“The pioneers … were practical idealists. They have left us a great inheritance, both of character and achievement. Part of that inheritance is Grinnell College—still proud to bear the name, Pioneers. As a college Grinnell has never been content to accept the world as it is. It has always stood for a better social order. Its presidents and its most distinguished teachers have tried to present an intelligent constructive approach to a better life, and its best students have gone forth to put it into effect.” Grinnell history professor Charles Payne in his 1946 essay for the College’s centennial
In 1847, just after Iowa was admitted as a state, these pioneers became the trustees of what was then
called Iowa College. They declared, “The object of this institution shall be to promote the general interests of education and to qualify young men [sic] for the different professions, and for the honorable discharge of the various duties of life.” During the Civil War, when most of the male students had enlisted (as might be expected from an institution with strong abolitionist roots), the majority of these “young men” were women. The doors of Grinnell were soon widened further to include African Americans: South Carolinian Hannibal Kershaw 1879 earned his degree at Grinnell, and went on, in 1881, to be elected to the South Carolina state legislature. Grinnell’s first African American woman graduate was Edith Renfrow Smith ’37. Students from abroad began entering the College in the 1850s, and the first international student to be awarded a degree was Sen Katayama 1892 from Japan. This dedication to expanding the boundaries of the community, to valuing participation by all, and celebrating diversity has continued to grow stronger, and it remains both a hallmark of and a continuing aspiration for the College.
The College has produced a long line of distinguished graduates who became Grinnell icons. Harry Hopkins 1912 created millions of jobs under the WPA of the New Deal and became President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most intimate adviser, while Hallie Flanagan Davis 1911 directed the Federal Theatre Program. Joe Rosenfield ’25 was a mid-century financier, who along with Life Trustee Warren Buffett, built the modern Grinnell endowment. Physics major Robert Noyce ’49, co-inventor of the integrated circuit, went on to co-found the Intel Corporation. Thomas Cech ’70, board member and former president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1989. The creative spirit of Grinnell also laid the groundwork for the inspired poetry of both Amy Clampitt ’41 and Edward Hirsch ’72 and the inimitable rhythms of jazz great Herbie Hancock ’60.
Grinnellians also have become foremost leaders in law, and in for-profit and non-profit organizations.
In innumerable ways, Grinnellians have shaped the larger educational community as they have become
university and college presidents, academic deans and administrators, and a legion of teachers at all levels,
both in the United States and abroad. Their spirit continues to vivify Grinnell College today: “the spirit” as Grinnell Professor of History Charles Payne defined it in 1946, “of the open mind and the new trail.”
That spirit of openness and discovery is grounded in the College’s three Core Values: excellence in education, diversity, and social responsibility. These key values help to structure the governing principles of the College and are often invoked in decision-making. Excellence in education begins with a faculty dedicated to helping students acquire knowledge both in and outside of the classroom. At Grinnell, this process is self-reflective, based on close and candid interactions and a free, open sharing of ideas. With exposure to a diversity of people and perspectives, the exchanges become richer as Grinnell students become aware of the multiplicity of perspectives and experiences. As a result, they come to understand the power of relationships and learn to become informed and socially responsible participants in the community at large.