The 4th president of Union College
It has been said that Eliphalet Nott was a giant in his time. Quite aside from serving as the President of Union College from 1804 to 1866, he was also an entrepreneur, teacher, minister, scholar, inventor, and a powerful influence on American higher education in the 19th century. His students and protégés graduated to become leaders and founders of both public and private colleges and universities: Bowdoin, Colgate, Franklin & Marshall, Smith, University of Illinois, University of Iowa, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Rochester, University of the South, and William & Mary,to name only a few. The famous group painting, Men of Progress, executed by Christian Schuessele in 1862, featured Nott in the front center of the composition (which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery).
In 1804, Nott was invited to assume control of a college short on space and without adequate funding. He was quickly thrust into the tangled world of New York state politics, out of which he emerged with a successful plan to help fund Union College with a state lottery. His vision was to make the college a match for, or superior to, other well-known institutions on the Atlantic Coast: Harvard, Yale, Rhode Island College (Brown), Queens (Rutgers), and Princeton (with which Union already had close ties). And for much of his presidency, he succeeded in that goal.
But he also needed an entirely new location on which to construct his idea of a proper, unified college campus. So in 1807, Nott purchased some 250 acres on the slope where the College now stands. Nott had already begun the foundation of North College when in 1813 he met the noted French architect, Joseph Ramée. Their collaboration resulted in a milestone in the history of American collegiate architecture. Ramée’s master plan for Union was the most ambitious and innovative design for an American school up to that time and became a model for later campuses in both the North and South.
Nott was willing to leave the ivory tower to participate in the growing technological and economic life of the nation. From 1829 to 1845 he served as president of Rensselaer Institute in Troy. His strong and enthusiastic interest in invention led him to pursue more efficient methods of home and industrial heating. Nott designed an eponymous stove that made use of cheaper and cleaner-burning anthracite coal, acquiring between 1832 and 1839 some thirty patents to protect his investment and corporate holdings. He also designed a steam-boiler system which he claimed to be more efficient than that of Fulton’s, and built a steamboat (the S.S. Novelty) to prove it.
Nott’s most significant and far-reaching innovation in higher education was to promote the parity of classical and ‘practical’ education. By the second quarter of the 19th century, the traditional classical curriculum was gasping its last breath. It seemed clear that a Latin and Greek education, in all of its parts, was not adequate to the rapid changes occurring in the national and regional economy. A degree in engineering or chemistry, for example, seemed more likely to promote the general welfare than an intimate acquaintance with Homer and Ovid. Most of the engineers on the Erie Canal, sad to report, were mostly self-taught.
In 1827, the College Board of Trustees authorized a parallel curriculum to permit students to choose between ancient and modern languages, and between abstract subjects and practical technology. This parallel curriculum was introduced in 1828 to support equally both spiritual America, as well as utilitarian America. All graduates alike were to receive the same A.B. degree. Civil engineering was introduced in 1845, and by 1857, Union could claim probably the best chemistry laboratory in America. By the time Nott died in 1866, he could, and would, be ranked among the half-dozen great college presidents of the 19th century.