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INTRODUCTORY SKETCH OF THE UNIVERSITY OF
THE STATE OF NEW YORK.*
By David MURRAY, Ph. D., LL. D , Secretary.
1. The Board of Regents. The University of the State of New York is an organization including all the incorporated colleges of the State, together with the incorporated academies and the academical departments of public schools. The governing body of this University is a Board of Regents, composed in part of State officers, who are Regents, ex officio, and in part of members elected by the Legislature. Their functions are those of supervision and inspection, and not of instruction. The original theory of the corporation was that of an English University, composed of separate and independent colleges, established not necessarily in the same locality, but distributed throngh the State, as circumstances might call for thein. Certain parts of this original plan proved impracticable, and changes, some of them radical, were introduced by subsequent legislation.
The original act creating the University was passed by the Legislature
, May 1, 1784, at its very first session after the close of the Revolutionary War. It was in response to a very strong appeal from Governor George Clinton, in his annual message. It is entitled “An Act for granting certain privileges to the college heretofore called King's College, for altering the name and charter thereof, and erecting an University within this State.” King's College had been broken up by the war, its property had been sacrificed, many vacancies existed in its corporation, and legislative intervention bad become necessary to effect a reorganization. By this act the corporate rights of King's College were vested in a new corporation thereby created and termed “ The Regents of the University of the State of New York.” The principal State officers were made ex-officio Regents; twenty-four others, men of the highest character and distinction, were named in the act, and it was provided that “the clergy of the respective denominations might meet together and appoint one of
* Reprinted by permission from the “Public Service of the State of New York," with additions, bringing it down to 1881.
their body to be a Regent,” and keep his place filled. The Fellows, Professors and Tutors of any college were also empowered to act as Regents in respect to their own college. The Regents were empowered from time to time to establish such additional colleges as they might think proper, such colleges to be considered as parts of the State University and to be under the control of the Regents. Experience, however, very soon showed that a body constituted, like this Board, of men residing in different localities and engaged in engrossing occupations, could not be assembled for business except on very urgent occasions. An enlargement of the number and a limitation as to a quorum were found necessary. IIence, on the 26th of November, 1784, the act previously passed was amended, by adding to the Regents named in the preceding act thirty-three others therein named, and providing that a legal quorum for the transaction of business should be eight besides the Chancellor. The Board was organized by the election of Governor George Clinton, Chancellor, Pierre Van Cortlandt, Vice-Chancellor, and Robert IIarpur, Secretary. Its meetings were chiefly held in the Assembly Chamber in New York city, but sometimes at the Exchange, and sometimes at the house of one "John Simmons, innkeeper.” Its chief business, during this period, was the government of Columbia College, which, up to 1795, constituted the only college of the University.
The Board created by these two acts proved a cumbrous body. Its members were so numerous (sixty-four, exclusive of clerical representatives) and so widely scattered, that full meetings could not be obtained. Its powers extended to the financial as well as the educational control of the colleges, and already Columbia College felt the inconvenience of having its finances administered by a body so little identified with its interests. The movement for a reform began in the Board itself. A committee was appointed to consider the defects of the organization and submit to the Legislature a revised forın of
Alexander Hamilton and Ezra L'Hommedieu, both at that time Regents, the former a member of the Lower House of the Legislature and the latter a member of the Senate in 1787, were the leading spirits in this reform. This committee presented to the Board an elaborate and able report, setting forth the defects in the law and the urgent importance of making provision for the spread of education in the State. This report contains one notable passage, which serves to show that this Board appreciated the value of general education, as well as of the higher education with which they were more particularly charged. These are their words: “But before
your committee conclude, they feel themselves bound in faithfulness to add that the erecting of public schools for teaching reading, writing and arithmetic is an object of very great importance, which ought not to be left to the discretion of private men, but be promoted by public authority. Of so much knowledge, no citizen ought to be destitute, and yet it is a reflection as true as it is painful, that but too many of our youth are brought up in utter ignorance.”
The committee embodied its views in a bill which was passed by the Legislature, April 13, 1787. This law in all its general provisions, after a hundred years, still remains in force, and forms the basis of the present system of collegiate and academic education in the State. It repeals, specifically, all preceding legislation on the subject and begins entirely anew. It enacts “That an University be and is hereby instituted within this State, to be called and known by the name or style of The Regents of the University of the State of New York." It fixes the number of Regents at twenty-one, of whom the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor of the State for the time being shall be two. It names the remaining nineteen, and provides that they are to hold office during the pleasure of the Legislature, and that vacancies are to be filled by the Legislature. It is made a corporation, with power to hold property to the amount of the annual income of forty thousand bushels of wheat. It authorizes the Regents to visit and inspect all the colleges, academies and schools, which are or may be established in this State, to exainine into the state of education and discipline, and to make a yearly report thereof to the Legislature. It gives them power to confer degrees above that of Master of Arts. It empowers them to grant charters of incorporation to colleges and to academies, and to grant collegiate charters to such academies as may grow to be worthy of it. Besides the provisions relating to the University, the act ratifies and confirms the charter of Columbia College, names a Board of Trustees, and invests it with power to hold property, and with all other rights and powers possessed under its charter of 1754. It thus lays down the principle which has been since followed in the State, that the University should include and have the oversight of all the colleges and academies of the State, but that each should have its own Board of Trustees, who should constitute a body corporate for the management of its individual affairs.
