Adrian College marks 160th year

ADRIAN COLLEGE — One hundred and sixty years ago, in 1859, antislavery leader and educator Asa Mahan helped open Adrian College in an attempt to provide higher education for people of any race or gender.

 Also a reverend, Mahan led the Michigan Union College in its transition from Leoni, Mich., to Adrian, Mich., seeking funding and support of the school’s strong antislavery sentiments, and it became Adrian College.

Only two years later, when the Civil War broke out, Adrian College proudly opened its campus up to the Fourth Michigan Volunteer Infantry for training. The grounds came to be known as Camp Williams.

Mahan, Adrian College’s first president and professor of intellectual and moral science, was a very memorable person, as described by D.S. Stephens, then a student and later the president of the college, in A. Douglas MacNaughton’s “A History of Adrian College.”

“I remember the incredible impression he left on my memory when I first met him,” Stephens said. “His commanding figure, patriarchal appearance, stately and dignified bearing, coupled with a kindly and benevolent manner, never failed to impress one who met him for the first time with the conviction that he was in the presence of a great man. He was six feet tall, proportionately large in every other way, and the flowing grey beard that just hid the white tie that he invariably wore, all tended to awaken a reverence that never grew less as time ripened acquaintance.”

Mahan had built a reputation as a “forceful preacher” prior to the college’s opening — first as a local pastor at the First Congregational Church in Jackson, Mich., and then as a pastor at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Adrian. In his inaugural address at Adrian College, he controversially declared coeducation to be “proper and judicious.”

Candles and kerosene were replaced with electricity in 1904, but Adrian College financially struggled for several decades to follow. The college faced what may have been its biggest challenge during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. 

A half-built gymnasium, Adrian’s “monument to the Depression,” loomed over students, faculty and staff as a symbol of hard times. Its interior remained partly exposed to the harsh environment until finally being enclosed in 1939 under the direction of Adrian College’s longest serving president to date, Harlan L. Feeman (1917-1940). The building was not fully completed until the 1950s.

Land acquisition expanded the campus to Michigan Ave. under Samuel J. Harrison’s presidency from 1940 to 1953.

Some of the college’s most extensive growth took place during John H. Dawson’s presidency from 1955 to 1978. The college gained accreditation and built several new facilities. During Dawson’s term, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the campus and spoke on the work done by the United Nations. Another big step took place in 1962, when enrollment surpassed 1,000.

During Stanley P. Caine’s tenure from 1989 to 2005, the Merillat Sports and Fitness Center was constructed and the Shipman Library was expanded. The Ridge Gymnasium was renovated and turned into the Ridge Student Center, which was renamed the Caine Student Center after his presidency.

Under current President Jeffrey R. Docking, hired in 2005, Adrian College has become home to various new facilities, including a multisport stadium, an ice arena, a tennis complex, a baseball facility, a track and field complex and a health and counseling center.

Visitors and alumni alike look around and marvel at the campus today. Mahan would certainly have been very proud. Significant and extensive improvements have been made in the 16 decades since its founding. Under the direction of its presidents, Adrian College has grown immensely, with 64 facilities and 15 parking lots listed on its campus map. Last year alone, the college had its largest ever freshman class, with 700 new students enrolled. The college remains committed to providing a quality education to all, including low-income students, first generation students and students with disabilities.

“We have a long history beginning with Asa Mahan for reaching out to those less fortunate,” said President Docking. “It’s part of our DNA. It’s what we do. Personally, as somebody who’s studied both theology and philosophy, I don’t think there’s anything that any of us can do that’s more important than helping people who perhaps didn’t have as much as others at the starting line to improve themselves economically, socially, spiritually and intellectually.”

Adrian College has flourished with strong leadership as a private, traditional four-year residential institution and co-educational college of liberal arts and sciences that offers a focused undergraduate education and traditional two year Master’s programs as well as advanced 3+2 Master’s programs. The NCAA Division III college offers 50 majors and pre-professional programs, 44 sports teams and 10 institutes dedicated to a diverse and personalized approach to education. Adrian College features state-of-the-art facilities, small class sizes and an innovative approach to the academic and personal growth of its students.

In recent years, the college has experienced momentous growth garnering national recognition. In its 2019 edition of America’s Best Colleges, U.S. News & World Report ranked Adrian College as Regional Top Baccalaureate College in the Midwest. The institution has also been recognized as a “Most Innovative College” and a “Best Value College” for two consecutive years.

A display highlighting each of the 16 decades will be created for Homecoming weekend. Athletic history highlighting the 50th anniversary of the Athletic Hall of Fame will also be displayed.