The beginnings of The College at Brockport far predate the institution of the SUNY system.
“Without the Erie Canal, there would be no college in Brockport.”
State University of New York College at Brockport, Gigliotti, Leslie, and O’Brien
The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 helped to create a thriving center for agriculture and commerce in what would become the Village of Brockport. Incorporated in 1829 and named for Heil Brockway, the largest landowner in the area, the flourishing canal port town focused its attention on building churches, good roads and schools. With a donation of cash and land from Brockway, the village leaders partnered with the New York Baptists to build the first institution of higher education west of Colgate University. The first “College at Brockport” welcomed its first students in 1835.
Years of hardship followed brought on by economic downturns—the Civil War, and a devastating fire that caused the institution to all but shutter its doors for good. However, determined villagers rallied around the school, and classes resumed in 1841. As an academy, the Brockport Collegiate Institute offered teacher training, elementary classes for young children, and academic and professional training for older students. Courses included Latin, Greek, surveying, piano, painting, French and German. In addition to the wide age range of its students, the academy also accepted women and minorities when many other colleges were largely closed to them. In a very real sense the Brockport Collegiate Institute was the "people's college" of its time. While the Collegiate Institute was a scholastic success, it still struggled financially. In 1866, largely through the efforts of Malcolm MacVicar, who was principal and a leader in education circles, the school became one of the four new state “normal” schools established in New York.
Normal schools got their name from an early French teacher training institution. The academies had conducted teacher training classes but their limited attention to the task inevitably yielded limited success. The Normal schools were part of a revolution in education taking place in 19th-century America, in which the need for teachers to receive training, and especially in teaching methods in addition to subject knowledge was becoming more and more evident. Thus teacher training became a major focus of the school, although the old academy collegiate tradition was continued in a separate department until the turn of the century.
One key element of the teacher training philosophy of that era was to maintain a "practice" or "demonstration" school attached to the Normal School. Students for the school came from the local community and were taught by student teachers who worked under experienced teacher "critics."
Charles McLean was the principal for the first several decades of the school and helped to establish one of the major elements of the Normal School's culture, that of the Greek Letter Societies which flourished at the school from 1869-1940.
The last Normal School class graduated in 1942 after which the school officially became a college, meaning it could grant the bachelor's degree. (Normal School grads received only a certificate of study when they finished, which entitled them to teach in the New York schools.) This enhancement of status was due in good part to the efforts of President Ernest Hartwell, who, like Malcolm MacVicar and many other Brockport figures, played a leading role in the education movements of the time. Starting as Brockport State Teachers College, the new school was automatically included in the new SUNY system which was established in 1948.
The years after World War II were a time of tremendous growth for higher education, as thousands of veterans went to college on the G.I. Bill. Brockport began a period of expansion in that time that was unprecedented in the school's history.
When Donald Tower became president of the school in 1944, the entire campus was what we now call Hartwell Hall. There were a few hundred students and the faculty and staff numbered under 50 people. The sole purpose of the school was to train elementary school teachers. By the time he (Tower) retired in 1964 there were several thousand students and several hundred faculty and staff members. The campus had expanded greatly, adding residence halls and a college union, and expanding across Kenyon Street and down Holley Street. The purpose and organization of the College had also grown, as it evolved into a liberal arts college with a number of master's degree programs. The first graduate degree was awarded in January of 1950. By 1981, there were 1,185 graduate students enrolled in 11 different programs. Today, Brockport has more than 1,400 graduate students enrolled in 29 programs.
In the early years of President Albert Brown (1965-1981), the school's growth rate built to a height of activity, seeing the high-rise residence halls, library and other buildings rise up to make the campus that one sees today. The school continued to evolve in the last years of the 20th century under the leadership of President John Van De Wetering (1981-1997), who launched the MetroCenter, Brockport's classroom complex in downtown Rochester. During his tenure, Brockport's international education program greatly expanded to become the largest in the SUNY system and among the 10 largest in the US.
From 1997 to 2004, under the leadership of Paul Yu—working closely with faculty, staff and students—Brockport achieved new levels of excellence and recognition, from acquiring the latest information technologies to improving campus communications to increasing admissions standards. Brockport became recognized throughout New York and within the SUNY system as an innovative and dynamic institution. Noteworthy achievements included: an increase in average SAT scores from 1002 in 1998 to 1071 in 2004, increase in first-year retention rate from 71 percent in 1998 to 83 percent in 2004, and an increase in funded faculty research grants from $3.5 million in 1999 to $5.7 million in 2004.
In August 2005, John R. Halstead, PhD became Brockport’s sixth president. President Halstead brought a range of leadership experience to the College, including a seven-year term as president of Mansfield College in Pennsylvania, several vice president positions and post-doctoral work at Harvard University's Institute of Educational Management. Beginning early in his tenure, he met and developed relationships with numerous government, corporate and community leaders to increase Brockport’s visibility in the region, and formed partnerships to further promote student success. His inauguration was celebrated April 7, 2006.
In his tireless efforts to raise the visibility of the College and boost the quality of life on the campus for students, faculty and staff, President Halstead has overseen exciting new construction projects, including the new townhome complex for upperclassmen, the Harrison Dining Hall renovations and much-needed repairs to the Drake Memorial Library and other facilities. The preliminary stages of the Special Events Recreation Center (SERC)—a facility that will enhance Brockport athletics and provide a state-of-the-art performance space—are well underway. The President also has made it his mission to engage the citizens of the Greater Rochester Area, community leaders, and alumni through programs such as Business Briefings and by cultivating relationship with New York State Governor David Paterson, whose regional office is located in the MetroCenter, the College’s Rochester campus.
In addition, Dr. Halstead has championed a major brand development initiative on behalf of the College. The brand work, based on countless interviews with representatives of all constituencies of the College, has yielded brand tools and a strong visual identity system that will be used to distinguish the College from the many other institutions of higher education in the region and accurately describe the many advantages we offer our students. The College’s promise – to reveal to each student, each day, his or her capacity for intellectual, physical and creative accomplishment – truly speaks to the unwavering commitment of faculty and staff to student success and to the promise of a multi-dimensional education – one that engages and develops the whole person.
The change in the expression of the College’s name to The College at Brockport, State University of New York, is intended to bring focus to the College in the context of the State University of New York – one of the largest and most respected educational systems in the world. This is not a legal or an official name change, but one that was approved by the Interim Chancellor John Clark.
Under the visionary leadership of President Halstead, the College will continue to expand its programs with leading edge technology, improve and expand its infrastructure, champion the success of students, faculty and staff, and continue to be a leader in higher education for the region.
To learn more about the history of this school, feel free to visit the college archives, from which this document originates.
Last updated: 10/22/10