History and Mission
It was April, 1937. The United States was still reeling from the Great Depression. By the following summer, 20% of the nation’s work force would be unemployed. In Europe and Asia, the storm clouds of the Second World War were looming on the horizon. It hardly seemed time to gamble precious resources of money and manpower on a precarious educational enterprise. Yet, with the encouragement of Most Rev. Edmund Gibbons, Roman Catholic Bishop of Albany, the Franciscans of Holy Name Province were willing to take the risk. Fr. Thomas Plassmann, OFM, President of St. Bonaventure College, sent seven friars from his faculty to establish a campus in the Capital Region. They purchased the 38-acre Garrett estate in Loudonville, and converted the family home into classrooms, offices and living space for the friar community. Ninety students enrolled for the fall semester, twice the number expected. The old farmhouse became so crowded that the friars had to teach some of their classes in a stairwell. Not surprisingly, they hastened to break ground for a new academic building. When the cornerstone was laid on June 20, 1938, Fr. Plassmann announced that the fledgling institution would be known as St. Bernardine of Siena College in honor of the noted fifteenth-century Franciscan preacher and missionary, and that its signature building would be called Siena Hall. Fr. Cyprian Mensing, OFM, Dean of Studies at St. Bonaventure, became the first president of the new college.
The south wing of Siena Hall opened in September, 1938, joined by the north wing a year later. The building hosted classrooms and laboratories, faculty and administrative offices, a library, a bookstore, a cafeteria and a chapel. For each of the College’s first four years, the student population doubled in size. A second permanent building, a gymnasium named for Bishop Gibbons, was completed in the spring of 1941. It was the site of Siena’s first commencement, at which seventy-four graduates received bachelor’s degrees. To complement the all-male day school, the College added coeducational evening and summer divisions in 1938-39. In 1942, Siena received its permanent charter from the State of New York, and purchased the Haywood estate, an adjacent 32-acre property that extended the campus to Spring Street.
During World War II, enrollment dropped precipitously. One estimate put the number of Siena students and alumni serving in the armed forces at over 1000. Were it not for the non-traditional students and the women in the evening division, Siena itself may have been a casualty of the global conflict. However, in the wake of the war and with the advent of the GI Bill, Siena grew rapidly. Enrollment peaked at 2752 in the fall semester of 1948. Quonset huts served as temporary buildings to accommodate the overflow of students. In the early 1950s, the College built a free-standing library and a large friary that included a chapel for the College community. Siena also enhanced its course offerings with master’s degree programs in ten fields. Under the leadership of Coach Dan Cunha, the Siena men’s basketball team captivated the Capital Region and captured the National Catholic Invitational Tournament championship.
Enrollment stabilized in the 1950s at about 1000 students. They managed to create a lively social life on campus despite Siena’s status as a commuter school. Things changed in the College’s third decade with the construction of three residence halls and a dining facility. Once again, the student population doubled. The College opened a new science building in 1965 and named it for Roger Bacon, the 13th century Franciscan who was an early champion of experimental research. In 1968, the school was formally renamed Siena College, and a year later, women students were admitted to the day division for the first time. Between 1962 and 1973, Siena transformed its curriculum by adding six majors while eliminating its graduate programs in order to focus more effectively on undergraduate education. The College’s physical environment was no less transformed by extensive landscaping of the grounds, a visionary undertaking that yielded today’s verdant, tree-lined campus.
The Alumni Recreation Center (ARC), so called to honor the graduates who contributed to its construction, opened in 1974. Gibbons Hall, no longer needed as a gymnasium, was remodeled to serve as a student center and renamed Foy Hall. When a new Franciscan residence was completed in 1981, the old friary was converted into student housing and eventually called Hines Hall after Siena’s seventh and longest serving president. Full-time enrollment swelled to 2600 in the 1980s, and grew again to 3000 between 2000 and 2003. An expanding campus sought to keep pace with the burgeoning undergraduate population. Siena built student townhouse complexes in 1986 and 1995, a new academic building, Kiernan Hall, in 1987, and in 1991, the Marcelle Athletic Complex (MAC) to provide additional indoor recreational space for the College community. The Standish Library, an award-winning, state-of-the-art research facility, opened in 1999. The old Dawson Library was completely transformed to become the Sarazen Student Union, allowing Foy Hall to be rehabilitated for academic and performance use. Both the Morrell Science Center, adjacent to Roger Bacon Hall, and Padua Hall, a student residence, opened in 2001. By the fall of 2010, Siena had completed its newest building which houses 264 juniors and seniors, and a second on-campus dining hall.
Over the years, Siena’s academic programs have garnered numerous recognitions and certifications including those of the Middle States Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges (1943), the American Chemical Society (1971), the Council on Social Work Education (1985), the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (2005) and the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business (2006).
A brief survey of seven and a half decades of construction projects and curriculum development cannot do justice to Siena’s history. For three quarters of a century, thousands of dedicated friars and lay people, students and faculty, staff people and administrators, trustees and alumni have been living and shaping the College’s Catholic, Franciscan, liberal arts tradition. The vibrant undergraduate institution that gradually took shape on the old Garrett estate is the fruit of their faith, hard work, determination and commitment. It is their stories, individually and collectively, that are the real history of Siena College, and its enduring legacy.
Siena College is a learning community advancing the ideals of a liberal arts education, rooted in its identity as a Franciscan and Catholic institution.
As a liberal arts college, Siena fosters the rigorous intellectual development of its students through a healthy exchange of ideas both inside and outside the classroom. It provides opportunities to develop critical and creative thinking; to make reasoned and informed judgments; to appreciate cultural diversity; to deepen aesthetic sensibility and to enhance written and oral communication skills. It develops in each individual an appreciation for the richness of exploring knowledge from a variety of perspectives and disciplines.
As a Franciscan community, Siena strives to embody the vision and values of St. Francis of Assisi: faith in a personal and provident God, reverence for all creation, affirmation of the unique worth of each person, delight in diversity, appreciation for beauty, service with the poor and marginalized, a community where members work together in friendship and respect, and commitment to building a world that is more just, peaceable, and humane.
As a Catholic college, Siena seeks to advance not only the intellectual growth of its students, but their spiritual, religious and ethical formation as well. To this end, Siena is composed of and in dialogue with people from different religious and cultural traditions; fosters a critical appreciation of the Catholic intellectual heritage in conversation with contemporary experience; provides ample opportunities for worship and service; explores the moral dimensions of decision-making in business and the professions; and affirms the dignity of the individual while pursuing the common good.
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