Building a better Indiana

For 150 years, Indiana State University has answered the call to provide a quality education and create the next generation of professionals.




It was 1865, and the Civil War had just ended in April. Men were returning home to Terre Haute from battle to reclaim their lives with their families and look forward to the future.

“There was an upbeat feeling in Terre Haute. People were clearly glad to be back, but you could also feel the energy of citizens wanting this to be a great city,” said local historian Mike McCormick, recounting the many newspaper clippings he’s read from that era. “Rather than just wanting to get by, the attitude was ‘the sky is the limit.’”

And indeed it was as the community of just more than 8,000 people launched a quest to become the home of the Indiana State Normal School, a dream the Indiana General Assembly made a reality on Dec. 20, 1965. Today, that school is Indiana State University, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

The city of Terre Haute donated the funding and land for the Indiana State Normal School to be built on the present day site of the Lincoln Quadrangle. This first building, which opened to students partially constructed and poorly equipped on Jan. 6, 1870, was destroyed by fire on April 9, 1888. (Courtesy of Indiana State University Special Collections)

The city of Terre Haute donated the funding and land for the Indiana State Normal School to be built on the present day site of the quad. This first building, which opened to students partially constructed and poorly equipped on Jan. 6, 1870, was destroyed by fire on April 9, 1888. (Courtesy of Indiana State University Special Collections)

“Indiana State is indebted to the city of Terre Haute for providing $50,000 and land for the Indiana State Normal School to be located here, a decision that was supported by 1,500 citizens who signed a petition in favor of this investment,” said Indiana State President Dan Bradley. “When the original building burnt in 1888, the city once again provided funding to rebuild. Throughout history, our city has  been a great partner to our university, and we will be planning several ways to pay tribute to our community during our sesquicentennial celebration.”

And while Indiana State has a long, proud relationship with Terre Haute, the formation of the school also played an important role in the state of Indiana, said Dan Clark, associate professor of American history.

“It was a critical institution in the state. The early history of the institution is tied to the history of education in Indiana,” said Clark, who is researching the history of the university and writing a book to be published in 2019. He’s been working his way through board minutes, catalogs and other writings to get a comprehensive picture of the evolution of the university.

The mission of the Normal School was to train elementary school teachers, Clark said. Up until the 1890s, the school was graduating fewer than 40 students a year, mostly women. That’s not to say the class sizes were small. Indeed, in 1890, the school had 800 students. Many of them, however, were part-time.

“They might teach school in the fall and then come to the Normal School in the spring,” Clark said, noting the second semester began after spring planting.

Some scholars of the Normal School call it the people’s college or the democracy’s college, Clark said. Anyone could come, and it was free.

William Parsons was a member of the first class at Indiana State and became the third president. (Courtesy of Indiana State University Special Collections)

William Parsons was a member of the first class at Indiana State and became the third president. (Courtesy of Indiana State University Special Collections)

In some cases, William Wood Parsons, who was president of the school from 1885 to 1921, tried to get the General Assembly to pay for the room and board of students, he said.

“This really served a class of Hoosiers who had no access to higher education. They couldn’t afford the private academies,” Clark said. “They were poor kids. Kids from the country, kids from the sticks. Sometimes the main building is the biggest building these kids had ever seen.”

The normal school system, with origins in 16th century France, was the first system of training elementary teachers in the United States, exported to the Midwest from Massachusetts in the 1850s. Normal schools served a crucial role in training teachers to go out to the often one-room schoolhouses that dotted the state.

“The Indiana State Normal School was founded to fill a significant need — preparing teachers for the common schools of Indiana,” Bradley said.

Most importantly, the Normal School was an institution of access, a core value that has withstood a century and a half as Indiana State University evolved into what it is today.

“Indiana State has a proud history of providing access to an affordable, quality education and meeting the needs of the state for well-educated professionals,” Bradley said. “Diversity was present from our initial year of operation in 1870, with the first African-American student enrolling that summer. Many of our students, then and now, are the first in their families to graduate from college. We feel this is an important niche to serve because of the profound impact it can have, not only for those individual students but also for our state at large.”

The Normal School became Indiana State Teachers College in 1929, a move that had a lot to do with accreditation issues, Clark said. The education system in Indiana changed dramatically in the early 1900s, and normal schools started offering bachelor’s degrees. Terre Haute’s population had expanded rapidly and was now more than 60,000.

In 1961, the institution took another step forward, becoming Indiana State College in response to a desire by the statehouse and the general public to expand higher education. And in 1965, it took the final step to become Indiana State University.

This change was against the backdrop of the Cold War, during which there was great concern that the United States was behind the Soviet Union in languages, math and science, Clark said. “This resulted in the first federal education act in history. This is the first money that goes to students on a federal level. This is what’s behind this need for not just teachers, which was important too, but also what you would call educated manpower,” Clark said. While the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State is still a thriving, important component, there is so much more today. The university offers about 100 majors and is a leader in community service and experiential learning.

“Over the past 150 years, Indiana State has evolved as the needs of our state have developed. We still prepare excellent teachers and administrators, but we also prepare leaders in technology, business, health care and the liberal arts,” Bradley said.

And while the school has gone through many transitions in its 150-year history, it still plays a pivotal role in preparing students from across the United States and around the world, Bradley said.

“The vast majority of our students continue to be Hoosiers, most of whom remain in Indiana to live, work and raise their families,” he said. “The philosophy that ties this all together is our commitment to experiential education. We have always stressed not only classroom learning but also the learning that takes place during internships, clinical experiences and all other types of practical yet controlled experiences that facilitate learning by doing. This is true today whether a student is in teaching, nursing, art or engineering technology.”

From its humble beginnings as the Normal School to the world-class institution it is today, Indiana State University has a 150-year history that has impacted thousands and has positioned it to be as meaningful today as it was in 1865.



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