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A Brief History

Cor Prudentis Possidebit Scientiam:
The wise heart seeks knowledge.

—Emory University motto, Proverbs 18:15

In 1836, when the Cherokee nation still clung to its ancestral lands in the State of Georgia, and Atlanta itself had yet to be born, a small band of Methodists in Newton County dedicated themselves to founding a new town and college. They would call the town Oxford. It was a name of high aspiration, linking their little frontier enterprise with the university attended by the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley. The college they would call Emory, after an American Methodist bishop who had inspired them by his broad vision for an American education that would mold character as well as mind.

The seventeen decades since those first days of Emory College have wrought changes so profound, that Emory University today bears as little physical resemblance to its fledgling ancestor as Atlanta does to the Georgia frontier. Surrounded by one of Atlanta’s older and more affluent suburbs, Druid Hills, the tree-shaded campus belies the short distance of the University from the downtown commercial and cultural hub of the Southeast. Yet the buildings named for some of the city’s corporate and civic leaders over the past ninety years bear witness to the University’s cross-fertilization with the city. And the Clifton Corridor—a mile-long stretch of Clifton Road bounded by the University’s health sciences facilities as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—testifies to Emory’s transformation from the small liberal arts college in the wilderness.

From its beginning, Emory has sought to preserve and carry forward the ideals of the nineteenth-century public spirit out of which Emory and other colleges had their beginnings. These ideals owed much to the peculiarly American blend of hope for a perfect future, democratic conviction about the importance of individuals, and progressive reform of educational curricula. That philosophy has shaped a university that aims to nurture moral imagination as well as critical intellect and aesthetic judgment.       

The beginning was small, obscure, difficult, and fraught with the prospect of failure amid high hopes. By 1830 Savannah, a busy and prosperous seaport and the largest town in the state, had a population of only 7,776, and no town west of Augusta could boast more than a couple thousand residents. In the vast woods and rugged mountains of northern Georgia, poor roads and old Indian trails connected small settlements and isolated cabins and farms.

Although the legislature of the State of Georgia in 1783 provided for the founding of “a college or seminary of learning,” general support of education in Georgia was meager. But the 1830s would change the educational profile of the state dramatically. Impelled by an educational fad begun in Germany, Georgia Methodists had begun to contemplate establishing a “manual labor school.” Students would divide their days between studying and farming. Crops raised by the students—under the direction of the faculty—would provide food and income; work in the fields would fill otherwise-idle hours and build character as well as bodies; poorer students would help to pay their own way, while wealthier students would learn industriousness. So it was that, in 1834, the Georgia Conference established a preparatory school on some four hundred acres of Newton County. Despite a market avid for the school’s particular brand of education, however, the school quickly faced mounting debts.

Undaunted, the founders determined to enlarge their enterprise, and on December 10, 1836, the Georgia legislature granted a charter to Emory College, named for the young Methodist bishop John Emory, from Maryland, who had died in a carriage accident the previous year.  Not until two years after the chartering would the College open its doors, and on September 17, 1838, the College’s first president, Ignatius Alphonso Few, and three other faculty members welcomed fifteen freshmen and sophomores. They hailed from as far away as Charleston, South Carolina, and they included a future Emory president, Osborn L. Smith, and a future member of the faculty, George W. W. Stone.

In retrospect, the mission of the nineteenth-century college appears to have been to rein in the spirit as much as to expand the mind. Certainly that was true at Emory. The 1839 Emory College catalogue gave some hint of the constricting environment. Students had to be in their rooms during study hours and could not go beyond the town limits more than a mile without the president’s consent. Signing their names into the Matriculation Book, the earliest students bound themselves to obey the “Laws and Statutes of the College.”  The catalogue of 1891-92 banned students from attending any ball, theatre, horse-race or cock-fight; from using intoxicating drinks; from playing cards; from playing at any game for stakes; from keeping fire-arms or any deadly weapon, a horse, a dog, or a servant; from engaging in anything forbidden by the Faculty; from associating with persons of known bad character; from visiting Covington or other near points beyond the limits of Oxford without permission of some member of the Faculty, and from visiting points more distant without written permission from parents or guardians and the permission of the President of the College; from visiting any place of ill-repute, or at which gaming is practiced, or intoxicating liquors are sold; from engaging in any ‘match game,’ or ‘intercollegiate’ game of football, baseball, whatsoever.

