History of the College

Hiram was established in the mid-nineteenth century as a preparatory institution of high grade called the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute.

Image: James A. Garfield Statue

Founded in 1850, Hiram College is a liberal arts college with a proud heritage of educational innovation and excellence. Hiram was established in the mid-nineteenth century as a preparatory institution of high grade called the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. The Institute was founded by the Disciples of Christ and located in Hiram, Ohio, because the founders believed this area of the Western Reserve to be “healthful and free of distractions.” Since the College’s first days, it has been nonsectarian and coeducational, and throughout its existence it has sustained this egalitarian tradition of educating men and women from diverse backgrounds. The institute’s original charter was authorized by the state legislature on March 1, 1850, and modified in 1867 to recognize the institution’s new collegiate rank when it became Hiram College.

During the “Eclectic” years, from 1850-1867, there were seven principals (the equivalent of today’s college president); all but two of these individuals served very brief terms. Amos Sutton Hayden and James A. Garfield were the principals who did the most to establish and define the nature of the institution. Hayden was a Disciple minister who, along with his brother William and several others, took the initiative for the founding of a Disciple school on the Western Reserve. He then guided the school through the rough waters of its first six years.

Garfield was a student at the Institute from 1851-1853 and rose to prominence through his intellectual ability and personal charisma. He took two years away to complete his collegiate degree at Williams College, then returned in 1856 to become first a teacher, then principal of the Institute. Garfield was a classical scholar and taught Greek and Latin, along with such subjects as mathematics and geology. Recognizing the value of formal education, Garfield broadened the curriculum offered at the Institute and insisted on its nonsectarian character. Although he left Hiram in 1861 to take up the Civil War command of Company A of the 42nd Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry, a regiment recruited from Hiram, his name appeared in the Institute’s catalogues until 1863. Throughout his life, he retained his fondness for Hiram, making frequent visits and corresponding with numerous Hiram people. Two of his greatest friends were Almeda Booth, teacher of English, classics and mathematics from 1851 to 1866, and Burke A. Hinsdale, a student of Garfield’s and future president of the College.

Garfield Trail

The Garfield Trail is four historical sites around Northeast Ohio significant to President Garfield.

Three years after the Institute attained collegiate rank and became known as Hiram College, Burke A. Hinsdale was appointed president. Because of the fairly brief terms of the two presidents who preceded him, Hinsdale is known as the first permanent president of Hiram College. During his administration (1870-1882), the College achieved higher academic standing and established an ideal model for intellectual honesty and sound scholarship that gained national recognition. Hinsdale gathered around him the nucleus of a strong faculty who continued to serve the College for the next half century.

Ely V. Zollars was the next president to make a distinct mark on the College. Serving from 1888-1902, he substantially increased student enrollment, established a productive endowment, and carried out a building program that added a dormitory and a library/observatory to the campus.

President Miner Lee Bates, a Hiram alumnus of the Class of 1895, served from 1907-1930. Much beloved by all Hiram constituencies, he worked hard to reinforce the College’s academic reputation, added several new buildings and a wing to the library, and led two successful capital campaigns.

Bates was followed as president by Kenneth I. Brown, a 30-year-old Harvard graduate, who, more than anyone else, established Hiram’s reputation for innovative education. Under Brown (1930-40), the faculty tested and approved the Intensive Study Plan, whereby students took only one course in each of five 7-week terms. The innovative plan was highly successful and was reviewed in prestigious education journals, as well as in the Saturday Evening Post in an article titled “The Happiest College in the Land” (September 18, 1954).

Hiram’s next president, Paul H. Fall (1940-1957) saw the College through the war years and administered the Intensive Study Plan for 250 Army Air Force cadets in training at Hiram, in addition to the college’s traditional students. The College’s 100th anniversary in 1950 was celebrated with the dedication of Centennial Hall, a new dormitory for women. The decade of the 1950s saw two more Hiram innovations, the inauguration of study abroad or extramural courses and a summer speech course on a river showboat named the Majestic. Although showboat summers no longer occur for Hiram students, the College still sends numerous classes abroad each year, and the students are taught by the Hiram faculty who accompany them.

Paul F. Sharp (1957-1964) and Elmer Jagow (1966-1985) presided over a 30-year period of expansion which included a substantial increase in the student body and in the amount of the College’s endowment, as well as the addition of three dormitories, art and music buildings, a student union, and a new main classroom building. Jagow’s administration also focused intensively on increasing minority enrollment and a minority presence among faculty and staff. Curricular innovations included the “Twentieth Century Course,” the Freshman Colloquium program, which is still a backbone of the curriculum, the Weekend College for adult nontraditional students, and the regional studies initiative, whereby faculty use Hiram’s location on the Western Reserve as a laboratory in which to focus their academic disciplines. Under G. Benjamin Oliver (1989-2000), the campus expanded significantly with the addition of the new library, the Esther and Carl Gerstacker Science Building, and the Paul E. Martin Common. Yet another innovation was the conversion of the academic calendar from two 15-week semesters, which is standard for most private colleges, to a split semester plan of a 12-week session and a 3-week session per semester. Through this academic calendar (known on campus as the “Hiram Plan”), students enroll in three courses during each of the 12-week terms and take one intensive course in each 3-week term. The 3-week intensives lend themselves particularly well to study abroad programs.

The College’s sesquicentennial celebration in 2000 provided an opportunity for the College to celebrate its rich past-a past that is defined by a commitment to the liberal arts and the formation of the whole person for which Hiram College has always been known–while embracing a future which promises new initiatives in educational innovation.

Hiram College marked another milestone along the path toward that future with the appointment of Thomas V. Chema as the 21st president of Hiram College in 2003 after serving for many years on the College’s Board of Trustees. President Chema brought Hiram College into a new era of expansion, completing many new construction projects and building renovations including: expansion of the athletic facilities to include a new fieldhouse, training room and turf field; construction of East Hall and the Townhouses; construction of a new Dining Hall; and renovations in the Kennedy Center and Hinsdale Hall, among others.

In 2014 the College appointed Lori E. Varlotta as its 22nd and first female president. Dr. Varlotta made a broad impact on campus, introducing a new sense of transparency and a comprehensive model of shared governance. During her presidency, the College achieved five record-breaking fundraising years and raised a total of $57 million in cash donations. Varlotta was known for leading inclusive processes that garnered national attention and brought broad-sweeping changes to Hiram College. Key changes included the following: an academic model known as “The New Liberal Arts” that champions integrative learning, high-impact experiences, and mindful technology; “Tech and Trek”, the first 1:1 mobile technology program of its kind at an Ohio college or university; and a new tuition model, “Learn More, Earn More, Spend Less” that reduced the College’s published tuition and mandatory fees and offered free summer courses and paid internships to students.