Founded by legislative action on March 17, 1905, SMSU began as Missouri State Normal School, Fourth District.
Normal schools trained and prepared teachers to work in America’s schools, particularly those in rural areas, said Don Landon, professor emeritus at SMSU and author of “Daring to Excel: The First 100 Years of Southwest Missouri State University.”
“People who graduated from high school at that time were authorized to teach in elementary grades throughout the state of Missouri,” Landon said.
Teaching certification was provided on a county basis, and college degrees were not required. Aware of a need for better-educated teachers, officials across the state and nation began establishing normal schools in the mid-19th century.
In 1870, the state legislature divided Missouri into five districts with the intent to establish public normal schools in each one.
“Part of the function of the normal school, particularly in rural areas, was to enable people to complete their high school education and provide the additional two years for a bachelor of pedagogy degree,” Landon said.
With the degree, individuals could receive lifetime certification to teach in the state.
The legislature established the fourth public Normal School in Springfield after considering several locations in the 22-county southwestern district. When classes began in the summer of 1906, teenagers beginning their high school educations joined experienced teachers interested in completing a bachelor’s degree, Landon said.
Almost from the beginning, the school began to fill a need not only for teacher training, but also for higher education in general, he said.
“What was happening was that the southwest district was, in a sense, educationally deprived,” he said. “There were not many opportunities for higher education. The University of Missouri was available, but for many people in this area the cost of attending there made it out of their reach.”
Landon’s research indicates that students at the normal school came from poor families. By the 1914-15 school year, 82 percent of students came from families with incomes of less than $1,000 per year.
As enrollment increased, the school began to outgrow its normal school image and pressure mounted for it to become a four-year institution, Landon said. In July 1919, that occurred, and the name was changed to Southwest Missouri State Teachers College.
“It was called a state teachers college because its mission was still primarily the production of teachers,” Landon said. “But even then, a large proportion of the student body was in liberal arts.”
The period between the World Wars brought continued growth and change to the college. By the fall of 1943, 45 percent of the school’s entering freshman class said they did not want to teach. A name that reflected the school’s broader liberal arts focus was necessary, Landon said.
In 1946, the teaching reference was dropped and the school’s name was changed to Southwest Missouri State College.
“The name change was really probably too late,” Landon said. “By the early 1940s, a market for people in liberal arts and the professions had increased significantly. So the institution was renamed so it could reflect the kind of preparation students were receiving.”
The years after that change brought continuing evolution. The school’s enrollment grew rapidly, and its programs were expanded. The first stand-alone graduate degree was offered in 1966 and many students from outside the southwestern district attended the school.
That growth was reflected with another name change in 1972, Landon said. “College” was dropped in favor of “University,” bringing the school to its current name.
In 1995, with students enrolling from all 114 counties in Missouri, most of the states in the nation and several foreign countries, the legislature granted SMSU a statewide mission in public affairs.
“The public affairs mission says that the ultimate purpose of education is to enrich the collective life of the people,” Landon said. “It is not just to increase your personal interests, but to be aware of the civic interests of the state.”
The comprehensive emphasis on public service, expanding graduate programs and increased research financing were among factors that contributed to SMSU’s continued growth in the past decade, Landon said.
SMSU enrolls 20,846 students in Springfield and three branch campuses. It offers 43 graduate programs and employs 950 full- and part-time faculty. The school has outlived its regional association, said Landon, who worked at SMSU for 28 years before retiring in 1998.
“The similarities between us and the other regional universities have virtually disappeared,” he said. “We’re more than twice the size of most, we have more graduate programs and we serve a wider public. The name really doesn’t describe what the institution currently is.”