The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor originated in 1845 in Independence as the Female Department of Baylor University. For the first 133 years it had the distinction of being called the oldest college for women west of the Mississippi. In 1971 it became coeducational. It has never merged with any other college, and continues to operate under its original charter. Baylor University, chartered under the Republic of Texas in 1845, fulfilled the purpose of the Texas Baptist Education Society of the Union Baptist Association to provide Christian education for its sons and daughters. Section six of the charter stipulated a Preparatory Department and a Female Department along with the provisions for the males. For the first six years all students were taught by the same faculty in the same building, although parental preference for separation of the sexes probably was met by scheduling separate classes. In 1851 a step toward the separation of colleges came through the insistence of the second president, Rufus C. Burleson, that the sexes be separated. In 1851 Burleson took the male students to a building on an adjacent hill and left the female students in the old frame building of Independence Academy with Horace Clark as principal. In 1855 the Female Department moved into a stone building built to Clark's design: the tall stone columns of the Female Department building are all of Baylor that stands today in Independence.
In 1866 the Baptist State Convention of Texas severed the Female Department from the university and founded Baylor Female College, which operated under the original charter but was governed by a separate board of trustees. In 1886, because of the changing demography of Texas, the Baptist State Convention of Texas moved both Baylors to Central Texas—the men to Waco, where the school merged with Waco University, and the women to Belton. As inducements to the women's college, the town offered $31,000, an eleven-acre hilltop site, and its united energies to erect a building to be ready in September. On September 13, 1886, President John Hill Luther opened Baylor Female College in the three-story native limestone building and presented his faculty members to a welcoming crowd from Belton and Bell County. By the second year the growth of the student body necessitated enlarging the building to twice its size. The original building contained a dormitory for students and teachers, a dining hall, a library, a chapel, studios, and classrooms. Lack of money delayed necessary construction until 1907, when an administration and classroom building was begun. In 1893 the first of a group of frame cottages was built by Elli Moore Townsend to provide housing for students who could not afford the dormitory. In 1905 a permanent residence hall housed this remarkably early cooperative and self-help movement known as the Cottage Home System, which was built by the residents with some donations from friends and graduates who had lived in the cottages and involved the raising of food and livestock by the residents. The system was an independent venture at first but was deeded to the college in 1916.
Academically the college has always emphasized the liberal arts. At the turn of the century it had two degree programs, classical and English, the latter requiring no foreign language. These evolved into the B.A. and the B.S. degrees approved by the State Department of Education, which in 1912 recognized Baylor Female College as "a college of the first rank," and in 1913 began accepting its graduates as teachers without further examination. Today the liberal arts form the core courses for such programs as nursing, business, and education. From its inception the school also stressed the fine arts; it offered a diploma, as distinct from a degree, in music, art, and elocution. From the 1920s through the 1960s the college's Conservatory of Music won national acclaim and such recognition as the gift of an arts building from the Presser Foundation, the first such award granted in the Southwest. Three publications originated early in the century and are still being published: the Bluebonnet Yearbook, 1904; The Baylorian, a literary magazine, 1912; and in 1917, The Bells, a weekly newspaper. The journalism department, organized in 1921, was granted a chapter of Theta Sigma Phi in 1925. Baylor Female College was one of the founding institutions for Alpha Chi (1922), at first known as the Scholarship Society of the South. The period of twenty-five years coinciding with the presidency of John C. Hardy (1912–37) saw the greatest growth in enrollment, which peaked at 2,372 in 1925–26. This growth necessitated an expensive building program of dormitories and classroom buildings and plunged the college into debt. In 1925 Baylor Female College was renamed Baylor College for Women. In 1926 it was admitted to the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities and in 1927 to the American Association of Colleges. Economic pressures threatened or delayed some accreditations that were contingent on improved faculty salaries and fireproof buildings. The Great Depression, plus a disastrous fire in 1929 that required the immediate construction of still more buildings, brought the college to the edge of bankruptcy. It was saved by a generous gift from Mary and John G. Hardin. In gratitude the college changed its name to Mary Hardin-Baylor College in 1934.
By 1978 the college had been reorganized as a university with five schools: arts and sciences, creative arts, business, education, and nursing. It was renamed University of Mary Hardin-Baylor at this time. In 1968 the Scott and White School of Nursing became a part of the institution (see SCOTT AND WHITE MEMORIAL HOSPITAL). Its students take a four-year course leading to the bachelor of science in nursing. It is accredited by both the National League for Nursing and the Board of Nurse Examiners of Texas. Since the admission of male students, the university has been affiliated with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. In the fall of 1998 the enrollment was 2,479. UMHB had a library of approximately 150,000 volumes, a campus of ninety acres, a physical plant of twenty-one buildings, and a teacher-student ratio of about one to twenty. The university offered about forty undergraduate majors and conferred five graduate degrees, and was divided into five schools: business, education, fine arts, sciences and humanities, and the Scott and White School of Nursing. It also had cooperative agreements with two schools in Japan, Allen College and Ebino College. Jerry Bawcom was the president.