Conversations about Vassar History with Historian Elizabeth A. Daniels
In 1995, Elizabeth Daniels asked me if I would be “willing” to engage in a series of video recordings in which she would tell me “all I’ve learned about Vassar.” I was both willing and honored to be asked, and we started that fall a series of taped interviews, patiently recorded by John McCormick, ranging over a pre-arranged set of topics. I think that the experience for Betty was energizing, and I know that, for me, it was informative and delightful.
In time, we realized that the medium we had chosen was not the right one. We had many hours of video, the sound quality of which was only passable and the video content of which was of our talking heads and incidental indications of what the two of us wore as the year went along. Thanks to the efforts of Vassar’s Media Resources department, the unwearying transcription of Majorie Krems ’85, and editing by Julia VanDevelder and, later, Riane Harper ’09, some of Betty’s reflections on what she learned about Vassar are now passed along.
CJ, 2006, 2014
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?
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.
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.
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.
Matthew Vassar’s Death… His Gravesite… Early Physical Education… Early Encouragement of Student Independence…. The Blizzard of ’88… Suffragists… Vassar Eccentrics
Elizabeth A. Daniels (EAD) and Colton Johnson (CJ)
CJ: Our community has its share of interesting lore. So I thought maybe today I would just ask you about Vassar moments, myths, legends, lore. And one moment I wanted you to tell me a little bit more about has to do with the founder’s death during a board meeting of the College. Is that right?
EAD: That’s exactly right. Benson Lossing recorded the details of Matthew Vassar’s death after the fact.
Matthew Vassar had made up his mind that he was going to retire from his executive committee of the board of trustees and active participation in the affairs of the College. And so he came to the board meeting in June 1868, which of course was at the time of Commencement…the day before Commencement. And he came prepared to resign from his active life on the board and turn the affairs of the college over to the board.
He started the meeting off, when invited to, by reading the speech that he had prepared. And he was about eight pages into a nine-page speech when he keeled over. They were sitting at a table in Main Building and he keeled over, slumped, and was caught by Benson Lossing, who was one of the trustees, and he was dead. Just like that. I don’t know what he died of…probably a heart attack. He’d been off and on in ill health.
CJ: We’re talking on the eve of Founder’s Dayand you’ve supplied me very kindly with some materials because I’m going out to the founder’s grave. Among that material is a transcript of a student’s letter home from Founder’s Day in 1868.
EAD: I thought you’d enjoy that.
CJ: The first Founder’s Day was in 1867, and the second Founder’s Day, the last Founder’s Day during Vassar’s life, was in ’68, and the letter talks about the girl’s excitement and the growing popularity of the motto by which they referred to Matthew Vassar: “founder, father, friend.” I guess the weather was rather inclement, not as it’s going to be tomorrow, so a lot of the activities had to be moved indoors, inside the Main Building. But I was struck by this young woman’s clear appreciation of how frail Matthew Vassar was.
EAD: At that last Founder’s Day.
CJ: That indeed he was very, very happy to be there but that they had to take him into a room and sort of keep him quiet, and the girls were respectful of that, so that was probably a month or six weeks before…before his death.
EAD: A harbinger. Yes.
Well, this meeting apparently adjourned…for a few minutes. There was respectful silence. And then the meeting was called to order again. And Benson Lossing resumed reading Matthew Vassar’s speech. I was always struck by that. I don’t know whether we’d do that in this day and age. But I think Matthew Vassar would have been happy to have Lossing continue because what was left in the speech was that Matthew Vassar had one unfulfilled desire and that was to build a large building where the students in an extracurricular fashion could learn about household arts and domestic science. Now we link that up to the Euthenics building and we’ve squared the circle. But anyhow…
CJ: I think you’re right. There’s something kind of monumental about this group of trustees having any death in their midst let alone the death of such a pivotal, important person. Well then, after a respectful silence, I suppose other more mundane necessities were attended to…
EAD: …like taking the body out of the room. And then of course the next day they had Commencement, I believe.
You’ve just mentioned going tomorrow to the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery to pay a visit to the founder’s grave, and I thought I might just mention in that connection that Vassar designed his own monuments for his cemetery plot.
