History of UNI

University of Northern Iowa: A brief history

I attended the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1997 through the summer of 2000. I experienced classes in both old and new buildings, attended campus rituals and was involved with Student Organizations. My involvement with UNI accounts for only 2 percent of the entire history of the university.

Founding and History

Founded in 1876 as the Iowa State Normal School, UNI had a dual purpose. First, the citizens of Iowa, affected by the Civil War, wanted to educate the children of Civil War soldiers/sailors. Second, Iowa needed an institution focused on the schooling of teachers. This does not mean that UNI was created without controversy. Private schools, concerned that UNI would take away their business, lobbied against its creation. “By thin margins — one vote in the Senate and two votes in the House — the bill passed” which started UNI.

“The first class at the Iowa State Normal School (UNI) was held on September 6, 1876, with twenty-seven students in attendance.” Students and faculty lived together in the school’s sole building, Central Hall. Students relied on Principal James Gilchrist’s personal collection of books for their studies and research. By 1880, 233 students had enrolled at UNI. To accommodate the college’s tremendous growth, South Hall (later named Gilchrist Hall) was erected in 1883. It contained classrooms, living space, and a chapel.

Student life was fairly rigorous:
During the week the rising bell rang at 6 A.M. Breakfast was at 7:05 with assembly and roll call at 8:40. Classes and study ran from 9 until 12:15. Dinner was served at 12:40 and classes and study resumed at 1:40 and ran until 4. The time from 4:30 until 5:40 was for students to get exercise from walking or other activities. Tea was served at 6:05. Students studied during the evening and lights were to be extinguished by 10:30. Students could ask to leave school grounds on Saturday afternoons, but the remainder of the weekend was meant for study. Principal Gilchrist led UNI for ten years. During that time, hundreds of students were “educated and taught in all parts of Iowa.”

Today, the primary mission of the University of Northern Iowa is to educate undergraduate students. The university is “Iowa’s only public university that is distinguished by its emphasis on undergraduate education.”

Major Developments
The beginning of the twentieth century was difficult for UNI as the state legislature of Iowa decided that there was to be no “duplication” or “overlap in fields of study.” The Bachelor of Arts degree, which UNI offered, was deemed too similar to a comparative program at the state college at Iowa City. Because of this “challenge”, in 1909, UNI’s name was changed to the Iowa State Teachers College. This further solidified UNI’s role as an educator of teachers. UNI would be renamed again in 1961 as the State College of Iowa and would officially be named the University of Northern Iowa in 1967.

Facts and Tidbits
Since 1910, the cost of attending UNI has risen by over 500 percent. There were a total of 89,863 living alumni as of the fall of 2003. 12,824 students currently attend UNI. 8 men have served as the University’s Presidents. The current president, Dr. Robert Koob, is an alum of UNI. UNI is home to the UNI-Dome. When it opened in 1975, the UNI-Dome “was one of only four air-supported fabric-covered large permanent structures in the world.” In addition to the UNI-Dome, UNI has two unique residence halls. Bender and Dancer Hall tower contain 13 levels and are the tallest buildings in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

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4 thoughts on “History of UNI”

  1. In the middle to late 1890’s my grandmother attended NIU which I assume is now University of Northern Iowa?. She was there for about a year and resettled in Chicago, Illinois managing a millinery shop. She was married in 1899 and moved back to Iowa with her husband. Her people came to America in 1837 and I am putting the story in a family book. That is why I was curious about “NIU”.

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