BACK TO THE FUTURE


The University at Albany in 1996 is a medium-sized public research university with all of the characteristics of that kind of institution:

The University at Albany was not an instantaneous creation. Instead, it is the product of more than 150 years of powerful, often dramatic change reflecting the changing needs of New York state.

The University Era, 1962--

The modern University at Albany came into being in 1962 when it was assigned the mission of becoming a "university." But what kind of "university?" Albany adopted the conventional model of a broad based public research institution charged with providing a liberal arts education for large numbers of undergraduates, developing graduate programs and professional schools, building a research effort, and serving the state which provided financial support.

The 1960s were a decade of exuberant growth for Albany. "Baby boomers" crowded the Albany campus as enrollments quadrupled between 1962 and 1970. Undergraduate liberal arts majors and master's, doctoral, and professional programs multiplied. In the late 1960s the University added about 100 new faculty members each fall. Students and faculty began occupying a new, architecturally distinguished campus in the fall of 1966.

But achieving educational distinction did not come without setbacks. The political and cultural upheavals of the 1960s affected Albany. The campus was disrupted in the spring of 1970 as Albany students joined students elsewhere to protest the Vietnam War. Important Albany graduate programs came under attack in the 1970s when the state decided that it was investing too much in graduate education. Most important, demographic changes and state fiscal problems brought an abrupt end to the untrammeled growth of the 1960s; the 1975-76 financial crisis required painful program cancellations and other readjustments.

Still, the University survived its "time of troubles" and in the 1980s and 1990s emerged as a mature public research university. Enrollments remained strong, and new attention was given to undergraduate instruction. Graduate programs stabilized and were strengthened; some began receiving national recognition. Faculty research flourished, and the intellectual resources of the University were brought to bear on solving problems of state government. By the 1990s alumni(ae) of the university years were beginning to achieve public prominence.

But how did the University at Albany come into being? It was preceded by a distinguished College for Teachers, and the story of how that College was converted into an aspiring University is instructive. By the late 1950s it was becoming apparent that private colleges and universities would not be able to expand sufficiently to meet the educational needs of the state in the 1960s. A state problem produced a state solution: the rapid expansion of the State University of New York system of higher education, including the creation of four university centers (the University at Albany was one), with leadership provided by an aggressive governor, Nelson Rockefeller.

The College for Teachers, 1914-1962

We move backward in time another half century to 1914, when an existing institution in Albany was renamed "The New York State College for Teachers" and assigned the mission of training teachers in academic subjects for New York state's burgeoning secondary schools.

The College was distinctive in two ways: it concerned itself exclusively with training secondary school teachers (it had no elementary education programs), and it developed a curriculum that focused on the liberal arts supplemented by professional training. (The institution emphasized that it was a "College for Teachers," not a "Teachers' College.")

The College took on most of the characteristics of a small four-year liberal arts college, but one devoted to training secondary school teachers. For most of its history it was led by two presidents, Abram Brubacher (1915-1939) and Evan R. Collins (1948-1968). They slowly built a strong faculty, most with a doctoral degree. Enrollments varied with the changing demand for secondary school teachers, hovering around 1000 but rising in the 1950s to about 2500 when the College was converted into a university in 1962. Students came from throughout New York state, were exceptionally well motivated, and developed the kind of coeducational collegiate culture characteristic of small colleges of their era. Alumni(ae) went on to distinguished careers in teaching and educational administration.

By 1962 the College had achieved national distinction. In that year journalist David Boroff observed that "Albany State has a distinguished history. As liberal arts colleges go, it is a good one. As teacher's colleges go, it is superb."

A Period of Transition, 1890-1914

The College for Teachers slowly emerged between 1890 and 1914 from a 19th century two-year normal school. Once again the initiative for change came from the state, for by 1890 the emerging system of public secondary schools in New York required a new kind of teacher training institution. Pioneering in higher education was not easy. The shift from a two- to a four-year institution required a new faculty, a different curriculum, and a student body with different qualifications. There were several false starts as educational leaders groped toward solving these problems. The turning point came in 1906 with the fiery destruction of the Willett Street home of the school. The new mission was defined, a new curriculum was sketched out, and a new set of buildings on Western Avenue were dedicated in 1909. The transition was capped in 1914 when the institution officially became the New York State College for Teachers.

The Normal School, 1844-1890

We move backward in time another half century to observe the establishment of a normal school at Albany in 1844. Its creation was New York's response to rapidly expanding common school education in the state in the 1840s and increasing dissatisfaction with the quality of teachers. The new Normal School's mission was to both train new and upgrade existing common school teachers.

Throughout its nearly half-century life, the Normal School was a two-year institution and resembled more a 19th century academy than a college. Its curriculum revolved around the subjects taught in the common (or elementary) schools and emphasized the integration of subject matter and teaching methods. By present day standards, it was a small school. The 200 to 400 students in attendance at any one time came to Albany from all parts of the state. Some came with only a common school education, others with teaching experience; some completed the program, more left to begin or continue teaching careers after a term or two. After the Civil War the student body became heavily female, reflecting the feminization of American common school education at the time.

In 1894 the Normal School published a list of its graduates over the previous 50 years with a record of their accomplishments in education. The volume provided impressive evidence of the success of this experiment in teacher education.

Forward to the Future -- A Tradition of Excellence

Our brief trip into the history of the University at Albany suggests several concluding observations.

  1. We can better understand our present situation and future directions if we begin to understand the routes we have followed to the present.

  2. The development of state-supported higher education in Albany produced three distinct kinds of institutions: the Albany State Normal School, the New York State College for Teachers at Albany, and the University at Albany, State University of New York. Each had a distinct mission, and each shaped its successor to some degree.

  3. Change is inevitable. At Albany the transformation of one institution into another was often traumatic and came as a result of changing state needs. The three institutions were always the creations and servants of New York.

  4. Running through the histories of these quite different institutions is at least one common thread: each fulfilled its mission admirably and each contributed to an important legacy -- a tradition of excellence.

As the University at Albany moves forward into the 21st century it can be inspired by and itself strengthen that 152-year legacy of state-supported higher education at Albany.

Illustrations

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