During his inauguration, Union College President David Harris noted that he had read as many of his predecessors’ inaugural addresses as he could get his hands on.
At least one lesson emerged clearly: It’s impossible to know what the future holds.
“Despite their brilliance, none of my predecessors knew what the college and its graduates would face in the years ahead,” Harris said.
An exhibit at the college library this fall documents the legacy of those presidents as a welcome to the exclusive club’s newest member.
India Spartz, head of the college library’s special collections and archives, curated the exhibit in honor of the inauguration of Harris. Drawing from the college’s earliest archives, dating to the 1790s, the exhibit at Schaffer Library maps out the college’s history through snapshots of its presidents. It will be on display through Dec. 14.
In its 223-year history, Union has had just 19 presidents, all men. Eliphalet Nott, the college’s fourth president, boosted the average with his 62-year tenure, the longest college presidency in American history.
“I doubt that is ever going to change,” Spartz said of Nott’s record.
But Nott didn’t contribute as much to the written historical record of Union as much as he might have -- because Nott burned his presidential papers, Spartz said.
“As much as people might like to research him, we don’t have his papers,” Spartz said.
The exhibit grants equal space to all of the college’s leaders. A series of displays includes a copy of each president’s official portrait, a short description of his tenure and contributions, and an artifact of some sort.
The entries of the early presidents include centuries-old notes and transcriptions of sermons or lectures. Spartz marveled at the quality of the writing.
“This appointment that I have accepted,” Union’s third president, Jonathan Maxcy wrote in precise penmanship in a letter accepting his appointment. “I am sensible that I engage in an arduous undertaking; but I trust that I have the firm [and] steady support of the friends of the College.”
The college’s first president, John Blair Smith, started a string of early leaders who hailed from the country’s top schools as clergymen. In 1795, he became Union’s first leader.
“When this whole enterprise began, these were people, men, who came out of seminary,” Spartz said. “They were educated and learned.”
The early presidencies weren’t without turmoil. The presidency of Eliphalet Nott Potter, the grandson of Eliphalet Nott, was riled by faculty dissatisfaction and politics and viewed as a “legacy” of his grandfather’s term, Spartz said. While he championed the establishment of the school’s newspaper, the Concordiensis in 1877, it later served a sounding board for students upset with his administration.
The college’s first non-clergy president was also an alum of the school: Harrison Edwin Webster, a geologist who as a faculty member battled with Nott Potter and later replaced him.
Each president’s tenure took on a different valiance, with some long and some short, some coming during war and some in peace, some during boom years and some in depression.
While Laurens Perseus Hickok only served two years as president, he served as president-in-waiting for 14 years. As Nott neared the fifth decade of his presidency, Hickok accepted a position as a professor and vice president, with the assumption that he would assume the presidency after Nott died – 14 years later he did just that. He didn’t even get to live in the president’s house, because Nott’s wife still lived there.
Through the years, the presidents both reflected and shaped the course of the college. The early clergymen gave way to scientists, who gave way to formal academics and administrators. In the modern era, presidents have had to be prolific fundraisers and global champions of the college.
Harris, who in September was sworn in as the college’s newest president, turned to his predecessors for inspiration as he delivered his inaugural address. He acknowledged the major difference between him and the other presidents and raised the unanswered question of how lasting of a change his appointment will ultimately represent.
“In looking at me and the portraits of my predecessors, we can appreciate how far Union and society have come, while also being mindful of how far we still have to go,” the college’s first black president said. “As we have seen at the national level, whether a barrier has been punctured or broken is sometimes only clear with time.”
He also used his speech to outline his view of the presidency and the lessons he has learned in studying his predecessors.
“The president of Union College is the leader of a community,” Harris said. “There is much he or she can decide, but the president’s authority is not absolute and his or her perspectives should be questioned, albeit respectfully and constructively.”
Harris said that he had read his predecessors’ inaugural addresses – at the least the 13 that still exist – as he prepared his own, drawing wisdom from their words and caution from all they could not know.
The college’s first president delivered his inaugural address in Latin, he noted. Harris delivered his in English, the first live-tweeted Union College inaugural address.