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Marshall University traces its origins to a subscription school conducted for the children of local farmers in a small log church on the knoll where Old Main now stands. The school was founded in 1837. Trustees petitioned the General Assembly of Virginia to establish an academy, which was incorporated March 30, 1838, and named for Chief Justice John Marshall, who had recently died. After purchase of the site, the trustees erected a two-story, four-room brick building, funded through private subscriptions. State assistance came from the Virginia Literary Fund, marking the beginning of chronic underfunding from state government. Private donations supplemented teachers’ salaries.

By 1850, both the financial support and quality of instruction had declined to the point that the trustees offered the institution to the Western Virginia Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The conference accepted the offer, with local trustees in control until the Virginia Assembly amended the act of incorporation in 1858. The amended charter also granted college status to Marshall. For two years the school operated with an improved curriculum and faculty until the beginning of the Civil War, when Marshall College closed its doors.

From 1861 until 1867, the buildings were put to various uses, including a residence for John W. Hite, a trustee and a creditor of the property. In 1863, the property was sold at public auction to Hite’s daughter, Salina Hite Mason. At the end of the Civil War, the new state of West Virginia turned its attention to higher education and the training of competent teachers. After legislative conflicts over the location of proposed normal schools, the West Virginia State Normal School was established at Marshall College on February 27, 1867. Mason sold the property for $3,600, and on August 1, 1867, state regents took over the college.

The first term began June 15, 1868, with 25 students enrolled in three departments: the normal, the academic, and the primary. The normal department trained teachers for public schools; the academic department prepared students for business or for further education. The primary department served students aged six to 14 and provided normal-school students the opportunity to observe teaching methods. The first class, consisting of one female and three male normal-school students, graduated in June 1870. During these first years, a new brick addition was built at the west end of the existing building. Completed in 1870, this building was incorporated into subsequent additions and, in 2002, was the oldest section of Old Main still standing.

The surroundings of Marshall College underwent a dramatic change in the 1870s with the establishment of the new city of Huntington. The years 1886–96 under Principal Thomas E. Hodges marked an expansion of the academic as well as the normal curriculum and the music department. Annual legislative appropriations averaged about $3,800, and $25,000 was earmarked for a new building. In Hodges’s last year, 1895–96, enrollment finally surpassed 200, and a business college was established. Growth continued under the leadership of Principal Lawrence J. Corbly (1896–1915).

In 1907, Corbly’s title was changed from principal to president, in keeping with the expanded curriculum. During Corbly’s administration, intercollegiate athletics was established, and the student newspaper, The Parthenon, and Mirabilia, the student yearbook, began publication. Old Main acquired the western addition so familiar to generations of alumni, and College Hall, a dormitory for women, was established in the easternmost portion of Old Main. Course offerings were organized into 18 departments, and higher standards of schoolwork resulted in better placement of graduates. It should be noted that at this point in its history, Marshall was in effect a secondary school. In 1909, Marshall graduates were finally admitted to the freshman class of universities. By 1913, course work was added to include the equivalent of freshman and sophomore years of college. Legislative appropriations increased from $20,336 in 1897 (including $12,000 for new construction) to $158,000 in 1915, $45,000 of which went for a new science building and a gymnasium.

The years between 1915 and 1946 marked a steady growth in appropriations, expansion of the physical plant, growing enrollments, and improvement of the curriculum. Marshall was elevated to a four-year college in 1920 and awarded its first baccalaureate degrees to four men in 1921. Under President Morris Shawkey (1923–35), departments were divided between two colleges; Marshall received its first accreditation from a regional accrediting agency; more faculty possessed terminal degrees; student government became active; and Marshall athletics acquired a nickname, the Thundering Herd. In spite of Depression-era lapses in funding, a music building, student union, library, and president’s home were added to the campus.

In 1935 a new era began, when James Allen of Davis & Elkins College took over as president of Marshall, accompanied by D&E’s successful coach, Eli ‘‘Cam’’ Henderson. The centennial celebration in 1937 brought descendants of John Marshall to the campus for the unveiling of a bust of the great chief justice. Two dormitories were built, providing the first campus housing for men, and the Albert Gallatin Jenkins Laboratory School was constructed as a model school for the College of Education. President Allen retired at the beginning of World War II, after inaugurating graduate courses leading to the master’s degree, first awarded in 1940. Coach Cam Henderson remained until 1955, building legendary football and basketball teams that competed on the national level and sent players into the professional ranks.

The war years under President John D. Williams (1942–46) saw a change in the student population. The U.S. Army Air Force selected Marshall for one of its Cadet Training Detachment centers, preparing inductees for flight school. From a post-World War I low of 191 students, enrollment had risen steadily until it peaked in 1939 with 2,177 students. By 1944, however, enrollment had dropped to 720 — 660 women and 60 men. The end of the war brought an influx of veterans, armed with the GI Bill. Enrollment mushroomed to 2,005 students in 1946.

Marshall entered a period of stability and growth under the 22-year administration of Stewart H. Smith (1946–68). Beginning in 1948 with the appointment of a separate dean for the graduate school, campus programs and building projects flourished. Construction of a dining hall (1946), a new science building (1950), dormitories (1958, 1962, 1967), gymnasium (1961), library remodeling and addition (1967), and an academic building (1968), kept pace with an enrollment that reached 8,177 by 1968.

The greatest change in Marshall’s fortunes came on March 2, 1961, when Governor William Wallace Barron signed legislation that granted the school university status.

