About Us

The History of William Penn University

Spencer Chapel in springIn the 19th century, members of the Quaker society from Pennsylvania made their way into Iowa looking to find new and growing life. Several different groups of Quakers decided to live in Iowa, and so they began to plan where their annual Friends Meetings would take place. This area would soon become Mahaska County. More and more Quakers made their way into Iowa, and so, education being very important to them, Quaker educational institutions were built to maintain and teach their way of life.

Penn College was founded in 1873 in Oskaloosa, Iowa and named after the Quaker, William Penn. The location of Oskaloosa was chosen because it was the host for the Iowa Yearly Meeting and also the Spring Creek Quarterly Meeting. During the first year of operation, the college offered the classes: Bible Study, Classical Languages, Rhetoric, History, Natural Science, Math, and Commerce. The first college yearbook, The Aurora (later to become The Quaker), was published in 1893. 1875 saw the first graduating class, with the first graduate being a woman—quite the accomplishment in the 19th Century.

Old Main fire 1916In 1916, fire destroyed the original campus. Flames that began on the third floor of Old Penn Hall spread to a tank of chemicals, causing an explosion that scattered fire in all directions. Insufficient water pressure made it impossible to fight the fire. Trying to remove college records, Penn's business manager Robert Williams and freshman student Harry Oakley were killed when the four-ton college bell crashed through the main building and buried them beneath it. In 1898, Charles and Albert Johnson had donated 40 acres of land to the college. After the fire, the college was moved three blocks north, where its current location still is today.

In 1933, the college changed its’ name to William Penn College. In 1995, the College for Working Adults was opened in West Des Moines, Iowa to help non-traditional students earn their associates and bachelor degrees. In 2000, the college changed its name to William Penn University.

The Oskaloosa campus grew to 75 acres, with academic buildings, performance halls, athletic fields, and residential facilities. In 2008, two new buildings opened adding student recreation facilities, additional classrooms and office space, training rooms, and a technology center.

Today, the University continues to grow and educate a diverse student body in the areas of leadership and technology.

Old Main photo courtesy of the William Penn University Digital Archives.