The Church of the United Brethren in Christ founded Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, in 1847. The college was originally known as the Otterbein University of Ohio and received its charter from the state in 1849. Admitting eight students in 1847, the school graduated its first class in 1857. The college was named after Philip William Otterbein, one of the founders of the United Brethren Church. The Church of the United Brethren later merged with the United Methodist Church.
From its beginning, Otterbein has taken pride in the diversity of its students. From the outset, the college admitted women as well as men and permitted them to pursue the same programs of study. At most colleges, women did not take the same classes as men, because many people believed that women could not handle the stress of a traditional college schedule. Otterbein's founders disagreed and women were successful at the college from the beginning. The first two students to receive diplomas from Otterbein were women. Following the example set by Oberlin College, Otterbein was one of the first colleges in the United States to admit students of any race. The school was also one of the first coeducational colleges in the United States to hire women as faculty members. Otterbein students were involved in a number of reform movements in the nineteenth century. Many students became involved in abolitionism, women's rights, and temperance activities.
Otterbein has also had a long history of both faculty and students having a significant voice in decision-making at the college. For faculty, this tradition goes back to the 1850s and 1860s. Students began to have more of a voice after World War II.