Harpur at 70: From Triple Cities College to the heart of a University
Seventy years ago, the liberal arts were almost solely the province of private colleges, and all too often the wealthy. The State University of New York system was in its infancy when Harpur College’s founding president, Glenn Gardner Bartle, dared to imagine something different: a public liberal arts college with rigorous academics and yet affordable to all.
With the aid of local officials and dedicated faculty members, Bartle transformed Triple Cities College — a two-year branch of Syracuse University — into one of the first liberal arts colleges within SUNY. He was backed by the Southern Tier State University Committee — a powerhouse group also known as the Committee of 175, which included such luminaries as IBM’s Thomas J. Watson, Endicott-Johnson’s Charles F. Johnson Jr. and prominent local businessman Edgar Couper. The plan faced opposition from both Cornell and Colgate, which feared the impact on private college enrollment, but Harpur College prevailed and joined SUNY on Aug. 1, 1950.
Harpur was technically the second liberal arts college in SUNY; Champlain College was the first, but shuttered in 1952 after its land was requisitioned for an Air Force base. That left Harpur, with its distinctive academic program that combined humanities, core sciences and social sciences.
From its founding, Harpur has drawn smart, curious students and a strong and creative faculty, notes Interim Dean Celia Klin. And while it has evolved significantly since its humble start, Harpur remains committed to its core values of excellence in teaching and research — and to the liberal arts, which remain just as important today as they were 70 years ago.
“In 2020, there is more of a need than ever for an education in the liberal arts,” Klin says. “We know that a liberal arts education gives Harpur students the skills that employers want and prepares them for the rapidly changing job market that they will experience in their lives. It also equips our students with the ability to participate in an increasingly global world, to enjoy and create art, and to think deeply and critically about the world around them.”
Building a campus
Harpur’s early years featured rather Spartan accommodations. Triple Cities College, which opened in 1946, used whatever classroom space it could find in the Endicott area, from church basements to the local skating rink until it set up shop in Colonial Hall, now the Endicott Visitor Center.
Still, Harpur drew dedicated professors who were inspired by its academic mission. In 1954, Professors Bernard Huppé and Robert Rafuse authored a “manifesto” on the value of a liberal arts education, coining Harpur’s motto: “From breadth through depth to perspective.”
Themes from their pamphlet resonate even today: the importance of learning how to think, reason and communicate, the value of exposure to a wide range of topics, the lure of intellectual challenge.
That same year, bulldozers began preparing the ground of the future campus, located on 300 acres of pasture along the Vestal Parkway. The construction process was lengthy, with the college’s first building — today’s East Gym — opening in 1959.
By 1961 — the year David Wexler graduated — campus included two dormitory groupings, a classroom and administration building, the student center, the library and the first science building.
Wexler entered Harpur in 1957 at the age of 16, part of a small class that ultimately graduated 135 students. The Vestal campus was still under construction during much of his time there, and most of his classes were at Colonial Hall until his senior year. The library consisted of a Quonset hut next door.
Initially interested in biology, Wexler soon found himself captivated by classes in philosophy and logic, political science, criminology, anthropology and microeconomics. He ultimately ended up majoring in sociology, and went directly into New York University’s law school after graduating in 1961. Known for founding the therapeutic jurisprudence movement, he is currently a law professor at the University of Puerto Rico.
“They had a real interest in students who had a real interest,” he says of his professors, some of whom inspired his own teaching years later.
Becoming a university
President Bartle — a geologist and veteran of both the first and second world wars — headed Harpur until retiring in 1964. A year later, the campus became one of the SUNY University Centers with the addition of graduate education. This prompted a name change for the entire institution to SUNY Binghamton; Harpur College remained the designation for its liberal arts college.
Even early on, Harpur drew talented faculty members, including Art Department founder Kenneth C. Lindsay, one of the “Monuments Men” during World War II who restored artwork and cultural objects stolen by the Nazis to their owners.
The son of Bernard Huppé and a Harpur alumnus himself, Alex Huppé ’69 credits Bartle, whom he remembers as both genteel and “a force,” for his ability to attract top scholars to the college.
“My father was devoted to the liberal arts and high-quality scholarship, and he saw here a potential he couldn’t achieve at Princeton,” says Alex Huppé, who went on to pursue a career in higher education and public relations. He still gives back to the college, serving on the Harpur College Advocacy Council and the Binghamton University Foundation board of directors.
Harpur professors also have a long reputation for cutting-edge research. Among the earliest was Harry B. Lincoln, a music professor who developed techniques for using the computer as a research tool in his field in 1964, and spent 30 years creating a thematic index of opening melodies for 16th century madrigals. In 1971, Chemistry Professor Bruce McDuffie made headline news after he tested a tin of tuna from his kitchen and found dangerously high levels of mercury, spawning nationwide recalls. Two years later, Associate Professor of Psychology Andrew Strouthes showed that saccharin could be harmful to laboratory rats.
