Denison holds a storied place in American higher education. Among the earliest colleges to be established in the original "Northwest Territory" beyond the Allegheny Mountains and north of the Ohio River, it held its first classes during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Its founders were ambitious frontier people, determined to nurture leadership for education, commerce, religion, and government. For their initial guidance, they turned to graduates of Brown University in Rhode Island, which had a history of preparing clergy in the Baptist tradition for service in the West. First called the Granville Literary and Theological Institution, it soon took the name Granville College, and, in the mid-1850s, Denison University, in honor of a key benefactor.
The college's early fortunes rose and fell with the leading developments of the young American nation: the canal and railroad booms, westward expansion, sectionalism and civil war. Students, professors, and graduates alike were deeply engaged with the central issues of their times. Many were committed to anti-slavery activism. Others took an early interest in women's education, providing encouragement for not one, but two women's colleges in Granville. By the end of the Civil War, women were joining men in Denison classes, and at the turn of the century, adjacent Shepardson College for Women was physically integrated into Denison. The early curriculum was broad and demanding: classical languages, English grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, history and geography, philosophy and theology, and, especially following the Darwinian revolution of the mid-nineteenth century, natural sciences.
Well before it reached its first centennial, Denison had gained a reputation for attracting outstanding professors and college leaders, sending a number on to advance higher education across the country. William Rainey Harper, founding president of the University of Chicago, held one of his first professorships at Denison. Clarence Luther Herrick, later president of the University of New Mexico, served Denison as Professor of Geology and Natural History and initiated an innovative scholarly journal Bulletin of the Scientific Laboratories of Denison University, in 1885. Denison president E. Benjamin Andrews subsequently led Brown University and served as chancellor of the University of Nebraska. President Daniel Purinton took leadership of West Virginia University. The growing academic reputation of Denison briefly encouraged the faculty and Trustees to offer graduate degrees, but by the early twentieth century it was clear that the strength of the institution was in high-quality undergraduate instruction, and the title "university" was retained primarily for historical reasons.
Focus upon leadership in undergraduate education and commitment to the residential principle led the college to develop concrete plans for the physical expansion of the campus and measured growth, with the college reaching its present size of about 2,100 students by 1970. In 1916, the famed landscape architectural firm of Frederick Law Olmsted Sons, whose founder was the designer of New York City's Central Park, some of the great Chicago lakefront parks, and a number of distinguished college campuses, produced an innovative design for Denison. The "Olmsted Plan" has remained the touchstone for the continuing development of the Denison campus, locating academic halls on the center of the College Hill, placing residential halls on the east and west wings of the ridge, and arranging buildings in quadrangles, sometimes leaving one side open to take advantage of the views across the hills and valleys north and south. The plan also posited a pedestrian-friendly campus which encouraged the chance meetings and casual conversations among both students and faculty that advance learning and friendship. Denison's Reese~Shackelford Common (completed 2003) fulfills this plan, creating an open quadrangle flanked by the state-of-the-art Samson Talbot Hall of Biological Science and the Burton D. Morgan Center, housing programs promoting connections between a Denison education and the world beyond college. The campus's latest residence halls are all of apartment style, allowing students to progress during their four years from traditional double rooms through suites and singles and apartments with kitchens. Residentiality is a key component of a Denison education, creating a four-year on-campus living and learning experience for the students.
In 2008, Denison completed an ambitious comprehensive financial campaign, raising nearly $178 million from alumni, foundations, and friends of the college. These resources permitted the college to add sixteen new endowed professorships, increase resources for student scholarships and financial aid, endow student research programs and faculty professional development, invest in student life opportunities, and ensure that Denison’s hilltop campus remains one of the most beautiful and well-equipped in the nation. In 2009, Denison celebrated the opening of the Bryant Arts Center, a contemporary 45,000 square foot facility for studio art and art history that has been built within and alongside the classical walls of a century old building and that has earned a LEED Gold environmental sustainability rating from the US Green Building Council. A major renovation and expansion of Ebaugh Chemistry and Biochemistry Laboratories opened in August 2011. Exceptional alumni financial support is underwriting a new aquatics center and a major expansion and renovation of Denison's athletics and recreation facilities, which will open in stages in 2012 and 2013.
Today's Denison, a recognized leader among 21st century American liberal arts colleges, builds upon all of these founding traditions. A non-sectarian institution independent of any denominational affiliation since the 1960s, Denison actively seeks outstanding students from across the country and around the world. Denison offers a rich and deep education in the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, and fine arts and extraordinary campus leadership opportunities aimed at preparing graduates who will make a difference in their communities, their country, and the world. A pioneer in the creation of an interdisciplinary curriculum in Environmental Studies, Denison enters 2012 with a full commitment to promoting individual and institutional environmental sustainability. The college is a signatory to both the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitments and the international Talloires Declaration for a Sustainable Future.
President Dale T. Knobel