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Photo of Randolph College in the early 1900s.

History and Legacy

In 1891, on 20 acres of rough, hilly, land in what was then Campbell County, William Waugh Smith built the foundation for his vision—a dream that was years in the making. As early as 1883 and 1885, the then-president of Randolph-Macon College (R-MC) in Ashland, Virginia, W.W. Bennett, with the support of faculty (which included William Waugh Smith) approached the college’s Board of Trustees in an attempt to open some educational opportunities there to women. Both efforts failed. Years later, when Smith himself was president, he once again set out to convince the board. While the board members remained steadfast against opening R-MC to women, they did agree to the idea of a separate college for women.

Smith set out to find a place in Virginia open to such a novel concept—providing a rigorous academic program to women. George M. Jones, a stockholder of the Rivermont Land Company, suggested Lynchburg, a wealthy, growing city near the Blue Ridge mountains. Passionate and determined, Smith convinced the company to donate the 20-acre site, as well as $40,000 in money and $60,000 in stocks, as long as Smith was able to raise $100,000 for the endowment in 90 days. He secured $106,000 in just 34 days.

On Sept. 14, 1893, with 11 other faculty members by his side, Smith opened the doors of the partially finished building (eventually called Smith Hall and later Main Hall) to the first class of 36 pioneering women.

Under William Waugh Smith’s leadership, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College quickly became known nationally for its academic rigor and began to attract women from across the nation. Smith tirelessly championed the school until his death in 1912. In 1902, R-MWC was the first women’s college to be admitted to the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Southern States. In 1911, the College’s first art professor, Louise Jordan Smith, established the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art, and in 1914, the College’s collection of art began with the acquisition of a piece from the Fourth Annual Exhibition. In addition, R-MWC was the first college in the south to have a psychology laboratory, and in 1916, R-MWC was also the first women’s college south of the Potomac to receive a Phi Beta Kappa charter. Pearl S. Buck, a member of the Class of 1914, is the College’s most well-known graduate. The author of The Good Earth, Buck earned both a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize.

The early and middle 1900s brought expansion and building to the campus as facilities and programs were added. In 1953, R-MWC officially separated from the Randolph-Macon Board of Trustees, and held its first meeting on March 27. The College benefited from the Cold War when the National Gallery asked to build a secret storage facility on campus for the nation’s masterpieces in the case of nuclear war. Then known as the Art Gallery, the facility served as a gallery for the College’s art collection beginning in 1953.  (In 1983, the Art Gallery was renamed the Maier Museum of Art.)

In 1961, R-MWC became the first college in Lynchburg to allow students of all races to enroll. During this time, the College also established its flagship study abroad program in Reading, England, and several other buildings were completed.

Randolph’s innovative American Culture Program was launched in the 1990s. The early 2000s brought the creation of the popular Summer Research program, the reinstatement of the biennial Greek Play tradition (originally produced in 1909), and the new environmental studies program.

In 2004, the College’s Board of Trustees began a multi-year strategic planning process. Virginia Hill Worden ’69 stepped in as interim president after the retirement of Kathleen Gill Bowman. After years of debate, research, and deliberation, the College’s Board of Trustees addressed enrollment issues by making the decision in September 2006 to adopt coeducation and change the College name. R-MWC officially became Randolph College on July 1, 2007, and John E. Klein began his presidency in August of that year, just days before the College welcomed its first fully coed class. After several years of transition, the College began to see significant improvement in all areas, including alumnae engagement. During Klein’s leadership, alumnae financial support allowed Randolph to make significant improvements to campus. The $6 million Student Center renovation and Michels Plaza were completed in 2013.  Also, in that year, the Board of Trustees announced the appointment of Bradley W. Bateman as president. He began his tenure in July 2013 after the retirement of Klein. During Bateman’s tenure, the College continued its forward momentum.

In 2014, the College began a partnership with the National Gallery, London, as part of the sale of the “Men of the Docks” painting by George Bellows. The partnership is the only one of its kind between a U.S. educational institution and the National Gallery, London and includes, among other benefits, lectures on Randolph’s campus by high-level staff from the Gallery as well a special internship program in London for Randolph students.

New graduate programs have also been added in recent years. In addition to the Masters of Arts in Teaching, Randolph now offers a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and a Master of Arts in Coaching and Sport Leadership. The College will begin its new TAKE2 curriculum model in the fall of 2021. This unique, innovative program, in which students take two classes every seven weeks, with no classes on Wednesdays, is designed to better meet the needs of today’s students.

Improvements to campus have continued with the addition of the Grosvenor Apartments and renovations to Cheatham Dining Hall and Wright Hall. A major infrastructure project was completed in recent years, along with various other improvements to other areas of campus, including Main Hall Lobby, Bell Hall, the tennis courts, WildCat Stadium turf, and more. In 2021, the College completed its multi-year major renovation of and addition to the athletic center, which was renamed the Michels Athletic Center (MAC). The enhanced facility features a renovated gymnasium and pool, new weight room, team rooms, and more. Plans and fundraising also continue for renovation and expansion of the Martin Science Building.

Today, the campus has been revitalized, the student body is engaged, and faculty members remain devoted to providing students an individualized, liberal arts education. Building on a strong 128-year heritage of rigor and academic challenge in a close-knit community, Randolph College continues to prepare students for Vita abundantior, the life more abundant.

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