Harrison Edwin Webster

The 8th president of Union College

Harrison Edwin Webster

Harrison Edwin Webster (1841 -1906)
(Union College Permanent Collection)

Term: 1888-1894
Academic credentials: B.A., Union College

While a professor at Union, this Union graduate and Civil War veteran became the first faculty member to conduct and publish substantial scientific research. After a falling out with President Eliphalet Nott Potter, Webster eventually found his way to the University of Rochester where he taught geology and natural history.

In response to pressure from the student body, who had been without a real president for four years, the trustees finally acted in 1888. The only candidate with widespread support, Webster was elected the 8th president of Union College. He was the first non-clergy member to hold that office.

The College saw very little development during Webster's presidency. The Long Island property derived from the Nott Trust Fund was tied up in expensive litigation, while the hope it would eventually prove a bonanza forestalled effective action to raise money elsewhere. Throughout these years the College lived very austerely but nonetheless beyond its income. Webster succeeded in raising some money to make essential repairs in buildings, but nothing more could be undertaken. The only building erected during his presidency was the Psi Upsilon house.

Webster's most significant contribution during his tenure was boosting campus morale following 17 years of unrest and stagnation. The College's very low enrollments trebled during his administration, and Webster proved to be as popular a president as he was when he was a professor at Union. His Sunday afternoon religious discussion meetings were well attended.

At Webster's urging, the faculty introduced an alternative to the regular scientific course. Also, Webster made geology, human anatomy and physiology required courses (teaching the latter himself) and eliminated the course in military training introduced by Eliphalet Nott Potter.

Webster is said to have abolished an espionage system by which the physical education director gathered information on students and the faculty, but on the whole, he approved of Nott's system of "parental" government which made the faculty responsible for the moral and physical, as well as the intellectual development of students. He wanted to see a Union College of about 250 students, drawn from a wide area: "Old Union should not become a local college; it has not been such in the past, and it must not be so in the future," he once said.

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