Conversation Three

...continued from Conversation Two


1950s… 1960s… Twelve College Exchange… Modernization of the Curriculum… Lucy Maynard Salmon… Laura Wiley… The Governance of Vassar College

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


CJ: Let’s take a look at the period of time when you were here and I wasn’t—the fifties, 1960. The student body must have been around 1600 by then.


EAD: Yes, I think that’s right.


CJ: And the rumors are that perhaps they weren’t in every way as sterling a student body as they were 20 years earlier, 30 years earlier, when you had come to Vassar. Is that true? Was there a time when you weren’t as happy with our students?


EAD: I don’t think there’s ever been a time when there hasn’t been a wonderful student body at Vassar. But statistically, when you look at admissions figures during the fifties—I do remember that we felt we were having to scurry around pretty hard to find top-quality students. There was a lot of competition and there was a lot of disgruntlement on the part of the student body, who were beginning to think that they would like to go to colleges where there was more action, where they didn’t have to leave the campus every weekend to go to find the company of males. I say that in a very guarded way because I don’t think it was really as bad as that might sound.


CJ: I think that Vassar’s geographical location really exacerbated, I suppose, some of those tensions because by this time Radcliffe and Harvard, and Brown and Pembroke, and Barnard and Columbia, and certainly Smith with the colleges in the valley there, and Wellesley located so near to Boston were all flourishing competitors.


EAD: There was a lot of competition.


CJ: There were a lot of other activities going on in those campuses. I know when I came to Vassar and would occasionally go to a Yale football game, I’d often see some of my students in the mid ‘60s there enjoying a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week environment, whereas at Vassar, we really didn’t do that much after classes were over for the week.


EAD: And I remember as a teacher, and I remember other faculty members commenting about it, that Vassar was really having a big exodus on the weekend so that if you were a teacher, your students were trying hard to avoid weekend work, and they were sleepy when they got back on Sunday night. It was turning into a weekend-away-from-the- college college.


CJ: I remember a little bit about that. The Retreat closed around 4:30 on Friday and opened at 8:30 on Monday, and the library closed down at 8 or 10 o’clock Saturday night and didn’t open until 2:00 Sunday afternoon.


EAD: That’s correct.


CJ: And if you’d see someone on the campus draggin’ her New York Times back to her residence hall at about 10 o’clock Sunday morning you knew she was thinkin’ she wasn’t one of the most sought-after social companions. (laughter)

When you were freshman dean, you sat in on the admissions committee. When did we have for the first time a full-fledged admissions office in the modern sense as opposed to a faculty committee that reviewed the documents that were sent in by supplicants for places?


EAD: Well, I suppose we really started having an admissions office, as we said last time, in 1916. At that point there were two people who steadily worked on admissions: C. Mildred Thompson, who was the first so-called secretary of the Committee on Admission, and then Vera B. Thomson (no relation and not spelled the same), who was actually the secretary of the Committee on Admission, although she was not called that. And those two, between them, made a lot of the decisions about admissions. At that point C. Mildred Thompson was not yet dean. She was made dean in 1923. And she was a history instructor in 1916 when MacCracken identified her as up-and-coming and one that he wanted to challenge with some administrative duties. So he asked her to be the head of the Committee on Admission.

But to go on with it, during the ‘20s, the committee on admission was pursuing the policy that we spoke of previously—of changing from registration at birth to competitive admissions. That procedure was completed by 1929, I believe. It was gradually implemented. And in 1929 Josephine Gleason, who was a psychology professor, was made the faculty head of the Committee on Admission.

For quite a few years, including up until the ‘50s, there was a faculty head of the Committee on Admission and an administrative head. Faculty members were elected by the faculty to be on the committee, and I think that every faculty member was responsible for reading through part of the alphabet—let’s say "a to m" or something like that—and then in doubtful cases two faculty members would look over the folders. The decisions were essentially made by faculty members representing the whole faculty in the procedure.


CJ: When was the decision made to stay, as Alan Simpson later put it, as "mistress in our own house"?


EAD: Well, there was a series of meetings. John Wilkie, who was the chair of the board of trustees, made the announcement in the fall—in November ’67—that Vassar was going to stay here. Of course Alan Simpson was present at the meeting, and he spoke also. That was the date the decision was made.


