History of Salem State University

Front Street photo

The 157-year evolution of Salem State University reflects the growth of its mission to provide a high-quality, student-centered public education to those who will become the next generation’s leaders. As the university has grown, so, too, has its mission; critical components of its goal today are to serve as a resource to advance the region’s cultural, social and economic development and to prepare a diverse community of learners to contribute responsibly and creatively to our global society. From its beginnings as a small teaching college for women to the large, diverse and comprehensive academic institution it is today, Salem State—while remaining true to the values of its founders—continues to seek a forward path, adapting to society’s changing needs while ensuring the intellectual and material well-being of the North Shore region of Massachusetts and beyond. 

Born of the humanitarian endeavors of Horace Mann, the institution originally known as Salem Normal School welcomed its first class of “young ladies who wish to prepare themselves for teaching” on September 14, 1854. Only the fourth such institution in Massachusetts and the tenth in America, it was welcomed by the city of Salem with open arms, with the city generously endowing its first site at One Broad Street. The city and school quickly developed a mutually beneficial partnership that continues to thrive to this day. 

Salem Normal School alumnae took community service well beyond Massachusetts’ borders. Charlotte Forten, the school’s first African-American student and a graduate of the class of 1856, was the first African-American teacher to journey south during the Civil War to teach freed slaves on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. By the end of the Civil War, Salem Normal School was becoming well established as a forerunner in public higher education. Its graduates instilled the values they learned at the normal school in elementary and high schools throughout Massachusetts, the country and even as far afield as Africa, the Middle East and Asia. As the demand for teachers increased nationwide, Salem Normal School prospered. 

Following a major renovation of the Broad Street building in 1871, the school’s capacity doubled to meet the increased demand for admission. In 1896, it moved to an expanded campus in South Salem, which finally allowed for the introduction of a model training school housed in the Sullivan Building. In 1898, the student body became coeducational, although male enrollment remained small until the introduction of a commercial program in 1908. The commercial curriculum, which combined professional business practice with pedagogical instruction, became the first of its kind in American public higher education. 

In 1921, the course of study was lengthened from two to four years, and in 1932, Salem Normal School became Salem Teachers College. To accommodate the burgeoning enrollment, expansion continued and flourished in the mid-1950s with the addition of new programs and the construction of new buildings, including the administration building in 1959 and Meier Hall in 1964. Later that decade, a liberal arts program was added. The first residence halls opened in 1966. Renamed Salem State College in 1968, new programs in business administration and nursing led to the acquisition of South Campus, including the former Loring Estate, in 1972. The Salem State Series, which began in 1982 with former President Gerald R. Ford as its first guest, continues to bring renowned speakers to the university each year in a public forum.

Over the next decades, the university responded to the growing needs of the Commonwealth, adding academic programs and majors while significantly expanding its physical plant. The era of the 1990s to the present has been marked by continued growth and includes the 1997 purchase of an adjacent 37.5-acre site that is now Salem State’s Central Campus. It currently houses the Bertolon School of Business, a recital hall, two green and sustainable residence halls, a dining facility, and a small business incubator that serves as a resource for the region. In 2010, the university purchased a former industrial property on Loring Avenue that currently houses music rehearsal space, internet technology services and additional university offices and services. Ground was broken in September 2010 for a four-story, energy conscious library and learning commons on North Campus, expected to be in operation by the end of 2012. 

On July 28, 2010, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick approved legislation that elevated Salem State College and eight other public institutions of higher education in the Commonwealth to universities. On October 28, 2010, Salem State College officially became Salem State University. The legislation, Chapter 189 of the Acts of 2010, may be read here

The past two decades have seen record-breaking increases in fundraising and endowment and innovative technological advances that include the transition to a wireless campus, the creation of the laptop initiative and an online, virtual library. Salem State University’s evolution into a respected, comprehensive institution of public higher education owes its continued success to the vision of its faculty, students and staff, the partnership of community and university, and the loyalties of alumni worldwide. The university currently serves over 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and continuing education students annually. One hundred and fifty-seven years later, Salem State continues to adhere to the tradition of excellence envisioned by its founders as it increases its impact on the region and within the Commonwealth.