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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

Elizabeth M. Drouilhet’s Convocation Speech, 1976

The Fifty Years of Vassar I Have Seen: Remarks made at Senior Convocation, April 28, I976

Mr. President, Members of the Faculty, the Senior Class, and all of you with whom I have worked so closely these many years. Rarely have you had so reluctant a speaker. Having carefully avoided making a speech for the past thirty-five years, I now succumb in the last thirty-five days. I was deeply honored last fall by the invitation of Sandra Edwards and Diane Downing to speak at this Convocation, and refrained from giving my immediate “NO.” I could think of many reasons for refusing, but only one for accepting: Cornelia Raymond and I span the entire history of Vassar College. She came to the campus in 1865 as a child of four with her father, the President. I came as a freshman in 1926. Miss Raymond was here as Director of Publications, a job she still held when I returned in 1940 as Warden, the original title of my present job. I shall say something about the fifty years of Vassar I have seen and let each of you go back to the sources to learn of Miss Raymond’s sixty years.

This College was founded in a period of change and of great strife for the nation. The courage to pursue the goal against such odds and to accept change as desirable–and possibly also to accept internal strife–are Vassar’s heritage and woven into its very fabric.

Matthew Vassar, inspired by his niece, Lydia Booth, and encouraged by his friend Milo P. Jewett, determined to found, in his own words, “a college for young women equal to Yale and Harvard,” the great Liberal Arts colleges for men in the 19th Century. These liberal arts are attacked today as not relevant. In 1938, President MacCracken gave the Commencement Address at a junior college where I was teaching. He defined liberal arts as the vocational training of leaders. The skill it seeks to develop is the ability to weigh and to judge, to think critically, to approach new problems and new concepts with methods learned from study of the best of mankind’s past. It is transferable knowledge. It deals with method as well as content. There is an infinite number of HOW TO paperbacks printed today for every known purpose. Liberal Arts trains the individual on HOW TO approach the unknown question or situation. The great contributions to man’s knowledge have come from a flash of insight followed by laborious weighing and testing, criticizing and evaluating to determine validity. I asked several friends what they considered the greatest advantage of a liberal arts education. One replied: “to keep you from being trapped in a job; to free you to risk new fields.” The importance of this is illustrated by a study made some years ago of the jobs held by members of the 25th Reunion Class of an Ivy League university… more than half were in jobs and fields which did not exist at the time the class graduated. A second answer to my question was, “liberal arts is the ability to carry problem-solving over to other problems.” The essence of a liberal education, its transferability, is not inevitable. It must be sought by the student and taught by the teacher. This is the education Matthew Vassar had in mind when he planned his college. This is the Great Tradition of Vassar which all of us are committed to uphold.

In June 1868, just before his death, Matthew Vassar made two statements of his principles: one in a letter to President Raymond on June 10 and the second in his last address to the Board of Trustees on June 23rd. To President Raymond he wrote: “My maxim is now the same as at the beginning of our enterprise ‘Do all things intellectual and Material the best,” and to the Trustees the statement so typical of his whole attitude towards the College: “If we only follow on in the old beaten paths we will make no progress. We do no more than others have done before us. We are only copyists and not progressionists. My motto is Progress.” I now propose to sketch for you some of the ways, in which I think that Vassar has adhered to these precepts of her founder in the past fifty years. First for the Buildings and Grounds.

On April 13th, 1861, Matthew Vassar wrote: “We staked out the ground for the foundation of our College, a day which was made singularly memorable by the fall of Fort Sumpter.” Shortly after, ground was broken for Main Building and within four years, the five original buildings were completed. The Founder’s excitement and pride are shown in this quotation from his diary: “At a distance of 400 feet (from Main) was the Boiler and Gas House which furnished both heat and light, Vassar College being the first institution in the world to be heated by a central plant in a separate building.” Contrary to what some of you may think, Vassar did have heat, light, and inside plumbing even before I was a student. The first five were Main, the Observatory, the Gymnasium (including the Riding School,) the Boiler and Gas House, and the Gate House 1000 feet from Main. These took care of all the needs of 353 students, the nine professors and twenty-one teachers, the President and Lady Principal, the Matron, the Gardener, the Farmer, the Janitor, and the necessary staff… housing, feeding, classrooms, library, chapel, art gallery, and athletics.

