Overview: 1945 – 1964:
...Sarah Gibson Blanding… The Mellon Study… Alan Simpson… The Yale-Vassar Study…
Elizabeth A. Daniels (EAD) and Colton Johnson (CJ)
CJ: So Henry Noble MacCracken was a hard act to follow, and he was followed by the first woman president of the college.
EAD: Right. And that was Sarah Gibson Blanding, a Kentucky native. She was a phys-ed teacher who studied at a school of physical education—not at Yale, but in New Haven—got a degree, went back to Kentucky where her deceased father had had a small tobacco farm, ran the tobacco farm, entered the University of Kentucky, worked her way through, became dean of women at the University of Kentucky while she was still an undergraduate student. After that, she got an advanced degree, a master’s degree at the London School of Economics in political science; then came back and was presently tapped to be dean of the School of Home Economics at Cornell, from which she was plucked to become president of Vassar in 1946. She was president until 1964.
CJ: That’s a fascinating…I guess in modern parlance "career trajectory:" to New Haven back to Kentucky to London, finally to an institution very different from ours, Cornell.
EAD: Naturally there was a lot of criticism about the first woman president having been a dean in this School of Home Economics.
CJ: That wasn’t a popular choice or an easy one to explain in a phrase or two. She wasn’t a Wellesley graduate; she hadn’t gone to any of the great universities for a PhD. Did the faculty accept this choice?
EAD: Well, the faculty chose her as I recall. I mean, there was a faculty-trustee search committee, and they chose her. She had many, many virtues. She was a very candid, forthright, rather aggressive woman who could deal with men one-to-one, businessmen, philanthropists. She was a very engaging woman who went out and confronted the world and enhanced Vassar’s reputation, I would say. She was very interested in promoting women into the professions, and she engaged in a number of activities that would do that, such as seeing to it that Vassar develop a Washington internship program and get the young women interested in politics and out into the public sector.
CJ: We have been talking about MacCracken and a lot of his liberal attitudes about society and the link between learning in society and learning in the classroom.
EAD: I would say she and MacCracken saw eye-to-eye, although they didn’t get involved with each other, but like MacCracken she believed that Vassar students should be exposed to the outside world and not stay behind the gates. She set up the field work office in 1949, officially. Clarice Pennock came along and administered that new program. You may remember her.
CJ: Yes, I do. I think we’re still among a handful of our peer colleges that offer any credit towards the degree for field work, and we do it in almost every department in the college.
EAD: You see, that was really begun by MacCracken in his eagerness to "socialize" with students.
CJ: You mention in almost a comical way that the Vassar trustees, a pretty conservative lot, got much more and something much different from what they were bargaining for when they got MacCracken, although it sounds as though Blanding was in her own way probably even more overtly unorthodox. Had MacCracken shaped his board by the time she was his successor so that hers was a collaborative, functioning board?
EAD: That’s a very good question and certainly deserves some comment. At the time that MacCracken accomplished the renovation of what you might call the whole Vassar governance and brought forth the formal document on the governance , he had already succeeded in changing to a certain extent the membership in the board of trustees.
As time went on, he added more and more people with enlightened, particular interests, such as Stephen Duggan, the head of the IIE, the Institute of International Education. (There were two Stephen Duggans on the Vassar board of trustees—father and son.) He collaborated with MacCracken in this business of getting foreign students and getting the money to get the scholarships for the foreign students.
CJ: It’s still the flagship organization for international education today.
EAD: And he collaborated similarly with other important figures in education and on foundations and also in enlarging the number of alumnae trustees to six. You’ll know why I remember the name of this one trustee. She was Elizabeth K. Adams, my maiden name being Adams. She was very much interested in women and labor and had a government job, so she brought her skills to the board of trustees. MacCracken cared very much about enhancing the quality of the board of trustees so that, yes, it was quite a different, specialized kind of board.
You’re bearing in mind that the original board of trustees, in 1861, consisted of 28 men, 14 of whom were Baptist clergymen and 14 others who were variously employed.
CJ: Was the pairing by chance or by design?
EAD: I think it was by design. Matthew Vassar was a Baptist, and he wanted a Baptist interest. However, he wanted his college to be a secular college.
CJ: We’ll save some of that for the founding. Back to Sarah Gibson Blanding. She was the president, alas, during the McCarthy era?
