Founded in 1865, Ottawa University has a rich history and heritage. Throughout its 150+ years, the University has endeavored to educate its students, many from underserved student populations, for lifetimes of enlightened faith, exemplary service, inspired leadership, and personal significance.
This tradition began with the Ottawa Indian tribe. The University's roots can be found in the work of Baptist missionaries in collaboration with the Tribe then located on the banks of the Marais des Cygnes ("river of swans") in what would become the town of Ottawa, Kansas, located approximately 40 miles southwest of Kansas City. Reverend Jotham Meeker and his wife, Eleanor, labored ceaselessly to improve the lives of the Ottawas, serving as ministers, nurse and doctor, business agents, marriage counselors, teachers, and of course, as spiritual counselors. Their seminal work, the prophetic vision of tribal leaders, and the engagement of others such as John Tecumseh (Tauy) Jones led to an eventual agreement between the Kansas Baptist denomination and the Ottawa Tribe to form a school for the benefit of the children of the Ottawas.
The original intent was to charter a boarding school for "the children of the Tribe between the ages of six and eighteen who shall be entitled to be received at such institution, and to be subsisted, clothed, educated, and attended in sickness...to continue so long as any children of the tribe shall present themselves for their exercise." The Tribe endowed 20,000 acres of its land to be utilized in lieu of a cash endowment to support the fledgling institution, which had no other means of income. Operating funds were to be received through the sale of land subject to various terms and conditions. In exchange, the Baptists agreed to build and operate the school with a promise to provide the free education contemplated in the agreement. A board was formed, operations undertaken, and the idea of the initial school soon extended to the formation of a college-motivated by the desire for higher education for tribal members, the Baptists, and the recognition by townspeople that a college could act as an economic growth engine in a still emerging community with great ambitions. Similar institutions were seeded all over America in the same general timeframe by many different church denominations. This accounts for the relatively large number of smaller private colleges and universities which dot the landscape of our country to this day.
While the purposes and aspirations of the new college were noble, not all of the actions of those initially involved were equally so. Though instructed by a charter personally signed by President Abraham Lincoln, governance of the new board was at times loose and there were intimations of self-dealing related to some of the land sales. The new school struggled in the general environment of a still settling frontier, the aftermath of the Civil War, ongoing appropriation of Indian lands by whites (including some of that of the Ottawas, who later moved to Miami, Oklahoma where tribal headquarters remains today), and roving bands of marauders and partisans (Quantrill's raiders had killed 150 Lawrence citizens just three years earlier in an infamous raid just 20 miles to the north of Ottawa). Poor oversight and accounting practices led to the diminishment of some of the lands originally intended to support the school, but these and other difficulties were eventually overcome as new leadership was interjected into the governance of the institution allowing the nascent college to persevere.
Despite many challenges, Ottawa's Christian heritage and relationship with the Ottawa Tribe remain alive and powerful today. In October of 2008, newly installed University President, Kevin C. Eichner, signed a new agreement with Chief John Ballard of the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma through which the historical connection between the University and the Tribe was significantly refreshed and expanded. Under this agreement, any certified tribal member is eligible to attend any of Ottawa University's campuses, on-ground or online, free of tuition, board, and room charges. This new agreement, fully and unanimously endorsed by the University's Board of Trustees and the Ottawa Tribal Council, is to be preserved "in perpetuity" and has resulted in a significant increase in the number of Ottawa Indian students enrolling throughout the University and to a re-kindling of an even stronger and more positive relationship with the Ottawa Tribe of Oklahoma. It has been widely celebrated by faculty, alumni and friends of the University and tribal members as emblematic of the institution's core mission and principles and as an enduring commitment to the mutual purposes of the Tribe and the University.
Since its founding in 1865, Ottawa University has been affiliated with Baptist churches and specifically the American Baptist Churches USA since 1905. The executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of the Central Region serves on the OU Board of Trustees and many churches include OU as part of their budgets and regular mission giving. In turn, OU has produced many graduates who have been called into the ministry as pastors and youth pastors and as lay leaders. The University is committed to educating all of its students in a "caring, Christ-inspired community of grace" characterized by openness, inclusivity and collegiality.