In 1926 when I came to Vassar, the number of students had increased to 1147, the faculty to 160, the administration to 19, and it took 27 additional buildings and most of the dwellings on Raymond and College Avenues to meet their needs.

An alumna of the ’20s making a quick trip through the campus today would think little had changed, for the general plan was set between 1890 and 1915. The additions of the ’30s and again in the last six years have contributed to but not conflicted with the great design.

Matthew Vassar applied his belief in “The Best” to his buildings and choice of architects. It is interesting to note that the first act of the first Board of Trustees after organizing itself was to commission James Renwick, Jr. to design the College, the original descriptive name of Main Building. Most of you will recognize him as the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The tradition of selecting outstanding architects, among whom have been Stanford White, Eero Saarinen, and Marcel Breuer, and of constructing good buildings has made it possible for Vassar to meet many of its needs by interior alterations. This practice started when the College had been in existence for less than ten years. The Riding School proved to be a financial failure and was discontinued in 1874, thus starting the various alterations to Avery during the past century which make a separate story, but one well worth studying. Briefly, the riding rink became the Museum of Natural History to display a remarkable collection of rocks and minerals given to Vassar, and also a Gallery of Art to better show off the Magoon Collection which the Founder had purchased to begin Vassar’s great collections, a tradition strongly supported in following years by generous alumnae and benefactors, including today’s Friends of the Art Gallery. To continue with less lofty changes to the building: the two floors at the eastern end, originally the hay loft and employee quarters became music rooms, and the carriage house, the Music Room of The Professor. When in 1918, the Museum and Art Gallery were moved to new buildings, the space was remodeled to provide a stage and auditorium and the building’s name became Assembly Hall. In 1931, it received its present name in honor of Alida Avery, the first Vassar physician. Who wants to bet on the Gymnasium’s reincarnation?

In this sketch of alterations, those I know most about are the changes made in the old dormitories from 1951 to the present. This part of the story will have sympathetic understanding from all the students. It has been my conviction for twenty-five years that to continue in the second half of the 20th century, Matthew Vassar’s wish expressed in his directive to the Trustees; namely, “to afford the students, safety, qui et, and privacy” we must acquire more single rooms. May I gratefully acknowledge that in this quest, in spite of the names I may have been called particularly when budgets were hard to balance, I have had the constant and unfailing support of the two Presidents, the two heads of Business Administration, and successive Boards of Trustees, not to mention continuous cooperation and assistance from all connected with the Halls and Buildings Departments. In pursuing this path, we have gone against the trend in college building by altering rather than constructing. The results astound even me when I add it up. In Renwick’s design of Main, there was not a single single room or a student; today 46% of Main students live in singles. Had the consulting engineers not stopped in 1960 because of possible damage to old brick, it would be 96%. In 1951, single rooms in the existing dormitories accounted for 46% of their capacity; today that percentage is 65. During these twenty-five years, the increase in resident students is 711. In the same period, 144 student spaces were converted to other uses, including House Fellow apartments. Of the 855 extra spaces needed to accommodate current resident students, about 70% have been provided by new construction, but 260 have been found in the existing houses in spite of the increase in single rooms. My temptation is to talk too long about buildings but this is an achievement of which the Founder, shrewd business man that he was, would be proud.

Matthew Vassar was also interested in the landscaping of his college and supervised the planting of more than a thousand trees while the original buildings were under construction. Every time you walk across this campus remember that it was built on flat farmland. There were a few trees beside the two streams but except for these, every flower, every bush, every tree has been planted and lovingly tended by those in charge of Vassar’s grounds, that group of dedicated men, most recently Sven Svard, who have made Vassar’s campus so beautiful a place in which to live and to work. I wish all of us would absorb a bit of their pride and keep these grounds free of litter and unsightly short-cuts. There have been evangelists in the past, one of whom was Cornelia Raymond. If she found a discarded envelope or wrapper in and around Main, she picked it up, put it into a new envelope with the same name and address, attaching a brief note, “I think you dropped this by mistake and will want it.” I remember two occasions in the ’50s when Helen Lockwood, the Professor of English for whom the new Library wing is named, and Emily Brown, a Professor of Economics organized parties to help them reseed the lawn between Main and the Library and at the corners of Raymond and Davison where thoughtless, hurrying feet converted green grass to ugly mud. Having seen Miss Raymond at age ninety care enough to stoop down to pick up discarded paper and Miss Lockwood with passionate devotion spend several days working to repair damage to lawns, I found it impossible to drop a paper without immediately retrieving it, or to let any emergency cause me to take a shortcut across the lawn. If you catch me doing either in my old age, stop me.

