Conversation One

Overview from 1861 to 1946:

... Milo P. Jewett… James Monroe Taylor… Henry Noble MacCraken… Vassar College Governance… World War Two

Elizabeth A. Daniels (EAD) and Colton Johnson (CJ)

CJ: I’m Colton Johnson, professor of English at Vassar and the Dean of the College. I’ve been here since 1965, and since this is 1995, that seems like a very long time indeed. It is as nothing compared to your experience with Vassar. And I think you should start by identifying yourself and telling us a little about your time at Vassar.


EAD: All right. I’m Elizabeth Daniels…“Elizabeth Adams Daniels.” My maiden name was Adams, and I graduated from Vassar in 1941. I came back to the campus in about six years and started teaching English.

I was freshman dean from 1955 to 1958. And an aside is that I started being really interested in Vassar history when I had to prepare a lecture for the incoming freshmen during Orientation. I had to go into Vassar history and began to be really interested in it.

After that, I went back to teaching English for a while… became dean of studies in the spring of 1966 for nine years… then went back to the English department, was chairman of the department for a while… then became acting dean of the faculty from 1976 to ’78… then went back to some more teaching of English and other things, following which I retired—in 1985, for the weekend—and then assumed my self-proposed duties as Vassar historian.


CJ: The first-ever Vassar historian…is that right?


EAD: Well, there were other people who were Vassar historians and did noble jobs, like Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, but never had an official title.


CJ: Let’s get on with the purpose of the project that we’re embarking on today, and it really is to get on record much of what you’ve learned about Vassar...as student and as faculty member and as dean several times, and finally as Vassar historian. For the rest of this hour today, what we’ve agreed to talk about is the kind of general overview, from your point of view…

Let’s start with period one.


EAD: Well, of course Vassar was really the first completely constituted women’s college—endowed women’s college—and so there weren’t many precedents to follow…and in the case of Vassar’s opening in 1865, having been chartered in 1861, in Poughkeepsie, New York, there wasn’t even a high school that was functioning to take in men or women, boys or girls. There were very few public high schools around the country.

So, for women tantalized into thinking about coming to college or persuaded by their brothers that a college education would be good, the preparation was really very miscellaneous. And so the college had to figure out how to handle students who were very diversely prepared; had to figure out how to manage with a faculty that had just been got together—nine professors, twenty teaching assistants who doubled at Vassar as Victorian governesses; a whole makeup of a residential community in place of the acreage on which it was built. Everything started from scratch, in other words.

Between 1861, when the college was chartered as Vassar Female College, and the fall of 1865, when the doors opened for the first time, the board of trustees, which consisted of 28 men, including 14 Baptist clergymen and 14 businessmen and educators, had to start from scratch in collecting a faculty, advertising for students, talking with educators in other places, mostly at men’s colleges, about how a college should function. Matthew Vassar’s idea was to make a college which would do for women what a Yale or a Harvard did for men, but the question was, “How could you do that with students who had had very little formal preparation and classical learning and so on?”


CJ: That’s really what lies at the base of the—I guess we wouldn’t call it a squabble but the gentle disagreement—with Mount Holyoke about which is really the older of the women’s colleges because Holyoke was founded earlier, as I understand…


EAD: It was founded in 1837. Of course it was called Mary Lyon Seminary, and it didn’t describe itself as a full-fledged college. It was a seminary. The differences are, I suppose, subtle. I don’t really want to get into a dispute with Mount Holyoke. There was also Elmira, which was a women’s college, but as I understand it, it didn’t require mathematics, for example, so there were subtle differences.


CJ: The collegiate curriculum, which Vassar determined it would start with.


EAD: Well, with respect to certain things, like mathematics, apparently. So the curriculum had to be devised and students had to be found who could begin to study the subjects taught, and what happened was—and I’m not going to go into this fully right now because I want to get on with describing the other periods—but what happened was that the college really had to start a preparatory school in its first years.

After about a year it was clear that if they were to admit only those students who could completely take on the college’s work, only about one-third of the beds would be filled. So, they had to make a practical decision, and they decided to admit students who were 15 years of age or older to the college, and if they tested adequately in certain subjects, they could stay and take classes in those subjects, but if they didn’t, they would have to do preparatory work.

