The History of USC Aiken
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Building partnerships has been the cornerstone of the University of South Carolina Aiken since its inception in 1961. It was then that the citizens of the Aiken community voiced the need for a local institution of higher education. In a true demonstration of grassroots politics, the community rallied to show their support for a college to be founded in the area. Through state legislation, a governing board was formed, the Aiken County Commission for Higher Education, which continues to oversee the University’s mission.
The University of South Carolina, the state’s flagship university which was founded in Columbia in 1801, began offering courses in Aiken for students interested in completing their degrees in Columbia. USC Aiken became the fourth campus founded of the eight that would eventually comprise the USC System. Three full-time faculty members, a secretary, and 139 students joined for the university’s first academic semester in September 1961. Classes took place in “Banksia,” a former winter-colony mansion in downtown Aiken. For 11 years, the university’s first students attended college in a structure which was developed as living quarters, studying composition in an area which was once a ballroom and algebra in a former sitting room.
Over the years, the student population grew and the need for a new physical location for campus arose. The university purchased property from the Graniteville Company and moved from Banksia to its present site in 1972. One multipurpose building was constructed, which was later named the Robert E. Penland Administration Building. This building’s open courtyard features one of the campus’ most notable landmarks, the Double Knot sculpture by artist Charles Perry, which symbolizes the University's close ties with the local community. At the time, most assumed that this would be the only building ever needed for the campus; however, the university grew to occupy more than 20 buildings and athletics facilities in the years that followed.
As a natural next step, USC Aiken began to seek autonomy in the USC system so students could begin and complete their degrees in Aiken. In 1977, the university was fully accredited as a senior college by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and granted its first baccalaureate degrees. Master’s degree programs began being offered on campus in 1994, and at present, the campus offers more than 30 degrees and programs to students.
The institution began forming a limited number of sports teams as part of the NAIA in the 1960s. USC Aiken student-athletes adopted the Pacers as their mascot, named for Aiken’s well-known status as an equestrian community. In 1990, USC Aiken achieved NCAA Division II status and became a charter member of the highly-competitive Peach Belt Conference. Today, Pacer Athletics hosts 11 varsity men’s and women’s sports teams, including the three-time national champion men’s golf team.
Since 1961, four leaders have navigated the University’s path. Mr. Chris Sharp (1961-1962), Mr. Bill Casper (1963-1983), Dr. Robert Alexander (1983-2000), and Dr. Thomas Hallman (2000-present) have overseen the campus as it has grown from a commuter institution to a more traditional, residentially-based campus.
Today, USC Aiken ranks as the #1 public baccalaureate college in the South by U.S.News & World Report’s guide “America’s Best Colleges.” More than 3,200 students attend the university, and approximately 500 students graduate each year. USC Aiken embodies its “focused on you!” commitment by providing many of the offerings of a large university on a small, friendly campus with intimate class sizes and personal attention. The commitment to continuing partnerships is woven into the fabric of the campus’ culture.