What is now Kean University began in April 1855 as a Saturday morning school for the teachers of the city of Newark. Its founder, Stephen Congar, Newark’s superintendent of Schools, believed that the continued improvement of the Newark schools depended upon quality teaching, and he envisioned an academy to improve the skills of teachers that he correctly viewed as lacking in formal training. With this beginning, Newark became the site of the first Normal School created in New Jersey, and one of the earliest in the nation.
The first class numbered 85 students, mostly women and primarily graduates of Newark High School; most were white, Protestant, and middle class. This would change as the post-Civil War years brought increasing numbers of Catholics, largely the children of immigrants. The evolution of Newark Normal School into what eventually would become Kean University was thus marked by growing ethnic diversity over the next 150 years.
The first Normal School classes met in the High School building, then located on Washington and Linden Streets. In 1878, the Normal School moved to the Market Street School, and then back to the High School in 1899. In 1913, now under state control and renamed the New Jersey State Normal School at Newark, it opened in a new building at Fourth Street and Belleville Avenue (later Broadway). Renamed the New Jersey State Teachers College at Newark in 1937, the College remained in the Broadway building until 1958, when it moved to its present location in Union, New Jersey.
World War II brought sweeping changes to the College. Some 300 students—men and women—served in the armed forces; seven died on active duty. Those who came home found the College already in transition; although what they could not know was that the accelerating changes would alter the very nature of the institution. Its students, faculty, and curriculum would become more diverse, and its physical look would change beyond all recognition.
The student body changed dramatically. One young veteran, writing home from occupied Germany, predicted that the College would see a lot more men’s faces after the war. He was right. Using the education benefits offered under the GI Bill of Rights, men applied at unprecedented levels—and not all of them were white. African-American students, including returning veterans, gradually increased their presence, opening doors for future cohorts of minority students.
The “Baby Boom” generated a huge demand for new teachers. But not everyone wanted to teach. Haltingly at first, but then rapidly, the curriculum broadened to encompass the liberal arts and sciences, the professions, and graduate education. The College maintained its focus on teacher education, but was on its way to becoming a comprehensive institution. By the early 1950s, post-war growth also had strained facilities to the breaking point, and with no room to expand in Newark, the College had to seek new quarters. The purchase of the Green Lane Farm in Union Township allowed a new campus opened in 1958—and with a touch of irony, the institution changed its name to Newark State College the following year. It had been a whirlwind period.
Having successfully presided over the move to Union, President Eugene Wilkins retired in 1969, passing the helm to Dr. Nathan Weiss. Weiss was a great transitional president, committed to wide access to higher education, especially for first-generation college students, while fostering vastly expanded new programs in business, health care, the sciences, and academic and administrative computing. He led the College to its status as a truly multi-purpose institution—and institutional change brought a name change in 1973, to Kean College of New Jersey.
Kean College mirrored the changing American scene. The presidency of Dr. Elsa Gomez (1989-94), exemplified the expanding roles of women in public life, as did the growing number of women faculty members and administrators, and even the success of women’s athletics! From a hesitant start, the ranks of minority faculty grew, and by the 1990s, the student body was among the most diverse in New Jersey. Academic quality improved as well: more faculty pursued teaching innovations, original scholarship and research, and external grants and funding. There were controversies along the way—progress is never without complications—but the institution had attained a new level of academic and public recognition.
University status came in 1997, brought to fruition under President Ronald L. Applbaum. A graduate school, now the Nathan Weiss Graduate College, followed. University status was a recognition of years of progressive service, achievement, and change—but the central mission of public service and quality and affordable education has remained. President Dawood Farahi, the institution’s 17th chief executive, has pledged himself to it, and especially the time-honored role of support for New Jersey’s public schools. Kean University began in public service and as a gateway to opportunity, and, far from its Normal School roots, it continues in both traditions.