And so it was a kind of matriculation system, you might say, where some students came and would stay for five or six years and could get a Vassar degree, having spent two of those five or six years as preparatory students. A lot of students came and never made the grade and left! In fact, many students came, were tested, were discouraged, went home before they started. Can you imagine crossing the country from Chicago, let’s say, only to take tests and discover that you were inadequate and to have to turn around and go home? That happened many times apparently. There were all these inadequacies and uncertainties and so on about what a women’s college should be like, and what women could do.


CJ: Did that bear on the fact that in that roughly twenty-year period, Vassar went through a number of presidents?


EAD: Well, no. I think it had more to do with the basic problems. But it is true that the first president of the college was Milo P. Jewett, who had run a seminary for women in Alabama, and just before the Civil War—well, when he felt the pressures of being an abolitionist approaching a Civil War—he gave up his occupation in the South and moved to Poughkeepsie. He took over a girls’ academy in Poughkeepsie that had been run for a while by Lydia Booth, who was Matthew Vassar’s niece, and that’s a story in itself. But he became the first president of the college and was very helpful in beginning to design the curriculum.

However, in 1862, long before the college opened, he went to Europe to study European education, including education for women. And while he was away, a number of hostile “takeover” forces got Matthew Vassar’s ear, and he was asked to withdraw as president by Matthew Vassar in 1864. He had done a lot of good but there were reasons why Vassar thought he should be asked to move on. And a trustee named John Raymond, who had been president of the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, became Vassar’s first functioning president. He became president in 1864 and served through this whole difficult period until he died in the summer of 1878, at which point the trustees appointed one of their own members again—Samuel T. Caldwell, who was a minister from Andover, Massachusetts— to become the functioning head, the president. And he was president from 1878 to 1884. By that time, however, a number of problems had developed, and the Vassar alumnae, who had already begun an alumnae association, were very worried and highly critical of Caldwell’s administration.


CJ: I can’t imagine the Vassar alumnae being critical of the administration of the college.


EAD: Anyhow, they were. So, Caldwell was called upon to resign in 1884. You didn’t know we had all these intrigues back in the 19th century.


CJ: Somehow it’s not shocking me a lot.


EAD: Anyhow, the college had an acting president for one year in 1885-‘86 named James Ryland Kendrick while they sought a competent, very able president, whom they found in The Reverend James Monroe Taylor, who was the minister of the First Baptist Church in Providence, Rhode Island.


CJ: Had Samuel Caldwell any experience as an administrator of an educational institution?


EAD: No, no. That was the problem probably. He was a very nice man and a good scholar, but apparently he didn’t know the first thing about running a college, and it deteriorated. Taylor, who followed him, had never been president of a college or had that kind of an administrative job either, but he was a different kind of person apparently.


CJ: A very young man when he was here, wasn’t he?


EAD: Yes, he was young when he came in, and he was here for a long time. He came in 1885, and he resigned in 1913. And then there was a hiatus for a year while the College searched for a new president, and that turned out to be Henry Noble MacCracken, who at that point was teaching English at Smith, just having taught at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale.


CJ: Let’s pause on Taylor. I know that you have a great respect for Taylor and what he did for the College.


EAD: Well, one thing that Taylor did, for example, was to abolish the preparatory school. That was 1890. So between 1866 and 1890, Vassar had preparatory students, and they were part of the problem dragging the college down during Caldwell’s years. And Taylor knew what to do about clearing up the problems of admission. Of course by Taylor’s time, Vassar alumnae were going out, teaching, starting preparatory schools, showing their influence in the educational world, and as a matter of fact, public education had improved and enlarged greatly, so the clientele was going to be different by 1890. Wellesley opened in 1875; Smith opened in 1875; Mount Holyoke officially became Mount Holyoke in 1887; Barnard had started in 1890…so there were a number of women’s colleges by 1900. And there was a lot more know-how and a lot more competence among the students and faculty members, a lot better preparation for college.


CJ: So then Taylor really brought the college into the shape that we recognize today, a four-year liberal arts…


EAD: Exactly, exactly. He built a lot of buildings and reorganized the curriculum and enlarged the faculty and went out and got money and got people with money and a lot of skill and educational know-how on the board of trustees. For example, John D. Rockefeller came on the board of trustees in 1888. His daughter was a special student in the college for a couple of years from 1886 to 1888. And so Taylor did a remarkable job in keeping the college afloat after the Vassar era influences, by which I mean and include John Guy Vassar, Jr., and Matthew Vassar, Jr., who were our founder’s nephews.