Despite the watchful attention of their “guards,” students often found ways to work up enough mischief for the faculty to put them on probation, even to expel them. Covington, an apparent seedbed of temptation, provided the allure of taverns and traveling shows—not to mention the respectable young women at the Covington Female Academy, or townspeople’s daughters who could be visited on their parents’ front porches in the evening.

Other social outlets proved more harmonious with the academic tenor of the campus. Two principal venues for student gatherings were Phi Gamma Hall and Few Hall, named for the two literary societies that brought students together for sharing meals, preparing their lessons, and talking about matters of the intellect. A keen competitiveness developed between the two societies, leading to a tradition of debate that permeated the campus, and laying the groundwork for Emory’s national pre-eminence in debate—a tradition carried forward since 1955 in the Barkley Forum.

Even before the college had graduated its first alumni or collected its books into a central library, there were fraternities at Emory. One early chronicler of Emory history makes the case that Emory’s “Temple” of the Mystic Seven may have been the first chapter of a national fraternity established anywhere in the South. The date was 1840. Within a few years other secret societies cropped up, and in the twenty-first century not only the Greek-letter sororities and fraternities but also a wide array of honor societies play an important part in leavening Emory’s campus life.

Athletics, too, has had an important place at Emory for well over a hundred years—although Emory has never played intercollegiate football and still proudly proclaims, under the emblem of a football on tee-shirts, “Undefeated Since 1836.”

For many years, going back to the presidency of Warren Candler (class of 1875) in the 1890s, Emory prohibited intercollegiate sports. Candler thought the practice “ evil, only evil, and that continually.” His principal objection was the cost of intercollegiate athletics programs, the temptation to gambling, and the distraction from scholarship. Candler was not unalterably opposed to athletics, however. During his presidency, he raised funds for the first gymnasium at Emory and oversaw the creation of the nation’s first model intramural program. In spirit the program made it possible for every student to participate in athletics, and this possibility became at Emory a guiding  principle.

In time, the Board of Trustees modified its position on intercollegiate sports by reaffirming the ban on major sports—football, basketball, and baseball—but allowing the possibility of competition in others. Soon Emory was competing in soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field, and wrestling, and in 1985 Emory helped to found the University Athletic Association, a league of Division III members that stress academics first. Besides Emory, the league includes Brandeis University, Carnegie-Mellon University, Case Western Reserve University, Johns Hopkins University, New York University, the University of Rochester, the University of Chicago, and Washington University in Saint Louis. Emory’s intercollegiate programs regularly rank among the top ten NCAA Division III programs in the country and graduate more academic all-Americans than any other university in Division I, II, or III.

For the first half-century of its life Emory struggled for existence, clinging to a tenuous financial lifeline. When war broke out between North and South in 1861, every student left to fight, and the College’s trustees closed for the duration. When Emory reopened in January 1866, three faculty members (including President James Thomas) returned to a campus whose buildings had been used for military hospitals and whose libraries and equipment had been destroyed. Only with the aid of a state “G.I. Bill” could students afford to resume their education.

The first step toward financial stability came with the aid of a Methodist banker in Brooklyn interested in building railroads in Georgia. Emory President Atticus Haygood preached a Thanksgiving Day sermon in 1880 whose spirit of conciliation with the North and gratitude for the end of slavery and sectional strife captured the attention of George Seney of Brooklyn. Seney poured more than a quarter-million dollars in philanthropy into little Emory College, helping to erect the administration building in Oxford that bears his name.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Emory’s curriculum had evolved from a traditional liberal arts program dependent on rote memorization and drill, to become broad enough for students to earn degrees in science, to study law or theology, and even to pursue learning and expertise in technology and tool craft. President Isaac Stiles Hopkins, a polymath professor of everything from English to Latin and Math, had launched a department of technology that struck the fancy of state legislators, and soon enough they were luring him away from Emory to become the first president of what is now the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Still, the sleepy little town of Oxford offered little advantage to a college whose trustees might have their visions set on higher aspirations. By happenstance, the road from Oxford to Atlanta was paved by Vanderbilt University. In 1914, following a protracted struggle between the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust and the bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, over control of the university, the Board of Trust won a decision in the Tennessee State Supreme Court. Consequently the church severed its long relationship with Vanderbilt and made plans to create a new university in the Southeast.

It was Asa Candler, the founder of The Coca-Cola  Company and brother to former Emory President Warren Candler, who helped the church decide that the new university should be built in Atlanta. Writing to the Educational Commission of the church on June 17, 1914, Asa Candler offered “the sum of one million dollars” and a subsequent gift of seventy-two acres of land. With such munificence placed at its disposal, the commission quickly made up its mind, and the Emory College trustees agreed to move the college to Atlanta as the liberal arts core of the university.