CJ: And then we had the assignment of recruiting a different student constituency for Vassar, that is, the men. What do you remember about that?


EAD: There was a mandate from the board of trustees at that time to enlarge the student body so that we could accommodate the education of men as well as women. The college did not wish that at the expense of women—therefore, the decision was made to enlarge rather than make competition even more strenuous.

The second part of the mandate was that the college should re-examine everything in sight about a residential college, including the curriculum, the residence halls, student life on campus, the faculty, relationships between the college and its alumnae/i body, and so forth.

The third mandate was that the composition of the student body should become not only of both sexes but much more heterogeneous in the sense that we would draw a much larger group of minority students. We would make a conscious effort to open the Vassar education to people who had never been able to afford it. So, various programs were instituted from then on to encourage candidates to come who would not normally have thought of applying to Vassar.


CJ: Let me ask: You were dean of studies. The first men came to the college in ’68, ’69?


EAD: Let me tell you how we introduced men to the college. We together with several other colleges going through similar experiences instituted a college exchange program. I’m speaking of relationships, a consortium between Trinity, Colgate, Amherst, Bowdoin, Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, and a few other colleges. I think there were twelve for most of the time that the organization existed while I was dean. Maybe the organization still exists.


CJ: It still does: The Twelve-College Exchange.


EAD: Anyhow, the deans in the various colleges received applications from students at other colleges to exchange places—for students, let’s say, at Dartmouth to come to Vassar for a semester or a year. In the first years it was mostly male students coming into the college and female students going out of the college, but gradually it served a broader purpose of exchanging both sexes.

So those men, on the whole, came from the sophomore class of a place like Williams or Dartmouth, but occasionally they came from the junior class. Some of them wanted to stay and graduate from Vassar and we finally developed a mechanism with the cooperation of the other colleges where that could happen. I daresay some of our students did the same thing at other colleges.


CJ: While I was dean of studies, we matriculated a fair number of our visitors or exchange students.


EAD: And then we admitted the men as freshmen. The first freshmen men were admitted in 1970, to graduate in 1974. Also, male and female transfer students from other colleges who were not part of that exchange program were able to transfer in. I remember as early as 1965 - 1966, which was the year I became dean of studies, we were all ready for students to transfer to the college into the sophomore year—as we had places for them not occupied by the freshmen.


CJ: Transferring was in itself not a very common practice before that time. Is that right?


EAD: It wasn’t until the ‘60s. That’s right. The question was always asked, "Well, are you corrupting your standards by admitting men who are less qualified than women?" And the answer was correctly "No" to that question. We didn’t lower our standards in order to get enough men into the college.


CJ: When could we say that the curriculum at Vassar underwent its first change into a more comprehensive curriculum?


EAD: Oh, that was definitely when MacCracken asked the faculty under the general charge and direction of C. Mildred Thompson in 1923 to look at everything in sight and develop the strongest possible curriculum.


CJ: Hmmm. Seven years into his presidency at the time.


EAD: M-hm. And the faculty worked on the curriculum, had lots of extra-curricular sessions, by which I mean meeting at each other’s houses way into the night. During the interim period before MacCracken came and after Taylor left, the faculty had been allowed by the trustees to run themselves as a unit, referring any very important questions to the trustees but essentially to run their own business until a new president was found. They divided themselves up into all sorts of subcommittees, studying. It was their opportunity to get a head start on modernization, and there were a number of faculty members who were just dying to have a much more modern college, and so they were very happy when MacCracken came to be president. But what they were doing in that year’s period was studying what they would like to have happen, which would include having many more options in their own disciplines and having many more electives in the college and so on. Their broad sense of what was needed didn’t go so far as to include multidisciplinary courses, which was one thing MacCracken wanted very much to implement but had never gotten really going with it.

