As I tell prospective students, you can certainly get an excellent education at a large research university. But at a place like Potsdam you will work closely with the faculty and staff on things that matter. Even our curriculum offers many students an extraordinary opportunity to create their own unique program of study.
One hundred ninety one years ago the State of New York issued a charter for a public institution of higher education in Potsdam, New York, that carried the name St. Lawrence Academy. This action was the culmination of the efforts a group of foresighted residents of Potsdam who sought to create an institution of higher education to serve the residents of the North Country, or in the words of the charter, “for the promotion of Literature.” That moment was the beginning of the College we now call SUNY Potsdam.
In the 19th century, the process whereby young persons were educated differed somewhat from the system we have today. In those days, most young people received their elementary education in a local school. By the time they were teenagers they would be prepared to undertake advanced study in order to pursue a profession. Consequently the great colleges of the day had student bodies that ranged in age from their early teens through their twenties, depending on their individual backgrounds. In the case of the St. Lawrence Academy, to us today it would look like some sort of a hybrid between a public school and a college. Yet, within the minds of some of the founders, and certainly of the early leaders of the academy, the training of teachers for the public schools was the paramount goal. Within 14 years of its founding, the academy had already trained and sent out 40 teachers to serve the region. This function and service clearly set the academy apart from the one-room school houses that dotted the landscape. This was an institution of higher education, dedicated to serving the region.
That central calling of the academy was reinforced following the Civil War. At that time, a new type of educational pedagogy was spreading in the nation, the rise of the Normal Schools: institutions of higher education dedicated to the professional training for teachers. Again the foresighted residents of Potsdam stepped forward and arranged that their dear St. Lawrence Academy would become one of the first state-mandated and funded Normal Schools. As a result of legislative action in 1867, the academy was transformed into the StateNormal School at Potsdam. The old buildings were torn down and new buildings erected, but the tradition of service and teaching continued.
Today we sit as the heirs of those foresighted men and women. Their vision for the future remains as one of the guiding principles for the College today: the training of young persons to go out and serve the region. Yet, in today’s modern world, our service is not simply to our region alone but also to the nation and the world. Also, while a large number of our students train to become teachers, many others go on to successful careers in nearly every conceivable profession and calling. All of our alumni are a treasure to the College and in many ways carry on this rich tradition.
With regard to the teaching that goes on here, we also have remained faithful to the ideals and practices of the founders. The ideal for education 200 years ago, as today, is the close interaction of professor and students. That interaction was defined for all times by U.S. President James A. Garfield when looking back on his own college experience summarized it saying: “Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other.” Hopkins was Garfield’s professor at WilliamsCollege in Massachusetts, a school which Hopkins would go on to lead as president. This was precisely the education offered by St. Lawrence Academy to their students nearly 200 years ago. While the buildings were one step up from log cabins, they were wood frame, it was the intense interaction between those students and their teachers that characterized the education and that developed what we now call the Potsdam Tradition.
Looking at our College today we can see that we are the very heirs of that tradition. The College has grown enormously since those days in the wood frame house. We have more students and faculty than almost any time in our history, but what remains true today as it was then; the hallmark of the Potsdam education is the close interaction of students and faculty, what I like to call the “hand-crafted education.” As I tell prospective students, you can certainly get an excellent education at a large research university. But at a place like Potsdam you will work closely with the faculty and staff on things that matter. Even our curriculum offers many students an extraordinary opportunity to create their own unique program of study. In general, we try to avoid the cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all mentality, but tailor the education to the student. This is a direct legacy of our founding when students would arrive at the academy with widely varying degrees of preparation.
Today, we stand in memory of the founding of our College nearly two hundred years ago. Then and now two things stand as foremost: we prepare professionals to go out and serve the region, state, country and world; and we offer a hand-crafted education, second to none, to the students that we serve. Let us pledge to continue the Potsdam Tradition of Excellence for another 200 years in the future.