Harding began as a senior college in 1924 when two junior colleges, Arkansas Christian College and Harper College, merged their facilities and assets, adopted the new name of Harding College, and located on the campus of Arkansas Christian in Morrilton, Ark. Harper had been founded in 1915 in Harper, Kansas, and Arkansas Christian had been chartered in 1919.
Upon completing a study which began in May 1978, the board of trustees approved the study's recommended change of Harding to university status, and on Aug. 27, 1979, the name of the institution officially became Harding University.
The college was named in memory of James A. Harding, co-founder and first president of Nashville Bible School (now Lipscomb University) in Nashville, Tenn. A preacher, teacher and Christian educator, James A. Harding inspired his co-workers and associates with an enthusiasm for Christian education that remains a significant tradition at Harding University.
With the merger J.N. Armstrong, who had served five years as Harper's president, became president of Harding College, and A.S. Croom, president of Arkansas Christian for two years, became vice president for business affairs. In 1934 Harding was moved to its present site in Searcy, Ark., on the campus of a former women's institution, Galloway College.
One of Harding's first graduates, George S. Benson, returned from mission work in China in 1936 to assume the presidency of his alma mater. The vigorous educator quickly directed the College out of deep indebtedness and launched it on a journey to financial stability, national recognition and academic accreditation. When Dr. Benson retired in 1965, his 29 years of tireless service were more than evident in a multimillion-dollar campus, regional accreditation, a strong faculty, and a continually growing student body. Dr. Benson died in December 1991 and is buried in Searcy.
Dr. Clifton L. Ganus Jr., a 1943 graduate, served as president from 1965 to 1987. A former history department chairman and vice president of the College, Dr. Ganus kept alive his predecessor's drive for excellence by leading a plan of campus improvement and expansion. During his administration, enrollment increased from 1,472 in the fall of 1965 to 2,767 in the fall of 1986. Seven major academic buildings, four large residence halls, and several married students' apartments were constructed. A $1 million addition to the Science Building was completed in 1984. Also, six academic buildings were renovated and/or enlarged. The nursing program, the social work program, the Mission Prepare program, the School of Biblical Studies (with programs in Searcy and in Nassau, the Bahamas), and the Harding University in Florence (Italy) program were developed during his administration. In Memphis, Tenn., the Graduate School of Religion experienced significant growth, received accreditation by the Southern Association, and added the Doctor of Ministry degree to its program. Upon his retirement, Dr. Ganus became Harding's first chancellor, and in his honor, the board of trustees named the physical education complex the Clifton L. Ganus Jr. Athletic Center.
Dr. David B. Burks became Harding's fourth president in May 1987. A 1965 graduate, he has been a member of the faculty since 1967 and previously served as dean of the School of Business. As professor of business and director of the American Studies program, Dr. Burks received the Distinguished Teacher Award in 1974 and 1986. A C.P.A., retired, Texan, and consultant, he has written The Christian Alternative for Business and Strategic Management Simulation. He instituted the course in Christian Business Ethics, a requirement for all business majors. He holds a doctorate in administration of higher education from Florida State University. Under his leadership, the University has experienced record growth in enrollment and giving and, more importantly, continues to place significant emphasis on Christian servanthood.
Dr. Burks retired from the presidency May 2013. Upon his retirement, he became the chancellor of Harding, and Dr. Ganus became the first chancellor-emeritus. Dr. Burks still has an office on campus and is active in the Harding community. After serving 73 years on the staff of Harding University, Chancellor Emeritus Clifton Loyd Ganus, Jr. died on Sept. 9, 2019, at the age of 97.
Dr. Bruce D. McLarty officially became the fifth president of Harding on June 1, 2013. Prior to being named president, Dr. McLarty was University vice president for spiritual life for eight years. Before his work at Harding, he was the pulpit minister at College Church of Christ in Searcy from 1991-2005. Prior to coming to Searcy, he preached in Cookeville, Tenn.; Memphis, Tenn.; Marks, Miss.; and Williford, Ark. He and his wife, Ann, also spent time in Meru, Kenya, as missionaries.
Dr. McLarty graduated in 1978 with a B.A. in Bible from then Harding College. In 1982, he received his M.Th. from Harding School of Theology. He received his D.Min. from Ashland (Ohio) Theological Seminary in 2010. Dr. McLarty received the Outstanding Alumnus award from the College of Bible and Ministry at Harding in 1999. He has written articles for 21st Century Christian Magazine, Upreach Magazine, Image Magazine, The Gospel Advocate, and Harding’s Church and Family Magazine. In addition to writing articles, he also wrote a book, Journey of Faith: Walking With Jesus Through the Gospel of John, that was published in 1997.
During his inaugural address Sept. 20, 2013, Dr. McLarty coined the phrase “A Community of Mission” as a definition for what Harding has been, is and aims to become. His presidency focused on bringing the student body, faculty and staff together as a community to daily serve God and each other.
Dr. McLarty retired Dec. 1, 2020, and Dr. David B. Burks resumed the role of president as a larger committee was formed to begin the search for a new president.
In June 2022, Dr. Michael Williams became the sixth president of Harding University. Williams earned a Bachelor of Business Administration from Harding in 1985 and later returned to earn his Master of Business Administration. He earned his doctorate of education from the University of Pennsylvania. He began serving on the University admissions staff in 1987, was named director of admission services in 1991, and later was appointed vice president of advancement in 2003. Williams served as the president of Faulkner University from 2015-2022 before returning to Harding to serve as president.
At his inauguration celebration on Sept. 16, 2022, Williams challenged all members of the University community to discover their "Inspired Purpose," a phrase anchored in our historic Christian mission that characterizes a bold vision for our future.