Aerial view of Furman University

Our History

Institutional Development and Leadership

Founded in 1826, Furman University is the oldest private university in South Carolina and among the 75 oldest institutions of higher education in operation nationally today. The university is named for Richard Furman, among the most important Baptist clergyman during the early decades of the new nation and an influential advocate of educational institutions throughout the country.  He maintained lifelong ties to Rhode Island College (now Brown University), and helped lead efforts to establish Columbian College (now George Washington University), South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), Furman, and Mercer University.

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At the heart of Furman’s vision was the Baptist ideal of democratically governed civic and religious institutions, a model that required the cultivation of broadly educated citizens from all walks of life who would be capable of creating a moral and productive society.  Like many elite men of this era, however, Furman was also a slaveholder.  In reaction to the foiled Denmark Vesey slave rebellion (1822), he authored a public letter that urged the literacy and education of enslaved persons while supporting slaveholding as a Christian practice and minimizing its inhumanity. The university continues to reckon with these legacies.

In the 1850s, James C. Furman, a son of Richard Furman, became the university’s first president. James C. Furman vehemently and publicly defended slaveholding and served as one of the signers of the state’s Ordinance of Secession, which severed ties between South Carolina and the United States, eventually leading to the Civil War. During the war, the university closed, as most of its white male student body served on behalf of the Confederacy.  For this, the university paid dearly and barely survived. Throughout the late 1860s and 1870s, James C. Furman fought passionately to save the institution in the economically devastated post-war climate.

In the pre-industrialized South, saving Furman and other similar private institutions depended upon sacrificial, small gifts from churches and individuals.  The college almost closed more than once.  Over the next century, however, still guided by the vision of an educated and enlightened public and led by dedicated trustees, administrators, and faculty, the college prospered, taking the best of its founding heritage and formulating the foundation of the values it holds today.

Based on those efforts, the university was first accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1924, the same year The Duke Endowment recognized the university’s strengths and began giving annual grants that continue to support the university today. In 1938, in response to the firing of a religion professor who challenged doctrinal assumptions, Furman faculty formed a chapter of the American Association for University Professors (AAUP). Two years later, Furman trustees approved the AAUP’s Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom and Tenure.

In the second half of the 20th century, new and narrow understandings of what it means to be Baptist forcefully emerged across the country with grave implications for Furman and the South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC), its parent institution since the university’s founding. By the late 1980s, the relationship between Furman and the SCBC had become increasingly fraught and threatened the university’s academic freedom and values. In 1992, messengers to the SCBC voted to sever all legal and financial ties to the university, a move that was embraced by most of the university community. This watershed moment has allowed Furman the freedom to self-govern and independently continue along its progressive path.

After 1992, Furman became the beneficiary of several sizable bequests, in addition to continued support from The Duke Endowment. Notably, the Daniel Estate (1992), and the estate of John D. Hollingworth (2000), along with grants from major foundations like Andrew W. Mellon, have allowed Furman to develop into a nationally competitive liberal arts and sciences university, with funds used to support academic programs and scholarships, the building and renovation of campus structures, and innovative campus initiatives.

The university’s first female president, Elizabeth Davis, began her tenure in 2014, and under her guidance there have been many achievements, including the launch of The Furman Advantage.  Furman’s success through many challenges, including the recent COVID-19 pandemic, reminds us that the university has always been more than the individuals who founded it or the trustees and administrators who have led the university’s operations, important as they are.  Faculty, students, graduates, and friends of the institution have identified with and supported the founding vision of a quality education for all.

The Campus

The South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC) established Furman’s original campus in Edgefield, S.C., but over the next three decades, the campus changed locations two times before arriving in downtown Greenville, South Carolina, in 1851. Originally founded as a men’s academy and theological institute, the theological school broke away from Furman in 1858 to become the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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In 1854, South Carolina Baptists chartered the Greenville Baptist Female College (GBFC) as a successor to the Greenville Academy (1819). Located less than two miles from the Furman campus, the GBFC changed names several times, and in the 1910s settled upon Greenville Woman’s College (GWC). Under the leadership of Mary C. Judson, the college offered a progressive education that included women’s debate and literary societies and calisthenics, and served as a foothold for women’s suffrage. As a result of financial challenges during the Great Depression, GWC merged with Furman between 1933 and 1938. Furman thus became a co-educational institution operating on two campuses in downtown Greenville.

After World War II, the largest enrollment of students on record caused overcrowding and highlighted the growing disrepair of campus buildings and infrastructure. In 1950, the trustees, hoping to unite the two campuses on a single site, purchased land five miles north of downtown Greenville at the base of the Blue Ridge mountains, where construction on the current campus began three years later.

Noted landscape architects Innocenti and Webel of New York designed the campus grounds, and Perry, Shaw, Hepburn and Dean Architects, who had recently restored Colonial Williamsburg, designed the campus structures and layout. Between 1958 and 1961, students and faculty transitioned to the new site. The relocation inspired much re-visioning and change, including a desire to unite all athletic teams under one mascot. At the completion of the transition, the student body voted in support of the Paladin, a medieval knight.

Today, Furman’s 750-acre campus features 36 major buildings, most of which are constructed with handmade Virginia brick, in addition to a replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin, a Florentine bell tower, a 28-acre lake, 13 miles of paved trails through woodlands,  a planetarium, an 18-hole golf course, an Asian garden, and the Place of Peace, the first Japanese temple to be dismantled and reconstructed in America. Furman is regularly designated as one of the most beautiful college campuses in America.