CJ: And the founders of Vassar Brothers Hospital.


EAD: And the founders of the hospital. They contributed a lot of money, after Matthew Vassar, Sr. died, to the college. But that era was gone by the time Taylor got here, and he had to go and scrounge for money, which he did very well.


CJ: Give me a sense of Taylor’s colleagueship with his counterparts at the men’s colleges in those days. Was the interchange that we now expect between the presidents of peer colleges extended to him in this period or was this a later development?


EAD: I think that’s a later development although, for example, Eliot from Harvard came and looked over Vassar. You know, there was a great stir at Harvard before Radcliffe was founded, and women students desired to study under Harvard professors, so Eliot, who was president, came over and spent some time at Vassar, trying to see what women were capable of. He visited Maria Mitchell, who was one of our professors, and visited classes and discovered women astronomy students at Vassar were quite superior to Harvard students in astronomy and so forth and so on.

So Taylor made contact with the men’s colleges, I suppose, but I don’t have the impression that there was really a kind of collegial, close relationship.


CJ: But he retired a venerated figure, is that right? Nobody asked him to step down, I hope.


EAD: Uh, well, no, that isn’t quite right. Maybe we’d better go on with that next time.


CJ: Well, all right. He was here 27 years.


EAD: He was here until 1913. Yes, I think it was 27 years. Really, Taylor did a marvelous job, but by 1910, when the college had 1,000 students, they needed lots more things in every direction. The faculty were beginning to agitate for faculty suffrage. The students were agitating for women’s suffrage. Everyone was agitating for something. Some of the faculty were a little uppity for Taylor’s taste. And Taylor served notice that he was going to resign in 1913, but it wasn’t exactly without a lot of pressure from various groups on campus. He was out of sympathy with suffrage. He did not believe in suffrage for women.


CJ: He must have been born around 1850, so he was a man of mid-19th century origin. Probably, then, a lot of that was that the age was moving very quickly for him.


EAD: That’s right.


CJ: So, they found MacCracken.


EAD: They found MacCracken.


CJ: Tell us how they found MacCracken.


EAD: Well, that’s a very interesting story.


CJ: It’s even possible, from what I saw in the library last spring, that they found the wrong man…or they thought they did.


EAD: The trustees were really looking for someone who would continue Taylor’s policies. I think they were very happy with Taylor. In the search committee, they never once asked MacCracken what his educational philosophy was. He was dying to tell them, but he was visited by various trustees like Charles Pratt and Florence Cushing, who were on the committee, and there was a lot of small talk, but apparently never any discussion of educational philosophy.


CJ: Charles Pratt was Standard Oil. Is that right?


EAD: Standard Oil. Yes, along with Rockefeller and others.


CJ: And tell me about Miss Cushing. I don’t know about her.


EAD: Florence Cushing was a Vassar alumna, class of 1874 from New England, who was a big wheel in the associated Vassar Clubs, which had begun gathering around the United States. There was a big one in New England, and she was one of three women who, the year after Taylor came in, were elected alumnae trustees. Those were the first women on the Vassar board of trustees -- Helen Backus '73, Elizabeth E. Poppleton '76, and Florence Cushing ’74.


CJ: So, when MacCracken was being found, the searchers were themselves all trustees. There was no suffrage; there was no faculty input, as there is today.


EAD: That’s so. There was none of that. Well, an interesting thing happened. MacCracken was in the Smith College English Department one spring day in 1914, and he learned that Vassar College was looking for a new president. In fact, he was told that by the chairman of the English Department, who was the sister-in-law of Dimock, who was the chairman of the search committee.

Mary Augusta Scott—her name was—was a Vassar alumna '76, and she asked MacCracken if he thought he’d like to apply for the job. Well, MacCracken did not apply for the job, but he had a brother, John MacCracken, who aspired to be a college president again. He had already been the president of a small college in the Midwest. So MacCracken wrote a very enthusiastic letter about his brother, and then nothing was heard of this for several months. MacCracken wrote again. And sometime in the late summer Charles Pratt turned up on the doorstep of MacCracken up in Northampton, just to pay a casual call, and it turns out that he was really looking MacCracken over, I guess, but not asking him any questions about his educational philosophy. So, things were really not happening until late in the fall when suddenly, out of the blue, both Henry Noble MacCracken and his brother, John MacCracken, were invited to go out to Oyster Bay to the Pratts’ house for a Saturday luncheon…


CJ: This has the makings of a French farce.