The interesting thing about the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery is that Matthew Vassar tried himself to get together a subscription for a rural cemetery about six years before the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery came into being. Poughkeepsie wasn’t ready to come together and take part in this subscription, and hence, Matthew Vassar was left with a piece of property that he had purchased thinking that it was going to come to pass. That piece of property was almost, well very closely, across the street…just south of Poughkeepsie from where the rural cemetery was developed under Vassar’s leadership a few years later.
But that first piece of property Matthew Vassar kept for himself! The year was 1850, and he turned it into a park and a public place with private aspects. He actually made a summer residence there and moved from his townhouse in the center of Poughkeepsie on what is now called Vassar Street down there for the summertime after it was built and designed. Andrew Jackson Downing was the architect for that.
CJ: He apparently had already moved there in April of ’67, that is for the summer, because I noticed that in the material you gave me for the first Founder’s Day, the president went out to the founder’s home and rode in with him to Vassar, thinking he was coming in from Springside to a dinner with the president, and discovered all the students at the College ready to celebrate his birthday.
EAD: Yes, well just to put the finishing touches on the comments about his cemetery plot, you can see if you look at the right papers in Special Collections his penciled design. He wanted to have a big acorn and some little acorns with the perimeter done in granite and marble. The idea was that he wanted to symbolize the fact that his college had grown into a magnificent enterprise from small beginnings just as the acorns lead to the oak tree. You know he joked about that with the students apparently on some occasion.
CJ: That is also a striking fact to me. I, perhaps we all, conceive of him as this rather dour, practical, even pragmatic person, although he was brought by some of the people he associated with to some quite far-reaching and idealistic stances that in the 1860s or late 50s, you wouldn’t think he would have had the whimsy, the rather grim or macabre whimsy, to pencil out his own headstone. I know there was a lot of funerary art in those days but I wouldn’t have thought that a captain of industry as Vassar was would also have thought to—or it would have been in his character to—take out a pencil and make this acorn and oak thing as part of his lasting place in the limelight.
EAD: It always has seemed a bit odd. But there you have it: He did it.
CJ: It’s a side to him.
EAD: A separate interesting thing is that his nephew, John Guy Vassar, Jr., who was a very wealthy man, a bachelor, made himself—oh well, he didn’t design himself but he had made for himself a really monumental tombstone that more or less makes Matthew Vassar, his uncle’s, look like small peanuts.
CJ: Small acorns! You know when you go out to the cemetery—and I hadn’t gone out until a couple of years ago, at the 200th anniversary of Vassar’s birth—those entirely unusual, unique designs are still incomparable, no matter how big the rather more conventional carvings and stones around. Four or five years ago I heard the large acorn had toppled off its moorings.
EAD: When I first became Vassar Historian, which was in 1985, the first phone call I had in my capacity as historian was from a Vassar alumnus who was on the staff of the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery, and he wanted to chastise Vassar College for allowing Matthew Vassar’s grave to become derelict. It seems that in a storm, a thunderstorm, a large tree branch fell over on the large acorn, and the College had not had it fixed. I’m not even sure the College knew it was damaged.
CJ: I don’t believe that it did.
EAD: But in any case, after considerable effort and calls to insurance companies and so on, the College did make repairs to the acorn.
CJ: It looked splendid the last time I saw it.
CJ: The early days of the College had about them, I’m sure, a kind of sense that everything was the first of its kind and the first occurrence of its kind, and we talked a little bit about the notoriety that the notion of women’s education evoked. And I’ve always wanted to ask whether, as I have heard, it is true that the broad corridors in Main Building were designed as they are running along one lighted side of each floor of the building to emulate the village streets, the byways that it was appropriate for women to exercise in as they walked along it. The little windows on the hallways were to emulate the individual houses that the women came from so that their inhabiting the immense building would not be such a great shock.
