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Celebrating 175 years of higher learning

Framingham State credits ability to change with the times

Framingham State University is the school’s 11th name since it was founded 175 years ago in Lexington.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff/File 2012

Framingham State University is the school’s 11th name since it was founded 175 years ago in Lexington.

A celebration is scheduled for Thursday morning on a tiny, well manicured lawn in Lexington to mark the 175th anniversary of Framingham State University in front of its original campus building.

The women-only Lexington Normal School, the creation of legendary educator and reformist Horace Mann, was founded in 1839 as a teacher training institution. Eleven name changes and two relocations later, Framingham State University is going strong, and its alumni and administrators attribute its staying power to the school’s ability to keep up with larger counterparts by changing with social tides, and always encouraging students to study outside the confines of their degree programs.

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The Lexington Normal School’s original curriculum, designed by Cyrus Peirce, its first headmaster, offered courses in the “common branches” — reading, writing, and arithmetic, along with geography, the art of teaching, philosophy, natural history, federal and state government, bookkeeping, vocal music, algebra, and geometry, and graduated its first class of 20 women teachers in 1840.

Last year, the school’s total undergraduate enrollment was 4,584, and graduate enrollment was 1,845. Those first students got their education for free if they lived in Massachusetts. The cost of tuition and fees for state residents last year was $8,080.

Today, “there’s no one subject at FSU that we would describe as the ‘crown jewel’ of our academic program,” school spokesman Daniel Magazu said. “Certainly we are still very well known for our education programs, but we offer a wide range of excellent programs in the arts and sciences. Business administration has one of the highest enrollments. And we offer unique and highly respected programs in food and nutrition, communication arts, nursing, fashion design and retailing.”

Robert A. Martin, the university’s interim president, said its academic programs tell only part of the story.

“I think what you’ll find with Framingham State is a consistent pattern of adjustment to students’ needs and embracing that original mission of educating educators, but expanding that mission and philosophies to other disciplines,” Martin said.

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The achievements of some of the school’s alumni illustrate the success of this approach.

Among the school’s most notable alumni is Christa McAuliffe, a Boston native who graduated from Framingham State College in 1970 with a bachelor of arts degree in education and history. McAuliffe was a popular high school history teacher in New Hampshire, but is best known for being chosen by NASA from among 11,000 applicants to be the first participant in its Teacher in Space Project in 1985. McAuliffe was part of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded minutes after takeoff on Jan. 28, 1986, killing all on board.

Ruth Graves Wakefield, a member of the Framingham State Normal School’s class of 1924, worked as a dietician and educator after she graduated. But she’s best known for inventing the chocolate chip cookie, a favorite of the guests at the Toll House Inn, which she owned with her husband, Kenneth, in Whitman.

Virginia native Olivia A. Davidson was a member of the Framingham State Normal School class of 1881, after graduating from the Hampton Institute in her home state in1879. Davidson, the daughter of a freed slave and a free black woman, started her career in education teaching disenfranchised students, including Native Americans, in Virginia, and went on to cofound the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with her future husband, Booker T. Washington.

As Framingham State prepares to welcome F. Javier Cevallos, former president of Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, as its 16th president, Martin said, it is prepared to continue growing and evolving.

In the short-term, the school’s five-year strategic plan includes keeping tuition costs below the state university average; increasing student financial aid by more than $2 million per year; ensuring that degree programs are structured in a way that allows for graduation in four years; developing and growing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degree programs; and adapting programs to global competency and labor force needs.

“What won’t be lost in all of this is what has been at the heart of our success over the years — our teacher-scholar model,” Martin said. “It has allowed instructors and students to teach and learn by drawing on their real-life experiences, and by integrating real-world experience into academic lessons.”

Paul LeBlanc, Framingham State College class of 1980, is president of Southern New Hampshire University, a private nonprofit school hailed by academics and the business community alike as a model of managing the costs of higher education. He echoed Martin’s sentiments, describing his alma mater as “unique for its atmosphere.”

“For all my academic experiences, I found Framingham State to be the most transformative in my life,” LeBlanc said.

It’s high praise from a man who has also earned a master’s degree from Boston College and a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“Education was obviously a driving force on campus, both in terms of a degree program and a philosophy,” LeBlanc said. “On the philosophical side we were always encouraged to learn as much as we could, regardless of what we were studying.”

LeBlanc, who has also been president of Marlboro College in Vermont and was once director of a technology startup for the Houghton Mifflin Publishing Co., said students and faculty at Framingham State were close.

“To this day, I remain close to friends and mentors — some of whom are still there — who taught me,” he said. “I can’t emphasize enough how much that personal relationship makes a difference in a young person’s willingness to learn, and their belief in their abilities.”

James H. Burnett III can be reached at james.burnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBurnett.
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