The original land for the college was to be in present-day Ingham County, approximately 25 miles from where the college stands. Olivetian lore says that while Shipherd was on a trip to the site in Ingham County, his horse continued to get lost, and would always wander back to a hill above a swamp, which is where Olivet's Campus Square exists today. Shipherd believed that powers from above must have been drawing the horse back to this particular site, and deemed that "New Oberlin" should be located there. He instead chose to name it "Olivet," however, after the biblical Mount of Olives. Shortly after the founding of the college, Shipherd succumbed to malaria, as many other early Olivetians would.
It is said that the founders of Olivet College believed in three essential components; first, was that students should be part of a coeducational experience. Service was another integral part of the founders' visions, as they subsequently helped to build the surrounding and broader communities. They also believed an education could be had by anyone, not just those "rich in the world's goods." Abolitionist beliefs, along with the founders' commitment to educating women, led the state legislature to deny a charter for Olivet until 13 years after the first courses were offered. Some Olivetians believe the charter was denied because of possible competition with Michigan College.
The first courses began in December 1844. Because President Reuben Hatch's petition for a charter was denied, Olivet became the Olivet Institute, and remained a two-year school until chartered in 1859. In 1863, the college granted degrees to its first graduating class, consisting of three women: Sara Benedict, Mary N. Barber and Sophia A. Keyes.
The 20th century saw Olivet College become a liberal arts school, with a short-lived attempt at an Oxford-style curriculum from 1934 to 1944. It was during this period that the college also sponsored a series of writers' conferences that brought some of the world's leading literary talents to Olivet. Participants included Sinclair Lewis, Carl Sandburg, Katherine Anne Porter, Sherwood Anderson, Ford Madox Ford, W. H. Auden and Gertrude Stein.
In the early 1990s, Olivet College redefined its direction and produced a new academic vision titled Education for Individual and Social Responsibility. The new vision prompted the college to redesign its curricula, incorporating The Olivet Plan, which intends to educate students through several learning outcomes rather than courses, credits and grades alone. Components of The Olivet Plan include:
1) Liberal Arts Concentration
2) Learning Communities
3) Lecture and Symposium Series
4) Portfolio Assessment
5) Senior Experience
6) Service Learning
In addition, the college changed its academic calendar to accommodate the plan, reserving Wednesdays for academic seminar and portfolio activities. Also, the calendar includes a late spring 3.5-week Intensive Learning Term, during which students may enroll in one course.
In 1997, students and employees created The Olivet College Compact in order to give further definition to the college’s vision of Education for Individual and Social Responsibility. Commonly referred to as The Compact, it consists of seven principles intended to guide students, staff, faculty and Olivet’s board of trustees in acting as responsible members of the college community. The Compact states:
1) I am responsible for my own learning and personal development.
2) I am responsible for contributing to the learning of others.
3) I am responsible for service to Olivet College and the larger community.
4) I am responsible for contributing to the quality of the physical environment.
5) I am responsible for treating all people with respect.
6) I am responsible for behaving and communicating with honesty and integrity.
7) I am responsible for the development and growth of Olivet College.
Olivet’s enrollment for the 2007-08 academic year was 1,003 students. It is projected to reach about 1,100 for the 2008-09 academic year. The Olivet College campus is also undergoing several building and renovation projects, all of which are entirely funded from alumni and foundation gifts. Renovated facilities include the Frederick S. Upton Center Natatorium, Ruth Rawlings Mott Auditorium, Dr. Paul H. and Ruth B. Engle Chemistry Laboratory, and classrooms in the Mott Academic Center. New facilities include the Cutler Events Center, Gillette Student Village apartment-style housing, and a track and visitors’ stands at the Cutler Athletic Complex. The college has also secured a $1.5 million pledge for the construction of a new art building.
Men baseball, basketball, cross country, football, golf, soccer, swimming and diving, track and field, wrestling (Division III Independent)
Women basketball, cross country, golf, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, volleyball