EAD: She was. And that was going to be the next thing I really wanted to say. She was a stalwart defender of academic freedom. And in the McCarthy era, you know, there were many opportunities for a college president to speak out. And she spoke out. Vassar had a psychology professor named Lloyd Barenblatt, who was up before the un-American Activities Committee, and she went really to the mat for Barenblatt and defended him and put the weight of the college behind him. There was a Congressman Reese from Tennessee, who read us into the Congressional Record. We had a member of the faculty in our English Department, as you know, named Helen Lockwood. Most Vassar alumnae/i have heard about Helen Lockwood, but just for the benefit of anyone who might be reading this who doesn’t know of her: She was a Vassar alumna, class of 1912, who came back to teach in the college in 1926, and she was a very, very searching and outspoken person who wouldn’t let the students get away with anything. I was her student for two years, in different classes, and she always pressed you on what she called your basic assumptions and made you figure out who you were as a student, what your own thoughts were, how you wanted to take your position, and so on.
Well, there came to the college a student from Earlham College. It was in the national press and also in the government documents, the testimony in the subcommittee of Congressman Reese. The fact was that Helen Lockwood pinned this student back on her basic assumptions and tried to make her discover whether she really believed in God because she believed in God or because her family believed in God. And what were her politics? And were her politics her own? And so on.
CJ: That was pretty politically incorrect.
EAD: The student really was very taken aback by this and very unhappy about it and reported back to her family, and there was a big public to-do. Sarah Blanding stood behind Helen Lockwood.
CJ: I wouldn’t have stood behind her too closely. She was a formidable force.
EAD: Then I have my own personal story to tell about Sarah Blanding because I came onto the faculty under her, and she was very encouraging of me as a young teacher. I already had three children and was going to have another. I had just a master’s degree when I started teaching, and she encouraged me to go on and get my PhD, helped me arrange a day off every week from my English Department schedule to go to New York University, commute by train, take whatever they were offering, and eventually after eight years I got my degree. That was a new way to handle women instructors, I would say. I don’t know of any parallel cases to that under MacCracken, although there may have been.
What I’m trying to say is that she encouraged women—married women, women with children—to get involved professionally and treated them seriously as equal citizens of the community.
EAD: Just one other thing comes to mind about Blanding before we go on, and that was that it was in her administration in 1949 that the college accepted, after she had sought it I’m sure, a million dollar gift from Paul Mellon from his Old Dominion Foundation to start a program which continued for the next ten years, and then was converted to the support of our current house fellows program. Under the Mellon Program, the college was geared up to study all aspects of what characterized a healthy college community.
CJ: Now the dates for the Mellon Study—what were the ten years again?
EAD: It was 1949. I’m afraid that I’m not remembering exactly the year that the program with its battery of psychologists and psychiatrists and so on was discontinued. But I think it might have been 1960; a book came out just about as Sarah Blanding was getting ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the college. It was called The American College, and it was put together by Nevitt Sanford, who by then was the head administrator of the Mellon Program. He was preceded by a New York psychiatrist, Dr. Carl Binger, and others.
Well, this program came in like a whirlwind, and the faculty had to meet every Saturday morning for months on end to try to determine whether aspects of the program were acceptable and to try to understand what it was all about. It was a research program taking stock of all elements of the residential and academic community -- but much disliked as well as liked. (laughter)
CJ: When I came in 1965 to Vassar, there were still people, I was told, who really didn’t speak cordially to each other because of sides that had been taken over the Mellon study.
EAD: However, that all ended in something that one can say made the whole thing beneficial for the college. Lots of good research came out of the Mellon Program and I’m sure that this forwarded a lot of causes. But for Vassar itself, the money was re-directed into the house fellow program, so that the system of head residents in the houses and resident members of the staff was replaced by the system that we have today where faculty members live in and are a presence in the dormitories. So all of those were very progressive things for Blanding to be involved with.
CJ: I read Dr. Binger’s report to the faculty in 1950 or 1951 a year or so ago. I can’t remember why. It was amazing to me to hear a psychologist talk to the Vassar faculty about the concept of counseling within a college because of course now all colleges have their counseling services and their psychologists and their psychiatrists and their social workers. I think someone has said that 75 percent of the students at Vassar now at one time or another go to the counseling service to talk about time management or deeper, more complex issues or issues of coming to grips with themselves. But in Binger’s talk to the faculty, he was at pains to point out that there was such a thing as a counselor in society now and that faculty members could perhaps become to some degree counselors, but they would have to work at it. And it seems it was really just a pioneering way of thinking that the million dollars got us involved with.
