Clarkson University is celebrating its quasquicentennial, the 125th anniversary. These 125 years have encompassed both World Wars, the Great Depression and various recessions, and the birth of electricity, then computers and the internet. Technology is changing. Education is changing. Demographics are changing. The ability to deal with constant change has been baked into Clarkson’s DNA. At the University’s founding, Gen. Francis A. Walker, president of MIT, highlighted Clarkson’s unique mission: “to search out those real needs of the American people in the matter of education which are at present unsupplied. It is essential to this function, that Clarkson remains in a state of flux; open to all impressions, mobile under all influences; not too soon assuming that they have found their ultimate resting place and have taken on their distinctive characteristics.”
Over the last 125 years, the needs of the American people in the matter of education have changed. At the time of the University’s founding, local workers needed to be capable of fostering development in local industries. When the country was on a war footing, engineering and technical skills were needed in both the military and industry. After WWII, Clarkson answered the national call to retrain returning GIs. With peace and prosperity came the need for training in new technologies, especially those related to computers and space. Now, in the 21st century, our graduates need to be prepared for an interdisciplinary, international ecosystem.
The Founding Era (1896-1917)
The Civic Duty Era (1917-1960)
The Computer Era (1970-1999)
The Sustainability Era (2000-2021)
At Clarkson’s centennial celebration in 1996, the University’s newly inaugurated President Dennis Brown proclaimed Clarkson would be ready for the 21st century because, “We have the best mix of academic programs; we have the pragmatism of a professionally oriented culture with the leavening and enrichment of the liberal arts; we have strong technological underpinnings to equip our graduates for success and to keep our curriculum vital; we are an optimal size to be nimble and agile as we face rapidly changing environments in the marketplace; we have an enviable reputation for being an exceptionally creative university — one of the most creative in the country.”
Clarkson entered the 21st century as a small, rural undergraduate university with a nationally and internationally renowned research agenda in materials processing. Now, 20 years into the 21st century, we remain a small, rural undergraduate university, but have two affiliate campuses and seven active centers for research and entrepreneurship. We earn national awards and accolades for top programs in engineering, business and sustainability.
In celebration of Clarkson’s 125th anniversary, we look back at our history. Knowing where we’ve been can inform changes we make in the future. The changes may seem radical, but will stay true to Clarkson’s purpose: educating students who possess both the hard and soft skills needed to be leaders in their industries and communities. Charged with educating these students are faculty involved in cutting-edge research and interdisciplinary projects. Educational experiences beyond the classroom are harnessed in real-life projects through co-ops and internships, team competitions and course projects. A Clarkson education means students experience the importance of participating in a wider ecosystem. We model this by participating in the broad community of stakeholders, including corporations, K-12 students, teachers, families, the local economy and national security organizations.
This look back at our history highlights the changes in education and research, in the student experience and in Clarkson’s participation in addressing the needs of the nation. The history has been carved, not too neatly, into four periods: the Founding Era, the Civic Duty Era, the Computer Era and the Sustainability Era.
Within each era, we look not only at the vision for education, but also at the development of the built environment and the tenor of student life. Enabling students to develop as people, not just as professionals, has always been a Clarkson goal. Much of the Clarkson experience is extracurricular. Students make lasting connections and friendships with roommates; SPEED, sports or competition teammates; fraternity and sorority members; and other club members.
While the Potsdam students experience the myriad offerings of a small residential campus, the Clarkson experience is developing beyond the limits of Potsdam to reach more people: professionals, K-12 children and families. Clarkson first gained a foothold in the Adirondacks through the Trudeau Biomedical Scholars and Adirondack semesters in Saranac Lake. We then moved south, acquiring the Capital Region Campus in Schenectady through the merger with Union Graduate College. Further expansion included the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries, added in 2011, in the Hudson.
Our expanded campuses position us near two critical waterways: the Saint Lawrence and Hudson rivers. Owing in part to this geographic expansion, Clarkson, in collaboration with SUNY ESF, has recently received funding from New York state to establish a Center of Excellence in Healthy Water Solutions.
Clarkson’s leadership pertaining to healthy water fits with its current strategic focus on sustainability. As our climate changes, the nation needs a safe water supply and a stronger emphasis on renewable energy and recyclable materials.
The University’s new strategic focus on sustainability circles back to Clarkson’s founding principle: to address the educational needs of the people. We are using our creativity, technological skills and understanding of the broader ethical and economic ecosystems to make a difference in the lives of our students and society. We think Thomas S. Clarkson would have been proud.
Founded as a Memorial to Thomas Streatfeild Clarkson
Clarkson’s move into the 21st century has not only remained true to the spirit of Thomas S. Clarkson, in whose honor the school was founded, but has also upheld the work ethic of the Clarkson women who built, funded and nurtured the institution.
Thomas S. Clarkson believed in hard work, innovation and community. A business and civic leader in late-19th-century Potsdam, he was self-motivated to begin projects in new fields of expertise. For years, he tended his 1,000-acre family estate as a gentleman farmer. When his beloved brother died, however, he put the foremen in charge and began developing sandstone and marble quarries, experimenting with different machinery and cuts. The flat, brick-like style of stones changed to rough ashlar stones, with which he refaced Trinity Church and built the Bayside Cemetery gates and caretaker’s lodge.
He developed or operated wood, glass, electricity and food factories, all which required very different machinery yet were all powered by water wheels on the Raquette River. When his factories on Fall Island burned down, he hesitated to rebuild, but felt an obligation to his employees. He designed and developed the village sewage system and established the volunteer fire department. Additionally, he was on the village committee to greet President Harrison if he visited, and also on a committee to design and build a bridge across the Saint Lawrence River at Waddington.
The men he worked with on these committees were village leaders, many of whom ultimately became trustees for the new Thomas S. Clarkson Memorial School of Technology. However, Thomas was also well-liked by the common workers, because he understood the disadvantages that people not as privileged as he experienced. To help such people, he created jobs and paid fair wages rather than cutting corners, jobs and salaries. He established a reading room in which someone read aloud the newspapers to those who were illiterate. And he offered a free night class in mechanical drawing for anyone self-motivated to learn. In fact, he dreamed of creating a school.
Before he could actualize that dream, however, Thomas, aged 57, died in a quarry accident in 1894.
The Founding Mothers of Clarkson University
Founded as the Thomas S. Clarkson Memorial School of Technology, the institution today is called simply Clarkson University — a more inclusive designation that celebrates the founding mothers. While Thomas was the inspiration, the actual hard work of creating the school was done by his sisters, Elizabeth (61), Lavinia (48) and Frederica (32), and nieces, Annie (38) and Emilie (31). When the board of trustees was formalized, Elizabeth, Frederica and Annie served upon it, and at the 10-year anniversary, they were called upon to decide the colors, seal and motto for the institution.
Thomas and his sister Lavinia
While Elizabeth, Frederica and Annie served as trustees until their deaths, their service extended far into the future. As none of them had children, the entire Clarkson hill campus property of 600 acres, as well as income and other inheritances, was eventually bequeathed to the memorial school within the lifetime of the last Clarkson in Potsdam, Emilie.
Although they did not serve as trustees, Emilie and Lavinia deserve credit as founding mothers as well for their financial support of the school. Emilie, who preferred to give anonymously, had to fight in court to renounce her inheritance from Annie and give it to Clarkson College outright. She remained a friend and contributor to the college until her death in 1944.