Fran Reflects

By Frances Daly Fergusson

I remember vividly my first official visit to Vassar in February 1986. The board had just approved my appointment during the trustee weekend, and I was kept under wraps until my official unveiling the following Monday. President Virginia Smith and I snuck off at night to a Mexican restaurant in a local mall. We survived the weekend undetected.

The campus had been warned that there would be “an important announcement” at 8:30 on Monday morning, an improbable hour for students,who nevertheless did come in admirable numbers to the Villard Room, along with faculty, administrators, and staff. As board chair Mary Draper Janney ’42,Virginia Smith, and I emerged, I could hear people saying, “It’s a woman!” showing just how well the secret had been kept. After introductions and comments, I had a whirlwind day of meetings, all with very congenial groups—all welcoming,all anxious to give me their perspectives on what Vassar next needed to do. It amounted to the work of at least 20 years, I would later calculate,although I never expected to be at Vassar that long. Somehow, I kept seeing things that needed to be done—and I was having a very good time—so the years sped by.


Frances Daly Fergusson
Frances Daly Fergusson

Vassar always seemed a good match for me.We tell our students to sense a good match when they are looking at colleges, and the same holds true for anyone who makesVassar an important part of his or her life’s work. As an architectural historian, I instantly loved the campus, seeing it as a somewhat tattered treasure that needed loving attention.As I said in my inaugural speech,Vassar has always had a powerful sense of place. The college and its landscape quickly embed themselves into the mind’s eye and the soul’s spirit. We have created a place of contemplative beauty from which we launch the most amazing minds and energized societal activists.

As president, I hope I have encouraged and occasionally modeled both the contemplative and the active life. Thought without action is sterile; action without thought often ends in futile by-ways. For 20 years, I have begun each day with my dogs— Wyatt first, then Christopher Wren, and later accompanied by Nell Gwynn—walking past the chapel and then down into the Shakespeare Garden, where I would sit at the base of the sundial, imagining the coming day. I contemplated, they sniffed, and then they also sat, all of us calmed by the peace and beauty of that spot, my favorite on campus. It was their favorite, too, I think, and we enjoyed our quiet times together.Then each day began, busy, engaged, sometimes frustrating, often amusing, and downright unexpected in its twists and turns. There is no good description of a president’s life. Perhaps I have spent 20 years here because there were always more things to do, more people or groups towhomone needed to give still greater attention,more interesting areas of the curriculum to foster, moreways inwhich the Vassar community needed to be buoyed up, stimulated, or reassured. The practicalities of running Vassar—the economics of it, the business, the day-to-day management issues— are all necessary supports in creating an environment where the best students and faculty in the country can flourish. It has been perhaps the most challenging and most constant duty of the president to make certain that the myriad aspects of our campus work together toward the common goal of educating informed and able citizens of the world. We lived through 9/11, recognizing the fact and the strength of our interdependence.We’ve had to copewith a new world inwhich both war and threats to civil liberties, to our democracy, have become hideous, daily realities. We’ve recognized too the importance and relevance today of a Vassar education—an education dedicated to the liberal arts and their ability to produce questing, questioning young people who engage society’s issues. As president, I have had the support of the Vassar community and my board in speaking about those issues, about our nation’s path, about the concerns I have as an individual confronted by a world gone haywire. And I hope I have encouraged others to speak in their own voices.

I’ll leave it to others to assess what has been accomplished during the past 20 years. It’s been the most rewarding third of my life: my attempt to shape a fine college into something even finer than how I found it. I’ve had great colleagues, people I admire so much, many of them still at Vassar and continuing their work beyond my time here. There is a superb new president about to take over—and I believe I am handing over my life’s work into very competent hands. I look forward personally to much more private time—more of those moments, as in the Shakespeare Garden,when contemplation helps to shape not only the day, but also the longer future. But contemplation is more than that: it is also having the time for unstructured thoughts that might coalesce into some new ways of seeing the world, of defining the self. So, perhaps after 20 years of being defined as president, I shall discover some interesting new realities and new definitions of self—a lifelong process.


Frances Daly Fergusson
Frances Daly Fergusson

Beyond Vassar's Gates

  • Board of Overseers of Harvard University
  • Chair of the Visiting Committee to the Harvard Libraries
  • Visiting Committees of the Graduate School of Design and of Harvard College
  • Fellowof the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Board of Directors of the Foreign Policy Association
  • Member of the Board of Trustees of the Ford Foundation from 1989–2001
  • Member of the Board of Trustees of the Mayo Clinic and chair of its board from 1998–2002
  • Executive committee of the New York Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities
  • Board of the Society of Architectural Historians of the United States
  • Board of Directors of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU)
  • Board of Directors of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals
  • Since 1990, a director of HSBC Bank USA and current Executive Committee member and chair of the Human Resources and Compensation Committee
  • Board of Directors of the Isamu Noguchi Museum
  • Board of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts
  • Director of CH Energy Inc. from 1993–2002
  • Board of Trustees of Historic Hudson from 1990–99
  • The Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal in 1998
  • Named one of “America’s 200 Most Influential Women” by Vanity Fair
  • The Centennial Medal of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, 1999
  • The Alumnae Achievement Award of Wellesley College
  • Doctor of Literature degree (honorary) from the University of London, 2001
  • Doctoral degree (honorary) from the University of Hartford