EAD: Oh my. That’s a story I haven’t heard. I mean I have of course heard that Matthew Vassar and Renwick, the architect, decided that the building corridors should be wide, 12 feet wide, so that if the weather were bad, the students could go to the corridors and a given corridor and walk clear to the other end. And if the student did that 12 times, she would have walked a quarter of a mile or some such. Probably more than a quarter of a mile. But the idea was exercise. I hadn’t heard the part of it that suggests this is preparing for…
CJ: Well not much preparatory in the fact that it was recognized that exercise was of course necessary.
EAD: Of course. That was primary.
CJ: Indeed it was a question whether a woman’s constitution would be strong enough for this kind of education. But I had heard that the question then became what would be appropriate exercise for women, and at the very outset—of course as you know—women’s sporting activities came along very early in the College. The first thought was…
EAD: …the most basic one is walking.
CJ: …is walking and chatting with your neighbors. And of course it is quite true you walk along those corridors, there are windows out on the corridor, and then we step in.
Now along the line of exercise and first thing, it is true, is it not, that the first women’s baseball team was organized at Vassar in the early days?
EAD: Yes, it was an informal club. There were several informal clubs, and the students picked up on baseball. I suppose that during the 1860s, right at the end of the Civil War as we’ve seen in Ken Burns’ movie, baseball was the sport of the soldiers. And so I suppose the people at home were taking it up as a national pastime. There were three clubs at Vassar at first, and then intermittently as the rest of the century went on there were from time to time other clubs. It wasn’t one of the more important sports as it turned out.
But I’d like to go back just a minute. I think it’s important to establish what Matthew Vassar was really trying to do with physical education. As you said, he was trying to counteract the Victorian ideas that women’s place was inside the house and not being too active and not having too much experience and that all these things would be harmful to their constitution.
But there already existed in Lexington, Mass. a spa for women’s exercise run by a physical education specialist named Dio Lewis. I had never heard of him before I started thinking about Vassar history. But I discovered that this was a very popular spa, many people went there and trained, future physical education teachers. In fact, our first physical education teacher who lasted longer than two months, namely the second physical education teacher whose name was Powell, was trained at Dio Lewis’s establishment.
Matthew Vassar had heard about Dio Lewis when he was planning the college, and he sent emissaries there to find out about it. Dio Lewis had a system of gymnastics called “the new gymnastics.” It was officially called “calisthenics.” You’ve seen pictures probably of our first gymnasium, the Calisthenium, and you see the women students wielding dumbbells. Dumbbells were part of the equipment. They had “horses” for leaping over.
CJ: I remember seeing some rings hanging from the ceiling.
EAD: They had rings…I was just going to say rings that they hung from.
CJ: It looked like a pretty grisly business actually.
EAD: They had rhythmic dancing. I mean all sorts of exercises were developed under this name.
CJ: These were all exercises appropriate to women.
EAD: Part of it too was that the women were supposed to alternate between this kind of exercise and going out and walking. And then they were supposed to take cold baths at the end of a couple of hours of exercise. Well, the-couple-of-hours part was theory in the beginning, but actually as it came to pass, exercise in the Calesthenium became a standard part of the work for all students, but nowhere near as long as 2 1/2 hours at a time. They calmed down on that subject. So that about three times a week… And in the evenings, believe it or not—I found that surprising, too—the students would make a trip over to the Calisthenium and have their periods of exercise.
CJ: That is amazing. I would have often thought that the days would end when the sunlight would end.
EAD: Well by and large they did. I mean they were not given much leeway after dark going out of the building, as we know from all the fuss that happened when Maria Mitchell wanted to get them over in the Observatory to look at stars.
CJ: Was that a fuss? Tell me about that.
EAD: Well, the lady principal, who was Miss Hannah Lyman, believed that the students should be very regulated and proper in their behavior, and that included not going abroad, into the outdoor air and into the night shadows and so on, without escorts and rarely even then. And Maria Mitchell, who was absolutely to the contrary in her view of life, often wanted to invite the students to go over to the Observatory, and they might have to be waked up in the middle of the night unless they went over there and slept, because unfortunately the stars and the comets didn’t wait for Miss Lyman’s regulations.
So they had an open warfare on the subject of whether it was good for the students to get up in the middle of the night and go do their observation or not. This idea of experience and cloistering was a major stress—you might say tension, apparently. And President MacCracken often pointed to it in things he had to say about the 19th century. I guess I really took my cue from him, but I find it extremely interesting.
