The University of North Texas is a multipurpose university on 500 acres in Denton, a northern suburb of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. The school was founded by Joshua C. Chilton as a private college in 1890, when Denton was a rural, agricultural hamlet of 2,500. With the help of local civic leaders, Chilton established Texas Normal College and Teachers' Training Institute to prepare teachers and educate business and professional men for Texas. The first classes were held on September 16, 1890, on the second floor of the B. J. Wilson hardware store, on the northwest corner of the Denton county courthouse square. Chilton and the citizens who formed the corporation that operated the school did not receive a state charter until June 1891. By then the college occupied a permanent campus, purchased by a group of Dentonites called the syndicate, at the corner of Hickory and Avenue B streets. The city government financed and constructed the first building, and nearly 185 students of various ages attended during the first year. Grave financial difficulties confronted the institution during its first decade. To meet problems of funding, the original curriculum was shortened and a less qualified professoriate employed. John J. Crumley succeeded Chilton as president of the college in 1893, and he and state Senator Emory C. Smith of Denton secured the right for the college to confer state teaching certificates. Wording in the Texas law granting this power accidentally changed the school's name to North Texas Normal College. After Crumley left to head another normal college in Tennessee, Menter B. Terrill leased NTNC from the city and became the institution's third president. Under Terrill, North Texas enjoyed its greatest financial success while a private college. He enrolled a large number of precollege-age pupils from the surrounding area in a preparatory course of study, but also awarded 268 teaching certificates and twenty-four bachelor's degrees during his presidency. Despite Terrill's accomplishments, Denton leaders were interested in a state owned and operated college for their city. In 1899 Charles V. Terrell, state senator from Decatur, introduced the bill in the Texas legislature for a state charter. The town fathers' ambitions were realized when the legislature approved and Governor Joseph D. Sayers signed the bill into law on March 31, 1899. Money to fund North Texas Normal College was not appropriated until two years later. By then Joel S. Kendall had become the school's chief executive officer. Kendall, who had been State Superintendent of Public Instruction, refused to use the word "college," which he believed was pretentious for the new state institution. He sought to raise teacher preparation standards, but his untimely death in 1906 limited his success in this regard.
William H. Bruce, a mathematician, assumed the presidency. Through his efforts North Texas achieved senior college status and conferred bachelor's degrees by 1917. Under Bruce, teacher training was emphasized, and a teachers' demonstration school, or laboratory school, was begun. Enrollment climbed, the curriculum expanded, new buildings were erected, and student life developed in a recognizable pattern. Although sporting teams had existed since 1902, when a boys' football team and a girls' basketball team were started, a regularized, intercollegiate program was not begun until J. W. "Dad" Pender became director of athletics in 1913. By the time Bruce retired in 1923 enrollment had reached 4,736, and North Texas had become the largest teacher training institution in the southwestern United States. By then it had received membership in the Association of Texas Colleges and Universities (1919) and the American Association of Teachers Colleges and Universities (1921), and had its name changed to North Texas State Teachers College at Denton (1923). The school was accredited by the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the Southern States in 1925. During the 1920s enrollment continued to rise, and the faculty improved their credentials. Beginning with the stock market collapse in 1929 and through the mid-1930s funding declined, salaries slumped, and student attendance dipped. After a brief upsurge in enrollment during the late 1930s, World War II began, and enrollment fell once more, professors left to serve in the Armed Forces, and intercollegiate sports were temporarily suspended. The period immediately after 1945 was one of renewal and expansion to meet pent-up wartime demand. Two men served as presidents during these years: Robert L. Marquis, 1923–34, and W. J. McConnell, 1934–51. Marquis was the first native Texan to become president. His most significant accomplishment was an effort toward a graduate program for the school, which was achieved after his death. Master's degree students first enrolled in September 1935.
