History of Harding University
More than 75 years ago, Harding University was founded. Unlike so many others, the university was built with the hope and prayers that years later its educational and spiritual growth would continue. In 1924, Harper College in Kansas and Arkansas Christian College merged their facilities and assets to form Harding College, a senior college in Morrilton, Arkansas.
The college was named in honor of James A. Harding, co-founder and first president of Nashville Bible School (now David Lipscomb University) in Nashville, Tennessee. A preacher, teacher and Christian educator, Harding inspired his co-workers and associates with enthusiasm for Christian education that remains a significant tradition at Harding University.
Harding opened its doors to 288 students with John Nelson Armstrong serving as president. Armstrong, a well-known figure among members of the Churches of Christ, had served as Harper’s president for five years and had held other teaching and administrative positions previous to Harding.
Harding’s first years were a struggle financially. The building program could not keep up with the growth of the student body and teachers salaries often went unpaid. However, those who loved Harding were dedicated to its mission, and Harding obtained accreditation from the Arkansas State Board of Education in 1928.
Outgrowing its home in Morrilton, Harding purchased the facilities of Galloway College in its present site of Searcy in 1934. The 29-acre campus with 11 buildings reduced the classroom and dormitory problems and provided room for expansion in the future.
While Armstrong retired to serve as the dead of the Bible department, one of Harding’s first graduates, George S. Benson, returned from mission work in China in 1936 to assume the presidency of his alma mater. The vigorous educator quickly raised money which erased the debt of the college and launched it on a journey to financial stability, including a large endowment. On Thanksgiving Day 1939, Armstrong ceremoniously burned the mortgage in a fire on the front lawn – leaving the campus never to be mortgaged since.
The first permanent men’s dormitory is named Armstrong Hall. Throughout the years, enrollment consistently increased and building needs were greater. Faculty members were added to meet scholastic need and a salary scale was adopted and met. On August 12, 1944, Harding’s first president died in his sleep. Armstrong’s contributions to Harding College and to Christian education are a tribute to his life of service.
Almost 30 years after its beginning, Harding was approved for national accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools on March 14, 1954; this allowed students’ work to be accepted by other colleges. The auditorium built in 1981 is named to honor Dr. Benson. It has the largest capacity of any auditorium in the state. When in 1965 President Benson (shown at left) retired, Dr. Clifton L. Ganus Jr. (right)., a 1943 graduate, became the third president of Harding. Serving as president until 1987, Ganus kept alive his predecessor’s drive for excellence by leading a plan of campus improvement and expansion. During his administration, enrollment increased from 1,472 in the fall of 1965 to 1,767 in the fall of 1986. Seven major academic buildings, four large residence halls and several programs grew, including its Christian Communications Program (now known as the School of Biblical Studies) which was established in 1973 and during Harding’s 50th anniversary year, the School of Nursing was started. With five schools or colleges comprising its academic offerings, Harding College became Harding University in 1979.
Upon his retirement, Dr. Ganus became Harding’s first chancellor; in his honor, the board of trustees named the physical education complex the Clifton L. Ganus Athletic Center.
Dr. Davis Burks became Harding’s fourth president in May 1987. A 1965 graduate, he had been a member of the faculty since 1967, previously serving as dean of the School of Business. He instituted the course in Christian Business Ethics, a requirement for all business majors. As part of the University’s 75th Anniversary Celebration, Burks developed a book entitled "Against The Grain." The book tells of Harding’s longtime mission – Christian servanthood. Under Burks’ leadership, the University has experienced record growth in enrollment and giving, and more importantly, continues to place an emphasis on the Christian life.