Fitchburg State University was founded as the State Normal School in Fitchburg in 1894 by the state legislature. Its first President was John G. Thompson (President 1895–1920). Initially a secondary-education school for women (coeducation arrived in 1911), the Normal School was not authorized to grant bachelor's degrees until 1930, after the presidency of William D. Parkinson (1920–1927), and during Dr. Charles M. Herlihy's (1927–1945) tenure. In 1932, that authorization was extended to all academic disciplines in Education. At the same time, the name was changed to State Teachers College at Fitchburg. Dr. Charles M. Herlihy died while in office and was succeeded by Dr. William J. Sanders (1945–1950) and Ellis F. White (1950–1953).
During Ralph H. Weston's (1953–1963) presidency of the college, the Education program was the primary focus. That changed in 1960, when the school changed its name to State College at Fitchburg and added degree programs outside of Education. In 1965, the college's name evolved into Fitchburg State College. James J. Hammond (1963–1975), Dr. Vincent J. Mara (1975–1995), and Dr. Michael P. Riccards (1995-2002) were the next three presidents of the school and added many buildings to the campus, most notably what are now called the Hammond Building and Mara Village.
Under the guidance of President Robert V. Antonucci (2003–2015), the university focused on enhancing its buildings and grounds in addition to growing its academic programs. The school focused on renovations and rehabilitation of underused buildings and areas as opposed to extensive building. Notable buildings include the 3,500-square-foot (330 m2) campus police station (2008) and the Antonucci Science Complex, which included new construction combined with the renovation of the Condike Science Building, in 2011.
Continuing Education at Fitchburg State University began in 1915, with the first summer courses offered through the University. Twenty years later, its first graduate programs were established. In July 2010, the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate voted to grant Fitchburg State university status and change its name to Fitchburg State University. The measure was signed into law by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on July 28, 2010.
President Richard S. Lapidus (2015-present) has established the Office for Institutional Research and Planning, a central service division that provides guidance and data analytic support to senior leaders, and advised in the creation of the campus Veterans Center, one part of a larger diversity initiative that affords veteran students a gathering place. The university has since been officially designated a Military Friendly campus.