However, they had done a lot of spade work so that when they officially engaged in this study between 1923 and when the new curriculum was brought in in 1927, they had time to do a thorough job. And the characteristics of the new curriculum are very familiar to us because they’re the basis of our curriculum still, namely, having a major and having a related studies field. At that point they did not have a major and a minor but they adopted the principle of concentrating in a discipline and then having breadth in the rest of the program. They allowed for the fact that students needed exposure to various kinds of study to various aspects of disciplines, like the sciences-- the natural sciences, the physical sciences, the biological sciences, mathematics, the modern languages, the classical languages, the social sciences. And they came into new juxtapositions in the new curriculum.


CJ: In Taylor’s heyday certainly the college was much larger than when it had opened. I assume the faculty had grown commensurately.


EAD: Yes, and disciplines—those nine fields that were originally the nine disciplinary fields of the college had begun to split up.

The split-up began, for example, when Lucy Maynard Salmon was hired by Taylor in 1887, the year after he came. The college had never before had a History Department. A little history had been taught by English teachers and by the classical teachers, the Greek teachers, and so on, but there was no History Department until 1887.

Then the History Department existed as a department until 1891, when there was again a re-structuring, and economics split out of history. Economics had been taught by historians between ’87 and ’91, which isn’t very long. A man named Herbert Mills came in, and he was the first head of the Economics Department.

Similar things took place in other disciplines like the natural sciences. Instead of there being a Department of Natural Sciences, Natural Philosophy, and Mathematics, there were Departments of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics.

That kind of splintering went on until MacCracken’s time. The Political Science Department was instituted in 1914, not having anything to do with the History Department, but before that time Political Science would have been taught by the History Department or the Economics Department. So there has been that kind of spreading out.


CJ: So at the time of Taylor’s departure, many of the recognized and conventional divisions within the faculty were in place but needed this review that MacCracken had proposed.


EAD: That’s right.


CJ: You mentioned in passing one of the great faculty names, Lucy Salmon, who in addition to being one of the pioneers of historical method in American education was also, I think, a formidable presence in the development of the college during her active years. Say a few things about her.


EAD: I have just written a book, as you know, about Henry MacCracken called Bridges to the World [College Avenue Press, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1994], and I devote quite a bit of space to what I discovered but had not known before about Lucy Maynard Salmon with respect to the growth of the college and the modernization of the college. She had separately—and this was extremely interesting to me—come to many of the same ideas that MacCracken came prepared to work for. She was at the end of her long career at Vassar just as he was starting in as president.


CJ: She came in the 1880s?


EAD: She came in 1887. She was a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she learned to respect the seminar method of teaching, which she ran into there, and that was more or less the foundation of her method of teaching history—that each student should go out after her own ideas on a particular subject and come back to class discussion prepared to substantiate them.


CJ: You might say that they were asked to go to the sources, is that right?


EAD: Yes. But she’d had her hand in many developments, and she thought a lot about what a college should be like and how the faculty should relate to the administration, how the administration should relate to the alumnae, and so on. She had a lot of ideas about community-building, none of which I had really known about before, which was my ignorance. But I devote a fair amount of time to this in my book.

It was a happy coincidence that Lucy Maynard Salmon was at the end of her career just as MacCracken was starting. She should have retired probably in about 1923 but was persuaded to stay on for a few more years and died in 1927. And she worked mightily to develop the Vassar library with lots and lots and lots of source materials. She invited her students to keep in touch with the college and to keep sending back a flow of materials to add to our archival collection. She was a great force for learning in the college.


CJ: As I recall, too, she was critical as moral support and encouragement to MacCracken during those dark days when the trustees discovered whom in fact they had elected as president and actually were doing anything they could to dissuade him from continuing as president.


EAD: That’s right.


CJ: It was important that she be that very senior person.


EAD: She really encouraged him, and as I say in my book, she was a bossy individual and no doubt she got into lots of people’s hair, but it was fortunate for MacCracken…


CJ: …and for Vassar.


EAD: …and for Vassar that she was here at the time she was.


CJ: We can’t move into the modern age of the faculty and its curriculum without your telling me what you think MacCracken found in that paragon of departments, the English Department, by the time he arrived. What happened when he was there?


EAD: All right. (laughter) I’ll say a few among the millions of words I could say about that. The Vassar English Department was perhaps absolutely typical of developments in many of the departments of the college in that a lot of students who graduated, having been interested in their work in English, were prepared to go on into graduate work and become teachers or professionals in some way related to the teaching field themselves. And this was certainly true of the Vassar English Department.

