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History Timeline

Founded on a Belief in Education

In the 19th century several groups of Quakers from Pennsylvania made their way west to Iowa in search of a new life. With a heritage that values the power of education, the group settled in what would eventually be Mahaska County, and one of their first objectives was to build educational institutions based on the Quaker teachings and way of life.

Situated in an Ideal Location

Drawn by Mahaska County’s beautiful rolling landscape, the Quakers chose this location because it was the host of the Iowa Yearly Friends Meeting, as well as the Spring Quarterly Meeting. Named after the famed Quaker, William Penn, it was here that Penn College—which would later become William Penn University—was founded in 1873.

Offering Diverse Programs for Diverse Students

In its first year, Penn College offered programs in Bible study, classical languages, rhetoric, history, natural science, math, and commerce. In 1875 the college graduated its first class. Its first graduate was a woman, which was uncommon at the time and a clear demonstration of the value and importance Quakers placed on offering educational opportunities to all. The college continued to show acceptance and appreciation of diversity by graduating its first African-American in 1902 and hiring the first African-American professor in 1947, who was a female teaching in the sciences.

Persevering Through Tragedy

Tragedy struck the college in 1916 when a fire ravaged the original campus. Beginning on the third floor of Old Main, flames advanced to a chemical tank that exploded and spread the fire. With insufficient water pressure to fight the flames, the campus was lost. Penn’s business manager Robert Williams and freshman student Harry Oakley were tragically killed while trying to save college records. But Penn College would persevere.

A Rebirth and Transformation

With 40 acres of land that had been donated to the college by Charles and Albert Johnson 18 years prior to the tragic fire, Penn College was relocated and rebuilt on the site about three blocks north of the original campus—where the current grounds are today. In 1933, the school changed its name to William Penn College.

Expanded Programs for Adult Learners

Never losing sight of its Quaker belief in the power of education for everyone, William Penn College launched the College for Working Adults in 1995, located in West Des Moines, Iowa. This new initiative was designed to empower working adults to earn their associate and bachelor’s degrees in a way that would work around the demands of their daily lives.

The William Penn of Today

In 2000, the school achieved university status and changed its name to William Penn University. The campus is now spread over 75 acres, and recently added two new buildings with recreational facilities, classrooms, office space, training rooms, and a state-of-the-art technology center. A new residence hall was also built, adding to the residence life experience. While staying true to its original Quaker mission, William Penn University offers exceptional programs with an emphasis on leadership and technology.

1873 – Founding of Penn College
1875 – First Graduating Class
1893 – First College Yearbook, The Aurora, Published
1898 – 40 Acres of Land Donated by Charles and Albert Johnson
1902 – College Graduates its First African-American Student
1903 – The Aurora Changes Its Name to The Quaker
1907 – The Gymnasium Is Built
1913 – The College Avenue Friend’s Meeting House Is Completed
1916 – Fire Destroys Original Penn College Campus
1917 – Penn College Is Rebuilt on 40 Acres Three Blocks North of Original Campus
1919 – Graduating Class Presents the Sundial in Front of Penn Hall
1933 – School Changes Name to William Penn College
1945 – First Men’s Dormitory, Peasley Hall, Is Gifted, Later Known as Peasley-Griffith Hall
1945 – College Hires First Female African-American Professor in Iowa
1956 – New Gymnasium Is Built
1959 – Peasley-Griffith Hall Renovated and Transformed into Fine Arts Building
1962 – New Men’s Dormitory, Watson Hall, Is Opened
1964 – Wilcox Library Opened
1966 – East Men’s Dormitory Opened (Named Eltse Hall in 1972)
1973 – 100th Anniversary of William Penn College
1973 – Dedication of Edwin McGrew Fine Arts Center
1975 – Articulation Cooperative Formed with Indian Hills Community College
1995 – William Penn Launches Its College for Working Adults
1996 – Academics Restructured from Seven to Five Academic Departments
1997 – College selected as a John Templeton Foundation honor roll character building college for its commitment to a values oriented curriculum
2000 – Associate Degree Program Founded in the College for Working Adults
2000 – William Penn College Changes Its Name to William Penn University
2000 – The Twin Towers Townhouse Dormitory Opened
2008 – Penn Activity Center and Musco Technology Center Opened
2010 – Dr. Ann M. Fields Inaugurated as the 26th and First Female President of William Penn University
2013 – Market Street Residence Hall Opened for Spring Semester
2015 – Nursing program nationally accredited