A number of important changes took place during McConnell's presidency. The college received recognition by the Association of American Universities (1940), and the music department, which began to achieve eminence, became a member of the National Association of Schools of Music (1941). The most important change, however, was initiated by the reorganization committee report in 1945. The committee, composed of professors O. J. Curry (business), Lewis W. Newton (history), and Floyd Stovall (English), suggested that NT offer a general liberal arts education in addition to developing a number of professional schools. Guided by the report, school officials established several new divisions, including the college of arts and sciences; schools of music, business administration, education, home economics; and the graduate school. The committee also recommended that the word, "teachers," be dropped from the official name. In 1949 the school's name was changed to North Texas State College, and it was given its own board of regents. Since 1911 it had been governed with other state teachers colleges by a common board. In 1951 J. C. Matthews became president. He helped secure the right to offer doctoral education, and the first doctorate was conferred in 1953. In response to United States federal court actions, Matthews supervised a smooth transition from racial segregation to integration on campus. By the summer of 1956 the school newspaper reported that fifty to seventy-five African Americans were attending North Texas State. It also became one of the first southern institutions of higher education to integrate its sports program.
On August 29, 1961, the college became North Texas State University, a formal recognition of the changes that had taken place during the preceding fifteen years. Enrollment in the fall semester that year was 8,844, and it continued to climb during the next two decades. Several faculty members with national reputations joined the faculty. Hiram Friedsam, recognized for his work in gerontology, established the Center for Aging; Chester Newland helped pioneer education for city managers and other public officials; Leon Breeden became director of the highly successful One O'Clock Lab Band and the school's well-known jazz program; Arthur Sampley, variously English professor, librarian, and university vice president, served as Texas's poet laureate and received two Edwin Markham awards (1964, 1965) and the James Joyce Award (1969) from the Poetry Society of America. Following Matthews's retirement, John J. Kamerick became president in 1968. His brief tenure at North Texas was clouded by minor controversies. His most notable contributions were in meeting the challenges of student unrest during the Vietnam War and in providing for student and faculty participation in university governance. His successor, C. C. Nolen, worked to draw the university into the life of the DFW metropolitan area and led the effort that brought the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine under the NT board of regents in 1975. He also supervised a major building program that had been planned during the Matthews administration. When Nolen took office in 1971, fall enrollment reached 15,579. Faculty research activity and the implementation of several doctoral degree programs encouraged growth in the library, which accessioned its one millionth volume in 1974. The Nolen administration ended under a cloud of suspicion just before a general investigation committee of the Texas legislature began inquiries into charges of financial irregularities in 1979. Many believed the problems were essentially political in nature. The presidency was in flux for several years after Nolen. Following a brief acting presidency by John Carter, who had been vice president for fiscal affairs, Frank E. Vandiver, a nationally recognized historian, spent one year in office. Vandiver was the first chief executive to be given the title of chancellor. He was replaced by Howard Smith, former vice president for academic affairs, who served as acting president. Finally, in 1982 Alfred F. Hurley, a retired Air Force brigadier general, became chancellor and president. He had been professor of history at the United States Air Force Academy and was vice president for administrative affairs at North Texas State at the time of his appointment. Enrollment that fall was 18,782. As leader of what became the school's centennial administration, Hurley developed a challenging agenda. In 1986 the Governor's Select Committee on Higher Education designated North Texas State an "emerging national research university." Since then a number of notable academic programs have been developed or strengthened, including the Hotel and Restaurant Management Program, the Professional Development Institute, the Classic Learning Core, the Information Systems Research Center, the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, the Center for Texas Studies, and the Institute of Applied Sciences. Varied scholarly journals are edited and published by faculty members, some by the university press. The institution's name was changed for the seventh time in May 1988, when it became the University of North Texas. In 1992 the university was elected to full membership in the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges. In the 2000–2001 school year, enrollment at the university was about 27,000, with a faculty of more than 1,000. Norval F. Pohl became the university's thirteenth president in 2000.