Lehigh and MEM History
When the sound of the last cannon of the Civil War died away, statesmen, educators, and industrial pioneers marshaled the victorious forces of the North and turned their attention to education. They wanted to increase the number of trained scientists, engineers, and other skilled people so they could transform the vast natural resources of the country into a strong and independent national economy.
Asa Packer was one of the industrial pioneers. He built the Lehigh Valley Railroad and controlled a coal-mining empire in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. He knew, as did many others, that a strong national economy depended on more than technical skills. It needed above all people broadly educated in the liberal arts and sciences—people who could combine practical skills with informed judgments and strong moral self-discipline. He kept this in mind when founding and endowing Lehigh University.
The site that Packer chose for his university was a railroad junction across the Lehigh River from Bethlehem, a community founded in 1741 by Moravian missionaries. William Bacon Stevens, Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania and the first president of the university’s board of trustees, described the origin of the university in 1869:
"In the fall of 1864 an interview was requested of me by the Hon. Asa Packer, of Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe), Pa. He came to my house in Philadelphia, and said that he had long contemplated doing something for the benefit of his state, and especially of the Lehigh Valley. From that valley, he said he had derived much of the wealth which GOD had given to him, and to the best interests of that valley he wished to devote a portion of it in the founding of some educational institution, for the intellectual and moral improvement of the young men of that region.
"After conversing with him a little while, and drawing out his large and liberal views, I asked him how much money he proposed to set aside for this institution, when he quietly answered that he deigned to give $500,000. At the time of this interview, no one in this country, it is believed, had offered in a single sum such an endowment for a literary institution. It was the noblest offering which an American had ever laid on the altar of learning, and more than equaled many royal donations, which have carried the names of kings as patrons of European universities.
"Filled with profound emotions at the mention of such a gift for such an object, I asked the noble donor what specific plans he had dreamed in his own mind in reference to it. His reply was, "I am not much acquainted with these matters, but you are, and I want you if you will to devise a plan which I can put into effective operation.’ I told him that I would make the attempt. I did so. I drew up the outline sketch of such an institution as I thought would give the largest results for the means used, and submitted it in a few weeks to his inspection.
"He examined it with the practical judgment and business habits with which he dealt with all great questions, and adopted the scheme as the basis of his future university.
"The first meeting of the board of trustees, selected by Judge Packer, met at the "Sun Hotel," in Bethlehem, July 27th, 1865, and began to organize the work before them."
The trustees followed several principles in setting up the university. One was that of combining scientific and classical education. They considered both to be practical. The principle carried forward an ideal of the great 17th-century Moravian educator, John Amos Comenius. A motto taken from the works of Francis Bacon was used to summarize this principle, namely, Homo minister et interpres naturae—man, the servant and interpreter of nature, to use a free translation. That motto lives on at Lehigh, being an element in the university seal.
The trustees chose as first president a man whose education and habits expressed this principle, Henry Coppee. They established five schools, including a school of general literature in addition to four scientific schools of civil engineering, mechanical engineering, mining and metallurgy, and analytical chemistry.
Another principle, upon which the trustees insisted, was that of keeping the size of the student body proportionate to the abilities of the faculty to teach them well. The university would admit only as many freshmen each year as it could be assured of providing with the highest quality of education. In the 19th century, the total enrollment never exceeded several hundred students; the size has increased significantly in recent decades, along with the number of faculty members.
The trustees also insisted that Lehigh was to be nondenominational and would have an admission policy based on merit. Competitive examinations were held for applicants for admission. From 1871 to 1891 no tuition was charged, but the national financial crisis at the turn of the century decimated the value of the Lehigh Valley Railroad stock that Packer had given to Lehigh, which was the principal source of income.
At first, the student body was entirely male. But around 1916, women were admitted to graduate programs. In 1971, the university opened its undergraduate program to them as well. Today, women make up roughly 40 percent of each entering class.
Lehigh students have always been serious-minded. In 1924, Catherine Drinker Bowen, daughter of president Drinker and later a famous biographer, published a brief History of Lehigh University, in which she commented:
"Ask any college professor which brand of boy he would prefer to teach, the cigarette brand or the flannel shirt variety. Right here we offer ten to one the flannel shirts. . . Lehigh still holds to the emblem of the flannel shirt—long may it wave! Engineers come to college to work. A writer in the Syracuse Post in 1895 spoke truthfully when he said, "From the first, Lehigh’s characteristic has been her earnestness. It is the boast of her graduates, the inspiration of her students. Men go there to learn to take a useful part in the economy of life."