MacCracken’s basic intention in developing all these new ideas about education was that women should have experience. They should mine their own desires with opportunities to put them into play against the background of real knowledge about things. But Taylor would have said, “Let them wait until after they’ve finished college to put their ideas into play.”
CJ: But before him Maria Mitchell would have said, “Bring the women over, where we’re going to learn by doing.”
EAD: “I’m going to take them to Burlington, Iowa,” said she in 1867 for a field trip.
CJ: That was my next question. If there was a little difficulty with the lady principal, getting the women to go between Main Building and the Observatory, how on earth would we get them to Burlington, Iowa?
EAD: I don’t think Miss Lyman was even consulted.
CJ: Oh, was that during term or was that in the summer?
EAD: It was in the summer, and there were seven people who went on that first trip.
CJ: This was to see an eclipse.
EAD: Yep, to see an eclipse in Burlington, Iowa. A total eclipse of the sun. And I imagine at least three of the students who went had graduated that previous June.
Nevertheless the idea was the same. And the second trip, which I think was in 1876, to Denver, Colorado, definitely had some Vassar students as well as alumnae. And of course the Geology department made a trip to Mauch Chunk in Pennsylvania to observe the natural rocks and structures.
CJ: I’ve always been struck by the fact that in more modern times we are almost unique among our peer schools in offering credit towards our degree for field work and have done so for at least 40-45 years. I suppose those early field experiences were more necessary in women’s education because of the relatively limited scope of women’s travel and experience or maybe this was just something which was happening say at a Yale or at a Williams at the same time. Do you have any idea whether there was a particular emphasis on field things because of the roots of the college?
EAD: No, I don’t think field work was a pursuit at the men’s colleges. I don’t have that impression.
CJ: Let’s move along in time and let me ask you…I know that the Blizzard of ’88 was a great event in the College’s life. I know there’s a lot of interesting documentation of how the College coped with that. Any good stories from the Blizzard? People were really cut off, weren’t they, one from another?
EAD: Well, I just don’t really know much about the Blizzard of ’88 on campus but I’ve always tried to find out more. It’s probably there in some of the student letters that I haven’t read. But the facts are that the College was snowed in for three days. They mostly had to stay in Main Building while plows were plowing out. It didn’t make too much difference, you know, whether they had to stay in Main Building for three days.
CJ: Strong would have been built by then?
EAD: No. Strong was built in ’93, so the students were all living in Main Building. And their Chapel services were in Main Building. They were eating in Main Building. They could exercise in the halls if they couldn’t get over to the gym.
It does strike me as strange that there aren’t more pictures. I’ve never seen a photo in Special Collections of the Blizzard of 1888, although Special Collections has hundreds of photos. I’ve always wondered why we don’t have more material about that. I imagine the answer, for myself, is that if I read through many more of the probably 10,000 or so letters that are available through the 1880s—Special Collections has a marvelous collection of correspondence—I probably would find more details.
CJ: Let me move along to some Vassar eccentrics that you might be able to tell me a little bit more about. I remember once when I was on a panel of faculty and students for some occasion or another, I asked the panel if they could say anything that they thought particularly exemplified a little-known truth, a little-known fact about Vassar College. And Tom McHugh from the Education department with his wonderful wit came up with the notion that you could always tell Vassar seniors who were on the point of graduation because they so often got about them what he called an “informed orneriness” and began to give evidence that their education at this level was beginning to draw to a close. I thought of that because I was going to ask you to about the famous graveyard meeting that was held against the president’s wishes by Inez Mulholland.
EAD: That gives me a chance just to say a little bit about the tensions on campus before MacCracken came in on the matter of suffrage. We’ve mentioned it before but we didn’t go into it really.
His predecessor, James Monroe Taylor, decreed that suffrage activities could not take place on campus. And the students and faculty too were very inventive in thinking of other ways to get together on the issues of suffrage. You may not know it, but we’re talking about the days before the Alumnae House, of course, which wasn’t built until 1924.