Undoubtedly, the area in which Matthew Vassar would take greatest pride is the way his beneficiaries have adhered to his principles of “The Best” and “Progress” in the academic side of the college. If you are typical of most applicants for admission in the past, you would give as your first reason for choosing Vassar College its academic excellence.

The faculty have increased from the nine Professors and twenty-one teachers to 244. The same criteria are still applied… to seek the best qualified person, man or woman, for the position. Like Matthew Vassar, I will say in his words, “I am persuaded that I am neither competent, nor am I inclined to comment on the faculty.”

The curriculum has changed in many ways, not only in scope but in flexibility. The first curriculum was as good as that at any university, and the laboratory facilities were better. There were nine departments headed by the nine Professors and there were two courses of study: the Classical Course and the Scientific Course. All students were required to take eight semesters of English, four of Mathematics, two of Astronomy and French, and one each of Anatomy, Chemistry, Geology, German, Italian, Intellectual Philosophy, Moral Philosophy, and Logic. While the Classics majors were taking five semesters of Greek and Latin, the Scientists were taking Botany, Physiology, Zoology, and additional work in Modern languages. If you lost track of the requireds, it amounted to twenty-two semester courses. Change was gradual: in 1926 the total was only fourteen. Today, I wonder if there are even two students who have taken identical courses in their four year program.

An important innovation in these fifty years was the introduction of the Experimental Theatre in 1924 with Hallie Flanagan Davis as Director and subsequently the acceptance of Drama as a valid academic discipline. Study abroad was also recognized as a curricular option. Independent study was introduced in 1931, the thesis and comprehensive [examination] in 1935. Betty Drouilhet

Betty Drouilhet

One of the most significant innovations was the multidisciplinary courses representing a new organization of knowledge by focusing several disciplines on a single problem. The course, “Today’s Cities,” offered in the third term in 1945 and ’46 is an example. Professor Helen Lockwood led six teachers from six departments in this experiment. The disciplines of Physics, Economics, Political Science, Sociology, Psychology, and English focused on the problems of technology and democracy in urban culture. In 1946, Professor Mabel Newcomer was assisted by faculty members from Economics, History, Botany, Physics, and Political Science in a term’s course. The Tennessee Valley: a Regional Study.

In both of these experimental courses, the number of students was limited to twenty. They were not continued because of prohibitive costs but they paved the way for today’s multidisciplinary concentrations.

A different way in which Vassar has expanded and strengthened its curriculum is through field work. This had a distinguished beginning in 1869 when Maria Mitchell took seven of her students to Iowa to observe the total eclipse of the sun, and again in 1878, when she and five of her students traveled across the prairie on the trans-continental railroad to be official observers of an eclipse. At the turn of the century, Lucy Maynard Salmon revolutionized the study of history by sending her students to the city of Poughkeepsie to see how people lived and worked. She found historical documents in laundry and shopping lists.

From these early beginnings has grown the large program which enables so many of you to enrich the study of your chosen discipline by participation and observation of active work in the field.

What about the students who have come to Vassar during these 110 years? When the college opened, it became all too clear that more than half of the 353 were not prepared to do work of college level. The faculty were forced to readjust plans to include Preparatory studies. This division continued until 1886 when one of the first acts of the new President, James Monroe Taylor, was to abolish the preparatory department, a date referred to by many as the beginning of Vassar’s steady advance. The first Committee on Admission was established in 1917 under the chairmanship of C. Mildred Thompson who held that date of application would determine admission only to fully qualified students. In 1924, she reserved 50 places, shortly increased to 100, for students admitted on the basis of competitive examinations and recommendations. Finally in 1933, Vassar admitted all students on a competitive basis. How selective a college can be depends on the number and quality of its applicant group. Wh ile Vassar has been fortunate in the last forty years to have enough applicants, there were years in the ’50s and ’60s when little selectivity could be exercised.

Another area which directly affects the student body is financial aid. In February 1861, Matthew Vassar included in the statement of his views and wishes the hope that funds would prove sufficient to warrant free admission to a considerable number of students with decided promise who were unable to pay the costs. It was many years, 1925, in fact, before “the considerable number” reached 9%. The tremendous contributions of Vassar alumnae increased this to 19% by 1945. Since that time, the availability of federal and state funds and the continued support of alumnae and friends of the College have made it possible to carry out the Founder’s wish, as this year 51% of the students receive some form of financial aid. If this seems small to some of you, it represents $3,266,748.

