September 13th, 1871 marked the official opening of the Geneseo Normal and Training School, after years of negotiations and conflict on both the state and local levels (Fisher 2). The school was initially referred to as the Wadsworth Normal and Training School in Geneseo’s bid, approved by the state legislature in 1868 (Mahood 25). By the time the normal school commenced classes three years later, in September of 1871, the name of the institution had already changed, with “Geneseo” replacing “Wadsworth” to become “Geneseo Normal and Training School.”

As Mahood notes, this becomes something of a tradition, so much so that his history of the college is organized around its numerous names (Mahood 30). The school was initially contained within one building, known as “Old Main” (Mau 6). The faculty of thirteen instructors was led by Principal William J. Milne, and three hundred and fifty-four students were enrolled in the school in its first year (Fisher 62). The school was divided into two main departments, Normal and Academic. The Normal Department was intended only to develop teachers for elementary grades and the Academic Department, comparable to high school(Mahood 37-39). Three programs were offered in the Normal Department in 1871, and these remained largely unchanged through 1905: the two-year Elementary English Course, the three-year Advanced English Course, and the four-year Classical Course. Classes included geography, astronomy, book-keeping, declamation, school economy, and moral philosophy (Mau 8). The conclusion of Geneseo’s first academic year saw ten students graduate, though how these students finished programs meant to be completed in multiple years is unclear (Mahood 42).

James V. Sturges was named the new Principal of the renamed State Normal School at Geneseo (or State Normal School, Geneseo; the names were seemingly used interchangeably) in 1905, and almost immediately dealt with curriculum reforms. Due to changes of high school curriculum at the state level, Geneseo was forced to do away with the Academic Department and form a separate public high school in the village (Mahood 62-63). Further state reforms led to the requirement of a four-year high school diploma for admission (Mau 12). Principal Sturges reorganized the Training Department and created the Kindergarten Program, resulting in a number of new hires. The following years saw further campus and building renovations (Mahood 63-64). In 1914, the first summer school session was held, a longtime pursuit of Sturges. The last major curriculum change under Sturges came in 1922, when the special education program, required by the state in 1920, was first taught (Mahood 69). The fiftieth anniversary of Geneseo was celebrated in 1921, and in 1922 Sturges’ era ended after an extended leave of absence amidst confusion—Mahood explains his departure as a regretful request from the board to resign (78), Fisher describes it as an “enforced retirement” (183), and Mau glosses over any possible conflict, writing that “poor health forced him to retire” (12).

Winfield Holcomb then took over as principal of Geneseo, facing the challenge of the extension of all academic programs to three years, beginning in 1922. The first-year coursework was generally the same for all students, and then specializations were chosen in the second year, with options including Kindergarten-Primary, Intermediate, and the new and much-acclaimed Teacher-Librarian program. The special education program also became noted for its success around this time (Mahood 93-94).

Holcomb retired in 1934, and his predecessor, James B. Welles, son of one of the first ten graduates of Geneseo, faced financial difficulties brought about by the Great Depression. Prior to Welles’ appointment, faculty salaries were cut and enrollment was diminishing, causing concerns about the school’s continuation (Mahood 106-7). Additionally, the campus was badly in need of refurbishments and new buildings altogether. Despite nearly non-existent state funding, Geneseo obtained the funds to begin the construction of what eventually became the Sturges building. Plans were also made to build the Milne Library, Wadsworth Auditorium, and Schrader Gymnasium, those these buildings were not completed until the 1950s and ‘60s, presumably due to World War II (Mahood 110-12). Further improvements were also made to the school’s curriculum. Admissions standards were raised in 1935, and in 1937 an extensive exam became a state requirement for graduation (Mahood 113-15). By 1938, all programs were extended from three to four years, with the first baccalaureate degrees being earned by members of the Class of 1940 (Mau 14). The school achieved full collegiate status in 1942, leading to yet another name change, this time to “Geneseo State Teachers College” (Mahood 120).

This monumental victory occurred on the brink of World War II, and a number of faculty and students enlisted, with around eleven lost in the war. Enrollment declined and a Prison of War camp was placed near campus (Mahood 128-130). Despite these struggles, in 1943 the state-appointed Post-War Planning Commission was already organizing a campus expansion that included the delayed library and auditorium (Fisher 196). Plans for on-campus residence halls, a first for Geneseo, were also made (Mahood 134).

Principal Welles retired in 1946, shortly after legislation to create a state university was first discussed. He was replaced by Dr. Herbert Espy, the college’s first president (Mau 13). The State University of New York (SUNY) was officially established in 1948, following a forceful push to improve higher education by Governor Thomas E. Dewey, in part to allow for the increased enrollment nation-wide following the end of World War II and the veterans pursuing college under the G.I. Bill (Mahood 146). It was initially unclear how Geneseo would benefit from the new institution of SUNY, as teachers colleges were somewhat neglected and in 1950, Geneseo was still waiting on the desperately needed buildings approved in the early 1940s. Despite these continuing complaints, Geneseo had academic victories: its first master’s degrees were awarded in 1951, enrollment increased, and a performing arts program was authorized (Mahood 148-149).

