TBT: From “normal schools” to State Universities

Abraham Lincoln’s work as a prairie lawyer, state legislator and President of the United States is well known. What is not as well-known is another important contribution which Lincoln made to Illinois just a few years before he was elected President. In 1857, Abraham Lincoln helped create Illinois’ system of public, higher education.

Of course, Lincoln didn’t do it alone. Nor did it happen all at once. In fact what Lincoln did was far from dramatic: as the attorney for the Illinois Board of Education he prepared the paperwork for the bond that would pay for the establishment of a teachers college (or a “normal school” as it was known at the time) in McLean County. It was the beginning of Illinois State University.

That small school in McLean County, originally called Illinois State Normal University, would soon grow and expand far beyond its original mission. Today ISU has an enrollment of over 17,000 students from across the country and around the world. They study in nearly 200 undergraduate programs and some go on to pursue graduate degrees as well. The process that Lincoln set in motion has expanded to include eleven more public universities and 48 community colleges educating over 400,000 students.

In the first days of Illinois’ state university system, the schools were institutions specifically for training teachers or farmers. In the decades to come, they would expand far beyond that initial role to become large institutions offering a diverse curriculum to a worldwide student body. A century after the state university system was created Illinois would enact a system of smaller, more local colleges for those wishing to obtain higher education without going too far from home, or those returning to school to start a new career.

A few years after setting in motion the creation of Illinois State, Lincoln made another contribution when he signed legislation that revolutionized the concept of public higher education throughout the United States. The Morrill Land Grant Act had its roots in Illinois. A professor at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Jonathan Baldwin Turner, had been advocating for a nationwide system of public agricultural schools. Turner successfully lobbied Congress to come up with a way to fund such a college in every state. The final version of the bill directed that funds from lands sold by the federal government should be granted to the states to establish colleges and universities. The bill was signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862.

The only land grant school in Illinois, the Illinois Industrial University, opened its doors in 1868. At first, the college operated only an agricultural curriculum, but things began to change after the 1880s when the school was renamed the University of Illinois to reflect its increasingly diverse educational mission. In the years that followed, it expanded both its curriculum and its outreach to the rest of the state. The U of I used its agriculture programs to establish a farm advisor office in every county in the state to help Illinois farmers learn about new developments in agriculture. Before long, the school had diversified into a full range of academic programs.

A key turning point for public higher education in Illinois came with the governorship of John Altgeld in the 1890s. Altgeld ramped up the appropriations for the University of Illinois, which played a big part in the university’s addition of science and medical curriculum. He was also instrumental in starting more teachers’ colleges around the state.

A second normal school had been added in Carbondale in 1869, but Altgeld wanted to open similar schools in each region of the state. Charleston was selected for the east, while in the north it would be DeKalb. The western school was awarded to Macomb where it would be located, “on a vast golden prairie strewn with purple coneflowers,” thus giving the school its purple and gold colors. By the time Altgeld left office he had laid the groundwork for the future Northern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University and Western Illinois University.

At the turn of the 20th century, other teachers’ colleges were already in operation: the one in Carbondale and another in Chicago. From each of those normal schools would come not one but two state universities.

The Cook County Normal School started out in a “leaky railroad freight car in Blue Island,” and over the next few decades the school went through a series of name changes while expanding its curriculum. It became a state institution in 1965. By then, the teachers’ college had opened three new campuses in the city which would eventually become Northeastern Illinois University. Meanwhile the newly-named Chicago State University moved to its new location on King Drive in 1972.

The teachers college in Carbondale had started out with 12 programs and 143 students. The school expanded into many other academic disciplines and became Southern Illinois University in 1947. Around that same time, SIU started teaching classes in its Southwestern Illinois Campus in East St. Louis and Alton. Today, the Alton campus is the SIU School of Dental Medicine. Helped along by a bond issue initiated by Governor William Stratton in the 1950s, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville opened in 1965.

Governor Altgeld’s contribution to Illinois’ university system has been honored with campus architecture. Five state universities feature the type of gothic revival style buildings to which Altgeld was partial. These buildings include the iconic Old Main building at Eastern, John W. Cook Hall at Illinois State, and three different Altgeld Halls: one at SIU Carbondale, one at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and another at Northern.

As the state universities’ curriculum grew, so did their geographical footprint. After World War II, with service members coming home and seeking education under the GI bill, the University of Illinois opened its Chicago Undergraduate Division (CUD), a branch campus at Navy Pier in 1946. It included many already-established medical schools, some of which had been operating in Chicago for more than a century.

Fifteen years later, again with the help of Stratton’s bonds from the ‘50s, the CUD was expanded to include liberal arts and sciences, engineering, commerce, business administration, fine and applied art. The collection of schools was renamed the University of Illinois at Congress Circle, and it officially opened with a ribbon cutting on a 16-degree February day in 1965. The university became the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1982.

As students were settling in to the facility at Congress Circle in Chicago, another state university was opening its doors in Springfield. Sangamon State University was created in 1969 by legislation signed by Governor Richard Ogilvie. Construction began just south of the capital city in 1970 and the first classes were held that fall. Governor Jim Edgar signed legislation in 1995 combining Sangamon State with the University of Illinois system and re-christening it the University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS). UIS has continued to grow since then, with its enrollment surpassing 5000 for the first time in 2010.

The same year that Sangamon State came into being also saw the creation of Governors State University in University Park. To promote the academic ideals of openness and innovation, GSU classrooms had no walls and students did not receive grades: they were judged on their competency in the various subjects. Though over time, classroom walls were added and a grading system was instituted, GSU still “champions openness, innovation and flexibility.”

As important as our state universities are to higher education in Illinois, they are by no means the only such institutions. Illinois operates the third-largest community college system in the nation. It is a presence in every corner of the state, from Shawnee College near the Ohio River to Highland College not far from the Wisconsin line. Collectively, the 48 schools in the Illinois community college system educate more than 300,000 students throughout the state. Illinois is the home of America’s very first community college.

Community colleges in Illinois originated in 1901 with Joliet Junior College. JJC was created by the President of the University of Chicago and the superintendent of Joliet Township High School as a way for students to continue their education without having to travel far from home. Soon, junior colleges were coming into existence throughout Illinois. After World War II, the state created a formal process for establishing a junior college and for levying taxes to finance it.

This system of junior colleges was overseen by the Board of Higher Education until the Junior College Board was created in 1965, changing its name to the Community College Board in 1973. Since then only Joliet has retained the title “junior college.” Unlike the state universities, community colleges are governed by locally elected boards; except for the City Colleges of Chicago which has a board appointed by the mayor. Today, all of Illinois is covered by a community college district, and no resident of Illinois is more than just a few minutes’ drive away from a college education.

More about Illinois State University.