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Academy into Normal School | From Academy to State University: Fredonia's Story

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Academy into Normal School

Written by Douglas Shepard

Presented by:
The Historical Museum of the
D.R. Barker Library on August 4, 2001
for the Museums opening display celebrating the 175th Anniversary of SUNY Fredonia

The term "Academy" or "Fredonia Academy" has been used to mean three different things: the governing body or corporation, the building itself, and the educational program.

The three entities had differing life spans. The building was started in July 1822, the corporation began on November 25, 1824 with the formation of a Board of Trustees, and the first class began on October 4, 1826.

The Register of the students at the Academy for the 1860s includes a list for the term which ran through March 12, 1867 at which time a reunion of teachers, students and officers were held. At that point in the Register is the Secretary's note: "End of old Academy. From this, the Fredonia Academy merged into the Normal and Training School, as see first Catalogue of Teachers and Students, over." On the following pages were listed the students in the Academy program held in the Academy building but now under the management of the Board of the new Normal School.

At the March 1867 reunion, O.W. Johnson, Esq., at the invitation of the Academy Board, gave the principal address in which he said, "So we see The Academy does not die, it only assumes a new, more comprehensive and glorious life. It goes into a nobler temple, graced with a higher beauty, to be sustained through the ages by the strong arm of the Empire State."

That was in 1867. In 1878, when it looked as though the Academic Department was being threatened, Johnson was again called upon, this time on behalf of the Village Trustees and the Board of the Normal School, to prepare a brief outlining the history of the Academy and the Normal School, and the understandings that originally obtained. This brief was presented to a Committee of the State Assembly and was accepted. In it, Johnson said, "The understanding of the citizens of Fredonia was that the experimental and practicing departments of the School would provide for the education of all but the primary scholars until they were prepared for either the normal or the academic departments. The Academic Department was expected to take the place of the old Academy, which surrendered to it all its means of usefulness and its very existence..."

The Board of Trustees of the Academy went out of existence in 1869; the Academy building was demolished in 1890; but the Academy program continued until after 1867, as Johnson said, sustained by the strong arm of the Empire State.

There is other, contemporary, evidence to the effect that the Academy was understood to be continuing into the new Normal School. The Fredonia Censor of March 13, 1867 reported on "the close of the present term of the Academy...there will be a suspension of the institution till it is reopened in the spacious edifice to be erected as a Normal School. Our citizens have long felt the need of a new building, and now by the encouragement of support tendered by the State, the Academic department may be expected to flourish more than heretofore."

They followed up on March 20, 1867 with a contributed account of the Academy's closing exercises, which ended "Thus have closed the years of the old Academy - as we hope only to renew its youth, under the fostering care of the State Normal School, which has been located in our village."

Some 40 years later, Lucy M. Washburn, who had been a student at the Academy from 1857 to 1867 and a teacher at the Normal School, wrote to the editor of the Censor "I am glad I had a share in the origin of the Fredonia Normal School. I was the last to read a graduating essay in the dear old Academy...and then I had what I always considered a distinguished honor - the invitation within less than a year, while still a girl not 20 years old, to come back and help transform the Academy into the larger institution, The State Normal School."

When the Censor of February 19, 1868 reported on the opening of the new term, it referred to the institution as "The Normal School and Academy." What is more, in their article on the close of that term they listed among their teachers "Miss Helen S. Wright, Preceptress of Academy and Instructor of English Language and Composition," and pointed out that "the people of our village consented to tax themselves so onerously, that the advantages of continued Academic instruction should be retained."

It seems very clear that at the time the Normal School opened, students, faculty and the general public all agreed that the old Academy was continuing in its new home.

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From Academy to State University: Fredonia's Story

Written by William Chazanof
Professor - History Department,
SUNY Fredonia

Table of Contents:

The Academy |  The Normal School |  State University

"It is, sir, a small college, but yet there are those who love it." So spoke Daniel Webster to the United States Supreme Court in 1819 when he fought to keep unchanged the charter of Dartmouth College.

