Taking a Deeper Dive into Vassar’s Past

As the role of College Historian changes hands, Ron Patkus promises an unflinching look at campus history.
Photos Allyse Pulliam

History matters. It helps us understand our world with more depth and breadth. It teaches us lessons about human nature and can inspire us to work harder toward a better collective future. 

Ronald Patkus standing at a table in the Vassar Library with book shelves behind him.
As a history professor and head of the Library’s Special Collections and Archives, Ronald Patkus is well positioned to assume the role of College Historian.

For nearly 40 years, Vassar has had a College Historian to help research and represent elements of Vassar’s institutional history. The role began with legendary English Professor and Dean, Elizabeth, “Betty,” Daniels ’41, who joined the faculty in 1948 and served as the first such historian from 1985 to 2014. Having noticed that the college had never written its own history, Professor Daniels and Colton Johnson, who joined the English Department in 1965 and later served as Dean of Studies and Dean of the College, undertook to serve as College Historians.

A few years later, Professor Johnson led students recommended to him by faculty members, to work on specific historical researches, most of which were combined to create the online Vassar Encyclopedia.

College President Elizabeth H. Bradley said, “I am so thankful to Colton, who has a deep and abiding love for the College, and we have all benefited.” Johnson, who is retiring at the end of this academic year, reflected, “I’m always interested in what parts of the College’s history are important to students and how the College has challenged them…I want the students to feel like they’re a part of this place.”

Pictured: Colton Johnson - Older man standing for a portrait.
Colton Johnson, who has served in many roles at the College—mostly recently as College Historian—will retire at the end of the academic year.

Vassar’s new College Historian will be Ronald Patkus, Adjunct Associate Professor of History on the Frederick Weyerhaeuser Chair. He is also Head of Special Collections and oversees the archivist role in the library. Patkus, who has worked at the College since 2000, said Daniels was one of the first people he met when he arrived on campus. “I met Betty on my first day on the job when she came to my office to give me some information about the archives,” he said, “and we later worked together on a number of projects.”

Bradley, who announced Patkus’s pending appointment, said Vassar’s Historians play an important role in the ongoing life of the College. “Vassar has one of the most storied and revered histories of any liberal arts college in the country,” she said. “We’ve pioneered so many movements and initiatives over the past 160 years, and preserving and chronicling that history is vitally important.”

Bradley said one of the Historian’s key roles is to ensure that the College’s story is told accurately and completely, with the ability not only to celebrate the College’s breakthroughs and achievements but also to reflect on the ways in which the College has participated in social inequities of many kinds. As he assumes his new role, Patkus said he agreed with this assessment. “My job as Historian is to serve as a resource as Vassar investigates its history a little more closely and grapples with some difficult issues,” he said. “We want to take a closer look at some things that happened on campus, particularly as it pertains to race and racism. We will strive for a fuller, wider, deeper view of the College’s history.”

Patkus said one of his first projects as Historian will be to work with others on campus to look more fully into the role of race and racism in Vassar’s history. “I see myself as a partner with many other people here for this and other projects,” he said. “We are at an interesting time in the College’s history and have an opportunity to bring to people’s attention to areas of our history that may have been overlooked in the past and engage with others on campus to view our history and what it means to those of us at the College today.”

December 21, 2022