There preceded the Alumnae House an inn on Raymond Avenue, on the other corner of Raymond Avenue opposite the HSBC Bank. Where the Vassar Bank used to be there was a whole building along that block, from where the Vassar Bank used to be to where the Juliet Theater is now. That whole block was an inn, and the inn and remnants of the inn are still standing inside the brick fronts. And that was called The Wagner Inn.
It was started by a Vassar student (1901-03) who didn’t graduate. Instead of graduating, after a while she became the proprietor of the inn. I don’t know who financed the building of the inn.
CJ: What period of time would that have been?
EAD: We’re talking about the period around 1904, when families of students coming to visit or parents bringing their daughters to college or boyfriends coming to visit if they could afford it or townspeople wanting to go out to dinner or students wanting to go out to dinner or faculty members made use of this inn, The Wagner Inn. It was a very hospitable place.
Miss Wagner was a suffragist, and so she invited all the frustrated suffrage people to come over from campus and hold their meetings there. There are many records of meetings. Well, Inez Mulholland graduated from the College in 1909, and she had been trying to get around President Taylor through the various shenanigans. So, after she graduated, she invited about 30 prominent women—maybe men too, but I’m remembering women—in suffrage circles to come and gather at the time of graduation in 1910 in the Polish graveyard. She invited the New York Sun, a newspaper in New York, to come and send a photographer and take pictures of this event.
CJ: …the object being to embarrass the president and his other colleagues.
EAD: In order to embarrass the president and to have a good, rousing suffrage meeting, which she did.
CJ: Did Taylor respond in any way?
EAD: I’m sure he did. (laughter) I discovered as I was looking into that incident and others about suffrage that the proprietor of the local newspaper, whatever the name of it was at that point—I think it was the Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle—anyhow, it was the Hinckley family, which also ran the trolley cars and the transportation. Mrs. Hinckley was a great suffragist. I interviewed one of her daughters when I was trying to find out about all this, and the daughter told me that her mother took delight in coming to these meetings and also filling the columns of the Poughkeepsie paper with the suffrage activities. Anyway, Taylor had his comeuppance from Vassar suffragists in various ways.
CJ: Well, let me jump ahead in time a ways to another eccentric and famous and much-honored person. Tell me a little bit about the turmoil surrounding the Commencement from college of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
EAD: Oh yes. I knew you were working up to that.
CJ: She was an eccentric throughout her time at the College, I gather.
EAD: She was.
CJ: But a kind of loved one. Or at least a respected one.
EAD: Respected. Extremely bright. Very much loved. Extremely talented. Very creative. Giving of herself to all of the activities of her class and the college. She came to Vassar, I discovered, after having spent one semester at Barnard, which I never knew before, since she could not come directly to Vassar because she wasn’t sufficiently prepared. There were subjects lacking in her summaries, and she couldn’t get into Vassar until she was able to pass her classical history exam and various other things. She had gone to school in Maine, but she had not been allowed to finish high school because she was too frustrating to the teachers in the high school system. So, she came to Vassar. She was 26 years old when she graduated from the College, and so I think she was 23 when she came. And obviously she was going to fret against the rules and regulations. She was eccentric to begin with and didn’t like rules and regulations.
MacCracken taught her in a Shakespeare class, and he allowed her a great deal of license because he could see what she was up to.
CJ: My sense is that Vassar has really accommodated truly bright eccentrics all along.
EAD: The particular incidents that caused her graduation to be threatened were as follows, as I understand it. She went across the River, over towards the Ashokan Dam with a classmate whose father was a minister, and they browsed around and they had afternoon tea in some tea room over there and then were persuaded to stay for dinner. They signed the guest book. Millay forgot that she should have signed out before she left Vassar as to where she was going and that she had to be home by ten o’clock at night and that that required her to take a ferry across the River. By the time she woke up to any of this, there was no ferry, so she had to spend the night in this hotel, or whatever it was, together with her friend and her friend’s father, the minister. But some snooper connected with the powers that be, the authorities of the College, probably—well it was too late for the lady principal but some successor.
CJ: …some warden or other.