Webster's quotation might well be applied to the State University College at Fredonia. Until 1960, it had been a small school; but, despite its size, it had captured the affection of many individuals. In the last eight years, it has grown tremendously in student enrollment, curricular offerings, diversification of faculty, and overall impact on New York State. Yet its present has roots deep in its past, and today's academic excellence at Fredonia is enriched by memories of the struggles and triumphs of earlier days - and, most important - of the men and women who had faith in its future.1

The Academy

The first period of Fredonia's history was marked by the Academy and its forty-one-year struggle for survival. In 1821, Hezekia Barker generously agreed to transfer a lot 50 feet by 46 feet for the purpose of "building an academy." The task of obtaining funds to construct this building proved to be extremely difficult. After a two-year drive, only $75 was raised in cash, a sum barely enough "to buy glass and nails." Other subscribers promised building materials, services of labor, and gifts to be donated in cattle, pork, hay, and grain. (The list of donors has been framed and hangs proudly on a wall in the historical room of the Darwin Barker Library in Fredonia.) By 1823 the structure was well advanced, but additional money was needed and outside aid was solicited. The New York State Legislature, after incorporating the Fredonia Academy in 1824, voted a grant of $350 a year for five years, this sum to help pay the salary of a "common preceptor." Encouraged by the state's assistance, the community launched another subscription drive in 1825 and the donations made possible the completion of the first story of the building.

The early years of the Fredonia Academy seemed promising. Officially opened in 1826 under its first president, Austin Smith, the Academy enrolled eight students who paid tuition for the first term. Within one year the Academy had 136 students, 81 boys and 55 girls. Tuition was set on a sliding scale: two dollars a quarter for courses in reading and writing; three dollars for arithmetic, grammar, geography, history, rhetoric and chronology; and four dollars for mathematics, philosophy, map drawing, chemistry, Latin, Greek and French. Lodging, room, washing, and candles cost between one dollar and one dollar and fifty cents a week. The school grew slowly, and the 1850s were the golden years. The building was remodeled in 1850, doubling the physical plant; the library's holdings increased to 2,000 volumes; and the enrollment in 1856 reached a peak of 217 students. The academic program was strong, and the extracurricular activities included student publications, drama, and lecture series.

Financial shortages, however, continued to plague the Academy. The trustees therefore increased tuition to $5.50 a term for courses related to English and to $6.50 for drawing, mathematics, and natural sciences. Two dollars a term was charged for courses in bookkeeping and penmanship. and the same amount was set for renting a musical instrument. The cost of room, board, heat, and lights was raised from three to five dollars a week. The Academy also received help from New York State. The Legislature, through its Literature Fund, contributed over $12,000 and gave more than $1,000 for books and apparatus. Despite this support, financial problems continued, and with the coming of the Civil War, the crisis came to a head. Enrollment plummeted to 78 in 1863 and to 61 the following year. Unpaid tuitions and climbing expenses finally forced the Fredonia Academy to close its doors. To pay the school debts, the trustees sold the Academy building to the village of Fredonia for the balance of the liabilities, a sum of $1,510.15.

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The Normal School

The second period in the history of the college may be identified as the Normal School Era. In those years between 1867 and 1948 two formidable forces representing different philosophies came into sharp contact with each other. The Regents of the University of the State of New York, created in 1784, was a policy-making body of the state in the area of higher education. The Board of Regents became the guardians of the private and denominational colleges and universities. The Regents were convinced that, except for teacher training and certain specialized institutes, higher education should be offered only by the privately endowed schools. In contrast, the office of State Superintendent of Schools, established in 1812, concerned itself with the public schools. Although the title of the Superintendent was changed several times (from Superintendent of Schools to Superintendent of Common Schools to Superintendent of Public Instruction to Commissioner of Education), the office consistently sought the broadening of the base of the common schools. Dual, competitive systems of education thus emerged, one under the Board of Regents, the other controlled by the Superintendent of Public Schools.

