History of Stephens
West was wild, and for the most part, the frontier unsettled when
Col. Richard Gentry called together Columbia’s 14 leading
male citizens on Aug. 24, 1833, to discuss the education of their
daughters. More than a century and a half later, these daughters
are making their own decisions, voicing their opinions and taking
on leadership roles in every industry and field of study imaginable.
Just as it has since 1833, Stephens College continues to meet the
changing needs of women by building on a strong tradition of innovation.
Once housed in a Presbyterian church building, Stephens’ forerunner, the Columbia Female Academy, was a single building where the first class of 25 students studied English grammar, moral philosophy, algebra and celestial geography among other subjects. In 1856, David H. Hickman, businessman, financier and legislator, led citizens in reshaping the academy into a full-scale college — the Columbia Female Baptist Academy.
More than a decade later, James L. Stephens endowed the College with $20,000, and the institution was renamed the Stephens Female College. While the nationally known women’s college in Columbia, Mo., bears his name, no other monument exists for James L. Stephens, farmer, mule trader and entrepreneur, who permanently left his mark on central Missouri. Stephens’s continued dedication to the College led to his election as chairman of the College’s Board of Curators, a post later filled by his son Edwin and his grandson Hugh. Carl Stephens Otto retired from the Board of Trustees in 1998 as the fifth and last generation of the Stephens family to serve the College.
Throughout its history, Stephens College has developed a tradition of cutting-edge educational programs in which change has paralleled that of a changing nation. Under the leadership of James Madison Wood from 1912 to 1947, Stephens became one of the first institutions to provide women with a curriculum designed specifically to meet their needs. In 1920, Wood appointed Dr. Werrett Wallace Charters as director of research at Stephens and assigned to him the task of building “the strongest curriculum found in any women’s college in the world.” Charters’ findings resulted in the development of study in the following areas: social problems, philosophy of living, communications, physical health, mental health and humanities.
Stephens College not only broke barriers in curriculum development but also set new standards for the roles of women in society. In 1944, Stephens introduced the first aviation program for women, embodying the spirit that would drive the development of a comprehensive educational plan at Stephens College. This innovative program was introduced during World War II and enabled women to move into new, dynamic roles.
In 1960, Stephens developed the Searcy House Plan, a living/learning honors program for academically talented freshmen, and in 1975, the College implemented the women’s studies program to examine the distinct experiences, perspectives and lives of women and their impact on individuals and society.
Demonstrating national leadership, Stephens was among the first to participate in a nationwide plan to help students whose life situations kept them from enrolling in traditional residential programs by developing the University Without Walls (now the Division of Graduate, Online & Non-Credit Programs) in 1970. Today, the College's online-based continuing studies programs enable adults to earn an undergraduate degree while balancing work and family responsibilities. An online-based M.B.A. and an on-campus evening M.Ed. in Counseling program, introduced in 1997, are also offered, as is a new M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction.
Today, Stephens remains committed to women’s education at the undergraduate level. Numerous majors and minors are offered, as well as degree partnerships and study experiences with other institutions. In 2005, Stephens established a School of Performing Arts, uniting existing majors in theatre, dance, film, television and radio. Its School of Design and Fashion, organized in 2006, brings together majors in fashion (design, marketing, and communication), graphic design and interior design.
The campus occupies 86 acres adjacent to downtown Columbia. Stephens invites thousands of visitors onto campus each year for a variety of lectures, performances, exhibits and other events. More than 30,000 women across the world call Stephens their alma mater.