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.
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.