At that time those seventy-two acres, about six miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, lay in pasture and woods amid Druid Hills, a park-like residential area laid out by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of New York City’s Central Park. Within three months of Asa Candler’s letter, in September 1914, the first unit of the university—the School of Theology—began classes in downtown Atlanta. Within a year marble buildings were under construction out in Druid Hills, and within four years—by September 1919—Emory College had joined the schools of theology, law, medicine, business, and graduate studies at the University’s muddy new campus. In time schools of nursing and dentistry would join the family, although dentistry would last only until 1990, to be replaced by public health.

Perhaps no two persons have had quite the impact on Emory that the brothers Asa and Warren Candler had – the latter serving for president of the College for ten years and then as chancellor of the University after its move to Atlanta until 1920; the former as the University’s greatest philanthropist in the first half of the twentieth century. If there were a contest, the only other competitors would be Robert and George Woodruff.

One day in the last decade of the twentieth century, an anonymous caller informed Emory police that a bomb would go off “in the Woodruff Building.” The caller’s unfortunate imprecision emptied six buildings—all named for Robert or George Woodruff or some other member of their family.

Robert Woodruff matriculated at Emory College in September 1908, but by December the indifference of his efforts led President James Dickey to write to Robert’s wealthy father and suggest that it might be better for everyone if Robert sat out the next term. His failure at Emory led to his donning overalls and working as a common laborer at the General Pipe and Foundry Company. But by 1923 he was president of The Coca-Cola Company.

Like Asa Candler, Woodruff poured his largesse into making Atlanta and Emory great. In 1966, thanks largely to Woodruff, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control opened on Clifton Road, next to Emory. The presence of the CDC was one reason why the American Cancer Society moved its headquarters to Atlanta and set up shop across the street. The CDC also made it possible for Emory, in 1990, to launch its first new school in fifty years, the Rollins School of Public Health.

Almost equally divided between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and between its Oxford and Atlanta phases, the history of Emory up until 1979 is largely the story of a respectable regional school that, although not unusually distinguished, nevertheless had real substance and distinctive attributes. The course of Emory’s history changed dramatically and forever when, in November 1979, Robert and George Woodruff transferred to Emory $105 million in Coca-Cola stock. At the time the largest single gift to any institution of higher education in American history, the Woodruff gift made a profound impact on Emory’s direction over the next two decades, boosting the University into the top ranks of American research universities.

In the quarter-century since, Emory has built on its considerable strengths in the arts and humanities, the health sciences, and the professions, through strategic use of resources. The small community of scholarship founded in Oxford has grown, but Emory’s growth in research has in no way diminished the insistence on great teaching by the faculty. The 1997 report of the University Commission on Teaching reaffirmed Emory’s historical emphasis on the high quality of teaching at all faculty levels and in all schools and recommended various means of support to ensure the perpetuation of this great tradition.

Since September 2003 the University has undertaken to refine its vision for its future and to develop a strategic plan for how to get there. The Vision Statement calls for Emory to be “a destination university internationally recognized as an inquiry-driven, ethically engaged, and diverse community, whose members work collaboratively for positive transformation in the world through courageous leadership in teaching, research, scholarship, health care, and social action.”

This vision harmonizes with Emory’s heritage, which has blended the pursuit of truth with a commitment of service to the wider community. These dual commitments have sometimes caused pain and struggle. Founded by slave-owners in the nineteenth century, Emory was forbidden by state law from educating African-Americans at the same time it enrolled white students. In 1962, however, the University brought suit against Georgia and won the right, in the state supreme court, to enroll students without regard to race. Founded by faithful Christians, the University gained a level of notoriety when one of Emory College’s professors published a scholarly work in 1965 that signaled the beginning of “death-of-God” theology. A firestorm erupted in conservative church circles, but the trustees and the administration stood by Thomas Altizer’s academic freedom and earned the accolades of the American Association of University Professors as a result.

As summed up by Emeritus Professor James Harvey Young in an earlier history of Emory, the University has sought, throughout its life, “to make the chief ends of teaching and learning not simply the advancement of scholarly knowledge and professional expertise but also the cultivation of humane wisdom and moral integrity.” True to this commitment, Emory continues to shape an education for the twenty-first century that will enable the wise heart to seek knowledge for service to the world.

--Gary S. Hauk, ’91Ph.D., Vice President and Deputy to the President


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