Elmira College is a coeducational private liberal arts college located in Elmira, in New York State's Southern Tier region.
The college is noted as the oldest college still in existence which (as a college for women) granted degrees to women that were the equivalent of those given to men (the first to do so was the now-defunct Mary Sharp College). Elmira College became coeducational in all of its programs in 1969.
The college, founded in 1855, has an enrollment of about 1200 students. The school's colors, purple and gold, are seen throughout the traditional campus, consisting mainly of ivy-covered buildings of the Victorian and Collegiate Gothic architectural styles. The colors purple and gold come from both the banners of the women's suffrage movement and the iris, the college flower.
Offered are about thirty-five major areas of study, each ultimately leading to either a B.S. or B.A. degree upon a successful completion of undergraduate studies. Students attend two full terms in the fall and winter and then enroll in a 6-week, intensive "Term III" in the spring. This gives students a unique opportunity to study abroad, intern, or take classes not related to their majors so as to enrich the educational experience.
Elmira College has an extensive Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) archive and is one of the only two centers for Mark Twain Studies in the world. A quaint study of his is located on campus. In it the author wrote many of his most widely read novels: Life on the Mississippi, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Every four years the college perpetuates his legacy by hosting an international conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies.
Elmira College was first conceived by a group of men at a meeting on April 11, 1851 in Albany, New York. This group, which referred to itself as "Friends of Education" (12), had the intention of creating a college that would grant degrees to women; these degrees would be equal to the degrees given to men at the time. The chairman of the meeting was Reverend Isaac N. Wyckoff, D.D., who had had previous experience in female education as a principal of a girls' school in New Brunswick. The group adopted a series of resolutions devoted to the equalization of women's education with that of men. The six members of this group chose to create a committee, of which they were all members, that would carry out their resolutions.
On April 12, the committee appointed the Rev. Harvey A. Sackett, Yale College 1838, as the "General Agent" for the committee (14). His first task was to find a location for the college. A possibility was the city of Carmel, New York, but it was rejected for a more desirable central New York location. This desire materialized when citizens of Auburn, New York declared their wish for the committee to establish the college in their town to replace a female seminary that had been destroyed in a fire. The committee accepted the proposal and began working to raise funds for the establishment of the college in Auburn. However, the committee was unable to raise the necessary money or garner substantial interest, and by July 1853 the trustees of the Auburn seminary allowed the charter to be transferred to the city of Elmira.
This was, in part, due to Simeon Benjamin, who offered $5,000 to the committee if they moved the college to Elmira. In May 1853, the estate of Thomas Noyes was chosen as the site of the college. Architects were asked to submit possible designs for the building; the committee approved of the use of a Greek cross design. The Regents of the University of the State of New York gave a charter to the Elmira Collegiate Seminary on October 23, 1853; the name was later changed to Elmira Female College.
The first students at Elmira College arrived in October 1855, though there had been a strike led by the contractor. Thus when the students first arrived, the rooms had not yet been completely furnished; there was very little furniture in most rooms and the furnace was not yet in working order. Also, not all of the students were ready for college-level work, and were separated according to their abilities. The administration was plagued by a lack of sufficient funds for many years and a president when classes first began.
At the State Fair held in Elmira in September 1855, Reverend Augustus W. Cowles visited the college campus. At the end of October, the college board agreed to pursue Dr. Cowles as president of the college. A series of discussions and offers were made, and on June 5, Dr. Cowles was formally offered the position of president at Elmira College. Members of the board of trustees hoped that Dr. Cowles would "place the highest value upon Christian culture" (67), as said by Professor Boyd, a former contender for the presidency of Elmira College. Dr. Cowles echoed this sentiment in his speech at his inauguration, saying of the college, "religious plans and purposes lie at its foundations" (69).
The substantial funding providing to Vassar College by its namesake, Matthew Vassar, helped the college to overshadow Elmira College as the first college for women. However, Dr. Milo Jewett, Vassar’s first president, modeled the acceptance requirements and curriculum of his school upon those of Elmira College when Vassar opened in 1865.
The members of the first graduating class of Elmira College received their diplomas in 1859. With the beginning of the Civil War, the college began suffering from reduced funding. In response to this, Simeon Benjamin offered $25,000 - in return for certain changes. Desiring to entrust the care of Elmira to a larger group, Benjamin wanted a board of nineteen men "to be appointed by the Presbyterian Synod of Geneva" (85). Men from other Christian churches would be chosen as members in this new board. This was the result of Benjamin's intention to have Elmira College "...rest upon a noble, broad and Catholic basis” (85).
Instead of following the request for $50,000 from the New York legislature, a private attempt was made to collect $100,000. This attempt failed and in 1866, was replaced by the earlier desire for $50,000. Unfortunately, this fundraising campaign stalled at $40,000. Gilbert Meltzer, author of another book about Elmira College’s early years, declared that the Synod of Geneva hindered the college’s ability to collect funds (88).