After the Civil War, population rose and a growing number of citizens demanded schooling beyond the secondary level. Moreover, the teaching shortage was serious and was becoming acute. The New York State Legislature, reflecting the philosophy of the Board of Regents, reacted by creating additional Normal Schools. Its rationale was that teachers would thus be provided while private colleges and universities alone would continue to offer liberal arts education.

This plan was implemented in 1866. The Legislature passed an act that made possible the establishment of four more Normal Schools to be added to the two already in operation at Albany and at Oswego. The Regents and the Legislature lacked enthusiasm for state-financed higher education and this was demonstrated in one section of the 1866 law. Communities desiring a Normal School were invited to prepare their proposals and plans, but the act required that the village pay for the land and for the full cost of constructing a building.

Despite the failure of the Academy and the new financial demands involved in erecting a building for a Normal School, the Fredonia community was not deterred. It lost little time in submitting a proposal to raise the $100,000 needed for construction - even though that sum amounted to about 10 percent of the total assessed valuation of a community that numbered less than 2,500! To attract investors, seven percent bonds would be issued, redeemable in 20 years. Fredonia's prospects were heightened by circumstances, direct action, and personal contacts. Reuben Fenton, a graduate of the Academy, was the Governor of New York State; Victor M. Rice, a native of Chautauqua, was the Superintendent of Public Instruction; and Willard McKinstry, a staunch supporter of public higher education, was the vigorous editor of the weekly Fredonia Censor. A delegation consisting of O.W. Johnson, Henry C. Lake, Orson Stiles, and J.B. Fay traveled to Albany to present Fredonia's bid officially. The proposal was accepted on March 30, 1867, and the village could now continue to have a program of education beyond the elementary school

On August 8, 1867, a long-awaited event took place. The cornerstone of the Fredonia Normal School was laid on a site where the Old Main building stands today. The ceremony was held in the presence of one of the largest crowds ever assembled in the village. Almost two months later, on December 2, the Normal (as it became commonly known) began classes. Under the first principal, Joseph A. Allen, the school attracted in its initial term 147 students, 62 boys and 85 girls. For students preparing to be teachers, no tuition was charged, books were supplied, and travel costs were reimbursed; in return, students had to promise to teach after graduation. Those students not studying for the teaching profession paid tuition and provided their own textbooks.

The start of the Fredonia Normal seemed to be its finish. President Allen became the victim of the policies of a divided board of trustees. He was forced to resign, the school was closed in February, 1869, and it was not reopened until the fall of that year. Fortunately, under the second principal, Dr. John W. Armstrong, the school functioned more smoothly. Serving with Armstrong were 12 faculty and they taught their subjects in one three-story building.

During its 82 years of existence, the Fredonia Normal had a frugal and sometimes precarious life. Curricular and extracurricular offerings were limited. According to Dr. A. Wilson Dods, who graduated from the Normal in 1875, the school had "no music department, no gym, no basketball, no manual training, no art department"; the library had "little in it of value to the students"; and there was "no school paper, no entertainment courses, nothing but digging away at dull facts..." The Normal offered courses in school economy, civil government, school law, methods of teaching, and philosophy of education.

Dods recalled also how each day started: "Every morning there were chapel exercises, which consisted of reading Scriptures and prayers conducted by Dr. Armstrong, and group singing by the students." The curriculum was later expanded to include drawing, manual training, art, instrumental music and kindergarten instruction. In addition, a new plan for student teaching was begun. An athletic program was initiated in 1896 with organized football and baseball, and four years later basketball was introduced. Students also occupied their extracurricular hours with the school paper, four literary societies, and semi-weekly church meetings.

The Normal continued to develop but not without its share of troubles. Governor Lucius Robinson, in a message to the Legislature in 1877, asked "whether the normal schools are worth to the system what they cost." Responding to the Governor's remarks, the Legislature appointed a committee that visited all the Normal Schools, made a comprehensive study of their operations, and reported that they were "doing exceedingly valuable work." The committee disclosed, too, that the Fredonia Normal "is now doing excellent work." The threat against the Normal Schools was checked and the Governor took no further action.

