Freshmen were targeted from day one. "There was a strong notion that you learned your place within a hierarchy developed by the students," says School of Education professor Joan Burstyn, an expert on the history of higher education. "There was a power structure set up, and freshmen were at the bottom of the pecking order." An editorial in the Syracuse University Forum likened the average freshman to a platypus: "And yet despite his peculiarities, who does not love the freshman for his childish simplicity and ignorance, his proneness to believe everything he hears, and his supreme confidence that if the affairs of the University were managed according to his plan the millennium would arrive about the week after next?" |
In September 1898 Chancellor James Roscoe Day, an imposing man and influential Methodist minister, greeted 500 freshmen, the largest entering class in SU history at that time. "We are here as a body of ladies and gentlemen to engage in mighty work. We are here to be earnest, sober, industrious, and faithful, with years of womanhood and manhood before us," Day told the class. The Chancellor also mentioned the songs and customs of college life as carrying "no moral defect," but warned students to conduct themselves properly in town and avoid disturbances and the destruction of property. "You are here, not for fraternities, not for social life and not for athletics, but for college," he said. "The world demands the scholar.... Choose scholarship in preference to everything else in the world but character."
The salt rush, one of the University's earliest traditions, gave the sophomores a chance to "season" the freshmen with salt as they charged up the hill behind Crouse College.
Shortly after Day's address at opening exercises, one of the University's grand traditions took placethe salt rush. In SU's early days, there were all sorts of rushes among the classessalt, snow, flour, even canes. The salt rush was originally held in the chapel, but its raucous nature ultimately landed it outdoors. Sophomores stood on the hilltop behind Crouse College and hurled salt at freshmen as they charged up the hill. "The sophomores met the freshmen with a tremendous volley of salt, but the youngsters quickly organized and rushed the sophs all over the field," the Forum reported. "The freshmen easily had the best of it, for the first time in years, and were correspondingly jubilant." Unfortunately for the freshmen, the jubilation was short-lived. A few weeks later they tied the sophomores, 0-0, in the annual football game between the two classes. Without a win, they were denied the right to carry canes on campus.
Dapper fashion statements aside, the freshmen had plenty to look forward to that year. Higher education, like the country itself, was expanding. The United States had just won the Spanish-American War and was polishing its image as a world leader; the Progressive Era was under way and optimism was the prevailing attitude as new inventions, enterprises, and opportunities cropped up. "Compared with the years before the 1890s, more middle-class families thought about sending their kids to college," Burstyn says. "Colleges began to get larger, and there was the idea of alumni being loyal to their university and beginning to give money." Sports gained in popularity, new disciplines emerged, and faculty members started getting involved in research, Burstyn says. "Once you had the notion of the creation of knowledge, there was development in the empirical sciences, and scientific experiments started going on."
Syracuse University's progress mirrored these developments. During the 1898-99 academic year, the University:
- opened the doors of
the Esther Baker Steele Hall of Physics on campus, and founded the University Block, which housed the College of Law, downtown;
- introduced numerous new courses in subjects like pedagogy, botany, numismatics, and magazine illustration;
- entered talks to extend the city's streetcar service up the Hill to ease the waiting and hiking during brutish weather; and
launched a three-year, $2 million endowment campaign to carry the University into the 20th century.
The University acquired all kinds of newfangled machinery for Steele Hall, including a streetcar motor and a precision lathe "with such multiple and delicate adjustments that a watch can be made upon it," according to the Forum. By year's end, Day declared that the physics department equipment, which could have fit in a "small cupboard" a few years earlier, was now unmatched in New York State. Experiments in wireless telegraphy were conducted, and there was an active interest in astronomy and other sciences. "No university in the state has better facilities for giving instruction or does better work in every branch than Syracuse," Day said.
The Esther Baker Steele Hall of Physics was officially opened in 1898 and was equipped with such machinery as a streetcar motor.
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