Skidmore History

Centennial Reflections

Lucy's Values Still Shape Skidmore Culture

College centennials are opportunities for nostalgia and also useful chances to learn from the past. While there are obvious differences between the infant Young Women’s Industrial Club of 1903 and the established Skidmore College of 2003, a close look back to 1903 shows the roots of three important characteristics of today’s college—its commitment to diversity, its ethic of service, and its willingness to take risks in order to achieve its highest goals—that stem directly from the ideas of its founder, Lucy Skidmore Scribner.

In 1903 in Saratoga Springs—and indeed throughout America—women were disenfranchised, denied reproductive freedom, and expected to focus primarily on domestic roles; they could legally be refused jobs, equitable pay, and access to education. People of color were systematically denied civil rights, and religious discrimination was both legal and commonplace. At the same time there were some progressive believers in civil rights and a fairer society, and they included Lucy Scribner.

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Left: Students help out the dining hall by working in the college's victory garden
during World War II.

Right: Seniors in 1992 volunteer with four-year-olds at Saratoga's YMCA.

Lucy and her board of directors boldly stated that the Young Women’s Industrial Club would be “open to all girls and women of good character, Protestant or Catholic, white, Negro or Indian.” They were committed not only to giving unmarried women the skills to support themselves (and to helping married women improve their lives as well), but they also made a point of airing new ideas by bringing in progressive speakers such as Judge Ben Lindsey, who developed the first juvenile courts in the country, and Jane Addams, who was not only the founder of Hull House, a model settlement house in Chicago, but also a founder of the NAACP.

Yet in many respects the YWIC was a product of its time—for example, even while classes were open to all races, the Choral Union Club was allowed to reject an African-American applicant because of her color. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Skidmore discreetly but firmly discouraged the enrollment of African-American students; it also considered imposing a quota on the admission of Jewish students, but (unlike a number of other colleges) it never explicitly adhered to such a quota. After the ’40s the college returned to a policy closer to that of Lucy Scribner and in fact soon began to actively recruit students of color.

Today pluralism and variety in the student body remain paramount college values. Students now come from forty-four US states or territories and twenty-five foreign countries, some 40 percent receive financial aid, and more come from public than from private schools. In 1971, when students held a sit-in to demand stepped-up minority recruitment efforts, students of color accounted for less than 10 percent of the student body; in 2003, the figure was 14 percent. Each yearstudent clubs and the Intercultural Center sponsor campus celebrations of black history, Hispanic heritage, Asian culture, and various religious traditions. Most college leaders feel more diversity is still needed, including among the faculty, and the 2002 strategic plan cites increasing campus diversity as a key goal.

The founding of the YWIC reflected Lucy Scribner’s own commitment to community service, which had been her response to deep personal loss. As a young woman she began teaching sewing in her church’s mission school, and after she was widowed she also volunteered at a home for blind and aged women. For her, social problems existed to be solved, and those who had the resources to improve society had a moral obligation to do so.

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above: HEOP freshmen in 1996
enjoy a summer session with
Jenell Horton ’91.

below: Male students, mostly
WW II vets, play in the college’s
first and last football game, in 1946.

Lucy and her fellow directors worked to pass on their organizational skills and charitable impulses to the girls of the YWIC, who were encouraged to form little clubs of their own, that they might learn parliamentary procedure, minute-taking, and financial record-keeping, which they would find useful as grown women leading organizations of their own.

And Skidmore has continued the tradition of community service. When America entered World War I, every Skidmore student, faculty member, and administrator joined the school’s chapter of the Red Cross, to knit warm garments for soldiers, roll bandages for military hospitals, and aid families of servicemen. During the Great Depression sociology students surveyed Saratoga’s unemployed and tried to convince local employers to hire more workers. In World War II all students were required to perform “community service” (cleaning dorms and serving meals to replace college employees who had found work in defense industries) and to support the war effort through everything from working in victory gardens to scanning the skies for enemy planes. Skidmore students have regularly volunteered in local schools, hospitals, and social-service agencies.