A second danger to the future of the Normal occurred on the morning of December 14, 1900, when a tragic fire destroyed most of the school building. The catastrophe took the lives of six students and the janitor. The tenuous existence of the Normal was again at stake, but classes continued to meet elsewhere; and in 1901 the cornerstone for another building was laid on the very foundations of the old. This time the Legislature, rather than the village, appropriated funds for the building and within two years the structure was completed.

Slowly the Normal was upgraded. In 1897 the preparation for teaching was increased to two years for high school graduates. Teacher training was made a specialty in 1906, when the high school students attending the Normal were separated from those preparing for teaching. Other changes were introduced in the 1920's. The elementary school curriculum requirements were raised in 1922 from two to three years, and the music program was similarly strengthened two years later. Summer school was started in 1923, and extension courses were introduced in 1925. Criteria for faculty employment were raised, and by 1926 only college graduates were appointed as Normal School instructors. Sabbatical leaves were granted at half salary as a means of increasing the scholarship of the faculty.

Despite these improvements, the Fredonia Normal did not reflect the general pattern of growth common to many other institutions of higher learning. The upgrading had been achieved within the narrow framework of preparing teachers primarily for the elementary schools. As such, the program had been limited. It had overemphasized education courses to the detriment of a more balanced academic diet of liberal arts and science. Nor was the enrollment pattern encouraging. The fluctuating number of Fredonia graduates was one indication of the uneven development of the school: 15 in 1870, 20 in 1880, 79 in 1902, 43 in 1908, 180 in 1918 and 68 in 1924.

Additional steps were taken to strengthen the Normal. In 1930 under the director of the Normal School, Hermann Cooper, 58 acres of land west of Central Avenue were bought with the dream that one day it would become a campus. President Leslie Gregory helped achieve the construction of a music building in 1939 on the hitherto empty Cooper site. And Governor Herbert Lehman signed the Feinberg Law in 1942 that changed the Normal Schools into Teacher Colleges.

The number of Fredonia graduates, however, was still not impressive: 174 in 1938, 142 one year later, and 129 in 1940. During the World War II, the size of the graduating class dwindled further: 72 in 1941, 98 in 1942, and 93 in 1943. President Gregory and the faculty fought desperately to increase the enrollment. Each faculty member in 1943 even assessed himself $20 to defray the printing costs of a recruitment bulletin. The decline in numbers continued and the graduating class fell from 73 in 1944, to 64 in 1945, the lowest figure in thirty-five years.

The situation grew worse. Early in 1948 rumors circulated that five or six of the teacher colleges would be enlarged and the rest would be closed. The future looked bleak for Fredonia. One of the smallest of the eleven state teacher colleges, it was also located in a sparsely inhabited area. In sharp contrast was the larger teachers college at Buffalo, which was only fifty miles away and had a substantial population from which to attract students. So low did faculty morale fall that Dr. Gregory called a meeting on January 9, 1948, to assure the staff that the rumors were erroneous. Yet in that same year only 102 students graduated from the college.

It was the nadir of Fredonia's history. However, powerful groups and individuals outside the village had been taking an active part in a searching examination of the state's needs in higher education. Their decision was to have a marked effect on the entire state and at the same time would usher in a new chapter in the story of the college.

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State University

The third period in Fredonia's history was its most significant - the college became a vital part of the new State University of New York. Created on March 13, 1948, the State University of New York settled the long-festering question whether the state should confine itself to financing only technical and agricultural institutes and teacher training colleges.2

What altered the climate of opinion so that now there was support for a State University? The sharpest answer came from the thousands of returning veterans clamoring for admission to a school of higher education. Under the G.I. Bill of Rights, the veterans could have additional education with financial help from the federal government. But the facilities for higher education were inadequate. New York City in particular felt this acutely. The city colleges had been financed by the city of New York; however, they were already overcrowded and unable to accommodate all the students demanding admission. In addition, more universities were needed to counteract the discriminatory practices in higher education, especially in the medical schools. In many institutions a quota system seemed to be followed to the detriment of students in certain faiths.

