Northeastern History

A story steeped in opportunity, innovation, and evolution

Since its founding in 1898, Northeastern University has evolved from a parochial university, serving mostly a local population of recent immigrants, to the largest private national research university in Boston proper, offering a comprehensive range of programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in six undergraduate colleges and eight graduate and professional schools. Located in the heart of Boston, near the financial district and in the biomedical research corridor, Northeastern enrolls more than 15,000 undergraduate and 5,000 graduate students.

Roots at the YMCA

Northeastern's roots hark back to a well-known institution: the YMCA. At the end of the 19th century, more than half of Boston's population were either immigrants or first-generation Americans. Hard-working and industrious, they sought to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Chief among the city's institutions committed to helping these people achieve their dreams was the Boston YMCA.

Founded in 1851 in London, the Young Men's Christian Association chose Boston as the location of its first American branch. In its articles of incorporation, the Boston YMCA announced that it would have "a committee on lectures, whose duty it is to procure teachers and lecturers for any private classes that may be formed by the members." These lectures proved to be immediately popular, drawing large numbers of young men seeking self-improvement.

Among those attending was the young Dwight L. Moody, the future evangelist. With great joy, he wrote home to his brothers that he now had a place to go where he could read "all the books I want free from expense." According to Moody, the Boston YMCA was a place where "smart men from Boston lecture." Moody's enthusiasm was infectious, and soon the YMCA became a place where young men gathered to hear lectures on literature, history, music, and any number of other subjects intended to help improve their lives.

The Birth of Northeastern

Building on this success, the directors of the YMCA took a bold step in May 1896, when they organized the "Evening Institute for Young Men." Frank Palmer Speare, a well-known teacher and principal with considerable experience in the public schools, was hired as the institute's director. Two years later, under Speare's direction, the YMCA advertised the creation of the "Department of Law of the Boston YMCA." On Monday evening, October 3, 1898, Robert Gray Dodge convened the first class. The program became an immediate success. This new phase in the YMCA marked the birth of Northeastern University. Later, Speare would remark, "We started with an eraser and two sticks of chalk."

Soon the YMCA was offering a variety of programs. The Automobile School was opened in 1903, offering courses to ladies and gentlemen. The following year, the School of Law was incorporated and granted the authority to award LLB degrees. In the same year, the Evening Polytechnic School began offering courses in art, architecture, navigation, surveying, mathematics, and other subjects. The School of Commerce and Finance began instruction in 1907 for those interested in a career in business.

As demand rose, Speare moved to expand the programs, and in 1909 the day colleges commenced. In that same year, the Evening Polytechnic School announced "Co-operative Engineering Courses," a new program pioneered at the University of Cincinnati, in which students would have an opportunity to apply classroom knowledge in the workplace.

With their only building on the corner of Boylston and Berkeley streets filled to overflowing, the YMCA's directors began to plan for new headquarters. But before they could begin construction on a new building, intended for a site near the existing one, fire destroyed the YMCA.

A New Home

While programs were held in rented space all over the city, the directors voted to construct a new home on Huntington Avenue, next to the American League baseball field. The cornerstone was laid by President William Howard Taft, and in 1913 the new building opened.

In recognition of the growth of the academic programs, Northeastern College was incorporated in 1916. Six years later, by permission of the Massachusetts General Court, its name was changed to Northeastern University of the Boston Young Men's Christian Association.

Northeastern continued to grow, and this required more space. The Boston Red Sox had left their field on Huntington Avenue for their new stadium in the Fenway in 1912. Since that time, the field area had been used for evangelist Billy Sunday's Tabernacle, visiting circuses and rodeos, and other events. Recognizing the pressing need for space that could only be provided by a building devoted exclusively to college use, Speare urged Northeastern to purchase this property.

Northeastern did so in 1929. Unfortunately, the stock market crash in October of that year delayed plans for construction. Finally, in 1934, the Boston architectural firm Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbott was awarded the contract to design Richards Hall. Using what was to become the campus signature-white brick-Shepley, Bulfinch presented a building neoclassical in symmetry and proportions. Opened in 1938, Richards Hall was the first building to appear on the front quadrangle.

