“The entry of Asa Packer into the domain of higher education was like a coal train gliding to a stop in a busy passenger station. It was certainly within the realm of possibility, but it caught everyone by surprise.” - W. Ross Yates
Asa Packer may be most well known for his role as the founder of Lehigh University, yet, as in other areas of his life, the fact that Packer himself did not leave much behind leaves the interpretation of his actions up to us. The nineteenth century was a tumultuous era for American higher education. As the traditional structure of colleges began to crumble, heated debates took place over the future of the institutions that would eventually turn them into what they are today. Higher education, like everything else, was also affected by the Civil War, which concluded the same year that Asa Packer founded Lehigh University. Acting in the mid-1800s, Asa Packer was no doubt influenced by these events and competing views as he established Lehigh University.
According to its charter, Lehigh was to be a “polytechnic college,” endowed with Packer’s gift of $500,000 and 50 acres of land in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Packer announced his intentions to Bishop Stevens in 1864, while the Civil War still raged on. After the conclusion of the war in April 1865, Packer and Stevens moved forward with the university and began selecting other members of the Board of Trustees. In the context of this dynamic era, several questions present themselves when studying Packer. What made him want to start his own university? Is it consistent with the larger trends of the time? And, finally, to what extent is Lehigh a representation of Packer?