When Simeon Benjamin died in September 1868, the president of the college, Dr. Cowles, assumed the task of managing the school's monetary affairs. Described by Barber as possessing "...the scholar-artist's inability to cope with money matters" (91), Dr. Cowles was unsuccessful in maintaining sufficient financial security for the college.
The college faced a difficult beginning. The student body was minuscule; in 1884, only three students were in the graduating class. Two reasons given for this situation are the national tumult caused by the Civil War and the opening of other colleges that admitted women.
Elmira College began to distance itself from the Presbyterian Synod of Geneva. Both Dr. Cowles and Eaton Frisbie, president of the trustees, expressed irritation over the Synod's lack of financial assistance in June 1871. Dr. Cowles believed that the lack of funds was caused by the perception that Elmira College was only on the level of a boarding school. He stressed hiring better professors to secure larger graduating classes.
The Fassetts offered their estate, Strathmont, for use by the College. However, it was decided that the school would not abandon their original buildings.
President Cowles continued to push for increased funds throughout the 1870s. In 1888, he announced his desire to resign as president of the college. Before leaving, Cowles declared that dropping the preparatory program at the college would strengthen students' diplomas; many other colleges, including Vassar, did not have such programs.
Elmira College had three presidents in the first seven years after Cowles resigned. He was often forced to become the interim president while a replacement was found. The first man selected in this series was Reverend Wilson D. Phraner, who guaranteed to donate one-fifth of any funds raised for improvements. Unfortunately, he was forced to retire six months later because of health problems.
His replacement was Reverend Charles Van Norden. One of his major alterations of the college was recommending the removal of "Female" from the college's name. Thus in 1890, the college’s official name became Elmira College. Also, a new building was constructed under Van Norden's tenure, Gillett Memorial Hall. Van Norden left shortly thereafter, citing a conflict between him and the board over discipline and internal affairs.
The third president in this rapid succession was Reverend Rufus S. Green, who was elected in the second half of 1893. In January 1896, he announced his resignation.
Five months later, Dr. Alexander MacKenzie was suggestion as a possibility for Elmira's next president. He told the board that he was in the process of raising $100,000 with $53,000 already raised. While he wanted to remain in Oswego, he accepted the presidency.
Dr. MacKenzie was largely responsible for rescuing Elmira College from closing its doors. Raising $38,000 helped the college to pay off some of its debts, and MacKenzie continued fundraising, gaining $100,000 to pay off the $90,000 debt. MacKenzie secured $30,000 from Andrew Carnegie in 1906, declaring that he could find other donors to give an additional $30,000. With this $60,000, the college built Carnegie Hall. In order to gain this money, Elmira had to change its charter. The Carnegie Foundation required that the college be independent and nonsectarian. Dr. MacKenzie, during his time as president increased both the amount of faculty members and students. On March 23, 1915 he died of illness, ending his term as president.
MacKenzie had sought to increase the amount of faculty members; these people helped to improve the school's academics. One person whom Dr. MacKenzie brought to Elmira was Martha Harris, who became dean of the school in 1901. Upon her arrival, Dean Harris formulated a student government, which gave some responsibility to the student body. She ordered the removal of sash curtains from students' rooms, though critics feared that the girls would be subjected to voyeurs. Also, she established May Day and a drama society. After the death of Dr. MacKenzie, Harris took over as Elmira’s president. Another faculty member hired during MacKenzie's tenure as president was Dr. Adelbert Hamilton. In 1918, he became the college's vice president while maintaining his status as a professor.
After MacKenzie's death, Dr. John Shaw was chosen as his replacement as president. He was inaugurated in November 1916. At this inauguration, Shaw announced that the college had procured $50,000 to build Alumnae Hall. During Shaw's presidency, Jacob Fassett proposed moving the college to his estate at Strathmont. In a letter written while in Florida, Fassett described the growth limitations from which Elmira would suffer from in later years. Others involved in the college, including Dean Harris, discussed ideas that would help the college grow in size for later development. In February 1918, Shaw announced his resignation. Several personal rumors about Shaw had been discussed, and Shaw sought to protect the reputation of the college from such rumors.
Dr. Frederick Lent was chosen as Elmira's next president. During Dr. Lent's term as presidency, students were required to attend chapel services and take courses in which the Bible was studied. Also during this period, the college began an Extension Department that allowed adult men and women to take classes. Dr. Lent set out to raise one million dollars for use in building more facilities at the college in 1922. By June of the following year, over $700,000 had been raised. This money was used to build a new library and dormitory. In June 1935, Dr. Lent declared his decision to retire.
The college’s eighth president, William Pott, was elected in May 1935. He was unique in respect to previous presidents because he was not a clergyman. In fact, he came to Elmira from a position at General Motors. Pott intended to leave after a predetermined length of time, hoping not to stay on as president for too long, as he felt many other presidents did.
