Mercer University was founded in 1833 in Penfield by Georgia Baptists. The school, under the leadership of Baptist minister and spiritual father Adiel Sherwood, was named for Jesse Mercer, a prominent Baptist leader and the first chair of the Mercer Board of Trustees.
Josiah Penfield gave the $2,500 that prompted the Georgia Baptist Convention to begin plans to open a school. Many Georgia Baptists gave matching funds for Penfield’s gift. The school opened under principal Billington Sanders.
Initially a male preparatory school named “Mercer Institute,” the school at its founding consisted of a red clay farm and two hewed log cabins, valued at approximately $1,935. Enrollment for the first term was 39 students. When the school opened, there were considerably fewer and others came over the first few weeks. Tuition was $35 for the year. Board was provided at $8 per month, and each student was required to supply his own bedding, candles and furniture.
From its humble beginnings in Penfield, Mercer today is a dynamic and comprehensive center of undergraduate, graduate and professional education. The University has more than 8,700 students; 12 schools and colleges – liberal arts, law, pharmacy, medicine, health professions, business, engineering, education, theology, music, nursing and Penfield College; campuses in Macon, Atlanta, Savannah and Columbus; two regional academic centers in the state; a university press; five teaching hospitals; an educational partnership with Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex; an engineering research center in Warner Robins; a performing arts center in Macon; and a NCAA Division I athletic program.
The institution’s reputation for exceptional academics in an engaged learning environment continues to grow. In 2018 the University was reclassified as a doctoral university with high research activity (R2) and is ranked in the top tier of national universities by U.S. News & World Report. Mercer has also earned a Community Engagement classification by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and is one of only 286 institutions in the country to shelter a chapter of The Phi Beta Kappa Society.
- Mercer Institute, the forerunner of Mercer University, is founded by Georgia Baptists in Penfield as a manual labor school for boys.
- Mercer’s first Board of Trustees is elected and Mercer Institute becomes known as Mercer University.
- First college classes begin.
- Female Seminary is approved by the Mercer Board of Trustees.
- First college class is graduated.
- Principal college building at Penfield is destroyed by fire.
- Mercer is one of the few colleges in the South and the only one in Georgia to remain open during the War Between the States.
- During the April 1870 Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) meeting, the decision is made to move Mercer away from Penfield. In August, the commission, appointed by the GBC to find a new location, votes to approve Macon. In September, President David E. Butler tells Macon Mayor George S. Obear and the City Council that Macon has been chosen and “that the proposition on their part to pay you the sum of $125,000 … in bonds of the city of Macon, and a site to cost not over $25,000 … was accepted.” On Oct. 28, President H.H. Tucker reports that a six-acre site, adjoining Tattnall Square, has been selected. On Nov. 2, Mayor Obear presents $125,000 in bonds and the title deed to the land; a written contract has been entered into between the Trustees and the city. The end of the year marks the closing of the school at Penfield and the University moved.
- Mercer relocates to Macon.
- A law school is organized and classes begin in February 1874. The first classes are held in the courthouse and in law offices.
- Construction of the Administration Building is completed at a cost of $100,000.
- The cornerstone of the new chapel building (current-day Willingham) is in place. The chapel is dedicated in 1881, debt-free.
- Mercer plays the University of Georgia in Athens in the first college football game in the state of Georgia and one of the first in the Southeast. The game, scheduled for Thanksgiving Day 1891, is postponed until January 1892. Georgia triumphed, 50-0.
- In the fall, Mercer would record its first win in football, beating Georgia Tech, 12-6, in Macon, in the Yellow Jackets’ first game ever.
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- During a ceremony on April 20, Mercer dedicates the Jack Tarver Memorial Library.
- In August, Mercer opens its new police station and seven new apartment buildings on the Macon campus and two new apartment buildings on the Cecil B. Day Campus in Atlanta.
- In September, Mercer dedicates the new 18-building Greek Village.
- Mercer and the Georgia Baptist Convention announce that the 98-year-old Georgia Baptist College of Nursing, located in downtown Atlanta, will merge with Mercer on Jan. 1, 2001.
- The School of Education is renamed the College of Education of Mercer University at the April Board of Trustees meeting.
