This year marks the 200th anniversary of Athens State University, and the community is honoring the unique history of the school with the Athens Forever Bicentennial Celebration. As a private academy, a Methodist college and, finally, a state university, the school has gone by many names and faced many challenges over the course of two centuries.
“Looking back over 200 years of history, what has us all amazed and just so proud about being at this point is there were so many obstacles [the school] had to overcome,” says Chris Latham, director of marketing, public relations and publications at the university. Many of those obstacles were financial. Other challenges, like keeping the school operating during the Civil War and weathering a 1909 typhoid outbreak, were more dramatic. “And every roadblock they came up against, they would have to make decisions on how to continue.”
Shortly after the city of Athens was founded in 1818, its citizens persuaded Alabama Supreme Court Judge John McKinley to donate land to establish the Athens Female Academy. Classes began in the four-room schoolhouse in 1822 under the direction of a Baptist minister, Daniel Perrin Bestor, and for the next 20 years provided an education for the daughters of influential Alabama families. In 1842, hoping to increase enrollment and expand its programs, the school decided to affiliate with the Methodist Church, which at the time was developing a system of colleges, universities and seminaries throughout the country (including several female colleges), and became the Athens Female Institute of the Tennessee Annual Conference of the Methodist Church, led by Rev. Richard Henderson Rivers. That same year, local families donated funds to build Founders Hall, the oldest surviving campus building. Within the decade, enrollment at the institute had increased from 80 to nearly 200 students.
In 1858, Jane Hamilton Childs was appointed president and shortened the school’s name to the Athens Collegiate Institute. She not only kept the school operating during the Civil War (the institution didn’t close for a single day), but, according to local legend, prevented Founders Hall from being destroyed by the Union Army when she produced a letter allegedly signed by Abraham Lincoln that demanded the campus be spared. Still, when Childs retired in 1869, lack of funding and low enrollment threatened the school’s future and it reverted back to serving the daughters of local families who could afford the substantial tuition.
Three decades did little to change the college’s situation. It wasn’t until the early 20th century, under the leadership of Mary Norman Moore, who took the helm in 1904, that the college started to see a flurry of growth and development. In 1910, the college was granted Class B status from the Methodist Conference, meaning that it had at least seven full-time faculty and an annual endowment of at least $5,000. When a minimum endowment of $100,000 was achieved in 1913, its status was raised to Class A. In 1911, the college was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. In 1912, Brown Hall was completed, named for Florence Brown, an instructor who died caring for students during the 1909 typhoid epidemic. The fine arts building, McCandless Hall, was completed in 1914 and named for Katherine Leslie McCandless, who is credited for putting the school’s music program on the map.
After Moore resigned in 1916, the college continued its transformation into the modern institution she envisioned. A gymnasium and swimming pool were added to the campus in 1918, followed in 1921 by a three-story women’s dormitory (today’s Sanders Hall and home to the College of Business).
Future presidents would strive to build on that early twentieth-century legacy, but faced with economic struggles, particularly those brought on by the Great Depression, ultimately decided the future of the college depended on admitting male students. “It wasn’t because they necessarily wanted to go co-ed, but they needed to do something to keep the doors open,” Latham explains, adding that the current student demographic is predominantly female. “We still serve women and understand that’s a rich part of our history; that’s kind of ingrained in our culture here.”
In 1975, the State of Alabama assumed ownership of Athens State College and made it a two-year upper-division college in the Alabama Community College System. In 2012, Athens State University became an autonomous institution overseen by an independent Board of Trustees.
Still an upper-division university for juniors and seniors, the university has spent the last two decades developing programs to better serve its non-traditional students, including a focus on distance learning.
“We were really one of the trailblazers in the state of Alabama when it comes to distance learning,” says Latham. A majority of Athens State students are enrolled in online classes or ones that are offered in a hybrid of online and in-person formats. All of the programs in the College of Business can be completed entirely online, and online learning is an option that’s appealing to more and more prospective students. “We’re seeing that our reach is [extending] outside the state, since proximity isn’t a concern.”
Students are also attracted by the affordable tuition, he says. “We’re the most affordable public state institution [in Alabama] when it comes to undergraduate education.”
Graduate programs have also been a driving force for growth in the past several years, says Latham.
For Athens State, online options and graduate programs are just another transition. “I think resiliency is an underlying theme throughout our history,” says Latham. That resiliency gives the state’s oldest continuously operating higher education institution a lot to celebrate.
“It’s been a five-year celebration,” Latham explains. The Athens Forever bicentennial committee, consisting of alumni, faculty, staff and friends of the university, formed in 2017 and kicked off a $20 million endowment campaign, and bicentennial festivities officially launched with the Athens Forever Gala in February 2020.
“But we really kicked things into high gear this year.” Bicentennial events have included an evening with autism advocate and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin; an interactive concert and storytelling experience, “From History to Hip Hop,” featuring soul singer Jonathan Blanchard held in celebration of Black History Month; an International Women’s Day celebration; and the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Concert Series.
But the “big hurrah,” says Latham, is the Official Bicentennial Homecoming Celebration on July 29.
One piece of Athens State history particularly sticks out to Latham: the creation of a hosiery factory during the Depression that provided a way for students to earn their tuition and room and board. “That really kind of demonstrates our commitment to students. We’ve always been 100% dedicated to making a way for students to reach their goals.”
New Programs for a Third Century
In addition to the bicentennial, Athens State University has several new academic programs to celebrate.
Just five years ago, the school had recently launched three graduate programs — career and technical education, global logistics and supply chain management, and religious studies.
Since then, its graduate programs have doubled to include strategic health care management and administration, strategic human resource management, and strategic leadership and business analytics.
In addition to these, Latham says the school will soon offer a Master of Accountancy degree. “Our undergraduate accounting program is one of the largest programs that we have, so we feel like the master of accountancy will be a strong program as well.” The degree was expected to receive approval in March with courses offered this fall.
Two other popular undergraduate programs will also soon have graduate offerings — a master’s degree in computer science and one in cybersecurity have already been approved to launch. And finally, a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies is in the pipeline — a program that will help students to focus their studies on areas best suited to their academic and professional goals.
“There’s a lot of excitement all over campus,” says Latham. “All of our heads are spinning, but everyone’s really excited. It’s definitely a fun time to be here.”
Katherine MacGilvray is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Huntsville.