Albany could no longer ignore these pressures. In February, 1946, Governor Thomas E. Dewey requested and the Legislature created a Temporary Commission to Study the Need for a State University. After nearly two years of hard work, the thirty-one man Commission, headed by Owen D. Young, submitted on February 16, 1948, its now famous comprehensive report. Among other suggestions, the Temporary Commission unanimously urged the creation of a State University. Recognizing the political perils of continued opposition, the Legislature on March 12, 1948, passed an act to establish the State University of New York. The opposition to the Legislature's move was milder than had been expected. Once the university was established, however, a struggle over the control of State University ensued between the Regents and the State Education Department on the one hand, and the University Board of Trustees on the other. A bill early in 1949 to place control of the state-supported colleges under the Board of Regents failed, and the Board of Trustees at last was free to implement the act of 1948. Since then, the State University of New York has been increasingly accepted, and the strong feelings aroused by its creation have gradually subsided.

With the State University a reality, the long years of financial neglect and curricular restrictions ended. Dr. Gregory's nightmare that Fredonia might be closed was over. There now emerged an exciting period filled with confidence in Fredonia's future. The new optimism was justified. For example, a new dormitory named Gregory Hall was built; it became the second building on the new campus. Governor Thomas Dewey named the dormitory for Dr. Leslie R. Gregory, and it was an honor well earned by the President of Fredonia. Most of his twenty years as President had been filled with obstacles, and there had been a long uphill struggle for funds and broader curricular opportunities. Dr. Gregory's courage and dedication had at last been recognized, and the community was as proud as the faculty and students.

While a successor to Dr. Gregory was being selected, Dr. Robert S. Thompson, the Dean, became acting President in 1952. Urbane, even-tempered, and broadly read in the humanities, he was an intellectual sparkplug. He experimented with the curriculum and stimulated the faculty to try new approaches. Fredonia's rising status was formally recognized in 1952 when it received accreditation from the Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools and from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

The President chosen in 1953 to succeed Dr. Gregory was Dr. Harry W. Porter, and his eight-year term of service was marked by creativity and innovation. During his administration, a unique College Preview Program for high school seniors was instituted; a Junior Semester in Antwerp was begun; a Dean's List and other recognition for Honor Students were started; and new and challenging courses were introduced. With full faculty support Dr. Porter in 1955 imposed a program of greater selectivity for admission at the cost of a temporary lower enrollment. What is more, the students voluntarily taxed themselves to bolster the library holdings.

Dr. Porter also continued in Dean Thompson's direction by emphasizing the humanities. The college created a Division of the Humanities in 1958, and in 1960 Fredonia and New Paltz were selected by State University to grant the A.B. degree. This was a significant achievement. A major breakthrough had been made in the previously restricted curriculum designed for teacher training only. Fredonia's enrollment also increased, and by 1960 the number of students reached 1,243, a figure nearly double that of 1955. It was most unexpected when in 1961 Dr. Porter announced to a stunned faculty that he was stepping down as President of Fredonia to fill the newly created position of Provost of the State University of New York.

Dr. Oscar E. Lanford became President in July, 1961, and his administration saw the remarkable growth of the college. Dr. Lanford was an experienced administrator who quickly took command. Few things at the college eluded his careful scrutiny, and he took a direct and active part in all major decisions. His target was nothing less that the creation of a first rate multi-purpose college that would be strong in all academic areas. This he was determined to achieve in the shortest time possible.

