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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Old Central at Oklahoma State University
(State Historic Preservation Office, OHS).


Situated in the township of Stillwater the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Oklahoma Territory was organized in the unstable social environment created after the Land Opening of 1889. It is somewhat prophetic that the founding bill received passage on Christmas Eve in 1890, because the institution eventually formed a relationship with the region that is now identified as the Bible Belt. Meeting in the McKennon Opera House in Guthrie, the First Legislative Assembly of Oklahoma Territory passed legislation to establish a land-grant college at the request of Gov. George W. Steele. It was difficult to get a specific bill passed, because every county in the territory coveted the federal funding associated with the creation of an agricultural and mechanical college and an agricultural experiment station. Eventually, George Gardenhire, a Populist, pushed passage of a compromise bill, and it was this document that Steele signed on the last day of the legislative session.

Oklahoma State University's history divides itself into several chronological periods, the first three of which correspond to a different form of governance. From 1890 to 1907 the institution had a separate governing board. During that time five presidents worked to establish a mission and an identity for the small Stillwater college. Although this phase brought several important firsts, little progress was achieved due to financial problems, ineptness, and corruption. However during this period, the first permanent building was constructed. Dedicated on June 15, 1894, that building known as Old Central was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 (NR 71000672). The institution performed largely a teaching mission, because it did not have the resources to extend its influence beyond the perimeters of the campus.

During the second period from 1908 to 1944, the Oklahoma State Board of Agriculture guided the college's affairs. Growth, both in quantity and quality, occurred during these thirty-six years. Programs, especially those related to extension, encompassed the state. In addition, nine presidents directed the work of the faculty and oversaw the training of students, who later provided leadership to the region and the nation.

In July 1944 the Oklahoma Constitution was amended to create a separate Board of Regents for the state's agricultural and mechanical colleges. The regents acquired the services of two outstanding presidents who strengthened Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College internally and who extended the land-grant college idea overseas under the auspices of the Point Four Program. Henry Garland Bennett, the first of the two presidents, was a man of uncommon vision. He brought modernity to the college, and after Pres. Harry S. Truman appointed him to head the Technical Cooperation Administration, Bennett succeeded in getting contracts for the Stillwater college to develop programs in Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and Central and South America. Unfortunately, Bennett's death in a plane crash in Iran on December 22, 1951, slowed international efforts. His successor, Oliver Siralvo Willham, continued in Bennett's footsteps and improved the institution's status, which resulted in a name change effective July 1, 1957. Renamed Oklahoma State University (OSU), the institution established or strengthened satellite campuses in Okmulgee and Oklahoma City, and vocational and technical educational programs received emphasis. At the same time, OSU was invited to join the Big Seven Athletic Conference. The third stage of development ended in 1957.

From 1957 to the present OSU has steadily climbed the prestige ladder, becoming what a now-deceased chancellor of the University of California called "the multiuniversity." Through teaching, extension, and research, a large number of professional, vocational, and technical programs have cast the orange and black colors of the alma mater around the world as is evidenced by the number of foreign flags positioned around the International Mall adjacent to the Edmon Low Library. Agriculture and engineering remain dominant fields of study, but the areas of education, business, firemanship, and health science have produced impressive graduates as well as cutting edge research. Athletics prospered too. Henry Iba and Eddie Sutton have each led teams to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) finals. Generally, football teams are ranked in the top twenty-five in the nation. Baseball, golf, and wrestling participants have few national peers.

The process of coming of age was not easy for Oklahoma State University. Increased appropriations from the state legislature came slowly and often with strings attached. In the 1940s the institution trained men and women in uniform and garnered increased federal funding. Also, OSU took a hard look at segregation and opened its doors to African Americans without most of the overt problems experienced in the Deep South. On the campus a Veterans Village became home to approximately five thousand service men and women who arrived back in the United States and enrolled in classes to take advantage of the GI Bill. The village was larger than the town of Stillwater and had its own governmental administrative structure. It took a few strategies to get new buildings. For example, Gallagher Hall, a basketball and wrestling facility, received funds to have a proper place, not for athletics, but for the annual state convention of the 4-H clubs. Murray Hall was named for William "Alfalfa Bill" Murray, the sitting governor, and rumors continue to persist that he came with a ladder after dark to see if his name was permanently chiseled in stone. Whitehurst Hall received its identity from John A. Whitehurst, a Board of Regents president. Willard Hall was built in honor of temperance champion Frances Willard. Morrill Hall provided a training facility for the Reserve Army Training Corps. Henry Garland Bennett is memorialized with a student dormitory as well as a chapel built with public donations after his death.

Like the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University had to establish a preparatory school in order to have students who could handle collegiate classes. Under the tutelage of Pres. Robert J. Barker, fifty students enrolled for the initial offerings, with instruction being given in the local Congregational Church, transferring later to the First Presbyterian Church and to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Both young men and women registered and the latter accompanied the boys as they engaged in reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as military tactics and outdoor drill. The girls were included because officials did not want to be deficient in any aspect of the various land-grant act provisions.

A number of college and university presidents have provided leadership throughout OSU's history. Robert J. Barker, Henry E. Alvord, Edmund D. Murdaugh, George E. Morrow, and Angelo C. Scott headed the institution during the territorial period. Alvord was a major figure in the Association of American Agricultural Colleges and Experiment Stations and became the first head of the Dairy Division of the Animal Industry, in Washington, D.C. Scott, a diminutive man, was an early Oklahoma City civic leader and served as the cultural leader of the Sooner State after he left Stillwater. With the exception of James Henry Connell and James W. Cantwell, the chief executives served short tenures until Henry Garland Bennett came on the scene. For example, in 1923 four men served as president: James B. Eskridge, George Wilson, Richard Gaines Tyler, and Bradford Knapp. After Bennett and Willham, Robert B. Kamm, Lawrence L. Boger, and David J. Schmidly occupied the presidential chair with exceptional distinction and, in turn, the legislature rewarded them with larger budgets and a degree of autonomy that the institution had never known before. At the turn of the twenty-first century the Georgian-style buildings and the manicured landscaping provided an educational oasis set in the midst of rich farm and ranch lands in north-central Oklahoma for about twenty-five thousand students. Comprised of ten colleges, OSU offered master's degrees and doctorates, including the Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.

Philip Reed Rulon


James H. Boggs, comp., A History of Governance at Oklahoma State University (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1992).

Berlin Basil Chapman, Early History of the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1929).

Don Dellinger, Intercollegiate Athletics (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1990).

Jerry Leon Gill, A History of International Programs at Oklahoma State University (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1991).

Robert B. Kamm, Oklahoma State University: People, Programs, Places—The First Hundred Years (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1990).

Pauline W. Kopecky, A History of Equal Opportunity at Oklahoma State University (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1990).

Philip Reed Rulon, Oklahoma State University Since 1890 (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University Press, 1975).

J. Lewie Sanderson et al., A History of the Oklahoma State University Campus (Stillwater: Oklahoma State University, 1990).

Angelo Cyrus Scott, The Story of an Administration of the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College (Oklahoma City, Okla.: A. C. Scott, 1942).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Philip Reed Rulon, “Oklahoma State University,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=OK082.

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