I hear the sound of distant canon fire. It comes from nearly two centuries ago. Our region was a battlefield. Our College was founded in the aftermath of the War of 1812. Folks had been pressing for the creation of St. Lawrence Academy before the war, and their efforts were hindered by the war. There were important battles as near as Sackets Harbor. But Benjamin Raymond and others pressed on in spite of the war and the College became a reality in 1816.
The Civil War brought changes to our College. The old style of teacher preparation as practiced in the academy was waning in the face of a new curriculum called the “Normal” curriculum. In the devastation of the Civil War, the leaders of the Academy pressed the Legislature to create a Normal School here in Potsdam based on St. Lawrence Academy, which occurred in 1867.
The Great Depression was another turning point in the life of the College. In the midst of that economic crisis, the Crane School of Music was integrated into the College. The State authorized the purchase of the Crane Institute in 1926 and Helen Hosmer took over as director in 1929. The reputation of the Crane School was established during the worst economic crisis in the history of the country.
Today we stand in celebration of the 194th birthday of the College. Our College was forged in the War of 1812, survived the Civil War, the world-wide Depression of 1896, the Great Depression of 1930, both World Wars, and many other periods of austerity and tribulation. And yet here we are. In an odd sort of way, difficult times have been good for the College.
What fueled the great accomplishments and forged the nature of the College? In many ways it was the vision of the faculty, staff, students, and administrators in the face of adversity. They took up the challenge to think strategically and to plan for the future. Asa Brainerd, Julia Crane, Helen Hosmer, and Tom Barrington understood that in order to improve we must change. The situation in which we find ourselves today is the result of all the things which have occurred in the past. To improve matters, we must change how we do things and move consciously to create the world of tomorrow. But first we must look back. As George Santayana reminds us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And at the same time, we must look forward. We must use this opportunity in order to create the College as we want it to be. As I said in my opening speech this year, turning Shakespeare on his head, “There comes a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the ebb leads on to victory.”
Upon becoming President of SUNY Potsdam four years ago, I embarked on a listening tour for my first year or so. I listened to folks on campus: students, faculty, staff, and emeriti. I traveled around the country to talk to alumni and friends of the College. The lessons that I learned were embodied in my inaugural address, the corner stone of which was that here at SUNY Potsdam we offer a handcrafted education. The basis for that characterization lies deep within the history and traditions of the College. It was recounted continually by alumni from the 1950s when they recalled moving the college from downtown to the current location, from students of the 1960s and 1970s who saw this College transformed from a small regional teachers college into a true university, with strong programs beyond just education and music. The campus was a continual construction site; mud puddles dominated the Quad; boardwalks were the order of the day. It was also the theme of alumni from the 1980s and 1990s who saw the completion of the transformation into a liberal arts college with outstanding graduate and professional programs, and who suffered through the financial crisis of the 1980s and the one of the mid-1990s. And so I concluded that obviously the deep concern which our faculty and staff have for the success of the students is deeply and intimately associated with the very nature of the College. It is independent of student-faculty ratios, of state funding, tuition levels, or even the state of our physical plant and facilities. It is a deep and abiding dedication which we have here on this campus for our students.
In the midst of adversity our College has seized upon the opportunity to change in new and dramatic ways. We became one of the first colleges to have a computer science degree by building on a tradition of excellence forged in the past, which we then took in a completely new and innovative direction. We are the home of Music Education in the United States because Julia Crane rejected the curriculum of the past and had a vision for what a properly educated music teacher should study. Our Arts and Sciences programs are some of the best in SUNY because nearly a century ago my predecessor, President Thomas Stowell, knew that good teachers need a broad preparation in the liberal arts and sciences and we began to strengthen our curriculum in those areas. In the midst of the Great Depression and on the eve of World War II, in 1939 the State of New York agreed and adopted a broad general education curriculum for all teachers colleges, something Potsdam had already embraced. In just the same way we will become the leading arts campus of SUNY because we have the programs in place to rival any other institution. All we require is the will to achieve it.
Being called upon to lead this College at this time is remarkable to me. I am originally from Kansas, where the state motto is “Ad astra per aspera,” “To the stars through difficulty.” That motto harkens back to the fact that before entering the Union, Kansas was wracked by a bloody civil war of its own between supporters of Kansas as a free-state or as a slave state. Yet that motto holds for all of us who are forced to pass through adversity in order to attain our highest goals. Each and every one of us here share the aspirations of previous generations of students, faculty and staff, who looked to a brighter future for the College. The current moment is one of difficult decisions, but each one of those decisions provides us with an opportunity to build for a brighter tomorrow. I firmly believe that we stand on the eve of a new, wonderful history for our College, if we act in a strategic manner as we rebuild the College. If we act in a thoughtful and strategic manner today, there are no limits to what we can attain in the future. Those who worked so hard for this College in the past, Julia Crane, Asa Brainerd, Tom Stowell, Helen Hosmer, Benjamin Raymond, will stand as silent witnesses to our endeavors as we move toward a bicentennial filled with promise.