#ThrowbackThursday: Founding the college


I am sure that all of you reading this piece realize today is Founder’s Day here at Union. Congratulations to this marvelous school on its 220th birthday!

Allow me to put this date into context for you. There are only 18 other schools in the nation and only one other college that can claim an earlier founding day. Union is the oldest school in the state of New York to be given a charter by the Board of Regents.

Most of you reading this probably knew one of these facts, but did you know that, contrary to popular belief,  Union is not the oldest place of education in Schenectady? Even more suprising, did you know that that the college almost never existed? In colonial America, very few places of higher learning survived. While many schools were opened in the late 18th century, very few still have open doors today.

Schenectady, during this time period, was a barely populated city, with fewer than 4,000 inhabitants, and was far from resembling the towns in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the Chesapeake Bay, which were home to New College (Harvard) and the College of William and Mary.

The first attempt to erect a college in Schenectady was made by John C. Cuyler. In 1779, this senior elder of Schenectady’s Dutch Reformed Church gathered signatures for a petition to have an academy created and funded by the city of Schenectady.

During this time, the townspeople of Schenectady were predominantly Dutch. They saw very little need to establish a new college since the Dutch had Queen’s College (now Rutgers) and young men in Schenectady could attend Columbia.

With these factors, the legislature of Schenectady surprisingly approved the petition. Unfortunately for the men trying to start the school, the colonies were busy fighting a fairly important war. Perhaps you have heard of it — it’s  known as the American Revolution.

Following the first failure of Cuyler, George Clinton, the governor of New York attempted to issue an executive order requiring a college to be created in Schenectady. He cited the fact that there was a “loud call … for men of learning to fill the several offices of church.” The best answer to this “loud call” was a college.

Unfortunately, the majority of the legislature did not agree with Gov. Clinton and the prospects of Clinton College appeared to vanish. Luckily, many devoted members of the legislature thought a college was exactly what the city needed.

By 1782, though failing to gain approval, the original Cuyler petition gained 200 signatures and a promise of 8,000 pounds by the people of Schenectady to open a college.

In 1785, the prospects for a college improved. Rev. Dirck Romeyn, the pastor of Schenectady’s Dutch Reformed Church, emphasized the importance of having an academy to educate the minds of young men.

Romeyn, being a fine orator, convinced the Schenectady Consistory to open such an academy. On Aug. 2, 1785, Schenectady Academy opened its doors to allow men of Schenectady to attend school in their hometown for the first time.

From 1786 to the founding of Union College, Schenectady Academy hounded the Board of Regents to give them a college charter. Many attempts during this time all had the same outcome: rejection.

In 1787, Romeyn was appointed to the position of regent, giving proponents of a college a new sense of hope. On Dec. 30, 1791, Dirck van Ingen and a couple of his associates explained to the legislature that they were prepared to give a 21-year lease of 15,000 acres to the project of erecting a college.

This size of land proved promising to the legislature, but they learned in February that the land actually belonged to the local Oneida tribe. The legislature respected the fact that the land belonged to the Native Americans and the van Ingen plan was rejected.

For the next three years, many members of the Schenectady community supported the efforts being made by the academy to establish a college. The citizens promised land and large funds to support a new college.

The regents constantly rejected their proposals stating the funds were not sufficient and Schenectady could not support a college.

On Dec. 16, 1794, a meeting was held between members of the academy and Schenectady, and the group approved an outline for the forming of a college in their town.

In this proposal, the name “Union College” is first established. The name symbolized the fact that no religious group would dominate the other and all would live in a harmonious “union.” The people of Schenectady were able to put forth $8,000 and a total of 800 acres for a new college. Union  ran into some competition before the Board of Regents. A similar plan for a college had been proposed in Albany. For the board, there could only be one.

Realizing that it would be cheaper to build and house a college in Schenectady, the Board granted the approval for Union College with a vote of 11-3.

The official date of approval was Feb. 25, 1795. The Schenectady Academy, along with Romeyn and the people of Schenectady, lit up the streets and celebrated for days. Flags waved, bells tolled and fires turned night into day.

One man recalled, “The interior filled with happy boys and the streets crowded with sympathizing spectators.”

Union was very unique for its day; it claimed no denomination and was heavily focused on the sciences, history and mathematics.

While most colleges focused heavily on the classics and a traditional sense of learning, Union defied traditional methods and in some respects hailed in a new form of learning.

The success of the college in a nation filled with failures shone light upon the states and opened the doors for hundreds of colleges in the near future.

While we may not have been the oldest in the country, we were the innovators who helped shape the future of American academics.

Correction: Feb. 26, 2015 This article originally stated that DeWitt Clinton was the governor of New York during the late 1700s. George Clinton was, in fact, the governor of New York during this time.


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