Brenau was founded in 1878 as a private institution for the education of women. W.C. Wilkes, the institution’s first administrator, is credited with building many of the historic buildings that still stand today. Although founders initially called the institution a Baptist seminary for women, it has never been affiliated with or governed by any religious organization. Through the years Brenau evolved from a proprietary college to a not-for-profit institution governed by an independent Board of Trustees. Although the residential undergraduate Brenau Women's College remains as the cornerstone of the institution, other undergraduate programs on campuses, and all graduate and online programs, admit both men and women.
In 1900 H. J. Pearce purchased the institution and renamed it Brenau, a linguistic blend formed from the German word brennen, “to burn”, and the Latin aurum, “gold”. Its motto is “As Gold Refined by Fire”. Brenau College remained privately owned until 1911 when a board of trustees assumed stewardship of the college, as remains the case today. In 1928, Brenau created a female, residential, college-preparatory school serving grades 9 through 12.
In the late 1960s, Brenau began offering evening and weekend classes to both men and women apart from Women's College classes.
Brenau College became Brenau University in 1992 by a vote of the Board of Trustees, a name change that reflected the comprehensive programs of study, the diverse student body, new and stricter employment criteria for professors, and the scope of available graduate programs.
Brenau offered its first online programs in 2002 to meet needs of students who, because of professional or personal responsibilities, were unable to attend classes on campus.
The institution is led by Dr. Ed Schrader, its ninth president, who has held the position since January 2005. Brenau is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and several subject-specific accrediting organizations.
The Women’s College of Brenau University continues the rich tradition of education for women, serving both residential and commuter students. The mission of the university is reflected in the strong emphasis on the broad-based liberal arts education supporting its 30-plus majors, which prepare graduates for their many future roles. The Women’s College is recognized for its outstanding instruction in the fine arts and for its programs to develop leadership skills as well as for its comprehensive nationally-recognized learning disabilities programs.
At the beginning of the 21st century following the first decade of operations as a master's level university, graduate programs at Brenau represented a small percentage of the student body. By 2010 it was clear that the demand for graduate studies would increase and that, but 2025, graduate students at Brenau would represent more than half the student population. Thus, the university created the Sidney O. Smith Jr. Graduate School to place focused attention on the special needs of graduate students. Graduate studies at the university currently include programs based on campus, online programs and a hybrid mix of online and on-campus classes. In November 2010 the Board of Trustees of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges approved Brenau University’s application to become a Level V doctoral degree-granting institution, paving the way for Brenau to launch a Doctor of Nursing Practice program in August 2011 and at least two other doctorates in the near future. A year earlier Brenau launched its first terminal degree program, a master of Fine Arts in Interior Design. The school offers a wide array of master's-level programs as well as Education Specialists graduate degrees.
Although the university had for some time offered cohort programs in different locations, like a MBA cohort in health care management for a group at a hospital in Brunswick, Ga., in 2008 it established its first "residential" graduate school program, a full-time, year-long co-educational MBA program was launched in Gainesville geared toward international students. Students from different parts of the world study together for 1 year. Most select the Project Management concentration.
Brenau Academy was formed in 1928 when Pearce told his wife that some of the first-year college students were having trouble with their course work. She began a program to help prepare young women for college which evolved quickly into the Brenau Academy, which until 2012 remained the only female, college preparatory, residential school for grades 9-12 in the state of Georgia. The Academy has evolved into the Early College program of the Women's College in which qualified young women can earn college credits during the time of their lives in which they normally would complete high school studies. These students actually can complete the first two years of college concurrently with finishing high school.
In the late 1960s, Brenau began offering evening classes to male students at the junior and senior levels. As the number of evening students grew from 17 in 1969 to 1,466 in fall 2003, the structure of the program evolved. Degree offerings through the program now include a two-year Associate of Arts through terminal Master of Fine Arts and doctoral degrees. Although the term "Evening and Weekend College" is no longer in use, the classes predominantly occur at times outside "normal business hours" of the week to accommodate needs of adult learners and nontraditional students who require more flexible course schedules. The programs existing on all Brenau campuses, including Gainesville, and all are coeducational.