When word arrived via a messenger on horseback that the state Board of Regents, at its meeting in New York City, had granted a charter to establish a college in Schenectady, Joseph Sweetman and other students at The Schenectady Academy erupted in celebration.
It was February 1795, and the Academy, founded in part as a path to getting a college charter, was about to be transformed.
“The old brick Academy resounded with the tidings of success, and the night following the windows were well studded with candles and at the concerted signal all instantly in a blaze, the little bell on the top of the house jingling most merrily, the interior filled with happy boys and the streets crowded with sympathizing spectators,” Sweetman recalled at an event celebrating the historic moment 50 years later.
“Had you been there, you would have witnessed a joyful night when the old Academy was metamorphosed into Union College,” said Sweetman. He, along with Cornelius D. Schermerhorn and John L. Zabriskie, were the only three members of Union’s first graduating class in 1797.
On Thursday, the campus community gathered in Memorial Chapel to celebrate Founders Day and the 221st anniversary of the College’s charter, the first granted in New York state by the Regents.
“Founders Day provides us with an opportunity to revisit Union’s history and important themes that flow from this College’s mission and from its institutional identity,” said President Stephen C. Ainlay.
Before introducing the keynote speaker, Sherry Turkle, an expert on the psychology between people and technology, Ainlay cited the many accolades she has received for her timely book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” which was published last fall.
“Could there be a more relevant topic to explore on Union’s Founders Day,” Ainlay asked. “I think not, considering the importance that our founders, the designers of our campus architecture and grounds, and subsequent generations attached to being together, living as a learning community.”
Borrowing themes examined in her critically acclaimed book, Turkle lamented the impact digital devices have had on face-to-face conversation, with people leery of getting out of their comfort zone of constant texting and emailing.
As part of her research, Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, asked a young man what’s wrong with conversation.
“What’s wrong with conversation?” the man replied. “I’ll tell you. It takes place in real time, and you can’t control what you are going to say.”
Calling the reliance on digital devices an assault on empathy, Turkle said “we are at a moment when we know we are doing something that we know isn’t enhancing us.”
Yet Turkle is hopeful. She isn’t asking people to give up their phones or focus on their addictions to their devices. Instead, she calls for using them mindfully.
“Empathy is the place where conversation is born,” said Turkle, who is also the founder and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self.
“We need to be teaching empathy by talking to each other. Face to face is the most human and humanizing thing that we do. Conversation is there to reclaim. Conversation is the talking cure.”
Following her remarks, Turkle met with a group of faculty, staff and students for a discussion in the Nott Memorial.
Also at Founders Day, Therese McCarty, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of the Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs, presented Claire Bracken, associate professor of English, with the Stillman Prize for Excellence in Teaching. The prize was created by David I. Stillman ’72, Abbott Stillman ’69 and Allan Stillman in honor of Abraham Stillman, father and grandfather. It is given annually to a faculty member to encourage outstanding teaching.
A nominating student said Bracken embodies “what a liberal arts professor is about: helpful but leaving you to learn on your own; positive but tough; approachable yet rigorous.”
And a faculty colleague said of Bracken, “Across all of her English courses, students routinely give Professor Bracken the highest possible praise for her infectious enthusiasm, the way she encourages students and the way she engages them in discussion.”
McCarty also presented David Epstein, the band director at the Classical Magnet School in Hartford, Conn., 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.
Epstein was nominated by Zachary Sayah ’18, a mechanical engineering major. In his nominating letter, Sayah shared how Epstein helped cultivate his interest in music, particularly jazz.
Epstein “made a lasting impact not only on how his students learn, but on how they set high standards of excellence to guide their own choices,” Sayah wrote.
The ceremony also featured the Union College Chorale, under the direction of John Cox, performing Shall I Strive with Words to Move from A Pilgrims Solace (1615) by John Dowland.
The celebration opened with remarks from Shelton Schmidt, The Chauncey H. Winters Professor of Economic Thought, filling in for William A. Finlay, College marshal and chair of the Theater and Dance Department, who was ill; David Henle ‘75, vice chair of the Board of Trustees; Peter Bedford, John and Jane Wold Professor of Religious Studies and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee; and Ilan Levine ’16, Student Forum president.
The hour-long ceremony concluded with Ode to Old Union, led on organ by Professor of Music Dianne McMullen.