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Attending college is a milestone endeavor for young adults and can profoundly impact an individual’s personal, professional and intellectual development. When I moved across the country to attend Harding University in 1996, it was a decision that touched and shaped the rest of my life. While there, I formed lasting friendships, earned two undergraduate degrees, and met my husband, with whom I recently celebrated our 23rd anniversary.
For a remarkable century, Harding University, nestled in the heart of Searcy, Arkansas, has shaped minds, nurtured faith and fostered excellence. As Harding University reaches its centennial milestone, we’ll look at Harding’s one-hundred-year history and explore the many celebrations planned to commemorate this milestone event.
Harding University and Searcy are often synonymous, but it wasn’t always. Harding University, associated with the Churches of Christ and initially known as Harding College, was established in 1924 in Morrilton, Arkansas when Arkansas Christian College and Harper College merged. The school flourished over the next ten years and eventually outgrew the Morrilton location. In the 1930s, J.N. Armstrong, Harding College’s first president, began to seek a new home for the school.
About seventy miles away in Searcy, Galloway Women’s College, established in the 1800s by the Methodist Episcopal Church, suffered financial decline and dropped enrollment. The struggling women’s school merged with Hendrix College in Conway in 1933, and the Searcy campus became available.
In 1934, Harding College moved to Searcy after Armstrong negotiated a deal to purchase the campus, valued at over $600,000, for about $75,000, a significant value even at that time. Pattie Cobb Dormitory, originally Holmes Hall, was my home away from home during my sophomore and junior years at Harding. The building, constructed in 1919, is one of the only remaining structures from Galloway Women’s College. The Olen Hendrix building, built in 1929, also remains.
The next 90 years brought significant growth, and the school blossomed from 461 students in 1934 to nearly 5,000 students in 2023. But those years weren’t always easy. Financial struggles almost caused the school to close in 1939, and enrollment dropped significantly during the war years. The school’s second president, financially savvy George S. Benson, was able to turn things around, save the school and implement several programs that caused enrollment to flourish.
Dr. Clifton L. Ganus Jr. was named the college’s third president in 1965. Under the leadership of Ganus, over ten buildings and expansions were completed, and enrollment grew to over 2000 students. Most notably, under Ganus’s charge, Harding College transitioned to university status and was officially renamed Harding University on August 27, 1979.
Dr. David Burks became the University’s fourth president in 1987. In addition to expanding the Searcy campus, Burks was committed to expanding the University’s global outreach and oversaw Harding’s international programs. Harding developed international campuses in Florence, Italy and Athens, Greece and offers semester-long studies abroad in Australasia, Latin America, Europe and Zambia.
Dr. Bruce McLarty was inaugurated as the university’s fifth president in 2013. McLarty was the first president to use Social Media to connect with the student body. Under his direction, race relations were addressed, and a campus-wide reading program was developed. McLarty also saw the University through the COVID-19 pandemic, navigating challenges not experienced by any former president.
In 2021, Dr. Mike Williams was named the sixth president and was inaugurated in 2022. Williams is early in his tenure but will oversee the Centennial celebration. He has expressed his desire to refocus the school’s spiritual center to provide a Christ-centered education for a new era of emerging adults. Based on an excerpt from Williams’s inaugural address, the theme “Inspired Purpose” is woven throughout the festivities.
… piercing through this cultural upheaval, the torch of inspired purpose is guiding our way, thrusting us into exciting frontiers. In the midst of this turbulence, I believe there is a fresh wind blowing through this emerging generation. I believe God is raising up a new generation to confront the challenges of our time.”
Photo by Jeff Montgomery, Harding University
Throughout its century-long existence, Harding University has endured the sands of time and evolved into a prominent stronghold of education and values. Harding University’s centennial celebration began this September and will continue until the school’s 100th birthday September 7, 2024.
Homecoming weekend will kick off with a homecoming parade on October 30. Throughout the weekend, activities include speakers, tailgating, Bison football, an All Social Club reunion, various banquets and reunions, a G.L.O.W run, Mary Poppins – The Musical and more.
The Harding Christmas light display is undoubtedly one to remember, but the lighting ceremony is simply magical.
Spring Sing at Harding University is a cherished annual tradition that transcends entertainment and embodies the spirit of creativity, collaboration and community. This vibrant event is a meticulously choreographed showcase of student talent, where various social clubs and organizations compete through elaborate, song-and-dance performances. In 2023, Spring Sing performances explored what makes each of us unique and stand out. Stay tuned for the 2024 theme.
Founder’s Day is a time-honored tradition commemorating Harding’s rich history and the visionary leaders who laid its foundations. Each year, this event serves as a poignant reminder of the university’s deep-seated commitment to Christian values and academic excellence. This year, a time capsule buried in 1979 will be unearthed, and a new time capsule will be placed.
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