When NC State University was founded in 1887, the school embodied ideals that were rapidly transforming the field of higher education. Chief among them was the belief that colleges should not be reserved for a select few and that the children of farmers, mechanics and other workers should have access to the opportunities and benefits of higher education. A new generation of progressive thinkers founded the college, known then as the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.
No organization did more to advance the cause of this new institution than the Watauga Club, a reform-minded group of lawyers, teachers, doctors and businessmen in Raleigh — all of them younger than 30. Watauga Club member Charles W. Dabney, who wrote the legislation creating the new institution, exemplified the changes sweeping the South in the 1880s. The son of a Calvinist theologian who professed skepticism of modern science, Dabney earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and built a reputation as one of the foremost agricultural scientists in the nation.
Today we honor NC State’s founders — men like Dabney, William J. Peele and Walter Hines Page — not just for their vision, but also because they lived at a time when considerable foresight, skill and courage were required to rally public support for higher education.
Growth and Extension
NC State was established under the auspices of the federal Morrill Act of 1862, which allowed the U.S. government to donate federally owned land to the states for the purpose of establishing colleges that would teach “agriculture and the mechanic arts.” The brand-new school held its first classes in the fall of 1889 with 72 students, six faculty members and one building. In the early 1900s, a new federal program sparked an era of outreach work at the college. The 1914 passage of the Smith-Lever Act created an educational partnership between land-grant colleges and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under this new cooperative extension program, the colleges would send staff to meet with farmers around the state and provide practical agricultural instruction. This led North Carolina to establish the Cooperative Agricultural Extension Service (now the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service) at NC State.
New Name, New Focus
By the 1920s, North Carolina State College (as the school was then known) was beginning to grow beyond its original agricultural and mechanical focus, adding schools of engineering, textiles, education and business, as well as a graduate school. The Depression posed economic challenges for higher education throughout the nation, and State College was no exception. As the crisis slowly eased, the college renewed its growth, adding students and developing new programs until the onset of World War II. State College contributed to the war effort by hosting a number of military detachments and training exercises and by refitting the work of several departments and programs to military and defense purposes.
The campus experienced unparalleled growth during the postwar years as the G.I. Bill brought thousands of former servicemen to campus. In the following decades, the college continued to expand its curricula, creating schools of design, forestry, physical and mathematical sciences, and humanities and social sciences. During these years of growth, the name was changed again, this time to North Carolina State University at Raleigh—the university’s current official name.
The university celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1987, which also saw the creation of Centennial Campus, bringing together academic, corporate, government and nonprofit leaders to partner in teaching, research and economic development.
A Leading Research Enterprise
NC State has developed into a vital educational and economic resource, with more than 34,000 students and 8,000 faculty and staff. A wealth of university outreach and extension programs continue to provide services and education to all sectors of the state’s economy and its citizens. Consistently ranked a best value among the nation’s public universities, NC State — the state’s largest university — is an active, vital part of North Carolina life. Today, more than 128 years after its founding, NC State continues to follow its original mission: opening the doors of higher education to the citizens of North Carolina and providing teaching, research and extension that strengthen the state and its economy.