Today, The University of Wisconsin System consists of 11 four-year campuses that educate over 165,000 students. But this extensive institution grew from very modest beginnings. Most of the universities that formed the UW system began as one-building teacher’s colleges, and for the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, the fifth largest of the UW schools, humble beginnings were the foundation of this now prospering institution.
In 1916, Eau Claire State Normal School was founded to train high school graduates to be teachers, by educating them in the norms of pedagogy and curriculum. Eau Claire State Normal School consisted of 2 buildings, “Old Main”, and Park Laboratory School, an elementary school operated in association with Eau Claire Normal, that was used for educational research, training of future teachers, and professional development of working teachers. Eau Claire Normal School’s Park Laboratory was distinctive for having one-way windows and an upper-level observation deck, by means of which faculty could make classroom observations of teaching. Prior to the school opening, there was an extensive search to find a founding president for the new normal school, who would in turn choose the initial faculty. After much discussion by the search committee headed by the resident regent of the area, Harvey A. Schofield was chosen to lead the school. On September 18, 1916, 158 students, most of them women, reported for the first day of classes at the new Eau Claire State Normal School. Almost half of the students came from the city of Eau Claire itself.
Eau Claire State Normal School faced a series of ordeals during its first quarter century, some anticipated, some not. Normal Schools were originally created in the 1830’s in Massachusetts, and as Eau Claire was one of the last 5 to be built anywhere the country, a debate was initiated in 1923 in the Wisconsin legislature, questioning if Eau Claire Normal’s existence was still necessary. In an effort to remain open and following a nationwide trend by normal schools to put themselves on a more equal footing with existing four-year colleges that granted bachelor’s degrees, Eau Claire Normal transformed itself into a teacher’s college and began offering longer, more comprehensive degree programs. In 1927, the name of the college was officially changed to Eau Claire State Teachers College and began offering its new programs.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, Eau Claire would go through some profound changes as an educational institution. The college would come under new leadership following President Schofield’s almost 40-year residency. The college also saw a significant rise in enrollment and began to widen its scope beyond just education of future teachers. In 1951, the Wisconsin Board of Regents authorized the school to offer Bachelor of Arts and science degrees in liberal arts; subsequently, the name of the school was changed to the Wisconsin State College at Eau Claire.
During the 1960’s, the university saw further expansion to meet the needs of an ever-growing student population. Science and art buildings were erected, and several dormitories were either built or expanded upon, and the university began to market itself more aggressively due to increased competition from surrounding campuses. Eau Claire’s nickname – “Wisconsin’s Most Beautiful Campus” – was first developed during this time. In 1964, the Board of Regents gave university standing to the state colleges, and the institution at Eau Claire was renamed Wisconsin State University – Eau Claire. The 1960’s are remembered as a time of “flowering of excellence on the campus.”
In 1971, the name of the institution was changed once again to the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire following the merger of the Wisconsin State University System and the University of Wisconsin System. In subsequent years, the University would solidify its tradition as a liberal arts campus. Currently, the University’s stated mission is to provide “rigorous undergraduate liberal education” alongside “distinctive professional and graduate programs that build on and strengthen our proud tradition of liberal education.” Since the 1971 merger, Eau Claire has expanded its course offerings, added more faculty and students, and enlarged campus grounds. The original Old Main building still stands as a center point of campus today, now renamed Schofield Hall after the first president.
Written by Bailey Carruthers, October 2021.
Robert J. Gough and James W. Oberly, Building Excellence: University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, 1916 – 2016. Eau Claire, WI: UW-Eau Claire, 2016
Hilda R. Carter; John R. Jenswold. “The Higher Learning.” The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire: A History, 1916-1976.: 90.
“Mission Statement of the University, Academic Affairs.” Uwec.edu.