EAD: Perhaps the warden (Jean Palmer at that time). It came to pass that somebody saw her name in that guest book, and it was reported to the authorities. And so…
CJ: The discovery happened as Commencement was coming along.
EAD: And it happened that she was already rather on probation because she had gone to New York City to the opera. Some friend of the College had given her tickets to hear Caruso. This was a couple of months before that. And she was so excited about the possibility of going to hear Caruso that she forgot to tell her patron that she was going to have to miss classes at Vassar. And it was also a social infraction, not the first, as there were probably many of them. But anyhow the two compounded on her record, and so her case came before the faculty as to whether she was going to graduate or not. I mean she passed all her courses but she was not going to stay…the faculty thought she should not be allowed to graduate.
CJ: The whole faculty debated her?
EAD: The whole faculty debated her. In the faculty minutes, which we have over in Special Collections, you can read about the faculty’s discussion of this.
CJ: Was that an exceptional thing, done just for her or was this simply the way it would have been done in those days?
EAD: The way it would have been done in those days.
CJ: The year now is 1918.
EAD: So the faculty voted against her being able to graduate. She had written the class play, the class song, etc. MacCracken said this was the only time in his career as president that he exercised his authority to make a decision as the final arbitor.
CJ: Overriding the faculty’s will?
EAD: Yes. So he said she could graduate. And her class was ecstatic she was there.
CJ: Well, I suppose the politics may have been different in those days, but that way the faculty maintained its integrity and the student graduated and the president was not materially damaged by the outcome.
EAD: But she must have been a truly amazing individual. MacCracken saw her one day. She was doing gymnastics out near the gatekeeper’s lodge (torn down in 1915, near the current Taylor Gate) and she had missed his class a few hours or—I don’t know—a few minutes earlier. And so he said, “Well, I’m glad to see you’re well. I thought you were ill.” And she said, “I was in pain with a poem.” So, she wound him around her little finger, I guess. But it was well worth it.
CJ: I’ve had a taste of that. I remember a much later eccentric who in her freshman year—she’s now a college professor of medieval history—in a course in older literature, she carried with her a green velvet notebook, in which she put nary a written note but instead drew delicate, elaborately detailed cartoons and drawings of everything we were talking about.
EAD: Was she the head of student government?
CJ: She was later the head of student government and signed all of her presidential edicts that year Il Doge.
CJ: An extraordinary Vassar eccentric and an extraordinary person.
EAD: Vassar has had some wonderful eccentrics. Do you remember the infamous episode that MacCracken talked about in his charming book, The Hickory Limb, about a folklore teacher, Martha Beckwith, and her colleague, Miss Monnier, of the French department, who marched into a local theater and exposed a phony hula dancer or vaudeville show from West Broadway in Poughkeepsie or a local movie theater
CJ: Well let me ask. Were there similar charged moments or difficulty or eccentricities about Mary McCarthy’s time here? Or was she more or less a person who worked her genius within the Vassar system?
EAD: I think the latter.
CJ: That’s my impression.
EAD: Of course I wasn’t here in Mary McCarthy’s time, but nothing I’ve ever read would suggest that kind of thing. Of course Mary McCarthy would have livened up any class that she was in, I’m sure.
I took a course with Anna Kitchel, an English professor, who thought she was an astonishing student. For Anna Kitchel, Mary McCarthy was one of the most talented freshmen she had ever taught. I mean I was almost jealous of Mary McCarthy because of the way her teachers carried on about her. She must have had something, a kind of real genius, for relating to certain people. Well there were professors that she was copasetic with. Of course she had awful fights with other professors like Helen Lockwood, whom she couldn’t stand. All of this is no secret. I mean she talks about it in her various writings about Vassar.
CJ: I met an alumna, a noted journalist and author, who was on the campus this year. She had a fascinating story about her run-in with Miss Lockwood. Had you heard? Did you know about that?
CJ: She was an English major, and Miss Lockwood called her in one day. And she said, “I want you out of the department. You represent many things that I intensely dislike.” I think she may have said “everything.” She said, “You’re” (I’m going to have to approximate this) “self-important. You’re tall. You’re Catholic. And you’re from the Midwest.”
