Northern Illinois University was founded as part of the expansion of the normal school program established in 1857 in Normal, Illinois. In 1895, the state legislature created a Board of Trustees for the governance of the Northern Illinois State Normal School, which would grow into what is today known as NIU.
In July 1917, the Illinois Senate consolidated the boards of trustees for the five state normal schools (Eastern Illinois State Normal School, Illinois State Normal School, Northern Illinois State Normal School, Southern Illinois State Normal University, and Western Illinois State Normal School) into one state Normal School Board.
Over the next fifty-eight years, the school and the governing board changed their names several times. In 1921, the legislature gave the institution the name Northern Illinois State Teachers College and empowered it to award the four-year Bachelor of Education degree. In 1941, the Normal School Board changed its name to the Teachers College Board. In 1951 the Teachers College Board authorized the college to grant the degree Master of Science in Education, and the institution's Graduate School was established. On July 1, 1955, the state legislature renamed the college Northern Illinois State College and authorized the college to broaden its educational services by offering academic work in areas other than teacher education. The Teachers College Board granted permission for the college to add curricula leading to the degrees Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science. On July 1, 1957, the Seventieth General Assembly renamed Northern Illinois State College as Northern Illinois University in recognition of its expanded status as a liberal arts university.
In 1965, the Illinois State Teachers College Board became the Board of Governors of State Colleges and Universities and was reorganized to include Northeastern University, Governor's State, and Chicago State Universities. In 1967 authority for Northern Illinois University, Illinois State University, and Sangamon State University were passed on to a newly formed Board of Regents. In 1984, the Board of Regents created the position of Chancellor for the three regent universities, to act as a chief executive for all three schools; the first person appointed chancellor was then-NIU President William R. Monat. The Board of Regents and the Chancellor governed the three Regency universities until the end of 1995. On January 1, 1996, authority for each of the three regency universities was transferred to three independent Boards of Trustees, each concerned solely with one university.