In the 1880s, a series of Vassar alumnae came back into the department. I’m thinking especially of Laura Wiley, who graduated from Vassar in the ‘70s, who was a person very much in agreement with Lucy Maynard Salmon as their careers went along, i.e. Laura Wiley herself had come to the idea that students should look around the world for contemporary sources for their material that they wanted to use in writing, for example. She had her eye on the present as well as on the past, and so the development of the curriculum in the English Department was quite rapid and quite diversified and always encouraged students to combine what they themselves were thinking about literature and their experiences with the more classical notions about what the literature was. I mean, they were very much encouraged to use their own experience and to combine the study of literature with the practice of writing and reflecting.

Laura Wiley got her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1894, and so did another woman who taught for a while in the department. We have a chair named after her: Mary Augusta Scott. She graduated in the ‘70s and came back to the Vassar English Department for a while. Then, because she didn’t exactly find a suitable spot for herself, went to Smith and became the professor of English at Smith. Also, Mary Augusta Scott was the first fellowship student at Yale University in the English Department in the 1890s. So there were two Vassar professors who were on the forefront of getting their Ph.D.s at a formerly men’s university.

We’ve witnessed the fact that women had a hard enough time getting into high school, then getting into college, and then we had to go over the frontier of getting into graduate school and being able to get Ph.D.s. So in that sense, the Vassar English Department was quite typical of what was going on with the faculty and the college.


CJ: They were still teaching English literature. They were not moving in the direction of American literature.


EAD: They were moving in the direction. I should have said that. That would be part of the realistic notion of Laura Wiley. I mean, you don’t divide literature just up into decades of English literature. You think more broadly about relationships between bodies of material.


CJ: Tell us a little bit about what you know. I’m sure you know a lot about the study of languages. I would imagine that modern languages were not part of Vassar’s initial curriculum.


EAD: Oh yes they were…but a minor part. We had from the beginning the professor of languages called "the professor of modern and classical languages." I recall that in the Vassar chronology, which was put together in 1960 at the time of the 100th anniversary of the college, I was surprised to discover that there was a French table in Main Building in 1866. Some of the students who were studying French, maybe some of them who had already had French before they came to Vassar, got together and spoke French only at dinnertime.


CJ: In the early days a single professor professed modern and ancient languages.


EAD: Well, a single professor together with the assistance of these teachers, entirely women, I think…


CJ: You’ve mentioned them off and on. Where were they drawn from?


EAD: Well, they were people largely without degrees. Some of them probably didn’t have college degrees. Some of them might have taught in schools. I have a hard time thinking about the right answer to your question. All that I can tell you is that I have seen in Special Collections a group of applications from women who were answering a general invitation to apply to Vassar for a position as teacher, as the teacher’s assistant, to assist the professors. And these people couldn’t at first have been women with college degrees because there weren’t any colleges for them to come from. I’ve read through some of their applications, but I have to confess that that’s something I haven’t really looked into. I can only guess.


CJ: So they did a lot of their teaching mostly under the supervision of professors at the early college.


EAD: Yes. They were sometimes drill masters, and probably did regular teaching along the way. Hard to find out about. There’s not much written about them in our archives.

There was a good deal of rote learning in some of the departments, not in all of them fortunately. But with respect to the modern languages, I would guess that probably they found people who for one reason or another were proficient in those languages and then let them drill the students.


CJ: Any sense of when the languages began to stand apart by themselves as departments of language and culture that they’ve become now?


EAD: Yes. I would say that was around the turn of the century. There were not a separate French Department, German Department, Spanish Department, Italian Department. Let’s say between 1895 and 1920 there would be a breakdown to the concept of modern languages in the various departments.

I’m remembering that Ruth Venable, who retired as a French professor, also taught Spanish. I know that Edith Fahnestock, whose house I purchased after a while, when she started teaching at Vassar in 1913 or ’14, taught several languages. She taught Italian and she could teach French and she taught Spanish.


CJ: Back to the question – how did this restructuring of the curriculum prove to be important?