EAD: …And then, Henry Noble was entertained by one group of trustees there while John was taken in the other room by some other people. And John was told that it was really Henry Noble who was the candidate…not John. So John was very disappointed. On the way home he told Noble of his good fortune and so on. The whole thing ended by…


CJ: “The importance of being Noble,” I guess you could call that.


EAD: …by John MacCracken being made president of Lafayette the same week that Henry Noble MacCracken was made president of Vassar. And their father, Henry Mitchell MacCracken, who was chancellor of New York University, must have been a very proud father. That was December 1914.


CJ: To move along, then, tell me a little bit about this educational philosophy that they forgot to ask about. What did they get in MacCracken?


EAD: In MacCracken they got a man who thought the students came first. The faculty had to be present. The college had to have buildings. The college had to have a library. And the college had to have administrators that had to have rules and regulations, parietals, and so on. But primarily it had to have students who were self-activated and wanted an education and wanted their own education and wanted the experiences that being educated would give them.

MacCracken, by 1922, had persuaded all the parties involved in the college, like the faculty, the students, the trustees, and so on, to put together their ideal rules and regulations, and then they were melded together in a government which was adopted by the trustees and has been in various forms the constitution of the college ever since. The name of the constitution was, and is, the Vassar College Governance.


CJ: Kind of the model of its kind, wasn’t it?


EAD: It was the model of its kind…and a forerunner. But it was a product of its times because the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] started in 1915. The AAUW [American Association of University Women] started. Various professional societies began, and it was the time when faculty were demanding to determine the educational policy of colleges and no longer have the trustees run the educational life of the college, which was what had been happening at Vassar and many other places before that.


CJ: Now on the student side, as I understand it, there was also this documentation of self-governance or self-government. A great deal of responsibility for determining their regulations and enforcing their regulations on a wide range of non-academic matters was turned over to the students.


EAD: Exactly. And they had their own court, their own social regulations….


CJ: Betty, let me ask a little bit more about MacCracken. We talked a little about his liberal views as regards students taking responsibility and charge of their affairs and also the faculty gaining greater control over the educational policy of the college, most of those being pioneering moves. Is it true, as I’ve heard, that he had a large responsibility in the forming of a consortium of the Seven Sisters?


EAD: Oh yes, indeed. The day after MacCracken was inaugurated, which was in October 1915, he had planned a working session in his office of the presidents of four colleges—Mount Holyoke, Smith, Wellesley and Vassar—and they were going to put their minds on admissions problems of their institutions. The outcome was that they decided to get together every now and then, at least annually. Even at that first meeting they laid plans to have committees on admission in the various colleges, which none of them had had before. So beginning in 1916, Vassar had a committee on admission with an established goal of a new kind of admission — competitive admission rather than admission by subscription at birth, you might say. And between 1915 and 1926 that organization enlarged and was called together at least once a year by whichever college president was presiding over it. And they had collaborative enterprises in fundraising and curriculum-building and so on. So it was very important. And yes indeed, it was MacCracken’s idea. He launched that organization, which has been going ever since.


CJ: But MacCracken was, I guess—with all these revolutionary plans—also a very visible presence on the campus. He taught English.


EAD: He did. He taught Shakespeare and Chaucer and medieval literature.


CJ: And one gets the sense that he was with the students a fair amount. They felt he was a presence and a friend.


EAD: He was very much involved in athletic activities and reading to and entertaining the students. He read ballads in Middle English to them. He joined them for lunch and dinner and talked with them and got various groups going and interested them in activities that would take them down to Poughkeepsie and into various outside organizations.

The thing about MacCracken was that being president of Vassar College and seeing to its welfare was just one of many enterprises that he had in mind. He was really a kind of citizen of the world, and he drew Vassar out of its campus into the affairs of not only Dutchess County but the United States and the world at large. Of course one thing I don’t believe I’ve mentioned yet is the fact that he was extremely interested in what was going on in the eastern European countries. And in 1921, he took a semester’s leave that took him to 37 different universities in Poland and Czechoslavakia. And as a result of that, he established relations with these various universities and began to attract foreign students to Vassar. And hence the beginning of our very-much-present-still foreign-student program at Vassar. So, he was a force for international relationships.