EAD: Exactly—to the consternation of a lot of those faculty members who had long been counselors. (laughter)
CJ: Without knowing it.
EAD: (laughter) Without knowing it, you might say!
The Simpson Years 1964 – 1977
CJ: I heard that at her retirement, Sarah Blanding was given a small tractor—that she was an avid gardener and this was seen as something that she could take off into retirement with her. Someone told me—and I can’t remember who it was—that when she got on the tractor to accept it, she was heard to have said to the assembled faculty, "Don’t think I don’t know that about half of you wish this thing would roll over on me." (laughter)
We’ve had Taylor who served for many, many years. And MacCracken had served for many, many years. And Sarah Gibson Blanding had just left when I came to Vassar in ’65—at the end of the first year of her successor, Alan Simpson, who was of a very different stamp. Alan Simpson, English-born. How do you see him succeeding to the liberal MacCracken and the feminist and pragmatist Blanding? Was he a contrast or a succession?
EAD: I think that his administration was certainly a culmination of many things that had been going on. He arrived at Vassar in the decade when there were a lot of unsettled people: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the fact that students all over the country and even all over the world were beginning to rise up and demand their part in colleges’ governance and also seemed to be demanding a new kind of education.
I’m thinking once again of the last year of Blanding’s administration, when she gave a talk at the Waldorf-Astoria. She predicted, and this was reported in the New York Times, that by the year 2000 there would not be very many single-sex colleges left.
The idea of co-education was beginning to be in the air just as Simpson came in and as Blanding left. I’ve heard by the grapevine that Sarah Blanding went over to Connecticut College and talked with the president of Connecticut College about how the women’s colleges were going to get involved in a framework that would provide more opportunity for co-educational experience. I had an interview with Sarah Blanding. She didn’t exactly confirm that rumor. But it was the time when Alan Simpson came in when, as I say, there was a lot of unrest.
The Vassar Miscellany News, for example, was conducting a lot of inquiries about why Vassar was so "sick." That’s the word they used: Why was Vassar "sick"? It was getting to be too parochial. It was a weekend college. Students packed their suitcases on Thursday afternoon and unpacked them Monday afternoon. There was nothing to do here on weekends. What was the matter with Vassar? Why couldn’t it improve the whole feeling/tone of the place?
CJ: What do you know about Simpson’s being chosen?
EAD: I was a faculty member on the search committee that found Simpson, and we thought he was exactly the right candidate.
CJ: Did you have any women in the pool?
EAD: Yes, we did.
CJ: And you decided not to continue that tradition?
EAD: No, it wasn’t that. We thought Alan Simpson was the best candidate.
CJ: An English-trained historian, he came from the University of Chicago.
EAD: Right. He was dean of the Undergraduate College of Liberal Arts at the University of Chicago, as I recall.
CJ: Was co-education on your mind when you were making that decision?
EAD: No. It wasn’t. In fact, Alan Simpson came and gave the Commencement address the spring before he came in as president in the fall, which was October of ’64, and he talked greatly about the virtues of a women’s college. So it was a great surprise when in November of ’66, I think, an announcement came over the radio that the overseers of Yale University and the trustees of Vassar had announced a year-long study on the prospect of some kind of joint co-educational enterprise.
CJ: Coordinate education or something like that.
EAD: Well, it wasn’t really given a name. It was just going to be a study. It so happened then that Yale University was in possession of a piece of property. The Culinary Institute of America was just vacating its premises near Yale to move to Poughkeepsie. And I think Yale had been fiddling around for some time, trying to think of some way to introduce a coordinate college.
CJ: Among the Ivy League schools and the Seven Sisters schools, Vassar and Yale had always been linked, as had Radcliffe and Harvard…and Columbia and Barnard, of course.
EAD: So, from 1966 to 1969 was a wild time around here. There wasn’t just one study. The trustees invited a committee at Vassar to be ready to relate to a committee at Yale. The Ford Foundation sponsored this study. We had a new dean who had just come in when all this began to happen, Nell Eurich, and she was the chairman of this committee, which was called the Yale-Vassar Study. That committee broke itself up into subcommittees, so that every aspect of each college was studied. That is, the Yale English Department tried to think how it would be if Vassar came to Yale, and the Vassar English Department tried to think how it would relate to Yale. And then the committee as a whole addressed the subject of how each of the departments would function in a new institution and so on. That kind of study went on for a year. However, many of the Vassar alumnae were very uncomfortable with the idea of Vassar leaving what they called its "historic surroundings" to go over the state line to New Haven.
