Shepherd University began when the county seat of Jefferson County, West Virginia, was moved from Shepherdstown to Charles Town in July 1871. The people of Shepherdstown and vicinity decided to use the vacated courthouse for educational purposes. An article of incorporation for a school to be known as Shepherd College, designed to instruct students “in languages, arts and sciences,” was drawn up and signed by C.W. Andrews, A.R. Boteler, C.T. Butler, G.M. Beltzhoover, David Billmyer, Samuel Knott, and Henry Shepherd. This body of incorporators gave itself power to elect instructors, pay salaries, and prescribe courses of study. Professor Joseph McMurran was appointed first principal of the institution, which opened with 42 students in September 1871, under the authority of the Board of Trustees.
On February 27, 1872, the Legislature of West Virginia passed the following act: “That a branch of the State Normal School be and the same is hereby established at the building known as Shepherd College, in Shepherdstown, in the county of Jefferson.”
Shepherd became a four-year college for the training of teachers on July 1, 1930, at which time the institution began granting the Bachelor of Arts degree. Shepherd was authorized to implement liberal arts programs in 1943, and in 1950 the Bachelor of Science degree was added. Shepherd currently offers the following degrees: Bachelor of Arts; Bachelor of Science; Bachelor of Fine Arts; Regents Bachelor of Arts; Bachelor of Music in Performance; Bachelor of Science in Nursing; Bachelor of Social Work; Master of Arts Appalachian Studies; Master of Arts, College Student Development and Administration; Master of Arts, Curriculum and Instruction; Master of Arts in Teaching; Master of Business Administration; and Master of Science.
In 2004 Governor Bob Wise signed legislation allowing Shepherd College to change its name to Shepherd University.
In 1950 Shepherd was accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (now the Higher Learning Commission) and in 1951 it became a member of the Association of American Colleges. In 2009 Shepherd became a member of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges.
In the past two decades, Shepherd has added many new buildings and campus improvements, including the $9 million Robert C. Byrd Science and Technology Center; the $18 million addition to the Scarborough Library, which also houses the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education; the $10 million Erma Ora Byrd Hall nursing classroom building; the $10 million Center for Contemporary Arts Phase I; the $13.88 million Center for Contemporary Arts Phase II; the $21.6 million Wellness Center; and the $5.6 million pedestrian underpass. Potomac Place, a new $22.7 million residence hall complex, opened on West Campus in fall 2017.