Throughout its long history, the University has met a long series of challenges and hardships. The first building, erected on the campus in the spring of 1869, was destroyed by fire in 1875. It was rebuilt in 1876 thanks to the generous support of many and stands today as Tauy Jones Hall, aptly named after one of the institution's founders and the person most credited generally with helping to make the college a reality. In 1886, a commencement was held with the recognition of just one graduating student. By the mid-1920s, the school boasted 24 trustees, an endowment of $600,000 in cash, and 500 students.
The World War II years posed some severe challenges for the institution as enrollments suffered dramatically due to the large numbers of male students serving in the military. Despite the circumstances, the University made great strides in expansion, cooperation with the City of Ottawa, faculty involvement, and curriculum enhancements. While the male student population was down during the war years, there were men on campus as part of the Civil Aeronautics Administration's Civil Pilot Training unit housed on the OU campus. The University provided board, room and supervision, as well as instruction for men of the units. This was just one example of what would become a hallmark of the University – its innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.
The post war period saw the University grow in stature and prominence. Enrollments increased steadily under the leadership of President Andrew B. Martin, the beloved and the longest-serving president in Ottawa University history (32 years). Programs were strengthened and new ones added, athletics and music became important OU traditions, the school developed a strong reputation in the liberal arts, sciences, and education, and some of the institution's most prominent alumni matriculated. By 1969, enrollment at the College reached 1,066 – the high-water mark for enrollment at the College's residential campus in Ottawa.
By the early 1970s, Ottawa University was increasingly recognized as one of the most innovative institutions in higher education. Its "New Plan for Education" was widely hailed in academic and foundation circles and resulted in further expansion of the University's reach. Ottawa University was one of the first to embrace a growing demand for programs specifically tailored to the needs and learning styles of adult students. One of the real pioneers in adult education in the United States, OU opened its first adult campus in Kansas City in 1974. Three years later, the University opened a campus in Phoenix, Arizona. Additional OU campuses in Wisconsin and Jeffersonville, Indiana, were opened in 1992 and 2002, respectively. Degree-completion programs were also developed internationally beginning in 1986. Ottawa University launched OU Online in 2008, offering degree programs completely online. In 2008, an additional site was opened in Chandler, Arizona. OU was the first four-year institution to join forces with Maricopa Community College at their unique Communiversity in Surprise, Arizona in 2009, followed by Queen Creek, Arizona in 2014.
In the mid-2010s, Ottawa University stood at a crossroads regarding the future of higher education, identifying limited opportunities and threats that were significant. Ottawa University chose to be bold in embarking on a path that some would consider crazy, but which the University saw as entrepreneurial: the development of an entirely new residential campus in Arizona. The City of Surprise, located in the fast-growing West Valley of Phoenix, was seeking to attract a four-year institution as an economic and community development priority. The strong public-private relationship that was forged – created from a shared vision, carried out with dynamic leadership, accomplished with shared resources, and energized the will to cooperate – became the key to the project’s success. The launch of the campus was in July 2017, with few facilities (one education/office space and temporary buildings), no housing except rented apartments and hotel rooms, and skeleton staff, but shockingly recruited an inaugural class of 434 pioneering students. Now with a new Union, two residential structures, and top-of-the-line athletic facilities, along with classrooms in multiple buildings, OUAZ has arrived. Enrollment has been as high as 900 with ambitious growth goals for the future.
From humble beginnings, Ottawa University has grown from a single building into a comprehensive educational institution serving over 4,000 students on four campuses and online. Today, more than 22,000 OU graduates, including 5,000 in the Pacific Rim, have made and continue to make valuable contributions in their communities, corporations, and churches. Born of a special spirit, which permeates the University and its graduates to this day, Ottawa University is blessed by a rich heritage and an unquenchable commitment to educate increasing numbers of students for lifetimes of faith, service, leadership and significance.