Rhodes College in Memphis has been aptly characterized as “the garden in the city,” a reference to the college’s lush, richly wooded, and landscaped campus in the heart of the state’s largest city. Princeton Review’s 1995 college guide cited Rhodes as “the most beautiful campus in America.” In recent years, the national media has offered numerous encomiums to Rhodes’s growing reputation for academic excellence. Two figures loom especially large in the history of the college: Charles E. Diehl, president from 1917 to 1949, and James H. Daughdrill Jr., president since 1973.
Diehl, a Johns Hopkins- and Princeton-trained Presbyterian minister, became president of the college when it was still Southwestern Presbyterian University in Clarksville. The Grand Masonic Lodge of Tennessee founded the college in 1848, and it subsequently existed under a variety of names, including Masonic College and Stewart College. In 1855 the college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, an affiliation that continues to this day. Originally all male, the school became coeducational in 1916. Despite a distinguished faculty that included theologian Joseph R. Wilson, the father of Woodrow Wilson, the college fell on hard times in Clarksville.
Diehl brought the college to its new one-hundred-acre campus in Memphis in 1925, renaming it Southwestern at Memphis, a name tied to the college’s location in the southwest region of the Southern Presbyterian Church. During his tenure as president, Diehl instituted the three practices that distinguish the college in national educational circles.
His first innovation was the consistent use of the “Collegiate Gothic” style of architecture that characterizes all the college’s buildings. In 1989 University of Louisville architect William Morgan chronicled the college’s successful use of the style in his book, Collegiate Gothic: The Architecture of Rhodes College. The second innovation was an honor system that places responsibility for the integrity of students’ academic and personal conduct in the students themselves. The honor system has received considerable attention in the Washington Post, National Public Radio, and other national publications for the faithfulness with which it is upheld by Rhodes students. Diehl’s third innovation was a twelve-credit course called “The Search for Values in the Light of Western History and Religion,” which leads students through the history, philosophy, religion, politics, and literature of the West in a discussion-intensive, primary text-centered format. The Search course spawned progeny at numerous other southern institutions, including Davidson College, the University of the South, Millsaps College, Eckerd College, and Louisiana State University. Michael Nelson and his colleagues described the success of the program in Celebrating the Humanities: A Half-Century of the Search Course at Rhodes College (1996).
James Daughdrill, the other leading figure in the history of Rhodes College, left a career in business and the Presbyterian ministry to become president of Rhodes in 1973, at a time when the college was struggling financially. Despite a sometimes uneasy relationship with the college’s faculty, all three of Diehl’s innovations have flourished and grown during Daughdrill’s tenure. Rhodes students single out the honor system as the best aspect of the college, the Search course is being taught and studied with greater enthusiasm than at any time in its history, and even the newest, most technologically sophisticated buildings continue to be constructed in the Collegiate Gothic style.
At the same time, Rhodes progresses toward the achievement of its recently announced goal of becoming “one of the finest colleges of liberal arts and sciences in the world.” From 1973 to 1998, the size and quality of the Rhodes student body grew significantly from 980 students with an average SAT score of 1105 to 1,450 students with an average score of 1290. With the exception of a few in a small master’s program in accounting, every Rhodes student is an undergraduate. The college reported a growth in the endowment from $6 million to over $200 million and the maintenance of a balanced budget throughout Daughdrill’s tenure.
Daughdrill also initiated the change in the college’s name from Southwestern at Memphis to Rhodes College. Confusion caused by the existence of many other colleges with “southwestern” in their names and the location of the college in an area no longer considered the southwest provided the impetus for the name change. The name Rhodes honors Peyton Nalle Rhodes, a longtime professor at the college and Diehl’s immediate successor as president.