A glance at the names of those who constituted the first Board will evince its high capacity. George Clinton, the Governor, was, by character, experience and learning, fitted to be its Chancellor.
It is to his honor that, from the beginning, he used his high opportunities to advance popular education. He was the first Governor to propose “the establishment of coinmon schools throughout the State.” Others of this Board deserve particular mention because of their enlightened attention to the important duties of their positions, and because of their great public services. Dr. John Rodgers was the pastor of the Brick Church in Beekman street. He was a man of great learning, and an ardent patriot in the Revolutionary struggle. He was of courtly presence, and, with his buzz-wig and threecornered hat, his gold-headed cane and his silver shoe-buckles, was a conspicuous figure. He was Regent from 1787 till his death in 1812. and from 1790 was Vice-Chancellor. Egbert Benson, one of the most learned jurists of his time, was born in 1746 and died in 1833. He was educated in Columbia College, and distinguished himself as a lawyer, as a judge, and in the State and National Legislatures. He was the first President of the New York Historical Society. He resigned the Regency in 1802. John Jay, the distinguished statesman, and the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, and Governor of the State, was the first Vice-Chancellor. No man had wider or more practical views as to education, or was more active and earnest in the work of the Board. Matthew Clarkson had been a member of the first Board of Regents, and had visited Europe as its agent in the interests of Columbia College. Others might be specially named: Dr. Benjamin Moore, afterward President of Columbia College, and Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of New York; Dr. Girardus Westerlo, the distinguished pastor of the Collegiate Dutch Church, New York; Dr. William Linn; Rev. John McDonald, and Frederick William Baron de Steuben.
The first meeting of this new Board was held July 17, 1787, at the Exchange, in the city of New York. Governor Clinton was chosen Chancellor, John Jay, Vice-Chancellor, and Richard Harrison, Secretary. There were present Dr. John Rodgers, Egbert Benson, John Jay, Matthew Clarkson, Dr. Benjamin Moore, Dr. William Linn and Frederick William de Steuben. An application was received for the incorporation of an academy at Flatbush, to be denominated Erasmus Hall.
This application was referred to a committee for examination, and at the next meeting, November 17, 1787, the charter prayed for was granted. This was the first academy chartered in the State, and the venerable institution still survives as a living memento of the first deliberations of the Board. The Clin
ton Academy, at East Hampton, received a charter at this same meeting, and others followed rapidly in successive years, so that by 1813 there were thirty academies incorporated. These were the pioneer institutions of learning in the State, preceding the establishment of common schools, and by their influence making common schools possible. The first college chartered by the Board was Union College, at Schenectady, in 1795.
The first annual report of this new Board to the Legislature was made in 1788, and consists of about two foolscap pages. The sucvessive reports of the Board contained valuable suggestions as to legislation, and nearly all the early laws relating to education, which are enacted by the Legislature, may be traced to the enlightened counsel of the Board. The recommendation, contained in the second report, that the State grant its unused lands to the Regents for educational purposes, may be considered to have been the origin of the Literature Fund. The Board was, to a certain extent, a legislative body, authorized to frame ordinances for the institutions under it. With the increase of the number of institutions, the duties of the Board were greatly multiplied. The places of holding the annual mectings of the Board varied with the migrations of the Legislature. Until 1798, when the Legislature found a permanent home in Albany, the Board alternated between New York, Poughkeepsie, Kingston and Albany. The special and adjourned meetings of the Board, however, up to 1798, were chiefly held in the city of New York, in and near which the greater number of the Regents resided.
Leaving the details of legislation to be described elsewhere, it will be sufficient to give here a summary statement of the laws at present in force relating to the powers of the Board, and of the various duties which are now devolved on it.
ORGANIZATION. — In 1812 the Secretary of State was created a Regent ex officio, and in 1854, in the act creating the office, the Superintendent of Public Instruction was also added. With these additions the Board now consists of twenty-three members, of whom four are Regents ex officio, viz. : the Governor, the LieutenantGovernor, the Secretary of State, and the Superintendent of Public Instruction, while the remaining nineteen are chosen by the Legislature in the same manner as United States Senators. The elected meinbers hold their office during the pleasure of the Legislature. A Regent must be a citizen of the State, and cannot be a Trustee, or any other officer, of any college or academy under the visitation of the Board. The officers of the Board are a Chancellor and Vice.