CJ: I remember some photographs in Life magazine at the time contrasting our bucolic and green campus witha rather gloomy shot of the old Culinary identified as being just up the hill or down the hill from the Winchester Gun Factory…or something like that. I believe there was some alumnae influence in that spread.
EAD: There was lots of alumnae influence and many plots and sub-plots and so on. There were, however, many Vassar alumnae who were enthusiastic about this. And among the student body there were pros and cons. It was another divisive time. It was so divisive that the board of trustees of Vassar decided that it had to form a second committee, and as circumstances would have it, I was chosen to be the chair of the second committee.
CJ: I recall that.
EAD: I was dean of studies at the time.
CJ: It seemed to me, to those of us who were studying what the grownups were doing…it seemed a little bit as though you and Bill Rose of the English Department and some other people might have been sort of told in a way, "Well, you go off and see if you could plan anything better."
EAD: I’ll let that pass as a description of it. Anyhow, we labored mightily, and we brought in a report in September, which was passed on to the board of trustees, and Nell Eurich’s committee similarly brought in a report—a much bigger report—and then the trustees deliberated.
In November 1967 John Wilkie, who was the chair of the board, stood up in front of the faculty and said the trustees had come to the conclusion that Vassar was going to remain in its historic site but change in three ways: It was going to take steps to educate men as well as women; it was going to enlarge in its interest in educating many diverse, more heterogeneous types of students; and the institution was going to be asked to look over every aspect of itself and come out with an ideal system for a modern residential college, including going over all the aspects of the residence, the curriculum, what makes the place tick, the system by which it lives.
So, then, the faculty were asked to take a vote very soon as to whether they wanted to go in the direction of a coordinate college or direct co-education. And I was present at that vote. It was 103 to 2 in favor of directly going to co-education. The trustees said, "Bless you. We’ll do that." So we didn’t waste our time in thinking about a coordinate college but went straight to the proposition of co-education.
Then we were going to have to systematically go over every aspect of the curriculum and the other things that I’ve already mentioned. Another committee was started, called the Committee on New Dimensions and chaired by Nell Eurich, and that got up steam and went into its labors night and day. It began in about February and went through the summer—we worked all summer—and I think in the fall we brought in a blue book with a hundred-page description of what the new college ought to be like. Then the faculty deliberated on every aspect of this for the next—how many years, I don’t know. It was one year, I guess. It seemed like forever.
CJ: I remember I wrote a faculty show for Founder's Day that year at President Simpson’s request, and I lampooned the comprehensive plan, as it was called, as the "comprehensible plan." It was radical. What relationship did it bear to your alternative plan report?
EAD: Well, all the items in my report were intended to be debated by the faculty with respect to the new Vassar in Poughkeepsie, the reformed Vassar in Poughkeepsie. However, several of them went down the drain. We did not in our work on the Committee on Alternatives go into extreme detail about reforming the curriculum. That was a product of this Committee on New Dimensions.
We proposed, for example, a graduate institute or two. That idea seemed an interesting one. IBM was part of the local scene. Curt Beck, a member of the Chemistry Department, was asked to chair that subcommittee. And a year’s—or half a year’s—study took place about whether we could set up a scientific institute using a collaborative faculty with IBM. The other idea was an institute of social philosophy, The Institute for the Study of Man. These graduate institutes were not finally accepted. However, there is a great deal in the Committee on Alternatives report that was accepted about the nature of the residential community.
CJ: As you mentioned a little bit earlier, here was Vassar in a critical period, making radical decisions, and making decisions that were pioneering in higher education. I think the Vassar-Yale study was the first of its kind. I think that’s why it got some of that foundation funding. I think we were the first of the women's college that embraced co-education. And really, the plan that emerged from that ’67-’68 debate which gave formal recognition to an independent program, multidisciplinary degrees, interdepartmental degrees, and so much of the move towards diversification of the student body—all of those, I believe, were watershed events, the first of their kind among our peer schools.
EAD: They were indeed.
CJ: Meanwhile, as you mention, the late 60s and early 70s were upon us. So we launched the new Vassar at a time when I think many of us wondered if there was a future for any kind of institution like this.
I remember one particular time when you, as dean of studies, had to announce on the eve of Commencement that because of the Main takeover in ’69, students could either complete their work and graduate or, if their conscience didn’t impel them in that direction, they could elect to complete their work over the summer and pick up their degrees later on. Those were crazy times to try to launch a brand new vision for the future.
Continue the interview at Conversation Three...