To many people if not to all, the single greatest change in Vassar’s history occurred in 1968 with the introduction of coeducation. During the controversy in recent years, I have felt strongly but spoken rarely on this subject. This seems to me the appropriate moment to state my views. I have always believed that one of the strengths of American education was in the variety it offered, so that each prospective student could choose the type best suited to his or her needs. At first, I thought that Vassar should remain a college for women and would best serve the nation in continuing to provide this variety. In 1967, I completely reversed my thinking for the following reason. I knew as I mentioned above that the caliber of our applicants was poorer than in the past. Vassar was an excellent college, as it always had been. Why then were we no longer attracting our fair share of the best women students? Where were these young women going? To find the answer, I studied the published tables of the college choice of women graduating in the top 10% of their class in both high schools and independent schools. To my consternation, and in direct conflict with my cherished belief, the large majority of this group were no longer seeking women’s colleges, but choosing instead coeducational institutions, even those of lesser academic standing. Still somewhat skeptical, I talked to alumnae who were teaching in some of the superior schools from which Vassar had previously had many good applicants. They confirmed the published reports. Suddenly, I realized that to continue Matthew Vassar’s goal to provide the best education for women, his college must become coeducational. These facts made me realize just how women have progressed in the past century… women no longer want an education equal to men’s; they wanted to share equally with men the same educational experience. From that moment on, I have had no regrets and I believe that the change is completely consistent with the Founder’s views of “The Best” and “Progress.”

During the past seven years, this campus has came alive again… the students are here, extra-curricular activities have revived, there is a sense of things happening. For too many years, the campus had resembled a ghost town every weekend with 3/4ths of the students away… peaceful and quiet for the few of us around… but little feeling of vitality and activity which belong to a college.

I have a few last remarks to make, primarily to some of the women. I believe in equal rights for all individuals, regardless of sex. I believe in equal pay and equal reward for the same service performed, for all individuals regardless of sex. I believe that the best qualified person should be selected for the job to be done, regardless of sex. Women have fought hard and won, the right to be judged on their qualifications and merit. I cringe every time I hear the sentence, “that job, or that anything,’ must go to a woman”. It is an insult to all the women who have fought valiantly for equality… their fight was for the right to be equally considered and Judged, not to be handed something because of their sex. The challenge today in which Vassar, I hope, will play a leading part, is to secure equal consideration, equal opportunity, and equal reward for each individual according to merit without consideration of sex. This implies that women and men in all professions and vocations and in their college experience will learn to think of each other and learn to work with each other as individual persons. This is what our world needs. There is much to be done to find solutions to the problems that confront us. It will demand the best that each individual can offer and, above all, the ability of women and men to work effectively under the direction of, or directing, persons of either sex. Let us have no more “I prefer to be taught by a man, or by a woman.” Instead, let us learn to prefer to be taught by, or work for, the best individual.”

In progressing towards this goal, let us look at facts. Too often I have heard the statement made that Vassar is lowering its standards by admitting less qualified men to reach some unspecified quota. This is not and has not been true. Confirmation comes not only from records of the Committee on Admission; but also from the fact that each year more senior men have received honors at Graduation than their proportion of the class. If anything, the complaint of women students should be: stop admitting superior men, give us an equal chance. My hope is that we will cease discussing numbers of men or of women, either students or faculty and that all of us will put all our efforts into securing the best persons.

In closing, I want to read you a statement from a letter describing what a Vassar education meant to the writer.

“It would be an extensive and difficult task to take account of all the changes that Vassar has brought about in me, and all that I have learned, but I hope I can express it adequately by saying that Vassar is the place in which I grew up.

The education offered by Vassar is exceptional and there is still a sense of belonging to a long-standing, well-established, respected, and excellent institution. Fortunately, it also has the flexibility and courage to change with the needs of its students and faculty, without losing its excellence and respectability. Vassar’s struggle to develop a unique kind of coeducational school has brought about an environment where men and women for the most part, shed the traditional roles and barriers between the sexes and work things out with the mutual respect experienced by equals. I do not think that many other coeducational environments are conducive to this.”

That is Matthew Vassar’s ideal.

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EMD, 1976; edited 2006 by JLD