History of the College

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History of the College

The story of NIU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences over the past five decades is one of growth, change and pursuit of excellence. Instruction in humanities, sciences, and social sciences had been offered at Northern Illinois State Normal School in DeKalb since its founding in 1895, but by the time the name changed to Northern Illinois University in 1957, “a full-blown liberal arts curriculum” was developing on campus. By the mid-fifties, the Teachers College Board had approved Bachelors of Arts and Bachelors of Science degrees and some graduate degrees for Northern.

Reorganization of the Division of Instruction into colleges of Education, Fine and Applied Arts, and Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1959 fueled rapid development of a comprehensive public university in the decades that followed. The birth of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and expansion of the university’s fields of study were especially important responses to the post-World War II boom in enrollments and societal recognition of the importance of public higher education.

The new college began with departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, English, Foreign Languages, History, Journalism, Library Science, Mathematics, Philosophy, Physics, Psychology, Social Sciences, and Speech. Throughout the fifties and sixties, the university was almost a constant construction zone, adding numerous new classroom buildings, residence halls, Holmes Student Center, and Lowden Hall. Enrollment surged as approximately a thousand additional students arrived every year. 

In the tumultuous period from 1959 to 1969, students saw the hiring of dozens of new faculty members qualified to advance research and teaching in a variety of new curricular programs. By 1968 when its offices moved into Reavis-Watson (now named Zulauf), a towering new building many students called “the brainery,” the college had organized into its current seventeen academic departments and won approval of numerous undergraduate majors and masters degrees. Nationally-recognized programs such as Public Administration and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, both formed in 1962, were already well underway. Ph.D. degrees in History and English were approved in 1961; in Chemistry and Psychology in 1966; in Economics and Political Science in 1968. Doctoral degrees were subsequently added in Geology (1980), Biological Sciences (1983) Mathematical Sciences (1984), Physics (1999) and, most recently, Geography in 2009.

In the decades following its formative years, often despite severe budget constraints and concomitant difficulties in meeting rising demand for Liberal Arts and Sciences classes, the college initiated a variety of interdisciplinary teaching, research, and public service programs. As new fields of knowledge and career opportunities grew, as the student population became increasingly diverse, and as the university’s mission became more complex, the college fostered more inclusive, multicultural, and global educational perspectives by establishing programs such as Women’s Studies (l980) and the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies (1986) and by increasing support for international study and research opportunities for its students and faculty. In its classrooms, its laboratories, and its outreach to the region, Liberal Arts and Sciences pioneered programs in keeping with the technological, scientific, and cultural changes shaping our world. 

Today the college provides advanced undergraduate courses for more than 6,500 majors and graduate courses for over 1,200 masters and doctoral students. In addition, its faculty teaches required core skills classes and most of the general education courses that benefit all NIU students. For example, annual enrollments in core competency courses in Math, English and Communication have averaged in excess of 13,000 students in recent years. The college’s faculty and staff regularly garner a very high proportion of all university awards and public recognitions for excellence in research, teaching and service; and they bring millions of dollars of external research and program support funding to NIU each year. Often in cooperation with colleagues in other NIU colleges and across the nation, they are taking the lead in exploring and developing new programs ranging from nanoscience and proton therapy to partnerships with public schools, studies in non-profit advocacy, environmental studies, linguistics, and international peace and mediation.

In academic year 2007-2008, the college awarded 1,617 baccalaureate degrees, 301 masters degrees and 48 new doctorates. The college takes great pride in the graduates who each year join its more than 70,000 alumni. NIU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences continues to write a story about excellence and to offer the gold standard of an NIU education.