In February 1795, following a lengthy battle, the state Board of Regents, meeting in New York City, granted a charter to establish a college in Schenectady.
Days later, when the news finally reached what was then a frontier town with just a few thousand residents, it ignited a series of celebrations, with proud townspeople displaying flags, ringing bells and lighting bonfires.
The charter was the first granted in the state by the board.
On Thursday, the campus community gathered in Memorial Chapel to celebrate the 220th anniversary of that charter on Founders Day.
“We have so much to celebrate; so much to be grateful for,” said President Stephen C. Ainlay. “It’s an amazing feat to not only survive but thrive for 220 years. We are among relatively few institutions of higher education in this country that can make that boast.”
Touching on some of the challenges the school has faced in its storied history, Ainlay said, “I cannot help but be impressed and inspired by the resilience, commitment and resolve of those who preceded us in stewarding this great institution.”
In introducing the keynote speaker, Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College since July 2002 and a nationally recognized champion of liberal arts education, Ainlay reaffirmed Union’s belief in the importance and relevance of the humanities to today’s world.
Trombley, whose visit coincides with the recent opening of Karp Hall, talked on “The Enduring Value of the Humanities.”
“There is an increased need for the humanities to help us cognate the "human experience," particularly in view of our multiple global challenges,” she told the audience.
Noting that we have reached a cultural crossroads, she expressed dismay at the lack of respect afforded the humanities.
“Do we really need to explain why poetry, art, philosophy and theater matter?” she said. “Really, at what point did we have to start defending the value of knowing ourselves? Of human complexity? Of analysis? Communication? Meaning?”
A noted Mark Twain scholar, Trombley is the author of five books, including Mark Twain in the Company of Women and Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years.
In June, she will become president of The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, one of the world’s leading centers of humanities research, in San Marino, Calif.
After her talk, Trombley met with a group of faculty, staff and students for a discussion in Karp Hall, the former Humanities building, which recently underwent a major renovation. The building will be formally dedicated at ReUnion in the spring.
Also at Founders Day, Therese McCarty, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs, presented Katerina Toulatos, who teaches Spanish at Millennium High School in New York City, with the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award. Named for the 1809 graduate of Union who was New York state’s first superintendent of public education, the award is given to secondary school teachers who have had a continuing influence on the academic life of Union students.
Toulatos was nominated by Lai Wa Wong ’17, an interdepartmental major studying computer science and sociology.
The ceremony also featured the Camerata Singers, under the direction of John Cox, performing Long Time Ago by Aaron Copeland. The performance was led by Matthew Anisfeld ’15, accompanied by Palmyra Catravas, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.
The celebration opened with remarks from William A. Finlay, College marshal and chair of the Theater and Dance Department; Frank Messa ’73, a member of the College’s Board of Trustees; Ron Bucinell, associate professor of mechanical engineering and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee; and Ben Saperstein ’15, Student Forum president.
The hour-long ceremony concluded with Ode to Old Union, led on organ by Professor of Music Dianne McMullen.