A brief history of Union College’s resilience in the face of adversity


Archival NottShot from 1876. (Source: WikiCommons)

Emily Coello, Staff Writer

If you didn’t know by now, Union College was founded in 1795. That makes Union practically as old as this country. This country has been through a lot in the past 225 years, and Union has been right there beside it through it all. It has seen wars, depressions, financial instability–it has pretty much seen it all. Union has seen some of the roughest parts of history and yet it has overcome a lot and has much to celebrate. 

During the American Civil War, this country was torn apart; this included not only family members and politicians, but also students of Union College. By the time the Civil War came around, Eliphalet Nott had been president for 54 years. While not an abolitionist, he was anti-slavery and often spoke openly about the subject of enslavement as well as bringing speakers to campus to elaborate on the issue. In the antebellum period, Union had its fair share of Southern students, but not nearly as many as its contemporary institutions. Nonetheless, it would have been enough for students to have been arguing with one another. Fraternities and literary societies alike had been debating enslavement, and they would have been the ones torn apart from their classmates. While Union was less “impacted” by the Civil War than it would be in subsequent wars, it still had an effect on the enrollment and the role of higher education, enslavement, and the Civil War in a broader sense. 

Until 1863, students in New York State were exempt from the draft. While it’s unclear whether students chose to enroll, were drafted or returned home, Union’s enrollment suffered, dropping from 321 students in the summer of 1860 to 153 students in the summer of 1865. To make matters worse, Eliphalet Nott had suffered from a stroke in 1859 which left him unable to teach, and it was imminent that Nott could not run Union forever. While there was the issue of low enrollment, there was also a decline in the money the college was receiving, making it difficult to run the college. Regardless of all of this, Union was not alone in how it had to deal with the Civil War: most Northern colleges were struggling to please all of their students, even with their differing home and financial situations, as well as political affiliations. While Union suffered, the nation suffered even more deeply. It was the bloodiest conflict to date in the history of the US. The important part to remember was that it took a long time to heal from that conflict, and in many ways, we still are healing. The return to “normalcy” wasn’t immediate, but unification rather than division proved the more rewarding path. 

During the Second World War, the United Kingdom adopted the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Even though they were an ocean away, I think Union felt that this would be the motto for how they  would continue to function as a college too. Things were very different on campus around 75 years ago. If you look back at old pictures, you can see tanks lining West Beach. For the nation, World War II was a time of austerity, rationing, and for young men, military service. For a college which is dependent on the enrollment of young men, WW2 was a trying time in Union’s history. I’m sure many students at that time would have liked to avoid a world war in their college careers as much as we would have preferred to avoid COVID-19 today but the war did come, inevitably affecting both the U.S. and Union alike. 

Dixon Ryan Fox, the 12th president of Union College, did his best to keep the college afloat during this time. According to a LibGuide from the Schaffer Library, Fox was the one who organized the Navy V-12 program at Union “to keep the College afloat during turbulent war time.” According to the Encyclopedia of Union College History, July 1943 to the Autumn of 1946 was dominated by this program and was the largest disruption to the college’s function in its history. After Pearl Harbor, Union even curtailed its Christmas vacation and moved up its 1941 commencement ceremony, mindful of the uncertainty about the future. Much like the confusion of the present day, President Fox said to the Board of Regents, “We are all of us confused, embarrassed and at times exasperated by the government’s inability to make a lasting decision as to the use to be made of colleges in the present war effort.” While our current situation may not be about war, it seems that Fox’s words resound into the present. Despite this uncertainty, the college adapted. Instead of Zoom, they had the V-12 program. Through all of this, this college survived. 

People here just don’t give up––that’s the beauty of it. Neither of these two experiences have been the same, and none of the previous situations have involved a pandemic. It’s an alienating time––it’s hard not to see people laid over the library plaza, or hanging out in the gardens. That’s what we all love about this place. It puts a smile on my face knowing that Union College has always gotten through the more arduous times in its past. We are lucky not to be in a precarious financial situation, as many other colleges are, we are lucky that the student body isn’t torn apart by an ideological issue. Our situation is not ideal, and it won’t be as easy as “just adapting.” It’s really, really tough and awful and frustrating, but there’s nothing this college and its incredible students can’t do as we carry on and adapt.