Columbia College is having one of the busiest years in its history. Almost 1,000 men and women attend classes during the day and more than 1,500 at night.
That’s a far cry from its founding 153 years ago. In 1851, the school opened as Columbia Christian College and became the first women’s college west of the Mississippi River, said historian Polly Batterson.
For more than a century, the school upheld its mission: to provide the opportunity for higher education for “those who had been denied,” to change to meet the needs of society and to ground students in liberal arts, Batterson said.
The author of “Columbia College: 150 Years of Courage, Commitment and Change,” Batterson taught political science and history at the school for 32 years before retiring in 1996.
“Things have changed tremendously, but we have been true to those principals and those principals sometimes require change,” Batterson said.
In the 1960s, changes in American society compelled changes in higher education. At the college, admissions declined.
“Anytime an institution is no longer meeting social needs of the day, it must change or decline,” Batterson said.
In her book, she notes there were some who suggested gimmickry to sell the college — for example, having a weekly “Wonderful Wednesday,” in which students had the day off — but the faculty rejected that. The admissions director at the time, Howard Kelley, wanted to use such tactics to promote the institution to prospective students and their parents.
“It was the faculty against President (W. Merle) Hill and the director of admissions in the ‘battle for the soul of the college,’ during the fall semester of ’68 and into the next year,” Batterson said. “The battle was over how much to change the academics or how much to change other aspects of the college.”
Proposed ideas of transformation included altering the liberal arts foundation, changing the name and going back to four years; it had been a four-year school early on before becoming a two-year junior college and going co-ed.
“The faculty really dug their heels in to continue the liberal arts. That is what we were founded on,” Batterson said.
In 1969, a groundswell of support resulted in the name change to Columbia College, a four-year baccalaureate degree program and the admission of men. After a lot of debate, however, the liberal arts focus remained intact.
Courses were added, which gave faculty the opportunities to teach more in-depth, innovative upper-level courses and to update to meet the academic trends of the day, Batterson said.
“The name change was not an abandonment of anything,” she said. “The original name was a terrible mistake — we were never a church school.”
Batterson said that although the college has ties to the Disciples of Christ, a Protestant denomination, according to its charter it must remain nonsectarian. It is more focused on humanitarianism than any particular belief system.
“The name Columbia College was intended to reflect the very close tie between the college and the town, resulting in the sobriquet ‘Columbia College,’” Batterson said.
Batterson said men immediately enrolled.
“Society needed women to be able to hold their own with men and for men and women to be able to work together in society,” she said.
“There was a special kind of energy when it went co-ed. It was different and delightful,” said professor emeritus Sidney Larson, who taught art at Columbia College from 1951 to 2001.
“It was enormously exciting to watch the transition of the institution,” Larson said. “It is a school that has been progressing as the world changes, providing education that fits the times and changes as it needs to, to fit.”
Today, Columbia College has mini-campuses nationwide, and its online courses have their biggest enrollment ever. Its evening courses are aimed largely at adult learners who have work or family obligations during the day.
“In almost every way, Columbia College is moving forward. I think that every year we are better than we were the year before,” said David Roebuck, professor of political science and president of the college’s faculty.
“We are constantly changing the curriculum to reflect the needs of students in contemporary society,” Roebuck said.
He said the college exposes students to a variety of relevant ideas, and in doing that, holds true to the core value of liberal arts education.
Batterson said the school has prospered because it stayed true to its roots — to provide higher education to people who have difficulty accessing it.
“The things that make history important are what happens and the results,” she said.