EAD: It provided the basis of the present curriculum and the present degree requirements of the college, the idea of concentration but not to the exclusion of getting a broad education in the liberal arts. I think that MacCracken re-focused on the contemporary theme in a sharp way. He was as interested that students could face contemporary problems and know what they thought of the contemporary movements in politics, the arts, science, and so on, as he was in their learning from the past. I think that represents a distinct change from Taylor’s emphasis.

The student was theoretically put in charge of developing her own program. Her own program should be characterized by having a concentration and a breadth. She was assigned—I think this is true from the mid-30s on—a related studies adviser, rather than calling it a major. For example, when I was a student, I didn’t major in English. I had a related studies program in English, which would then include other things that I was interested in combining with English. In my case, it was philosophy. It started out as chemistry as a matter of fact, but I shortly got tired of watching precipitates drop, so I switched to philosophy. I took some philosophy courses and a lot of economics. That was possible.


CJ: So that was under the guidance of your English adviser.


EAD: That was under the guidance of my related-studies adviser, not my English adviser. So the related-studies adviser was the equivalent of the freshman dean and the sophomore dean, and then sometime during sophomore year, during this period we’re talking about, you were required to pick your major, at which point you went into the hands of the department adviser. There were two separate advising groups: one was from the general teaching faculty. You were assigned as a freshman when you came in a faculty adviser. I might have been assigned as a freshman a teacher in the biology department.


CJ: As you continued as an English major, your related studies would still be a matter of some advice and concerns.


EAD: Well, it would be a matter of advice because your English adviser was going to keep his or her eye on the fact that you entered a particular program which was described on the card and which you had vowed was going to be your way through the college, but you could make changes from that, and you wouldn’t have to go back at this time to your related-studies adviser. The English adviser would have taken over, and of course they did have a definite set of requirements, departmental requirements. So once you get out of the preliminary stages, you have to think of combining your related-studies objectives with the definite necessities, whatever they might be, in your departmental major.


CJ: No discussion of the evolution of the Vassar faculty could be undertaken without pausing for a moment on the question of the Governance of Vassar College. How did that come about, because it seems to be a model of faculty governance over academic affairs?


EAD: It’s now been said quite often in these talks. MacCracken really believed that the faculty were competent to think through their own subjects and set them forth for the students, and that the trustees had their own competence, the administrators had their own competence, the students had their periphery of interests. But it should be clear that all members of these separate divisions had the constitutional right in a college to make their own decisions and to be responsible for their own objectives.


CJ: This is a fairly radical idea.


EAD: It was a fairly radical idea because, before that, the trustees at Vassar and at many other colleges would have considered it their responsibility and their president’s to set forth the objectives of the education. And so Taylor, in making his decisions about personnel, might have consulted with the trustees. He probably did consult with the trustees, but he would certainly not have felt it necessary to confer with other members of the faculty. There was no such thing as the faculty advisory committee, for example.

At the same time that MacCracken came in with definite ideas about this and Lucy Maynard Salmon, as I’ve said already, independently—and some of the other faculty had independently been thinking about these ideas—there was a movement nationally for faculties in colleges to gain control of their own disciplines. And I’m thinking about the development of the AAUP, the American Association of University Professors, and there were other professional organizations in the scientific fields, for example. You would have chemical societies and biological societies and so on, so that the discipline could be described by the people who knew the discipline best and faculty members could be hired who were able to implement the objectives of the departmental discipline. The one difficulty about all this, as I’ve mentioned before, is that MacCracken, while he established the governance and so pleased all of the separate, autonomous departments, also wished in the worst way for students and faculty both to begin to think about multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary collaborations.


CJ: Which leads me to the next thing I was going to say. I think it’s safe to say that you can jump nearly 50 years for the next tumult of the Vassar faculty and curriculum, and that was concurrent with co-education and that was the revision that you and your Committee on Alternatives got started, where faculty from various departments joined forces to teach courses in a cross-disciplinary way.


EAD: So in that way MacCracken was very much ahead of his time and the multidisciplinary programs on the whole.


Continue to Conversation Four

To start from the beginning, check out Conversation One