CJ: And also managed to write two histories of Dutchess County that are still consulted, I think.


EAD: And I believe I’ve already mentioned that he started the American Junior Red Cross.


CJ: I don’t think you have.


EAD: In 1916, as an enterprise of the Red Cross. That was a tremendous undertaking that he carried on from the president’s office here for a while. And then he asked for a leave of absence to go to Washington and really get down to it in the second semester of the academic year, in 1917-18. And as a result of that, when he came back to the campus in the fall, the trustees, who I mentioned last time, found him a bit radical for their taste and were ready to fire him.


CJ: He seems to have had several scrapes then with the trustees.


EAD: Yes, he was always getting into scrapes with the trustees.


CJ: What prompted him to retire?


EAD: Old age. He was 65 when he retired in 1946. He came when he was 34 years old.


CJ: He came in 1915? Wow.


EAD: Yes, 1915.


CJ: Thirty-one years. And still, I guess, lived in the vicinity until his death, didn’t he?


EAD: Have you seen the murder story by Elizabeth Taylor about the fictional Vassar murders?


CJ: Definitely.


EAD: Well, the house that’s pictured on the cover of that book, which is by a Vassar alumna, is the house that MacCracken bought, I think. She uses it as a picture of a rooming house in the vicinity of the college. He bought this large house over on New Hackensack Road with a large piece of property and then lived there with his wife, Marjorie. A house was built in the back of the property for Maisry and Joy, his daughters, to live in. And then he sold off property to various people, like alumna Claudia Lyon.


CJ: I just remembered one of my very earliest years at Vassar, when there were still junior and senior proms. My wife and I were asked as young faculty, new arrivals, to be the chaperones to one of the proms. The other young faculty couple were living in Mrs. MacCracken’s house. We went to change into our formal wear up there, and I actually can’t remember if I saw Mrs. McCracken or I heard that she was in the other room.


EAD: She made an apartment on the side of their house.


CJ: So, unlike Taylor, who was pretty much ready to step down, MacCracken left as a venerable, landmark, ground-breaking president for Vassar…a very hard act to follow.


EAD: Towards the end he had a pretty rough time again because those were the war years of the second World War, and he was a pacifist. He did not really agree with the proposition that the U.S. ought to get involved in the war, and that caused a lot of grief for him and others around him. He differed from Franklin Roosevelt’s policy…publicly.


CJ: They were well acquainted, weren’t they?


EAD: They were well acquainted. Roosevelt became a member of the board of trustees in 1924. Mildred Thompson, who was his dean from 1923 on, publicly endorsed America’s getting involved with the war, and so this was a source of concern. However, once America entered the war, then MacCracken and faculty put their minds on shaping up the college so that it could do its best job for the students during the war years. And then we had the debate over what has come to be known as the three-year/four-year plan.


CJ: There were two years in which students graduated in three years?


EAD: There were. By vote of the faculty and adoption by the board of trustees, the students were allowed to add to their regular year term a summer semester. They could graduate in December or April or June. And this went on. The problem came at the end of the war, when a great many members of the faculty thought it would be nice to just keep on that same routine, and a very divisive debate took place for one or two years. I think it was almost two years. When I joined the faculty in the second semester of 1947-48, this was the big issue, and every faculty meeting was devoted to some aspect of this. And if you spoke the wrong way, you were in trouble.

So MacCracken left under a cloud in the sense that he was disappointed in lots of different things, and he was worn out from this conflict that had rather bitterly taken place. After he left, he just moved right over. He didn’t come back and interrupt the next president who was Sarah Blanding. But he immediately adopted Dutchess County as his scene of operation. And he organized all the archives down in the basement of the County Courthouse. I believe he made an inventory of 15,000 items. And then he collected information about the history of Dutchess County and was involved in 350 radio broadcasts on the local radio station.


CJ: How long did he live after retirement?


EAD: He died in 1970—right after the Yale-Vassar question, which we haven’t talked about yet. But he was opposed to Vassar’s moving to Yale, and so he made a rather public display of this.


Continue the interview at Conversation Two