Student Life and Alumni

Furman has always nurtured the cultivation of the whole person, and at the heart of that are myriad athletic, cultural, faith-based, volunteer, and social opportunities. Thirteen national fraternities and sororities have chapters on campus. Furman’s largest student organization is the Heller Service Corps, which places student volunteers in over 60 local nonprofit organizations.

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Furman athletics, in particular, boasts a long and accomplished past. In 1889, Furman played in the first formal, intercollegiate football game in South Carolina, and three years later, alumni selected royal purple and white as the university’s colors. In 1954, Frank Selvy set an NCAA basketball record when he scored 100 points in a single game. Furman boasts two national championships: The women’s golf team won the 1976 Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) championship, while football won the Division I-AA championship in 1988. Furman competes in NCAA Division I sports, and also offers robust intramural and club sports.

Furman’s many distinguished graduates reflect the holistic nature of the university experience.  Charles H. Townes ’35, co-recipient of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Richard W. Riley ’54, former U.S. Secretary of Education, are among the most well-known, but there are many distinguished titles among our alumni: South Carolina Governor; Prime Minister of Finland; the founder of the school of Behavioral Psychology; the Director of National Intelligence; a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; the conductor of the Boston Pops; professional athletes and Olympic medalists; Grammy, Drama Desk and Gospel Music Association Dove award winners; Pulitzer Prize-nominated authors; and an international correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR).  There are many others with less specific titles: medical doctors, lawyers, teachers, diplomats, researchers, entrepreneurs, people who have given their lives in service to the poor and powerless, ministers, therapists, internationally known musicians, and significantly more Ph.D.s than your average small liberal arts college.

Diversity and Inclusiveness

During the Civil Rights Movement, judicial decisions and Congressional legislation prohibited educational institutions from discriminating on the basis of race. After two years of discussion and planning, delayed in part due to the SCBC’s lack of support for desegregation, Furman admitted three African American students into its graduate education program on January 27, 1965. Two days later, Joseph Allen Vaughn, a graduate of Greenville’s Sterling High School, desegregated Furman’s undergraduate student body. In 1969, the university first offered a course in African American history and hired its first African American faculty member for the summer session. Throughout the 1970s, several African American adjunct faculty offered courses, and in 1983, Drs. Saundra Ardrey and Cherie Maiden became the first tenure-track African American professors at Furman. The student body elected its first African American president in 2007, and in 2020, the university named one of its residential complexes after Clark Murphy, a much-beloved GWC janitor, handyman, and groundskeeper.

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In 2001, Furman became the first college or university in South Carolina to offer same-sex domestic partner medical insurance and other benefits. In 2017, Furman became a regional leader in efforts among colleges and universities to research its slaveholding and racial past. With support from Furman’s Board of Trustees, the recommendations emanating from Furman’s Task Force on Slavery and Justice have resulted in many initiatives, including the renaming of campus structures, a plaza honoring Vaughn and others who have contributed to Furman’s diversity, and a revised and more inclusive understanding of all who have contributed to the university’s progress and success throughout its nearly 200-year history. The university formally acknowledged in 2019 that its campus sits on traditional land of the Cherokee people, and that it seeks to gain inspiration from how the Cherokees learned from and used the land.

The university prioritizes the cultivation of a diverse campus community and an inclusive campus climate.

Faculty, Academics, and Innovation

In the 1930s, under the leadership of professors Gordon Blackwell and Laura Ebaugh and with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, Furman faculty spearheaded a joint community-university experiment to analyze and develop programming aimed at education and social reform in Greenville. These efforts represent the beginning of nearly a century of Furman faculty, staff, and administrators’ commitment to partnerships that mutually benefit the community and the university.

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The university began international study-away programs in 1969, and received a charter for a Phi Beta Kappa chapter in 1973, an acknowledgment of Furman’s commitment to academic excellence and rigor. In the 1990s, under the leadership of President David E. Shi, Furman became a national leader in the concept of “Engaged Learning,” described as a problem-solving, project-oriented, and experience- and research-based approach to the liberal arts and sciences.

For decades, sustainability has been among the university’s strategic priorities. During President Shi’s administration, Furman was a charter member of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Today, the Shi Institute for Sustainable Communities serves as a regional hub for sustainability education, applied sustainability research, and sustainability leadership.

Furman is also enhanced by The Richard W. Riley Institute for Government, Politics, and Public Leadership; the Institute for the Advancement of Community Health; and the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. These campus institutes utilize research and service to meaningfully improve the quality of life in South Carolina and beyond. The university has received significant national attention for its commitment to communities beyond its campus, including being named a recipient of the 2020 Carnegie Foundation Elective Community Engagement Classification.

As it approaches its bicentennial, The Furman Advantage promises each student a high-impact college experience focused on self-discovery emanating from mutually enhancing classroom and real-world experiences, reflection, and career exploration. From its home in Greenville, an economically thriving and vibrant city, Furman’s residential campus community offers rich student life organizations, programs, and academic offerings that prepare students to lead successful and meaningful lives and thrive in a diverse world.

Our Interactive Timeline

Students in computer science class

Vision, Mission and Values Statements

Interested in who we are, where we want to go, and what defines us as a university and a community?

Read our mission statements