The growth of the college could be seen in many developments. The enrollment jumped from 1,368 in 1961 to more than double that figure in 1967, and it rose further in 1968 to 3,226. Correspondingly the number of graduates during the past 20 years escalated: 64 in 1945, 184 in 1955, 348 in 1965 and 414 in 1967. And the number of teaching faculty between 1958 and 1968 more than tripled, rising from 75 to 241. The college needed more room. One hundred twenty-five acres on the northeast side of Temple Street were purchased in 1964, and three years later another seventy acres were added west of Brigham Road. Similarly, the budget allocations for the college rose from $2.3 million in 1963 to $3.1 million one year later. To keep up with the work of computation, a data processing center was installed in 1965, and the projection for the 1975 student enrollment was 7,500!

In the drive for a multi-purpose college, the number of curricula increased, course offerings expanded, old departments were divided into smaller units, and new departments were created. Thus the Science Department, previously strongly geared to Biology, was separated into departments of biology, physics, chemistry, and geology. The Social Studies Department was likewise split into the departments of history, political science, sociology, and economics. A bold step was taken in 1967 when it was decided that the Campus School, long the laboratory for teaching the elementary grades, would be phased out. The new direction for education stressed research, experimentation and innovation. The college adopted in 1964 the Conant Plan. Under this program, Fredonia along with Colgate, Cornell, Vassar, and Brooklyn College began implementing the recommendations of Dr. James B. Conant, a distinguished educator, for the improvement of teacher education. An enumeration of courses added since 1960 for the Bachelor's and Master's degrees indicated the great variety and enrichment of the overall program. Nor was the end in sight, for on the horizon are programs in business, engineering, and health-related sciences.

To keep pace with the academic needs of the greatly expanded curricula offerings, a resolute effort was made to strengthen the library holdings. Vast sums of money were needed, and substantial sums were spent. As the new academic programs proliferated, the number of library requests likewise increased. Dr. Lanford was deeply concerned, and he repeatedly found additional sums that went to the purchase of still more books, magazines, newspapers, and microfilm. The holdings reached 150,000 volumes, and the library's struggle to satisfy the needs of a first-rate institution was an unremitting one.

Dr. Lanford's yardstick was excellence in whatever was undertaken. For example, the highly respected architectural firm of I.M. Pei & Partners of New York was employed to draft the master plan for the campus. Despite construction frustrations, there arose buildings with a creative flair. A complex came into being that consisted of Jewett Hall (science), Dods Hall (health and physical education), and buildings for fine arts, administration, library, and an infirmary. Imaginative plans for additional construction were already on the drafting boards.

In the employment of faculty personnel, excellence was again the key word. Bolstered by more attractive salary schedules and University Chairs, Fredonia combed the nation for faculty who were already well known or had strong potential. The instructional staff was encouraged to teach with maximum effectiveness and to strengthen themselves professionally by research and publication. An examination of the number of faculty publications for the year 1966-67 revealed a substantial output: 12 books or significant contributions made to these books, 52 articles in national and 32 in regional magazines, 18 musical compositions, and commercial records.

For the first time in the history of higher education in New York State, the Legislature with decisive support from Governor Nelson Rockefeller was voting generous appropriations to State University. There were already indications that the State University of New York was overtaking and, in some cases, surpassing comparable state university systems in the nation. Gone was the high degree of uniformity of the old Normal days. In its place, the individual units of State University were being granted additional autonomy.

This year, 1967-68, the college is celebrating the centennial of the opening of the Fredonia Normal School. The Normal had survived for 80 years despite uneven enrollment, financial limitations, curricular restrictions, and construction handicaps. With the formation of the State University, Fredonia took a giant step forward. The future of the college remains as boundless and as bright as the state and its people want. What better goal can be set for Fredonia than the slogan of the State University: "Let each become all that he is capable of being."

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1The most comprehensive study of the history of the college is that of John Ford Ohls, The Historical Development of the State University of New York College at Fredonia unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, State University at Buffalo, 1964). Some of the primary source material used in this paper was drawn from the Ohls study.

2The most thorough analysis of the formation of State University is that of Oliver Cromwell Carmichael, Jr., New York Establishes a State University: A Case Study in the Process of Policy Formation Nashville, Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1955).

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