A transformation of the campus began in late 1950. November of 1950 saw the opening of the College Center and residence halls now known as Blake Hall, and in the following May the demolition of Old Main began (Mahood 158). Following Espy’s retirement, President Francis Moench was appointed, and during his presidency, three more residence halls and several other buildings, including the Milne Library and Wadsworth Auditorium, were opened (Mahood 163). The Geneseo faculty also grew, with distinguished members including Dr. Walter Harding and Dr. Martin Fausold (Mahood 165). Further transformation occurred in 1961, when Geneseo became a liberal arts college following a 1951 state mandate (with a ten year grace period), and its name became State University of New York College of Education at Geneseo. Changes to the curriculum, including the creation of master’s programs, had occurred with this in mind (Mahood 167).

Massive changes occurred on campus through the next decade, led by Moench’s successor, President Robert MacVittie, appointed in 1963. Dr. Samuel Gould, the new president of SUNY, appointed 1964, completely revised SUNY’s master plan, pushing for a strong liberal arts core at the newly-designated liberal arts schools, including Geneseo (Mahood 190-92).  MacVittie took these changes in stride, and a large number of esteemed new faculty were hired. The academic program began to resemble what it is today in 1962, with students permitted to major in fields including biology, English, and mathematics. MacVittie also reorganized the academic subjects into divisions including natural sciences, humanities, and fine arts (Mahood 192-93). As liberal arts began to strengthen at Geneseo, the college was renamed State University of Arts and Sciences at Geneseo (Mahood 196). MacVittie also oversaw the construction of ten dormitories, an expanded library, and several academic buildings, including two science buildings. Three buildings, including the College Union (now MacVittie College Union) were designed by Edgar Tafel, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright (Mahood 198-199).

Geneseo celebrated its centennial in 1971, and as MacVittie temporarily departed, Thomas Colahan, vice president of academic affairs, took over as acting president to complete the college’s liberal arts transformation (Mahood 217). There was a desire to de-emphasize the teaching program, and make Geneseo more obviously liberal arts-oriented. Colahan began this by reorganizing the teaching program, and promising a School of Education, complete with a separate building. The secondary education program was also significantly restructured, requiring an academic degree with teaching certification. The establishment of a humanities sequence of two four-hour courses in 1979 was another major accomplishment for Colahan. Additionally, Colahan built up the faculty, and many of his hires became Distinguished Teaching Professors (Mahood 218-220). Despite financial difficulties, lower enrollment, and subsequent faculty cuts throughout the seventies, MacVittie’s presidency, ending in 1979, is remembered as a success (Mahood 236). 

President Edward Jakubauskus faced continued budgetary troubles. Further faculty positions were terminated, and the entire School of Library Science was eliminated. In explanation, Jakubauskus asserted that Geneseo’s mission was to provide undergraduates with a liberal arts education (Mahood 244-45). The core liberal arts curriculum envisioned by Colahan was taking shape, courses in critical reasoning, the fine arts, social sciences, natural sciences, and of course the humanities courses required. In 1988, an honors program was established, led by professors Bill and Stacey Edgar (Mahood 249-50). Beginning in the mid-1980s, Geneseo began to climb through the college rankings and garner national attention (Mahood 253). Jakubauskus left in 1988, with MacVittie returning as interim president for two years. In 1989, Dr. Carol Harter became the first woman to be appointed president at Geneseo (Mahood 261). President Harter faced further budget cuts, and frequently fought SUNY administrators and the state government for increased funding (Mahood 267). Despite problems at the SUNY level, Geneseo’s reputation continued to grow.

President Harter left Geneseo in 1995, and then-Provost Christopher Dahl was appointed as interim president, and eventually full-time president (Mahood 276). SUNY created a core curriculum that included natural science, American history, and foreign language, causing Geneseo, where curricular upgrades were frequent, to incorporate these changes. The final outcome was forty-forty-seven hour general education requirement that still stands (Mahood 279). Construction continued, with additional residence halls and the townhouses, meant to simulate off-campus housing, being built, as well the Integrated Science Center, completed in 2007 (Mahood 282). In 2004, a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was established at Geneseo, and further academic success ensued, despite the ever-present threat (and reality) of decreased funding from SUNY (Mahood 287).

The most recent decade of Geneseo’s history is not as comprehensively recorded as the many previous, as Mahood’s recent history ends in 2007. President Dahl retired in 2014, and current President Denise Battle was inaugurated the following year. While the core curriculum has been a constant since the late 1990s, the departments of visual art and computer sciences have been cut do to ever-present budget cuts. Geneseo currently offers forty undergraduate degree programs and two graduate programs, in accounting and education. New academic (primarily for social sciences) and administrative buildings have been constructed, opening in 2014. Geneseo’s commitment to the liberal arts remains strong, and is a particular point of pride for the institution.

I have found it quite fascinating that most of the major changes Geneseo has made have not necessarily been by choice, but rather by state mandate, particularly the transition to liberal arts, which is now so firmly part of Geneseo’s identity.

Works Cited

Fisher, Rosalind. The Stone Strength of the Past: Centennial History of the State University College of Arts and Sciences at Geneseo, New York. Wm J Keller Inc., 1971.

Mahood, Wayne with Frederick Bright, Judith Bushnell, Paul Hepler, and James McNally. SUNY Geneseo: From Normal School to Public Ivy, 1871-2007. The Donning Company Publishers, 2008.

Mau, Clayton C. Brief History of the State University Teachers College: Geneseo, New York. 1956.