A Tradition of Change: The History of Radford University

The institution that became Radford University has leaned toward a future based on innovation, excellence and response to student and public needs since its charter in 1910. Founding president John Preston McConnell’s advocacy for women’s education set him apart from his scholarly peers. He dedicated more than two decades to building and growing a school charged initially with preparing women to teach in Virginia’s emerging public school system.

In 1913, the first students who entered the State Normal and Industrial School for Women at Radford enrolled in a two-year degree program. At a time when teacher certification required only six weeks of study and passing a state exam, the Radford school established the highest qualification for a Virginia teacher. One of McConnell’s first innovations was a partnership with Radford City allowing students to practice-teach in the schools, ensuring excellent career preparation.

Within five years of opening, Radford began offering four-year programs. In 1921, the first bachelor’s degrees were awarded. The Normal School became Radford State Teacher’s College in 1924. This status paved the way to offer four-year programs in any field.

At Radford, students were involved in debate, athletics, journalism, music and drama. The campus community worked to improve and preserve the grounds. Students grew hollyhocks and irises and planted trees to commemorate special occasions.  McConnell, along with his staff and students, experienced the lean times of World War I and the high-spirited Roaring Twenties, when women gained the right to vote and sought new independence. They also experienced the Great Depression of the 1930s. Even in difficult times, enrollment, programs and facilities grew. The John Preston McConnell Library opened in 1932, in the midst of the Depression. Students carried books from the old library in the Administration Building to the new, 200,000-volume-capacity facility.

McConnell took personal interest in each student’s success. When a student could not afford to pay for college, he worked with community members and businesses to help. This legacy was repeated by his successor, David Wilbur Peters, and Peters’ successor, Charles Knox Martin Jr.

Peters, Radford’s president from 1938 until his death in 1951, guided the college through World War II air-raid drills, bandage preparation, rationing of food and shoes and writing letters to troops. These activities were a vital part of everyday life.

In 1944, in an efficiency move for the war, Radford College merged with Virginia Tech and became known as Radford College, the Women’s Division of VPI. Both institutions maintained their own identities and governance, but the merger helped Peters obtain funds for a $3 million long-range expansion plan that included a new administration building, gym and residence halls. Construction moved outward from the original campus, where the central green space has been protected for more than 100 years.

The merger lasted until 1964, when, under the tenure of Charles Martin, the two schools quietly separated. Martin presided over a time of unprecedented growth, between 1952 and 1972, when enrollment grew from 800 to 4,000. During the same time, 19 new buildings went up, and faculty multiplied by a factor of five. Radford became the largest women’s school on the East Coast. Admissions standards were raised, and Martin improved faculty credentials by encouraging his teachers to pursue doctoral degrees and granting them leave to do so.

By the end of Martin’s presidency, however, enrollment was declining. Those two decades witnessed national social upheaval that was echoed on campus. Although Radford’s protests of campus rules and the Vietnam War were tame compared to those of some schools, students were ready for change. President Donald Dedmon arrived in 1972 ready to embrace it.

In the fall of that year, the college instantly doubled its recruitment pool by admitting male undergraduates. Dedmon instituted a groundbreaking university governance system that included student representation. The Foundation was established to steward funds raised for student scholarships and institutional initiatives. Over the next two decades, enrollment went from 3,600 to 9,500, and faculty doubled to 500.

Community members, students, faculty and staff supported the new intercollegiate athletics program established in 1974. The first athletic director recruited men’s basketball players out of course registration lines, but within 10 years, Radford was an NCAA Division I school and a charter member of the Big South Conference in men’s and women’s varsity sports.

New construction flourished. Perhaps the most significant project was the Donald N. Dedmon Center, a recreational, intramural and athletics convocation center with a distinctive design featuring an air-supported roof. Dedmon convinced Norfolk and Western Railway to donate the 62-acre site beside the New River and persuaded the state to construct a bridge over the train tracks for access.

In 1979, Radford College became Radford University, an achievement celebrated by all constituencies. This status marked a new chapter in Radford’s history — one that was marked by many achievements from across the campus and the community.

