered noted abolitionist John Brown; the town became a stop on the Underground Railroad; later, Grinnell became a champion of the Midwestern Social Gospel movement; and Grinnellian Harry Hopkins 1912 went on to shape the New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the present, the campus has embraced diversity, environmental initiatives, and a broad commitment to internationalism as current inflections of its historic commitments to social equity and global outreach. Appropriately, Grinnell’s longstanding emphasis on social responsibility, inseparable from its liberal arts mission, was the focus of the self-study for the College’s most recent reaccreditation review.
Among the many small, religiously inspired, Midwestern liberal arts colleges, Grinnell has emerged as a national institution of the first rank, with an excellent faculty, a consistently strong and increasingly diverse student body, a well-equipped and memorably beautiful campus, and a formidable financial position.
As the College turns to its future, its dual commitments to liberal arts education and to social justice animate the entire Grinnell community. These commitments, and their pursuit at the highest level of excellence, distinguish Grinnell in American higher education. At a time when higher education has become enormously expensive, research highly specialized, the relevance of the liberal arts challenged, and teaching devalued, Grinnell exemplifies the distinguished liberal arts college where teaching and social responsibility remain the highest priorities. In an era when the world order is marked by global contention, when the economy is suffering, and when public issues are critical to our collective future, issues of social justice, broadly defined, require the attention of the best minds and the most generous spirits among us. Few colleges in America equal Grinnell in placing these challenges at the core of their academic mission.
J.B. Grinnell’s ideal of founding a town with a college now celebrates its 150th anniversary. Named “Jewel of the Prairie” for its Louis Sullivan jewel box bank and beautiful historic prairie, Grinnell is proud of its heritage, its landscape, its world-class college, and its sense of shared community. Few would disagree that the town of Grinnell enriches and is enriched by its association with the College. Grinnell College is a major employer in the region, and along with local and alumni investors, plays an active role in community enhancement efforts.
Grinnell College seeks a president who can inspire all its constituencies, who can affirm the teacher/scholar mission as it has evolved on campus, who can reinforce the importance of an intimate, responsible learning community, who will build Grinnell esprit, and who can help its members develop their singular history and make their distinctive educational mission more widely recognized.