Faculty members continue to change the world with research in many fields — including Distinguished Professor of Chemistry M. Stanley Whittingham, who won the Nobel Prize in 2019 for his groundbreaking work on lithium-ion batteries.
“From its inception, Harpur College has been a destination for world-class faculty who are internationally known for research, discovery, scholarship and creative work and who are deeply committed to engaging the talented students that Harpur recruits,” says Provost Donald Nieman, who served as Harpur dean from 2008 to 2012. “It’s that synergy between world-class faculty and bright, curious students that makes Harpur the heartbeat of a great University.”
The longest-serving Harpur faculty member, Comparative Literature Professor Zoja Pavlovskis-Petit, joined the college in 1962 after finishing her PhD at Cornell. She has seen firsthand the development of Binghamton University, the rise and fall of initiatives such as the trimester and changing social conditions — including the treatment of women on campus.
In those early years, faculty women weren’t treated with the same respect as their male counterparts — and not just at Harpur. Some universities of the day — including Harvard, where Pavlovskis-Petit landed a fellowship she later declined — refused to grant women graduate degrees or job interviews. The faculty women’s association she encountered wasn’t for female professors, but the wives of male professors.
But there were bright spots, too. The students themselves were a consistent inspiration —despite the changes that swirled on around them, both on campus and in the larger world.
“The students we’ve had here have invariably been very bright. That has been a great satisfaction,” she says.
At Harpur College, students unearthed hidden interests, found their life paths and, occasionally, even their life partners.
Undergraduates reigned supreme in the 1960s, and science majors took classes alongside history and theater arts majors, remembers Terry Kwan ’67. While new and quite small, campus presented a dazzling array of opportunities: students could attend concerts by the Guarneri Quartet, who were artists in residence, for just 50 cents. Theater productions were diverse and included one-act and student-produced works that welcomed participation from students of all majors.
Residence halls were few with a single dining hall, and you could walk across campus in 10 to 15 minutes — if you were careful where you stepped, remembers Richard and Sandra Alpern, who met on campus and recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
“The whole place was boards and mud!” quips Sandra Alpern ’70, referring to the era’s substantial building boom.
Times change, but the liberal arts have kept a steady course. The strength — and occasionally the frustration — of Harpur’s academic mission stems from requirements that expose students to a wide range of courses outside of their chosen field, sometimes with surprising results.
Take Ronald Ehrenberg ’66, a mathematics major. The humanities requirement gave him a choice between art history, music history and theater arts. He chose the art history class, which turned out to be the only one he shared with his future wife, Randy ’67, an English major who went on to a successful career as an educator and school superintendent.
That art history class also proved beneficial years later, when he supervised the Johnson Art Museum during his three years as a Cornell vice president. Now the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics at Cornell, Ehrenberg received an honorary doctorate from Binghamton in 2008 and also served on the SUNY Board of Trustees.
“I am fond of telling my students that I made a mistake: I should have taken all three classes because each would have greatly enhanced my ability to enjoy and appreciate the subject as an adult,” he says.
Many students don’t know their career goals when they arrive at college, and the liberal arts give them the opportunity to experience many paths. That proved the case for the Alperns. Richard Alpern ’69 majored in psychology, but opted to go to New York University’s law school after graduation; he went on to a successful law career and founded the Harpur Law Council.
Sandra, who entered Harpur at the age of 16, opted for sociology, thinking she would follow in her mother’s footsteps as a social worker. A summer experience in a daycare setting sparked an interest in education, and she attended the Bank Street College of Education after graduation and ultimately became a librarian.
A broad liberal arts background also benefited Kwan, who earned a bachelor’s degree in science and mathematics, with a concentration in biology. She originally thought she would become a medical doctor, and opted for Harpur as a good way to prepare for medical school at minimum expense.
She changed her mind about her career path and, on the advice of chemistry instructor Bruce Norcross, decided to try her hand at teaching. After earning her master’s in education from Hofstra University, she followed a diverse career path as an educator, author, consultant and residential real estate broker. Drawing on her strong liberal arts background, she also spent six years in linguistic software development, including the creation of one of the first English-language spelling correctors.
An accumulating body of evidence shows that by mid-career, liberal arts graduates do as well or better than their counterparts who attended narrower professional undergraduate degree programs, Ehrenberg says. If anything, a liberal arts education may be even more important today, when few individuals stay with a single employer or even a single career path over their lifetime.
From its revolutionary origins to its position today as the largest of Binghamton University’s six schools, Harpur College’s story continues to unfold, solidly grounded in the liberal arts tradition.
“A liberal arts education is so important for people’s critical thinking for work and in life,” Richard Alpern says. “It prepares you. It broadens your horizons. We believe in the value of a liberal arts education and we believe it’s important that it stays as affordable as it can be.”