Smith’s retirement ushered in a period of administrative turbulence that echoed national events. Between 1968 and 1974, two presidents (Roland Nelson, 1968–70; John Barker, 1971–74) and one acting president (Donald Dedmon, 1970–71) presided over campus unrest and athletic disaster. Following expulsion from the Mid-American Conference for recruiting irregularities, Marshall barely had begun rebuilding the athletic program when tragedy struck November 14, 1970, with the crash at the Tri-State Airport of the plane carrying the football team, coaches, and fans, killing all 75 persons aboard. The crash and the school’s efforts to rebuild the team in the immediate aftermath were dramatized in the 2006 major motion picture We Are Marshall. For three weeks, members of the cast and crew filmed on campus and around Huntington. The film premiered at Huntington’s historic Keith-Albee Theatre on December 12, 2006.

In 1974, Marshall began an era of unprecedented growth. Under President Robert B. Hayes (1974–83), Marshall University succeeded in establishing a school of medicine (1978) in partnership with the Veterans Administration. The Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, the only medical school in America named solely for a woman, initially specialized in rural health care delivery but has expanded over the years to include the Marshall University Medical Center; Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center; Erma Ora Byrd Clinical Center; Edwards Comprehensive Cancer Center; Charles H. McKown, Jr., M.D., Translational Genomic Research Institute; and Rural Health and Clinical Education Center. In April 2023, Marshall announced plans to integrate the School of Medicine academic health system with the Mountain Health Network, also encompassing Marshall Health’s physician practices and its facilities, including the Edwards Comprehensive Cancer Center. On October 5, 2023, Marshall University, Marshall Health, and Mountain Health Network announced a merger with the Edwards School of Medicine to form Marshall Health Network, Inc., making it one of the largest health care systems in West Virginia, behind WVU Medicine and Vandalia Health.

Under Hayes, the physical plant also increased with the addition of two new classroom buildings, a basketball arena, and a major addition to the Science Building.

The administration of Dale F. Nitzschke (1984–90) brought a performing arts center, a new football stadium, and expansion of campus technology. Nitzschke also established the Society of Yeager Scholars, an accelerated academic program. Needs of students with learning disabilities were addressed in the innovative H.E.L.P. program, developed by College of Education professor Barbara Guyer.

In the 1990s more than $231 million was invested in the physical plant. Advances in technology resulted in state-of-the-art teleconferencing facilities, online courses, and academic programs in Internet certification. President J. Wade Gilley (1991–99) oversaw the development of the technologically advanced John Deaver Drinko Library and dedication of the Jomie Jazz Center. A major new component was added in 1997, when the West Virginia Graduate College in South Charleston merged with Marshall. The M.D., the Ph.D. in Biomedical Science, and the Ed.D. attest to the quality of the academic program. A doctorate of psychology was added in 2002, under the presidency of Dan Angel (2000–04).

Athletic fortunes also changed between 1974 and 2000. The football team recovered from its tragic loss and gradually built a program that has garnered two national NCAA I-AA championships, seven conference championships, and seven bowl appearances since 1988.

Marshall Community and Technical College was a division and then an autonomous partner of the university from its creation until 2009, when it became an independent institution known as Mountwest Community and Technical College.

Stephen Kopp became Marshall’s 39th president in 2005. Under his administration, $200 million in new buildings and renovations were completed. These include the Arthur Weisberg Family Applied Engineering Complex, a new soccer stadium, and a three-building indoor practice sports complex. An historic downtown building was renovated to become the Visual Arts Center, housing the School of Art & Design and linking Marshall with Huntington’s downtown. New programs and degrees were added, including digital forensics and the new schools of Pharmacy, Physical Therapy and Public Health, and Marshall’s four-year engineering program was reestablished. Dr. Kopp died suddenly in December 2014. Former coal executive Gary White acted as interim president until Mississippi State University Provost Jerome Gilbert became the 37th president in January 2016.

During Gilbert’s administration, Marshall increased its national profile and research funding, and added high-demand programs like biomedical engineering, physician assistant and specialty agriculture. In 2021, the university opened the Bill Noe Flight School at Yeager International Airport, which offers a four-year Commercial Pilot: Fixed Wing Bachelor of Science degree. In May of that year, Marshall’s soccer team defeated the University of North Carolina to win the national NCAA Division I national championship.

In April 2021, President Gilbert announced he would not seek a contract extension beyond July 2022. In October 2021, a search committee unanimously selected Brad D. Smith, a Marshall alum and former Intuit CEO, as the next president.

In fall 2022, the school’s total enrollment was 10,691, making it the state’s second-largest institution of higher education, behind West Virginia University. Enrollment at Marshall had declined slightly but steadily from more than 14,000 in 2010 until reversing that trend in the early 2020s. In fall 2023, the total enrollment was 12,862.

Marshall University website

This Article was written by Cora P. Teel

Last Revised on January 31, 2024

Related Articles


Moffatt, Charles H. Marshall University: An Institution Comes of Age, 1837-1980. Huntington: Marshall University Alumni Association, 1981.

History. Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine Website

Marshall Health, Marshall University, and Mountain Health Network boards approve first step toward clinical integration. Mountain Health Network Website, April 26, 2023.

Toole, Robert Chase. "A History of Marshall College, 1837 to 1915." M.A. thesis, Marshall College, 1951.

Stowers, Shannon. Mountain Health, Marshall Health Announced Merger. WCHS-TV, October 5, 2023.

Cite This Article

Teel, Cora P. "Marshall University." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 31 January 2024. Web. 20 July 2024.


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