- The new College of Nursing building on the Atlanta campus is dedicated during the College’s centennial celebration.
- Mercer opens the doors to its newest regional academic center in McDonough, providing opportunities for adult learners in Henry County and surrounding areas. The University’s programs in Griffin and Covington are merged into the Henry County location.
- The University’s 10th academic unit, the College of Continuing and Professional Studies, is established from the former Division of Extended Education.
- Mercer purchases the Georgia Baptist Center, which was previously owned by the Georgia Baptist Convention and is adjacent to the Atlanta campus. It becomes the Atlanta Administration and Conference Center.
- The University plays its first basketball games in the new University Center Arena during Homecoming week, Jan. 27-Feb. 1. The remainder of the signature facility on the Macon campus opens March 15. The official dedication of the University Center and the Griffin B. Bell Board Room is held in April, following the Board of Trustees meeting.
- The Townsend-McAfee Institute is established to offer graduate programs in church music that prepare musical artists for the ministry. The institute is a collaboration between the Department of Music in the College of Liberal Arts in Macon and the School of Theology in Atlanta.
- After 27 years as president, R. Kirby Godsey steps down from his leadership role to become chancellor, leaving office as the longest-serving president in University history. William D. Underwood, former interim president of Baylor University and noted legal scholar and teacher, becomes the University’s 18th president on July 1.
- The Department of Music in the College of Liberal Arts becomes the School of Music on July 1. Trustee Carolyn McAfee, widow of James T. McAfee Jr., former chairman of Mercer’s Board of Trustees, and her son and daughter-in-law, Tom and Julie McAfee, provided the founding endowment.
- The Robert McDuffie Center for Strings is established on the Macon campus, offering conservatory-quality music training in a comprehensive university setting.
- The 103-year-old School of Pharmacy changes its name to the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences on July 1. The name change reflects additional health science programs, including a new physician assistant program.
- The American Baptist Historical Society, with the largest and most diverse collection of Baptist historical materials and archives in the world, announces it will relocate to Mercer’s Atlanta campus. The ABHS consolidated holdings from facilities in Valley Forge, Pa., and Rochester, N.Y.
- Three teams of students and faculty inaugurate the Mercer On Mission program over the summer in Kenya, Brazil and Guatemala. The program combines academic credit with service-learning opportunities.
- The School of Medicine, as it celebrates its 25th year, announces it will open a second, four-year doctor of medicine program in Savannah in fall 2008. The program will be based at Memorial University Medical Center, where Mercer has had a clinical relationship since 1996 to provide instruction for part of the school’s third- and fourth-year medical students.
- The Mercer Athletic Foundation is established to raise funds for intercollegiate athletics.
- The University completes a new gateway entrance to the Macon campus on Mercer University Drive, near Interstate 75, and a new Hilton Garden Inn opens on that side of the campus.
- The building housing the Douglas County Regional Academic Center is dedicated to longtime benefactors Fred and Aileen Borrish.
- The new Science and Engineering Building is dedicated, and the University celebrates the School of Engineering’s 22-year partnership with Warner Robins Air Logistics Center.
- Thirty first-year medical students receive their white coats and begin their education as members of the inaugural class in Mercer’s new four-year medical program in Savannah.
- An announcement is made that a $10 million mixed-use development on the Macon campus will feature loft-style apartments and retail space for the Mercer bookstore and other businesses that cater to the Mercer community and residents in the College Hill Corridor. Called “The Lofts at Mercer Village,” the development is located on Montpelier Avenue and designed to create a vibrant streetscape, enhancing the recent retail development in Mercer Village.
- The University’s Board of Trustees on Nov. 19 unanimously approves a plan to resume competition in football in the fall of 2013, after a 72-year absence.
- Mercer’s first outdoor commencement is held May 14 on the Cecil B. Day Campus in Atlanta. More than 6,000 guests witness the largest 2012 ceremony, held on the upper fields of the campus.
- With $4.6 million in funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Mercer announces establishment of the Center for Collaborative Journalism, a partnership between the University’s Journalism and Media Studies Department, The (Macon) Telegraph and Georgia Public Broadcasting. A few months later the Peyton Anderson Foundation provides a $1 million grant to name the Center’s newsroom for the late Telegraph publisher and foundation founder Peyton Anderson.
