In 1889 the Christian Church, now the United Church of Christ, founded Elon College as a private, four-year, coeducational institution. The name Elon, Hebrew for “oak,” was chosen because of the massive trees which graced the site. Seventy-eight students enrolled in the first class at Elon College. The administrative building, known as Old Main, was completed in 1890 and in 1891 Elon awarded degrees to its first three graduates.
The early years of the college were fraught with difficulties. The Elon senior class of 1918 shrank from 46 to 30 students as young men enlisted to fight in World War I. In 1923, Elon College was nearly destroyed when a fire leveled Old Main building, which housed the library, administrative offices, chapel, and most of the classrooms. A new Elon emerged from the ruins as Alamance, Carlton, Duke, Mooney, and Whitley buildings were constructed between 1924 and 1926. During the Great Depression, Elon’s enrollment declined to 87 students and the College faced financial collapse. Fiscal instability plagued the institution until World War II, when the U.S. Army Air Corps enrolled and trained pilots on the Elon campus. Following the war, the student body swelled to nearly 700 as returning servicemen took advantage of the G.I. Bill. In 1950, Alumni Memorial Gymnasium opened, dedicated to alumni who died in the two World Wars.
In the second half of the 20th century, Elon enjoyed steady growth in enrollment, programs, and facilities. Students began preparing for careers other than “teaching and preaching” and Elon added staff to offer vocational counseling and career placement. In 1966, the first campus student center opened. A human chain of students and faculty moved books from Carlton to the new Iris Holt McEwen Library in 1968. The following year, Elon offered its first study abroad program and awarded its 5,000th degree. The first issue of the student newspaper, The Pendulum, was published in 1974 and the first WSOE broadcast was aired in 1977.
The 1980s were a decade of unprecedented growth for Elon. Applications doubled and enrollment increased 35 percent, making Elon one of the fastest growing colleges in the region. Dozens of academic and student life programs were added to enrich the quality of an Elon education. Fonville Fountain was installed in front of Alamance in 1982 and two years later the tradition of College Coffee at the fountain was introduced. In fall 1984 Elon began offering a master of business administration degree, and in fall 1986, a master of education degree. During the 1980s the total campus acreage doubled and the square footage of buildings increased 73 percent. The College also invested in computer and library technology and equipment for the sciences and communications. In 1989 Elon celebrated its centennial, taking pride in the 13,416 men and women who were awarded degrees in the first 100 years.
Elon’s momentum continued in the 1990s. The Elon Vision, a strategic plan that challenged Elon to be and be recognized as one of the premier private undergraduate institutions on the Eastern Seaboard, was implemented. The College revised the General Studies curriculum and converted to a four semester-hour structure. The McMichael Science Center opened in 1998 to house Elon’s expanding science program and support a significant undergraduate research program. A master of physical therapy program was instituted in January 1998 in cooperation with Alamance Regional Medical Center. Moseley Center and Belk Library were built adjacent to Alumni Memorial Gym and the center of the campus shifted north from the historic buildings surrounding Fonville Fountain to Young Commons and the beautiful buildings that enclose it.
Elon athletics have been an important feature of College history. From the first intercollegiate sport, baseball, which was played in 1900, the athletics program has expanded to 16 teams that compete in NCAA Division I (I-AA in football), as well as numerous intramural and club sports. Prior to moving to Division I, Elon competed in Division II and NAIA, capturing four national championships: two in football, one in golf, and one in tennis. Among Elon’s athletics facilities are the award-winning Jimmy Powell Tennis Center; Koury Center, comprising Alumni Gym, Stewart Fitness Center, Jordan Gym, and Beck Pool; Latham Park for baseball; Rudd Field for soccer and Belk Track. Elon played its first football game at Burlington Memorial Stadium in 1949; more than 50 years later, the dream of an on-campus stadium was realized when Rhodes Stadium opened in 2001. In 2000, as a tribute to the rebirth of the institution following the disastrous fire of 1923, Elon chose as its athletics identity the Phoenix, a mythical bird that rises with renewed vigor from its funeral ashes.
Elon has grown steadily from its initial enrollment of 78 to more than 4,400 students. With 49 undergraduate majors, masters programs in business and education and a doctoral program in physical therapy, Elon has the curricular breadth of a large university but offers students the personalized attention typical of a small liberal arts college. With signature study abroad, internship, leadership, volunteer service, and undergraduate research programs, Elon is committed to active, experiential learning and is recognized by the National Survey of Student Engagement as a national model of effective educational practice. On June 1, 2001, Elon College became Elon University, the new designation being an accurate reflection of the institution’s size and the scope and nature of its programs.
In 2000 the Elon Board of Trustees approved the NewCentury@Elon strategic plan. The overarching goal of the plan, that Elon be a national model of engaged learning founded upon our traditions of innovation and community, will guide the institution’s future growth and development.