Wednesday, July 02, 2014

1893: Lehigh's Powerful Team Helps University Cope With Uncertainty

It was common knowledge in 1893 that Lehigh was a rich institution.

“[Our] forced economy in itself is a great hindrance to our success in athletic competitions,” a 1890s letter sent out by Lafayette’s alumni committee said.  “Our nearest antagonists - Lehigh, Princeton, Pennsylvania - are now so wealthy, that we, with our comparatively untrained teams, are at great disadvantage.  Our alumni all desire our success but few realize how much this success depends on them.”

Thanks in no small part to Asa Packer’s bequest to Lehigh of a huge sum of money and stock after his death in 1879, the University was the richest institution of higher learning at that time, surpassing, according to the New York Times, even Harvard and Yale.

The vastness of Lehigh’s endowment was actually controversial.

“In one view, the gift is the noblest one of the kind ever made,” the New York Times said of the bequest, “for it establishes the only institution - so far as we know - which gives absolutely free tuition to all comers, rich or poor.  It is merely in an economic sense that the opinion is expressed that any addition to the more than 300 colleges now dwarfing and starving one another in this country is wicked waste of resources.”

For more than a decade Asa’s success in building the railway and navigating the business dealings of the railroad barons kept his family, and Lehigh University, rich, even a decade after his death.

But in 1893 that would begin to change.
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