The Transformational Sill Era 

In the summer of 1893, as fair-goers were flocking to Chicago, John M. B. Sill concluded his seven-year tenure as Principal of the Michigan State Normal School. Sill’s administration had been one of the most successful and consequential in the institution’s history; its accomplishments included a 50% increase in enrollment, the addition of scholar-teachers of national reputation to the faculty, and the development of a four-year college-level course of study.

But the timing of Sill’s resignation was not of his choosing. In his final report to the State Board of Education, he noted that he had declined reappointment because the Board had “deemed it best to place the executive charge of the school in other hands.” He then presented a four-page account of his stewardship of the Normal that respectfully but plainly implied that a change of leadership had not been needed. 

Sill’s account of his stewardship deserves to be read in full, but his main points can suffice to show the tremendous progress of the Normal under his leadership. Sill began, without undue modesty, by likening his administration to that of the Normal’s first Principal, Adonijah S. Welch:

“ has been my good fortune to stand at the helm of the school during a very conspicuously prosperous seven years of its history; its first seven consecutive years of peace and noteworthy progress since its early days were made illustrious by the name and the wise administration of Dr. A. S. Welch. I invite attention to several points as follows: 

  1. That there has been a large increase in the facilities for successful school work since 1886….
  2. The courses of study have been greatly strengthened and enlarged….
  3. The development of the Training School has fully kept pace with the best thought in this direction. The Kindergarten has been established and is now doing most excellent service in the promotion of the educational spirit….
  4. There now exist, between this school and the public schools of the State, relations far closer and more intimate and more advantageous to all concerned than were even thought in 1886….
  5. Public confidence in the school was never before nearly so pronounced and general…. 
  6. In the last decade, and notably during its later years, this school has won an acknowledged place in the very foremost rank of American Normal Schools. It can be fairly said that its reputation is national, and that it stands second to no institution of its kind in America…. Who, outside of Michigan, knew or cared much about the Michigan State Normal School during the second and third decades of its existence? 
  7. Physical training and culture is now, at last, in the way of receiving the attention and encouragement so justly its due…. 
  8. Although there has been a very large increase in the number of students since 1886, I feel it safe to say that the high moral tone of the school has been fully maintained….
  9.  Growth in public confidence as indicated by a phenomenal increase in attendance, is shown by a glance at tables I and II herewith presented…. 

In retrospect, the most consequential of Sill’s achievements was the development of a four-year college-level degree program. A critical step in this development was the introduction in 1889 of programs leading to the Bachelor of Pedagogics (B.Pd.) and Master of Pedagogics (M.Pd.) degrees. In 1894, the year following Sill’s departure, the Normal specified that the four years of coursework required for the B.Pd. had to be "of a grade that fairly entitles it to be considered collegiate work." With this tightening of policy, MSNS became the first American normal school to offer an authentic four-year college degree. As the 1896-7 catalog observed, that the B.Pd. "is a true college degree will appear from the fact that the graduate of an approved high school requires four years for its attainment." 

In the following decades, the nation’s other state normal schools–almost 200 in number–all followed Michigan State Normal’s lead in raising their teacher preparation curricula to four-year college-level programs, thereby elevating standards for the teaching profession. These normal schools subsequently evolved into the network of public comprehensive universities and colleges that in the mid-20th century extended higher education to millions of middle class and working class students. This transformation of American higher education was initiated at the Michigan State Normal School, under the leadership of Principal Sill. 

Despite this curricular progress, Sill decried “the idea that a Normal School should consider and call itself a college,” arguing that “the college idea” would undermine discipline, especially among younger students:

Students infected with this notion do not discriminate wisely. If they, many of them ninth and tenth grade students, are encouraged to consider themselves collegians, why should they not be expected to ape college tricks and manners and to duplicate college noise and disorder. This tendency on the part of some whose ambition outruns their judgment, to dignify themselves by assuming for the school a somewhat high sounding but altogether inappropriate name, is not only ridiculous but mischievous to a degree; and it makes proper Normal School discipline more difficult than it otherwise would be. A Normal School differs most essentially from a college. Its students come from schools of all kinds and conditions. Many of them have never seen a well ordered school. Their idea of proper discipline and order will come of their own experience in this school. It ought to set them an example of public school order. It is the first requisite of a Normal School that it set such an example, and no school is truly a Normal School unless it does set a worthy example of order and discipline. My experience teaches me that the propagation of the college idea makes against such proper order and piles up difficulties in the way of the executive. I believe that the best interests of the Normal School demand that you, as the controlling board, set your faces seriously against this particularly injurious manifestation of ambitious folly.

This counsel went unheeded, and in 1899 the Michigan legislature renamed the Normal as the Michigan State Normal College. Sill had initiated a march toward collegiate status that could not be contained.