- Mercer joins 24 institutions across the country as a participant in the prestigious Stamps Scholars Program, funded by the Stamps Charitable Foundation Inc. Initially, five entering freshmen will be designated as Stamps Scholars and receive the full cost of attendance, plus a $16,000 stipend over four years for enrichment activities, such as study abroad or undergraduate research. When the program is fully implemented, 10 members of each Mercer freshman class will be designated as Stamps Scholars.
- The Eula Mae and John Baugh Center for Baptist Leadership is established and endowed with a $2.5 million grant from the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation.
- The University announces in February plans to partner with The Medical Center and St. Francis Hospital to establish a Columbus campus for its School of Medicine. Columbus joins Macon – where the School was established in 1982 to prepare physicians for rural and medically underserved areas of Georgia – and Savannah in hosting campuses for the medical school.
- A $1 million gift from Macon cardiologist Dr. Chuck Hawkins and his wife, Kathy, to benefit the Mercer basketball program is recognized later that month as the arena housed within the University Center is renamed “Hawkins Arena.”
- The Board of Trustees authorizes establishment of the Mercer University Health Sciences Center, a multi-campus academic health center encompassing the School of Medicine, College of Pharmacy and Georgia Baptist College of Nursing, as well as the creation in July 2013 of a new College of Health Professions.
- Phase II of the Lofts at Mercer Village opens. The first floor houses the Center for Collaborative Journalism, and student apartments occupy the top three floors.
- The University dedicates the Emily Parker Myers Admissions and Welcome Center at the corner of Winship Street and Montpelier Drive. The building is named in honor of Myers, who was one of the longest–serving administrators in University history, serving as senior vice president for university advancement and external affairs when she retired in 2008.
- The Board of Trustees, at its November meeting, gives the green light for construction to begin on Cruz Plaza, to transform the appearance of the central part of the Macon campus from the University Center to the Historic Quad and from the Greek Village past Tarver Library. Milton L. Cruz, his wife Aileen, father Juan L. Cruz Rosario and sister Zoraida Cruz Torres provide the lead gift for the project. An official groundbreaking is held Dec. 11, 2012.
- Former President Jimmy Carter joins the Mercer University Board of Trustees. Carter is believed to be the first former U.S. president in modern times to serve on a university governing board.
- A $425,000 grant from ArtPlace America will support Mercer’s effort to revitalize the former Tattnall Square Presbyterian Church into the Tattnall Square Center for the Arts. The Center will serve as a community theater and arts venue, as well as home to the University’s Theatre Department.
- The University announces the acceptance of an invitation to join the Southern Conference, affiliating Mercer Athletics with the nation’s fifth-oldest NCAA Division I athletic association.
- More than 12,000 fans overflow the Mercer Football Stadium on Aug. 31 to watch the Bears field their first football team in more than 70 years. Mercer proceeds to break the NCAA record for most wins ever by a start-up program, sporting a 10-2 record and finishing unbeaten at home with an unblemished 8-0 campaign.
- The Lofts at Tattnall Square, the third new loft-style student apartment building to be constructed under the College Hill Corridor master plan, opens to accommodate the University’s growing undergraduate enrollment.
- Former U.S. Congressman, Ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young kicks off Mercer’s yearlong commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the institution’s integration during a convocation in Willingham Auditorium.
- The men’s basketball team turns the attention of the entire country – and beyond – to the University when the 14th-seeded Bears beat the third-seeded Duke Blue Devils 78-71 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
- The College of Continuing and Professional Studies, established in 2003 and whose roots date back to Tift College’s merger with Mercer in the late 1980s, is renamed Penfield College of Mercer University.
- On the strength of its growing research profile, Mercer is admitted as a member of the Georgia Research Alliance, whose mission is to expand research and commercialization capacity in Georgia’s universities to launch new companies, create high-value jobs and transform lives.
