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Vassar Encyclopedia

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

First Women Trustees

By the 1880s Vassar was experiencing a significant decline in students and resulting financial deficiencies. At the Board of Trustees’ meeting in June, 1881, President Samuel Caldwell attributed this decline to the establishment of Wellesley College, Smith College, and the Harvard Annex and called for a $200,000 increase in the college’s endowment funds.

The trustees did not return to the issue, however, until January 7, 1885 when President Caldwell again addressed the school’s condition and prospects and again prescribed an increase in the endowment. At this meeting the trustees nominated an Executive Committee to investigate Vassar’s financial affairs and to make recommendations to the board.

Without the president’s or the trustees’ knowledge, the Alumnae Association had initiated their own investigation of the faltering progress and status of their Alma Mater, and in February 1884 alumnae representatives met with President Caldwell and some of the trustees in New York to discuss their concerns. Rather than blaming their school’s condition solely on competition brought on by the establishment of similar institutions, they blamed President Caldwell “with a want of the necessary executive and administrative ability.” In April ten alumnae signed urgent identical letters which were separately sent to each member of the board, on which at the time there was neither alumnae nor other female representation. Claiming that the school had lost prestige under Caldwell’s leadership because low salaries had cost the school several of its best professors which had resulted in a declining standard of scholarship and particularly concerned that the Preparatory Department, which graduated unfinished scholars, was lowering Vassar’s prestige in the public eye the alumnae called for Caldwell’s resignation and replacement by someone more administratively competent.

The numbers presented in the letter were indeed persuasive: “ In the year 1871 &2, there were four hundred and fifteen (415) students at Vassar: of these, two hundred and five (205) were members of Collegiate classes. Since then, the number has been gradually decreasing, until in 1883-4, there are but three hundred (300) students, and only one hundred and forty-seven (147) of these, Collegiate students.” And the alumnae disputed the four reasons given them for Vassar’s condition:

First, the increase in availability of women’s higher education (such as at Wellesley and Smith Colleges), so that “the supply is now greater than the demand for them.” Smith in 1884 has 43 in the senior class and Wellesley, 54, while Vassar brings up the rear with 30. ” Why should [Vassar’s] roll, which combines Collegiate and Special students include but 173 names when Wellesley’s has 410 Collegiate students and Smith’s, 220?

The second reason urged, lays stress on the larger expenses of a Vassar course. This cannot be of weight when we compare the real expenses of the educational advantages, in connection with Harvard and Smith Colleges, with those of Vassar. Twenty-five dollars is the limit of difference between Smith and Vassar: at the “Annex” the expenses are greater than at Vassar; while the two hundred and seventy-five dollars charged for board and tuition at Wellesley must be supplemented by an hour of daily domestic work in the College building.

The third reason presented, is the fact that Vassar is located in a community, where the public sentiment towards education and the advantages for preparing students for Colleges are not such as are found in the vicinity of Northhampton, Wellesley and Cambridge. [There follows an analysis of the question of why Smith and Wellesley get more students from the Middle and Western States than Vassar.]

The fourth and most important argument… alleges that severe entrance examinations are required at Vassar, and not at Smith and Wellesley.

The alumnae determine, however, that while Wellesley and Smith admit students “upon the mere certificate of a school or a teacher… Vassar requires a certificate from a school which has already sent a well-prepared student, and Wellesley does not impose that condition.” Indeed, an independent examination in 1882 had determined that unqualified students had been entered into the collegiate courses in such numbers that “a part of the teaching force” had been diverted to teaching more than 20 such underprepared students.

Having dealt with the explanations offered by Caldwell and the trustees, the alumnae conclude that “the main cause of the present state of Vassar is to be assigned to the executive management of her affairs. In looking back over the past six years, we fail to see indications of any constructive progressive policy on the part of the administration or signs of effort in any direction to widen the influence, and thereby increase the prosperity of the college, and it is, therefore, to this lack of executive efficiency that we reluctantly ascribe the declining strength of Vassar as a College.”

The alumnae believe that Caldwell has made no effort at all to “work among the preparatory schools,” which have now grown up in number and influence, and that this is the real problem. It is not difficult, they say, to figure out why Smith College has more students than Vassar “when one of her first movements was to secure the establishment of the secondary school in close proximity to the College.” Wellesley, also, exercised good judgment when it established “eleven preparatory schools within… six years” upon which it exercised “a close and (in some cases) an official supervision.” Vassar has done none of these things, and in addition it has also failed to “win the suffrages of public high schools. Vassar has not only failed to reach out her hands to secure students, but she has been, apparently, unmindful of those extended to her.” All these deficiencies the alumnae letter lays at President Caldwell’s door.

At their meeting in June the trustees considered the alumnae letter and, apparently shaken, appointed a committee to confer with the Alumnae Association and “to promote the best co-operation of the Alumnae with the Board of Trustees in aid of the best interests of the college.” The trustees later invited the alumnae to suggest improvements to the management of the college. They did not, however, abolish the Preparatory School, claiming that the college could not afford to lose the income that it rendered. The board also passed a resolution stating its “entire confidence in the ability and fidelity of the President.”