Radford’s faculty-led Writing Across the Curriculum program became a national model. The program encouraged a culture of cross-disciplinary collaboration and a tradition of peer-to-peer faculty development. A new Distinguished Visiting Professor program and Scholarly Lecture Series brought former Egyptian first lady Jehan Sadat, legendary poet Maya Angelou, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and other prestigious visitors to the campus and classrooms.

Radford claimed a leading edge in technology, from its music technology program to its website, among the state’s first. In response to an increasingly interconnected world, the university developed new international education opportunities. Curricular offerings expanded in response to students’ interests, public need and the changing world. Before Dedmon stepped down in 1994, degree programs had increased from 83 to more than 100.

Douglas Covington became the fifth president and first African-American leader of the institution in 1995. Students, faculty and staff soon became familiar with Covington’s soft-spoken manner as he greeted — and listened to — all he met.

Early in Covington’s presidency, the university undertook its first capital campaign, a three-year effort that exceeded its goal. It was followed by a second successful campaign, with a combined result of $71 million raised in just 10 years. In 1993, the Radford University Foundation had been capable of supporting 123 scholarships; by 2004, the number was 600.

The institution continued the tradition of innovative partnerships and outreach. The Regional Clinical Simulation Center’s electromechanical patient simulators began providing safe hands-on experience to students from Radford, Jefferson College of Health Sciences and community college partners. The Appalachian Studies Program’s Appalachian Arts and Studies in the Schools initiative provided mentors for high school students identified by their teachers as college able but not necessarily college bound. Selu Conservancy, with its retreat center, observatory, 1930s farmhouse replica and conference and event center, became a resource for the campus and the community, evolving into a center for research, teaching and scholarship providing unique opportunities for students and faculty.

Students and faculty collaborated on research in the laboratory, in the community and in far-flung sites, including the North Pole. A new College of Information Science and Technology opened. Construction included Cook Hall, the Waldron College of Health and Human Services and the Bonnie Hurlburt Student Center, and plans were laid for what would be one of the most technologically advanced arts venues in the southeast.

Ground was broken for the Douglas and Beatrice Covington Center for Visual and Performing Arts soon after the 2005 arrival of Penelope W. Kyle, Radford University’s first female president. The Covington Center was the first in an extensive list of new construction and renovation projects completed during her 11-year presidency. Kyle Hall, a 116,000-square-foot home for what later became known as the Davis College of Business and Economics, incorporates new educational technology, including a signature trading room; the 114,000-square-foot Center for the Sciences houses the Artis College of Science and Technology’s Planetarium, Museum of Earth Sciences and Forensic Science Institute; a 110,000-square-foot Student Recreation and Wellness Center features an indoor graded track, multi-use court, racquetball courts and classrooms; and a 144,000-square-foot home, later named Hemphill Hall, for the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences that includes a courtroom for mock trials and a television studio.

Gold and Silver LEED status for various renovated and new structures reflects the institution’s strides in environmental sustainability. In 2009, Kyle signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Through a network of initiatives, Radford is becoming a model of sustainability practices and policies and has been included among Princeton Review’s “Top Green Colleges in the Nation” since 2010.

The institution’s academic status rose with the introduction of its first doctoral offering, the Doctor of Psychology program, which enrolled students in 2008. The Doctor of Nursing Practice program opened in 2010, and the next year students entered the new Doctor of Physical Therapy program.

A remarkable change in student diversity occurred during this period. Approximately 30% of full-time freshmen who enrolled in fall 2016 and fall 2017 identify as part of an ethnic minority group — a leap from the 12% who did so in fall 2005. The fastest-growing populations are Black/African American and Hispanic.

Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., became Radford’s seventh president in 2016. Hemphill’s five-year tenure saw the implementation of changes that nurtured Radford University’s growth and development as a teaching institution. Among them: the naming of the Davis College of Business and Economics; the naming of the Artis College of Science and Technology and renovations to Reed and Curie Halls; the creation of the Artis Center for Adaptive Innovation and Technology; and the merger with Roanoke’s Jefferson College of Health Sciences to establish Radford University Carilion. In addition, Hemphill’s administration boasted record fundraising achievements and initiated the construction of The Highlander, a luxury hotel and conference center adjacent to campus.

As Radford University looks ahead to a bright future, the Radford family embraces the best of Radford’s past while contemplating the challenges and opportunities ahead.