- Mercer breaks ground on an $18 million expansion of School of Medicine (MUSM) facilities on its Savannah campus at Memorial University Medical Center. This endeavor includes renovation of the William and Iffath Hoskins Center for Biomedical Research as well as construction of an addition to the Hoskins Center to serve as a medical education and research facility for the University.
- President William D. Underwood uses the opening night of Homecoming weekend to announce a $400 million capital campaign for the University. “Aspire, The Campaign for Mercer University, seeks to provide financial resources that will empower Mercer, already emerging among the Southeast’s elite private research universities, to become an international leader in applying its intellectual capital to better serve the needs of humankind.”
- Mercer’s two-year-old, 10,000-seat stadium, home of Mercer Bears football and lacrosse, is renamed Five Star Stadium in recognition of a multi-million-dollar commitment, the largest-ever for Mercer athletics and one of the largest in the University’s history. The financial commitment came from Five Star Automotive Group, owned by Charlie Cantrell and Dick Pope.
- A large multi-million-dollar commitment from a Macon resident and devoted friend of the University establishes the Jo Phelps Fabian Center for Musical Excellence in Mercer University’s School of Music. The commitment by Fabian is the largest ever, along with the gift that founded the School of Music, to support the arts at Mercer.
- Mercer Theatre’s first performance in the newly completed Tattnall Square Center for the Arts features William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The Tattnall Square Center for the Arts, formerly Tattnall Square Presbyterian Church, was extensively renovated to serve as the new home of Mercer’s theater department as well as a community performing arts center in the heart of the College Hill Corridor.
- Mercer student and reigning Miss Georgia Betty Cantrell is crowned Miss America in Atlantic City, N.J.
- The nation’s most prestigious academic honor society – Phi Beta Kappa – approves the granting of a chapter to Mercer during the organization’s 44th Triennial Council in Denver. Mercer becomes just the third Georgia research university – joining Emory and the University of Georgia – to shelter a chapter.
- The Lofts at Mercer Landing student housing opens on Mercer University Drive in Macon, across from the main entrance to Mercer and linked to campus by a new pedestrian bridge. The building features one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom, fully furnished apartments, as well as offices for Mercer’s alumni, advancement, marketing communications and human resources departments.
- The School of Medicine recognizes the first 25 students to receive inaugural Physicians for Rural Georgia Scholarships, which cover 85 to 100 percent of tuition for up to four years in the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) program. The University funded the scholarship program with the entirety of a one-time infusion of $35 million from the state of Georgia as a result of a settlement agreement offer from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in February 2016. President William D. Underwood announced that current and future recipients of the scholarship will be called Nathan Deal Scholars in recognition of Georgia’s 82nd governor, who is a graduate of both the University’s College of Liberal Arts and School of Law.
- Mercer is named a participating institution for the Churchill Scholarship, a prestigious and highly selective award for American students to engage in a year of master’s-level study in science, mathematics and engineering at the University of Cambridge. Mercer joins Emory, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia as the only institutions in the state to participate in the scholarship program, and is the only participating institution in the Southern Conference.
- Classes begin Jan. 8 in the newly completed Spearman C. Godsey Science Center. The largest academic facility project in the University’s history in terms of cost at $44 million and size at 143,410 square feet is named in honor of Mercer Chancellor Dr. R. Kirby Godsey’s father and in recognition of Dr. Godsey’s multi-million-dollar naming gift. The Godsey Science Center includes 60 teaching and research labs, three medium classrooms, four small classrooms and 46 offices.
- Mercer Medicine Plains, a primary care practice and division of the faculty practice of Mercer University School of Medicine, opens on Main Street in Plains, Georgia. Former President Jimmy Carter, a Life Trustee at Mercer, and First Lady Rosalynn Carter were instrumental in the project and attended the grand opening ceremony for the practice in August.
- Mercer is classified as a Doctoral University with High Research Activity (R2) following an adjustment to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education. R2 is the second-highest level of doctoral research universities in the country.
- The McEachern Art Center opens in downtown Macon as the new home of the University’s art gallery and student studios.
- Mercer Law School’s first-floor courtroom is named the Griffin B. Bell and Frank C. Jones Courtroom in honor of these Mercer alumni. Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Clarence Thomas delivers the keynote address for the dedication ceremony.