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NAU Through the Years

We’ve come a long way since 1899. Read about how we’ve changed since our inception.

Opening our doors

Northern Arizona University—or Arizona Normal College as it was named back then—opened its doors in 1899 with 23 students, two faculty members (one, Almon Nicholas Taylor, was also the school president), and two copies of Webster’s International Dictionary bound in sheepskin.

“Recruitment” was a little different then—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). In 1901, the first graduating class consisted of four women who received credentials to teach in the Arizona Territory.

The Depression

NAU enjoyed growth over the next 20 years, but even the university town of Flagstaff was not immune to the effects of the Great Depression. In fact, the only bank in town closed its doors in June of 1932.

The president at the time, Grady Gammage, believed that higher education could overcome the Depression, and that the university offered a critical service that would fare well in hard times. He was right.

After doubling down on his education stance and belief in NAU, Gammage presided over a Depression-era enrollment increase from 321 students in 1930 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, and in 1939, Ida Mae Fredericks became the first Hopi to receive a college degree.

World War II

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 to the war effort.

The college served as a site for the Navy’s V-12 training program, one of 150 schools selected from 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 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 (1957 to 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 60 years later, NAU has much to be proud of, including nationally ranked programs, high-research status, and emergence as a leader in sustainability, science, business, green building, and cultural arts.

Noted Flagstaff historian Dr. Platt Cline characterized NAU as an institution that has thrived due to strong leadership, the devotion of alumni and faculty, and community support.

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. NAU offers more than 150 combined undergraduate and graduate degree programs, all distinguished by an ongoing commitment to close student-faculty relationships.