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WSU celebrates its 175th anniversary

Date: 11/22/2013

By Carley Dangona

WESTFIELD – The recent controversy over the departure of Westfield State University (WSU) President Evan Dobelle has not dampened the school’s 175th anniversary celebration.

The next event, “The Classics on the Shelf: Literary Favorites Reimagined,” is an art display featuring the work of WSU faculty, students, alumni, and local artists.

The exhibit – on display at the Downtown Art Gallery, 105 Elm St. – runs from Nov. 26 to Dec. 21, with a reception on Dec. 5 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. For a complete list of happenings, visit the “Events” section of

In 1838, Horace Mann, called the “Father of American Public Education,” laid the foundation for the institution that later became WSU. The Westfield Normal School opened with a student body of 20 students. Fast-forward to 2013 and the school, which became a university in 2010, now caters to 5,000 students.

“As humble as the humble beginnings of our institution. I am honored to be entrusted with the responsibility of helping students to learn at a public institution of higher education,” Dr. Buzz Hoagland, professor and chair of the Biology Department and president of the WSU Chapter of the Massachusetts State College Association, said. “I earned all of my degrees at public colleges and universities, and I can’t envision a more fulfilling career than to teach at WSU.”

Dr. Ricki Kantrowitz, professor of psychology, said “I have been a professor at Westfield State for over 30 years. It has been exciting to see it grow in size (number of students, number of faculty members, number of buildings) and scope (types of majors, internship opportunities). We have been here for 175 years to educate the young people of Massachusetts and we will continue for years to come.”

Dr. L. Mara Dodge, historian and WSU professor, said, “As a historian, what is most exciting to me is the tremendous transformation and evolution of the institution over the last two centuries. This anniversary means remembering what we were when we opened as a ‘Normal School’ and appreciating how far we have come. It means remembering how fragile our beginnings were and honoring those who championed the cause of expanding public higher education over the centuries.”

Dodge explained that Mann was elected Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837. The following year, as a result of Mann’s forceful leadership, the state legislature voted funds to match a $10,000 gift from Edmund Dwight of Boston to fund a “three-year experiment” in “qualifying teachers for the common schools” (as grade schools were then called). Governor Edward Everett signed the legislation on April 19, 1838.

“The 1838 act stated, ‘The practicality and usefulness of institutions for the education of teachers should be brought to the test of experiment.’ This was a revolutionary concept – that principles of effective teaching could be taught; that pedagogy was a science and academic discipline in its own right. However, initially funding was only provided for three years. The curriculum was only intended to review the subjects that were taught in the first to eight grades so that future teachers would thoroughly know the material themselves. Meanwhile, Mann and those who championed these new institutions were under constant attack,” Dodge commented.

According to Dodge, “The normal school was a distinct institution designed primarily for training elementary school teachers of first to eighth grades. It was explicitly modeled after the Prussian, state supported-system of teacher training, as well as after the French ‘école normale,’ from which the ‘normal school’ name was derived. Its purpose was to establish teaching standards or ‘norms,’ hence the name. Normal schools were designed to provide standardized and regulated teacher preparation and to help produce a cohort of trained educators to meet the needs of the state’s rapidly growing elementary schools, referred to as ‘common schools’ at the time.”

Dodge explained the transition of the institution. She said, “Similar to its sister schools, it would take a century before WSU was transformed into a college-level institution. Many students could only afford to attend for one or two terms (semesters), although some were able to complete an advanced and academically demanding three-year program. The normal school did not fit today’s definition of an ‘institution of higher learning,’ in that it was not college-level. Instead, it was an alternative to a high school during the 19th century. A high school degree was not a requirement for admission until 1895 and a certificate was the only ‘degree’ conferred.”

She added, “From 1968 to 2010 the institution functioned as Westfield State College. As a liberal arts college it continued to expand throughout the 1980s and 1990s, adding many more new majors while developing both Master of Art and Master of Education programs in many fields. Today it offers 31 undergraduate majors and 43 concentrations. In 2010, the institution became Westfield State University. WSU’s dramatic growth and many transformations over the past two centuries are a testament to its many visionary leaders and their dedication to the cause of public higher education.”

In 2010, the Westfield State College, along with its sister institutions within the Commonwealth, became part of the State University System, and is now WSU.

Hoagland discussed the contributing factors to the university’s success. He said, “Our commitment to students and teaching is the major reason for WSU’s success. When our students succeed we succeed. When our students turn in a well-written paper, WSU is successful. When our students present the results of their original work at regional and national conferences, WSU is successful. When our students help local planning boards develop plans to protect their natural resources, WSU is successful. When our students graduate, WSU is successful. When are graduates become teachers, nurses, lawyers, politicians, scientists, artists, musicians, social workers, WSU is successful.”

Kantrowitz stated, “We have many committed faculty and staff who care deeply about teaching and mentoring the students who come to WSU. Many of these students can not afford a private education and WSU does all it can to provide them with the opportunities and experiences that they will need to be successful in their careers and in their lives. The development of our Honors Program, which is very competitive in attracting excellent students from throughout the state, and the expansion of international opportunities for our students have added to the attraction of our campus.”

Dodge added, “Thus, the hallmark of WSU’s ‘evolution’ has always been transformation and growth. Faculty, students and staff always had a vision of the institution becoming more than it was originally designed to be. We weren’t born with a silver spoon. We weren’t even a college at our founding.

“But through the combined efforts of faculty, students and staff we created and recreated new visions for ourselves as the decades evolved and society changed. Sometimes there was fierce resistance from the state legislature to implement these changes, but the vision of public colleges and universities serving all of the states’ residents won out,” she concluded.

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