Our history


The beginnings  

Northern Arizona University opened its doors in 1899 with 23 students, one professor, and two copies of Webster's International Dictionary bound in sheepskin. The first president scoured the countryside in horse and buggy seeking students to fill the classrooms of the single school building (now known as Old Main).

Since those humble beginnings, the university has continued to grow, undergoing several name changes in accordance with expansions, added degree programs, and achieving university status.

The depression and WWII

The university was not immune to the effects of the Great Depression. The only bank in town closed its doors in June 1932. However, the President  at the time, Grady Gammage, recognized that higher education was a "depression industry," one that fared well in hard times—and he was right.

Enrollment at the university rose during the Depression from 321 students during the 1929-1930 academic year to 535 by 1940.

Many significant historical events also occurred during these hard times: In 1937, graduate work at the university became possible with the addition of the master of arts in education degree, and in 1939, Ida Mae Fredericks became the first Hopi to receive a college degree.

The entry of the United States into World War II precipitated a large drop in enrollment as college-age men entered the armed services. By the 1944-1945 academic year, just 161 students attended class on the Flagstaff campus, yet the university survived by making valuable contributions toward the war effort.

The university served as a site for the Navy's V-12 training program, one of 150 schools selected from among 1,600 contenders. The Campus Civilian Defense Program maintained an aircraft spotting post, one of only 84 such posts in the United States. The university even banned all gas-powered vehicles and those with rubber tires from the Homecoming Parade in 1942, to demonstrate its dedication to rationing programs.

Becoming a university 

In the 1950s, the university entered a period of exceptional growth. Students could now earn an education specialist degree as well as master’s degrees in the arts and sciences. Much of the expansion can be attributed to Dr. J. Lawrence Walkup, who has the distinction of serving the longest term as President (December 21, 1957 to June 30, 1979).

Building on this growth, the road to becoming a university began with the creation of the forestry program in 1958 and increased research activities. Pleased with the array of quality academic programs and ever-growing student body, the Arizona Board of Regents recommended that the then Arizona State College become Northern Arizona University (NAU), effective May 1, 1966.

Northern Arizona University today

More than 40 years later, NAU has a lot to be proud of, including its nationally ranked programs, its high-research status, and its emergence as a leader in sustainability, science, business, green building, and cultural arts.

Noted Flagstaff historian Dr. Platt Cline has characterized NAU as an institution that has thrived throughout the years due to our strong leadership, the devotion of former students and faculty, and community support for the school's success.

Empowered by the Arizona Board of Regents to provide educational opportunities statewide, the university now serves students at the Flagstaff campus, multiple statewide locations, and online—offering nearly 150 combined undergraduate and graduate degree programs, all distinguished by an ongoing commitment to close student-faculty relationships.