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Ohio State Reflects On 'Time And Change' Over 150-Year History

The Ohio State University

Did you ever wonder why The Ohio State University adopted the colors of scarlet and gray? As part of its sesquicentennial celebration, the school wants to answer that question and more by offering a free non-credit online course looking back to its beginning in 1870.

“The mission in many ways, I think, has stayed the same,” says associate professor of history David Staley.  “The expression of that mission I think has changed.”

Staley explains the university began after the U.S. Congress passed the Morrill Land-Grand Acts in 1862, which allowed for the sale of federal land to fund higher education.

“The goal of the land grants, the goal of the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College as it was called, was to provide training for the citizens of the state, especially in the skills necessary for the new economy, the new economy of the 19th century, the industrial economy,” Staley says.

Staley helped develop nine online course modules to explore Ohio State's history, including the origins of the university, the Thompson Era (the fifth Ohio State president), town-gown relations, research, athletics, student life, the 1960s and traditions.

Staley says the university always had a global focus. 

“Professor Mendenhall spent time teaching in Japan, for instance, in the 1870s,” Staley says. “And we have had international students at the university even back into the 19th century.”

Staley says the modules also discuss racism and sexism that occurred at the university and were common at the time. He says that school officials worked to keep men and women apart.

“Not just simply different dormitories, but different clubs,” Staley says. “There were two literary societies. There would be two of every honor society.”

Staley says in 1951, students decided they only wanted one student union.

Then, in the 1960s, Staley says that student activism led to African Americans gaining approval to make their own choices, where they once had been limited.

“Where they were allowed to live, the sorts of clubs they were allowed to join, even in some cases the kinds of majors they were permitted to study,” Staley says.

Sports fans will also learn that the first sport organized on campus was baseball, not football. 

“Athletics at Ohio State began, it looked more like what we would today call intramurals,” Staley says. “These were student-organized clubs, really. And it was sort of the turn of the century that the university started to take direct control over the administration of athletics.”

Staley says the online course also discusses women in sports at Ohio State.

“There were female athletics in the early part of the 20th century, although women weren’t allowed to officially 'compete,'” Staley says. “They couldn’t win trophies.”

Staley says efforts to change that began in the 50-60’s, and the passage of Title IX in 1972 opened the doors wider for women athletes.

Now for the answer to the scarlet and gray question. 

For the first commencement, the degrees were supposed to tied with an orange and black ribbon. OSU students found out that Princeton University had already that combination for its colors. The students then selected scarlet and gray ribbons to tie diplomas.

The course continues through the 2020 spring semester.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.