Today student service projects, often coordinated through the student club Benef-Action, include tutoring at-risk children, helping staff the local soup kitchen, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, and cleaning up area parks and cemeteries. Some courses now include “service learning” components in their academic content. Lucy wanted her students to use their talents and skills to improve their community, and she would surely applaud the efforts of today’s Skidmore volunteers.

Diversity and community service—what thoughtful member of the Skidmore community would object to these? But another central theme in Skidmore’s history is fraught with a certain amount of peril: the college’s tendency to take risks, some of which seem for a time to endanger its very survival. And this Skidmore trait too is traceable all the way back to Lucy Scribner herself.
When she moved to Saratoga Springs, Lucy had a personal fortune somewhat in excess of $1 million (worth approximately $18-20 million today). This was hardly in the Rockefeller league, but she was more than merely comfortable—she was rich. From the very beginning, she tapped her personal funds to purchase buildings and cover deficits in the budgets of the YWIC and later the Skidmore School of Arts. In 1910, for example, when the club’s budget was about $18,300, her deficit contribution was $5,600.

Between 1916 and 1922, Lucy Scribner transferred about 85 percent of her personal fortune to the infant college: $400,000 worth of buildings and $450,000 in stocks and bonds, which comprised the institution’s first endowment. When she died in 1931, her $1 million fortune had been reduced to only $156,000—not by the Depression, but by her gifts to Skidmore, which was also the principal heir to her estate. At his inauguration President Phil Glotzbach promised to ask donors not just to give, but to give until it hurts. Lucy Scribner would know all about that—she gave her entire fortune to develop a fledgling girls’ club into a viable full-scale college. If Skidmore had failed, all her resources would have gone for nothing.

Lucy’s embrace of risk on behalf of the college she loved was matched by other leaders of Skidmore. President Charles Henry Keyes took an enormous professional risk in undertaking to transform a small extension school of part-time students into a real college, in less than ten years. He faced huge difficulties—an uncertain market for women’s colleges, minimal resources, an unresponsive state bureaucracy—but he successfully established Skidmore College in 1922.

Skidmore’s third president, Val Wilson, along with visionary donor Erik Jonsson, took a momentous gamble in 1961: Skidmore would relocate from its downtown buildings to a new campus that would be built from scratch. He also increased the size of the institution, in the face of a shortage of qualified professors, a tiny endowment, and competition from other colleges that were also expanding to accommodate the baby boomers. It was a considerable risk, but without it Skidmore might well have shared the fate of the dozens of U.S. colleges that closed in the 1970s.

Perhaps Joe Palamountain’s biggest risk was accepting the job of president at all—the new campus was well under way, yet the money to complete it was nowhere in sight. Nevertheless in 1968, together with his dean of the faculty, Edwin Moseley, and a generation of young faculty leaders, he took up the challenge of developing a whole new curriculum. Soon afterward,as interest in women’s colleges dwindled nationwide, Palamountain convinced Skidmore’s trustees and alumnae to accept a major change in the character of the college and adopt coeducation.

Skidmore had some very tough times during the transitions of the 1970s, and some (including the college’s accountants!) wondered if Palamountain’s risks were worth taking, but in the end a staggering deficit was paid off, the budget balanced, and the new campus built. And more and more potential students began applying to Skidmore.

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left: In support of new campus construction, alumnae shower President
Joe Palamountain with play money representing reunion donations.

right: Collaborative research—like a dig by archaeologist Sue Bender
and Jackie Abodeely ’97—is supported by college and foundation funding.

Palamountain’s successors continued with bold steps of their own. A major fundraising campaign led by President David Porter helped realize his vision for academic excellence, supporting endowed professorships, student-faculty collaborative research, an innovative Honors Forum, and the ambitious new Tang Museum. A stalwart commitment to financial aid, even under fierce budget pressures, has helped bring in an increasingly talented and diverse student body, making Skidmore a much richer and more vital learning environment.

If Lucy were to visit Skidmore today, her message would be something like this: “Please care tenderly for my college. See that it holds open its doors to all manner of worthy students, encourage all members of the community to serve each other and the world, and never avoid a course of action merely because it entails a daunting risk. Carry forwad the Skidmore heritage through both generosity and enterprise."

Mary C. Lynn, professor of American studies, is the author of Make No Small Plans: A History of Skidmore College.

 

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