CJ: And she told me that at that particular time no matter how she seemed, she was as frail as a reed. She went back to her room in Cushing, I think, and wept and left the English department. And then she told us that subsequently she mailed every one of her books to Helen Lockwood and always received a kind note of acknowledgment, “Thank you for your book(s),” but nothing more. So, on or about the seventh book, she wrote a little bit more fully to her old teacher and nemesis and said, “Well, I guess I must be some kind of a writer by now.” And Helen wrote back, “Yes, I’ve read your book. I cannot say that you are genuinely a writer now but you are a very, very good communicator.” That was about as far as it ever got.
EAD: No, I never heard that one before.
CJ: Do you feel at ease to tell me anything about another interesting eve of graduation story involving your days in the Dean of Studies office?
EAD: If you’re dangling for a particular story, I fail to think of it. I don’t feel any squeamishness about telling the story. I just don’t remember what story I’m supposed to be recalling.
CJ: The story as I understood it from a graduate was that sometime in the second semester of her senior year in connection with a social psychology course, I think.
CJ: She and a couple of her colleagues within a group that were assigned to study reactions and report on them…
CJ: Oh! You do remember now!
EAD: All right. What you’re referring to is the fact that I was waked up by the phone next to my bed at about a quarter of two in the morning, and the voice on the other end said, “Mrs. Daniels, would you go to Vassar Hospital to give blood? There’s been an accident involving Vassar people on Manchester Road/Route 55.” And I said, “Heavens. Well, let me call Message Center” (or something discreet like that). So I promptly called Message Center, and then I called the College doctor, who I think was Jean Stephenson at the time. No one knew anything about it. So, I went back to sleep. But I never knew that she was involved. (chuckle)
CJ: The story I heard was that several calls were made that night. Their intention was to say something very shocking and therefore find a splendid and extraordinary way to do the assignment. However, those people who were called became more and more concerned and there was actually some indication that there might be some action taken to impede her from getting credit for the course or graduating because…
EAD: That’s the way stories grow, I guess.
CJ: Well let me ask, then, because we have a little time left, about at least two mysteries like that one. This one I’ve always wondered about. It is said that we no longer have the Vassar records of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy at Vassar. Is that true?
EAD: I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s true that we no longer have a record, but I must admit I haven’t looked for it.
CJ: Well that’s the second myth that you’ve cleared up for me in these sessions, the first being that the famous Miss Borden, who was Elizabeth Bishop’s mentor and the legendary librarian, was not the sister of Lizzie Borden.
Let me ask one more mystery.
EAD: Oh dear. I’m debunking everything.
CJ: I think debunking is a part of an historian’s job just as much as establishing the facts. Can you tell us anything about the ghosts and the devil-worship in Main? How far do the stories go back? Do you know?
EAD: I suppose they probably go back in the folk oral tradition.
CJ: Were there ever any verified sightings?
EAD: Never any verified sightings. (chuckle) None that I know of.
CJ: Do you remember that you and I once were sent to the Main basement to look because someone thought they’d found a witch’s den? We didn’t really find much down there.
EAD: We didn’t find much except we found that some students had obviously been wandering around and defacing the walls. Or somebody had been. I’m not sure it was students. It might have been some of those faculty children who from time to time found their way in. They seemed to turn up in various places.
Really, I’m probably a poor person to be a tracer of Vassar’s myths because I can’t seem to locate really any underpinnings for these myths. People frequently talk about the fact that there’s a room on the fifth floor of Main where the door opens at night and slams shut. I’ve seen this in the Miscellany News from year to year. I mean it turns up in various forms, but I have no knowledge of any student who jumped out of her window in Main Building or who died in her suite in Main. Of course, students have died at Vassar. There have been several over the years, but they don’t seem to be roaming the corridors. I’m such a skeptic myself that I don’t even like to perpetuate these stories.
CJ: Before you debunk any more of my favorites, such as that there is an endowed fund set up to buy broccoli on a regular basis and torment the students with it, perhaps we should end this session with my thanks for what you’ve done to enlighten me.
EAD: Well good!