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"Vassar in Beauty Dwelling": The Legacies of Frances Daly Fergusson, President of Vassar College, 1986-2006

By Elizabeth Adams Daniels, VC 1941
Professor of English Emeritus and Vassar College Historian

Vassar in beauty dwelling
Through all the changing year...
Grace H. Macurdy, Professor of Greek, 1893-1937

Frances Daly Fergusson is stepping down on July 1, 2006 after twenty remarkable years as the ninth president of Vassar College. She has dedicated her presidency to restoring Vassar to the top circle of liberal arts colleges in the country. Her inauguration in 1986 coincided with the 125th anniversary of the college and her retirement heralds the college's approaching sesquicentennial in 2011. Her view of this institution, coeducational for more than 35 years but originally chartered in 1861 as the first endowed college for women in the United States, has been grounded on an understanding of its character and potential as established by the founder. Matthew Vassar spent the last ten years of his life planning that his fortune should endow a college for women so that women might receive an education of a quality equal to that of a Yale or a Harvard. But he understood that a college, to maintain its vitality, must change with the times and the needs, and that it would be up to the board of trustees and especially the president, to lop dead branches off "the living tree." The leaders, he said to the trustees in one of his annual addresses before he died in 1868, must energize the institution and with their "spirit" keep it vigorous. Since that expression of his wishes, nine presidents have led Vassar, each one leaving a mark, some more spirited than others. Fran Fergusson's mark is deeply reminiscent of the founder's, located on the border between tradition and invention. She set her own course, saw it clearly, and proceeded to implement it.

President Fergusson's course was influenced by the necessity of resolving many varied practical problems confronting the college at the time, but basically, she acted with conviction derived from her spirited imagination. When she assumed the presidency, coeducation at Vassar was more than fifteen years old. The class of 1974, the first coeducational class in which male students as well as women entered as freshmen, lacked many amenities. Between 1968, the year Vassar's charter was changed to include men, and 1974, the college's population increased by 450 students who had to be admitted, housed, fed, exercised, and of course, most importantly, educated. Many changes had been made on many fronts before President Fergusson's term began, but there was still much to be accomplished. When Fergusson came, as Matthew Vassar would have said, "Remedies were applied."

President Fergusson acknowledged that she and the trustees had agreed on her desired course of action which would enhance the quality of life at Vassar, her vision already returning the college's grounds to a more pastoral condition in which the purity and beauty of air and space, threatened as they were by the sudden invasion of too many automobiles and some neglect of the environment, would be reestablished. Using her aesthetic sensibilities, President Fergusson has performed a near miracle of restoration on the 1000 acre Vassar campus. Several new buildings have been built, others have been imaginatively restored, and the landscape, which includes an arboretum and several nature walkways, has been revitalized. Flowers and trees are abundant, detail enhanced.

The several new buildings include the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, designed by Cesar Pelli; the Class of 1951 Observatory, with its state-of-the-art equipment; and the Priscilla Bullitt Collins Field Station on the Vassar Farm. Some buildings combine the old and the new: the glorious renovation of the Thompson Memorial Library, for example, which received a major addition, the Martha Rivers and E. Bronson Ingram Library addition, designed by Hugh Hardy in the late 1990s. For thirty years before President Fergusson took office, the college struggled to build a much needed new drama and film center. Plan followed plan, but none were executed. Now, under Fergusson's tutored eye, the new Center for Drama and Film, designed by Pelli, with its Mary Fox Martell Theater, has replaced the 1866 building known to generations of students successively as the Calisthenium and Riding Academy, the Museum, the Assembly Hall, and finally Avery Hall. Yet there is still a trace of the building as it was at the beginning – its lovely fa�ade, reminding us of Matthew Vassar's insistence that women must have healthy bodies to sustain vigorous minds.

The heart of the college, of course, continues to be the education it offers its students. Today's students are the brightest, the best, and the most enthusiastic about their education in the memory of the faculty. Only twenty-eight percent of the students who applied to Vassar for admission into the class of 2009 were admitted. Once here, they chose from an extended array of courses in widely diversified and absorbing studies. The curriculum has been strengthened with new programs and innovative additions and changes to traditional programs. There are new majors and programs in such subjects as Neuroscience, Environmental Studies, and Media Studies, and with the new facilities, greatly enhanced offerings in film, drama, and art, to name but three.

To enable the college to meet these needs, President Fergusson has greatly improved Vassar's finances during her administration. In 1996, after a decade as president, she concluded a record-breaking campaign which raised $206 million dollars. By now she has tripled Vassar's endowment. Even on the eve of her departure the president has embarked on new initiatives for the college, such as her ten-year plan to restore, modernize, and create classrooms.

President Fergusson has pursued a policy of town-gown outreach with respect to the college's neighbors and she has involved the Vassar community in some depth with the towns outside Vassar's gates. The college and Arlington have formed a committee to restore the vitality of our relationship, and advance mutual interests in improving the local physical environment. The college's purchase of the Juliet building should help this much-needed revitalization. The Alumnae House lawn now serves as a venue for a Farmers' Market, and with the reopening of the Alumnae House after its restoration, the public and the college are once again enjoying its hospitality. The Loeb Art Center is a respected resource for the community as well as the college, and Vassar's Community Works program contributes money to support needful local projects.

President Fergusson's career has been characterized by a wide sweep of public service. She has served four years as chairperson of the Mayo Foundation, including the Mayo Medical School, and related health services. As a member of the board of the Ford Foundation from 1989-2001 she chaired its committee on education, media, arts, and culture, and its proxy committee. Her travels for the foundation have taken her to many countries. She continues to be a hard worker for about a dozen working boards. Throughout, she has brought distinction and attention to the college with her cheerful, seemingly tireless commitment to advancing education in general and Vassar in particular. In this connection, her fearless defense of civil liberties, speaking out on issues of concern to us all, has been an inspiration to the Vassar community.

And so, with an addition of one word to Grace Macurdy's 1915 ode to Vassar, this exhibit is a parting salute to Frances Fergusson who leaves a "Vassar AGAIN in beauty dwelling...."