In June 1938, the trustees discussed the possible renunciation of the college’s ties to the Board of Christian Education of the Presbyterian Church. They felt that the limitations placed on the curriculum by the Board was "out of all proportion to the financial benefits resulting therefrom" (218).
Before the United States entry into World War II, Pott planned to raise $975,000, which would be used to build an auditorium known as Mark Twain Hall and the Seymour Lowman Memorial Pool. Because of financial constraints created due to the war, these buildings were never constructed.
In April 1947, Pott declared that his resignation would take effect in June 1948. Dr. Lewis Eldred replaced him as the ninth president of Elmira College; he took office in June 1949 and left five years later. His successor was Dr. J. Ralph Murray.
Elmira College became coeducational in 1969.
Elmira College is a member of the NCAA, New York State Women's Collegiate Athletic Association (NYSWCAA), ECAA, and Empire 8. Their mascot is the Soaring Eagle. Men's sports include basketball, golf, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, tennis and volleyball; while women's sports include basketball, cheerleading, field hockey, golf, ice hockey, lacrosse, soccer, softball, tennis and volleyball.
Elmira College has a National Championships in Women's Ice Hockey and Competitive Cheerleading.
Elmira College describes its orientation for new students as "a unique series of programs" to acclimate these students and their families to the campus. There are three parts to the orientation. The first takes place over two days in the summer, where students register for classes in the fall term and meet many other members of the incoming freshman class. A longer, strenuous, more formal orientation is held over the four days preceding classes. The third part, Family Weekend, occurs in early fall.
On April 30, 1954, Elmira College became licensed to educate international students. Such students comprise seven percent of the student population and come from about twenty different countries.
Those in charge of the academic aspects of the college created an honor system for the students; during tests, students were not to be watched by the teacher.
In 1867, the Elmira College Alumnae Association was created.
Anna Bronson, the first dean of Elmira College, came to the school in the 1860s. She thoroughly enforced the rules. For example, the students’ schedule was rigidly set: they woke up at 5:00 in the morning and had lights out at 9:45 at night. A chaperone was required for trips into town.
Professional men were invited to speak at the college, beginning in 1874. The college has had some notable commencement speakers in its history. William Howard Taft, former president, spoke in 1919. Four years later, Sir Auckland Geddes, a former British ambassador to the United States gave a speech at the graduation ceremony.
During Dr. Pott's presidency, Elmira College began an academic program for veterans. GIs were able to study at the college for two years before moving to another college to receive their diplomas. This program was important to the development of the college because it showed the strength of the college. As W. Charles Barker wrote, "An A student at Elmira was an A student wherever he landed" (227). Also, it, along with the program for males under Westinghouse scholarships, brought male students to the all-female college. The Westinghouse-Elmira College Scholarships were started in 1952. These scholarships allowed men, and women, to study at Elmira College in pursuit of an associate degree in applied science.
In 1940, Elmira College was granted a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.
Elmira College's academic calendar contains a special six-week Spring Term, which is held in April and May. Courses taken during this term are usually not major-required, but can count as elective courses. They "tend to aim at the generalized aspect of student education" (Bulletin 24). However, some specialized courses are taken during this six-week period, such as lower level student teaching courses for education majors. Several courses are taught in foreign countries as part of the college's study abroad program.
Buildings of the College
For eighty years, Elmira College possessed an observatory built by Professor Charles Farrar. Professor Farrar began buying telescopes for the observatory in 1859, and construction began in August 1859. The observatory first opened for use in April 1860 under the control of the Elmira Academy of Sciences. Twenty years later, control was transferred to Elmira College. Students would gather in the observatory for "dome parties" (102). "The domed building, which occupied a triangular plot fronting on Seventh Street, stood until 1939" (94).
Park Place School was housed in the observatory, and provided students with use of the college facilities. In June 1895, plans were made to construct a building specifically for the school.
There was a chapel at Elmira College, in which a memorial plaque was placed to remember the first dean of the college, Anna M. Bronson. The chapel underwent renovation at one point in its history, along with the rest of Cowles Hall.
Alumnae Hall was built in 1917 as a sophomore dormitory.
The first gymnasium at the college was built in 1924. This wooden gymnasium was built as a temporary structure until a permanent one could be erected.
The school had College Apartments built a block south of Tompkins Hall in 1948.
Before the advent of refrigeration, the college stored ice collected from the Puddle in an icehouse. The icehouse was located on the eastern part of campus.
The first incarnation of the Elmira College museum existed in Cowles Hall, but its artifacts were later moved to Gillett Memorial Hall.
MacKenzie Cottage was originally a residence built sometime around 1890. It became a dormitory in 1916.
Barber, William Charles (1955). Elmira College: The First 100 Years. New York: McGraw Hill. LCCN 55-009100.