Northeastern Claims Its Own Identity

As the campus grew, so did Northeastern's programs. In 1935, the College of Liberal Arts was added, a clear indication that Northeastern was on its way to becoming a great university. As Northeastern expanded, it sought its own identity separate from the YMCA. For example, in the same year the College of Liberal Arts was created, the words "of the Boston Young Men's Christian Association" were eliminated from the corporate name "Northeastern University." Two years later, the Northeastern University Corporation was established. Of the corporation's seventy-four members, thirty-one would serve as trustees. No more than eight trustees could also be directors of the YMCA. Finally, in 1948, a revision of the University Charter and Bylaws made Northeastern completely separate from the YMCA.

In 1940, Speare stepped down as president and was replaced by Carl Stephens Ell, dean of the College of Engineering. President Ell had joined Northeastern in 1910 as an engineering instructor and sometime basketball coach. Under his leadership, Northeastern first admitted women to the full-time day programs and then adjusted to the massive changes in American higher education that followed World War II.

A Period of Rapid Growth

In the post-war world, Northeastern, like its sister institutions, saw a phenomenal increase in the numbers of people coming to college. The University expanded its programs to accommodate more and increasingly diverse students. In rapid succession, additional programs and colleges were established: College of Education, 1953; University College, 1960; College of Pharmacy, 1962; College of Nursing, 1964; Boston Bouvé College, 1964; College of Criminal Justice, 1967; and College of Computer Science, 1982.

Again, expansion of programs brought with it a massive building program. Ell retired as president in 1959, succeeded by Asa S. Knowles, who continued and accelerated the University's expansion. Suburban properties in Weston, Nahant, and Burlington were acquired. The Boston campus, too, blossomed with new buildings, including a variety of undergraduate dormitories opened to accommodate the increasing number of residential students arriving on what had hitherto been primarily a commuter campus.

When Knowles retired in 1975, he was succeeded by Kenneth G. Ryder, who had begun his career at Northeastern as a member of the History department and had risen through the ranks to become executive vice president before his election as president. Under his leadership, the University expanded and enriched its programs, particularly in the areas of arts and humanities. President Ryder also was committed to increased and improved facilities. He acquired the suburban campus in Dedham, and under his direction, plans were finalized for the Snell Library. Not only were buildings constructed but, at his insistence, the campus itself took on a more gracious and pleasant aspect resulting from the planting of trees, shrubs, and flowers, and the creation of small parks. Through the initiation and sponsorship of a variety of special programs, the Ryder years were also a time when Northeastern displayed a growing commitment to the city and its neighborhoods.

In 1989, Ryder stepped down as the fourth president of the University. He was succeeded by John A. Curry, Northeastern's executive vice president and its first alumnus to become president. With President Curry in charge, the University embarked on a series of ambitious undertakings, including a new science and engineering research center, a state-of-the-art classroom building, a recreation complex, and several new graduate and undergraduate programs.

To support these new ventures, Curry led the University in the largest and most successful fundraising campaign in its history. His years of leadership also featured significant restructuring as the University prepared to enter its second century.

A Renewed Sense of Mission

In June 1996, after four decades of service, Curry retired from Northeastern. To succeed him, the trustees elected Richard M. Freeland as the University's sixth president. A distinguished historian and administrator, President Freeland brought to the University a renewed sense of energy and mission. He defined a vision for carrying Northeastern into the next century. Freeland characterized the themes of Northeastern's excellence as a national research university that is student-centered, practice-oriented, and urban. He believed that these concepts evoke the accomplishments of our past while pointing us toward new frontiers of achievement.

After ten years, President Freeland stepped down. In March 2007, Dr. Joseph E. Aoun was inaugurated as Northeastern's seventh president. Last fall, under the leadership of President Aoun, the University embarked on a planning process that involved reflecting on the institution's purpose and envisioning its future. Together the Northeastern community drafted a new Mission Statement and Academic Plan. On June 8, 2007, the plan was officially adopted by the Board of Trustees.

At the heart of this plan is a commitment to support and grow Northeastern's academic enterprise in its entirety. The new mission statement reflects this commitment and the core values of the University:

To educate students for a life of fulfillment and accomplishment.
To create and translate knowledge to meet global and societal needs.

As a community of scholars under this new Academic Plan, Northeastern seeks to create knowledge. As a community of globally mindful citizens, Northeastern is committed to using that knowledge to solve societal problems. The University strives to build a vibrant and diverse community, characterized by collaboration, creativity, an unwavering commitment to excellence and an equally unwavering commitment to exhibiting respect for one other. Northeastern aspires to be a model for what our society can be.

As Northeastern looks forward for ways to achieve that goal, it can look back to its first hundred years with pride and a hearty sense of "well done."