The press evidently caught wind of the situation, and an item (dated only 1884) in The Poughkeepsie Courier quoted a “gentleman who is in a position to be aware of all these facts” who “at first denied that there was any trouble or any ‘dissatisfaction’” but who on being questioned further said:

The truth of the matter is that Dr. Caldwell, while a scholar and a man of fine parts and many sterling qualities, has been a dead failure as President of such a college as Vassar. He has been there six years and practically has not raised a dollar. The Preparatory Department must be abolished or the College will continue to deteriorate, and to abolish it a sum of money must be raised at least equal to the income derived from it. Economy is all very well, but the finances of the College can not be kept in a healthy condition at the expense of the standing of the institution, or by curtailing its facilities for turning out finished scholars. Somebody is wanted at the helm whose hand will be felt as a financier, as an organizer, who will restore the standard it attained under Raymond. Yes, the whole matter will be discussed at the annual meeting and I trust amicably settled.

When approached by The Courier, Samuel Caldwell replied, in part:

The alumnae appointed a committee of three to [investigate affairs here]. Possibly that may appear to a man of the world somewhat impertinent on their part. Those people are outside of the college. They had the benefits of the school like hundreds of others who have expressed no dissatisfaction, and, in this light, one would think that such interference by outsiders, who have no connection with or work in the college, is a little more than good manners can justify. The letter was only personal—in no way official or legitimate. The internal management of the college is, or should be, none of their business. The trustees have not taken steps to investigate as the Boston alumnae have. But so far as I am concerned, the investigation can go on. My work is open to any inquisition.

Now as to the question of you as president raising money for the college.

That is not my business here. I couldn’t well do it without abandoning part of my duties as president. Such work was never done by my predecessors. The president is not supposed to be a beggar of money. The trustees attend to finances….

Have you a response to the assertion that Vassar College has deteriorated and lost prestige during your presidency?

“Well” said Dr. Caldwell….”I have been here six years. If the college is not in as good condition as it was, all witnesses and all signs fail.”

At their general meeting in February, 1885, the Alumnae Association extended their blame for the college’s circumstances to the Board of Trustees, whom they accused of being “too inactive and unenterprising for the times.” They called for an increase in the endowment fund and for more active businessmen on the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees to increase the endowment and attract students. The alumnae criticized the trustees for denying them representation on the Board and for not, until recently, asking their advice. In response to the trustees’ request that the alumnae offer suggestions to the Board, Mrs. Elizabeth E. Poppleton presented a resolution to the trustees asking that they continue to introduce active businessmen to their board, that they discover the reason for the decline in attendant students and remedy it, that they keep Vassar “in line with the educational progress of the day” and impress this effort on the public, and that they issue an annual report to the alumnae regarding the “internal and financial course of the college.” Responding to the alumnae demands in January, 1885, the Board of Trustees invited the alumnae to investigate any matter they wished and urged them to report their findings at the annual meeting.

The trustees accepted the resignation of President Caldwell, who terminated his appointment on June 9, 1885, and The Rev. J. Ryland Kendrick (trustee 1875–1879) was Acting President and Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1885–86. On June 30 the alumnae petitioned the Trustees for representation on their Board. The matter was referred to a special commission to consider it and report at “some future meeting.”

The alumnae were pleased with the Taylor’s appointment. The Boston Association of Vassar Alumnae held a cordial reception for him at the Vendome, at which he promised that the Preparatory Department would be abolished and even suggested the prospect of turning the school into a university.

The trustees did not respond to the request for alumnae representation on their Board until June 7, 1887, when, presumably under President Taylor’s influence, they permitted the alumnae to nominate three of their own to fill vacancies on the Board. President Taylor issued a report declaring that the committee in charge of considering the alumnae request for representation “appreciated the interest of the alumnae and were united in the conviction that the interests of the college will be furthered by the election of alumnae as trustees.” That day the alumnae elected from among themselves Florence M. Cushing, Elizabeth E. Poppleton, and Helen Hiscock Backus.

Helen Hiscock Backus
Florence Cushing

Helen Hiscock Backus graduated from Vassar in 1873, president of her class, and taught in the Department of English from 1875 to 1883, receiving her A.M. in 1878. After marrying Vassar English Professor Truman J. Backus she moved to Brooklyn where she dedicated herself to the philanthropic and educational interests of the city. She served as alumnae trustee from 1887 to 1902 and as president of Vassar Students’ Aid Society from 1895 to 1897. She also served as president of the Association of University Women from 1888 to 1889.

Florence Cushing, the first alumna elected to the Board of Trustees, graduated as valedictorian in 1874 and served as college librarian for two years. In 1874 she was elected secretary of the Alumnae Association and in 1877 became chairman of the Scholarship Committee. She served as alumnae trustee from 1887 to 1894 and from 1906 to 1912, during which time she raised money to build the New England Building. (It was through her efforts that a piece of Plymouth Rock came to be mounted over the front door of the building.) She was a member of the Executive Committee and the Committee on Faculty and Studies.

In 1913 she donated a fund to the college to increase the salary of recognized professors, and that same year the board elected her to life membership, a position she held until her resignation in 1923 when she was made trustee emerita. She died in September, 1927 after twenty-eight years of service on the board. That same year the college named Cushing Hall in her honor. (13)

Elizabeth E. Poppleton, originally hailing from Omaha, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vassar in 1876. She returned from 1878 to 1879 to teach English at the college. In 1895, she married William C. Shannon, a doctor. She died in 1939.