In October of 1896, the Alabama Girls’ Industrial School opened its doors to some 150 young women from all parts of the state. They had come to participate in a great experiment, in an innovation in education for Alabama. They had come to be trained as teachers, bookkeepers, artists, musicians, dressmakers, telegraphers and milliners. In other words, at last, there was a school in Alabama whose purpose was to educate women to be self-supporting; at last, here was an opportunity to escape from the drudgery of field work, mill work or from the ignominy of depending on a father or brother for lifelong support if there was no husband. At last, here was an opportunity for young women to expand their minds and dreams in a state, poverty-stricken by economic circumstances, that could provide little public education for its citizens.
The school had its beginnings with the dream of Julia Tutwiler, a proponent of education for women, and the vision of Senator Solomon Bloch, who introduced the bill in the Alabama Legislature establishing the school. On October 12, 1896, their efforts — and the efforts of scores of townspeople and other advocates — bore fruit with the opening of the school on that crisp fall day.
The first president was Captain Henry Clay Reynolds, one of the principal proponents who campaigned for the selection of Montevallo as the site of the new school. Eight teachers comprised the first faculty.
Construction of a dormitory was obviously a primary concern. The west wing of Main Dormitory was begun almost as soon as the school opened, according to Mary Frances Tipton’s history, Years Rich and Fruitful: University of Montevallo 1896-1996. The dormitory was ready for occupancy by the fall of 1897.
During the early years, enrollment steadily increased. By 1899, more than 400 young women were enrolled. Several years later, purple and gold were adopted as the school colors, and the first yearbook was published. In 1908, student Condie Cunningham died in a dormitory fire, giving rise to one of Montevallo’s most-famous ghosts.
In 1911 AGIS became Alabama Girls’ Technical Institute. The phrase “and College for Women” was added in 1919. The Class of 1919 observed that “now that our school is becoming a college, we have begun to take up college stunts,” and College Night began on March 3. High school courses were gradually phased out and, in 1923, the school became Alabama College, State College for Women, a degree-granting institution.
Alabama College introduced the instruction of home economics to the state and for many years was the only institution offering such training. The college pioneered the fields of vocational home economics, retail home economics and institutional management, and Alabama College graduates helped initiate home economics programs at Auburn University and the University of Alabama.
Teacher training at the college developed because of student demand rather than the specific intention of the AC administration. Thomas Waverly Palmer, who assumed the college presidency in 1907, was lukewarm at best about teacher training. He was surprised that demand for industrial courses such as telegraphy was decreasing while the number of students interested in teacher training was rising.
However, Palmer had decided by 1910 that his school was the best place to provide teacher training, and the program has blossomed ever since. Alabama College pioneered teacher education in art, music, physical education and commercial subjects, as well as in home economics. When the town of Montevallo built a public school in what is now Jeter Hall, education students used it as a training school. This town-and-gown cooperation continues to flourish today.
The social work department was created by a similar need and with the close cooperation of Shelby County. At the time Alabama College’s social work department was founded in 1925, only the University of North Carolina offered such a program. Alabama College was also the first in the state to offer a speech correction curriculum, and it opened the first speech clinic. The result today is the George C. Wallace Speech and Hearing Center on campus.
Student expression has been encouraged on this campus since its inception. The first yearbook, The Chiaroscuro, was published in 1907, and the first student production of a full-length play, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, was performed a year later. The yearbook became the Technala in 1911 and took its present name, the Montage, in 1940.
The first student newspaper, the Van Guard, was published in 1922, and the first edition of The Alabamian appeared on September 15, 1925. That same year, the speech department, offering courses in rhetoric, oral interpretation and theatre, became the first of its kind in the state. The Drama Festival, started by Dr. Walter H. Trumbauer, was established in 1928, and Alabama College’s first radio broadcast on WAPI occurred on May 1, 1929. The campus radio station, WRSD, began broadcasting on May 15, 1950.
For 60 years, student expression had a decidedly feminine perspective at Montevallo, but in January 1956 that began to change. Backed by Alabama College’s board of trustees, administration, faculty, alumnae association and eventually the student body, the state legislature passed a bill on January 15, dropping the designation “State College for Women” and enabling the college to admit male students.
Two men enrolled at Alabama College in January 1956. By September there were 35 men on campus, and a new era had begun. Seven years later total enrollment had tripled, and more than 40 percent of the students were men. The first men were housed in the west wing of Main Hall until Napier Hall was completed in April 1957.
The curriculum changed to embrace additions to the traditional courses of study, such as pre-professional programs in medicine and law and business administration. The first male physical education faculty member was hired in 1956, and intercollegiate baseball and men’s tennis teams were organized a year later. Cross-country track and basketball followed. In 1964, Alabama College offered basketball scholarships, the first athletic grants in the history of the college.
Just two years after the first men were admitted, a male was elected president of the Student Government Association, but male leadership in College Night activities took a little longer. The first male assistant Gold leader was elected in 1960. In 1963, co-leaders of each sex were elected, a tradition that continues today.
Another milestone in the history of the institution occurred on September 1, 1969, when Alabama College became the University of Montevallo. The University includes four distinct colleges: Arts and Sciences, Education, Business and Fine Arts.
In 1978, following a formal study, a mission statement was adopted by the university. Unparalleled among public universities in Alabama, Montevallo’s current mission statement was legislated by the Alabama Legislature in 1979. That mission was reaffirmed in 1984 and again in 1988. In addition, a reaffirmation of the mission was included as part of the Second Century Commission’s report. Montevallo’s mission is “to provide students from throughout the state an affordable, geographically accessible, ‘small-college’ public higher educational experience of high quality, with a strong emphasis on undergraduate liberal studies and with professional programs supported by a broad base of arts and sciences, designed for their intellectual and personal growth in the pursuit of meaningful employment and responsible, informed citizenship.”
Since Montevallo grew to University status from a state college of liberal arts, it retains a strong emphasis on liberal education, embodied in its core curriculum. Montevallo remains dedicated primarily to the teaching of undergraduates, while offering a few select graduate programs.
In 1995, Montevallo was invited to join the prestigious Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, a consortium of 27 institutions that share a commitment to undergraduate liberal arts education, high achievement by students, high retention and graduation rates and high levels of placement in graduate and professional schools.
Today, undergraduate programs are offered in more than 70 academic areas, but the full-time student-to-faculty ratio is only 17-to-1. Members of the faculty come from prestigious institutions from across the United States and beyond, with more than 95 percent holding either the Ph.D. or other terminal degree in their respective academic disciplines.
The University of Montevallo continues to ascend the rankings of “America’s Best Colleges,” published by U.S. News & World Report. According to rankings for the 2013 edition, UM is once again ranked as the No. 1 public master’s-level university in Alabama, a distinction it has held each year since 2008. For 2013, Montevallo is listed as the 14th best public university in the South in its division and 37th overall in the South, up 22 spots from its 2007 ranking. Montevallo is also recognized in the 2013 edition as one of the top four Southern universities that graduates students with the lowest average debt loads.