Vassar's Hall of Presidents

By Contributors: Vassar Historian Elizabeth Adams Daniels '41, Jennifer Dawson '06, Lila Matsumoto '06, Daniel Steckenberg '06

Since 1861 when Vassar was founded, the school has had just nine presidents to shepherd the institution through all the changes 145 years have brought. In roughly the same period, Yale, Wellesley, and Middlebury have had twelve presidents, and Amherst has had fifteen. As we say good-bye to President Fergusson and ready ourselves for the next major chapter in Vassar’s history, it seems right that we should look back on her predecessors as well, the select few men and women who occupied the office of the president of Vassar College. It is perhaps through their stories that we can best understand who we were, and how we became what we are today.

Milo P. Jewett
Milo P. Jewett
Milo P. Jewett 1861 - 1864

We have good reason to remember the man who lends his name to Jewett House. Although the college is named after Matthew Vassar, whose personal fortune supplied the means to build and endow it, he would not have spent his money the way he did without Jewett’s influence.

Jewett’s mother was a descendant of John Adams. Born in Vermont, he attended Dartmouth College and afterward studied law and theology. While a member of a commission to study the establishment of public schools in Ohio, Jewett began to lecture on the importance of universal public education. Later he moved to Alabama, where he founded the Judson Seminary for women. An outspoken abolitionist, Jewett eventually moved north and purchased the Cottage Hill Seminary in Poughkeepsie, a school started by the wealthy brewer Matthew Vassar’s niece Lydia Booth, an early feminist. After meeting Vassar, Jewett learned that Vassar wanted to do something for the community with his fortune and was leaning toward constructing a hospital. It was Jewett who convinced Vassar that building a great college for women would be a “monument for [himself] more lasting than the Pyramids.”

Through such flattery, and the assurance that Vassar’s money could create the Harvard or Yale of women’s colleges, Jewett managed to get the project off the ground and begin the task of creating an undergraduate institution. Jewett’s own words point to the idealism and high standards that would become Vassar’s trademark: “Women possess a rational soul, and in this very fact she has a Divine warrant for the exercise and improvement of her powers. Her education should be limited only by her capabilities and opportunities.”

Unfortunately, a dispute with Matthew Vassar over when the college would open, and an ideological struggle between the two men caused Jewett’s resignation before classes even started, sending Jewett on his way to Wisconsin where he became a prosperous civic leader, educator, and peanut butter importer. But his urgings had provided the spark for Matthew Vassar’s investment; the long history of Vassar College had begun.

John Raymond
John Raymond
John Raymond 1864 - 1878

The man who actually presided over Vassar’s opening was handpicked by the Board of Trustees at the behest of Matthew Vassar. A Baptist clergyman, John Raymond was, according to his obituary in Harper’s, the product of “a broad and liberal culture [that] rounded out a nature singularly free from narrowness, and fitted him in the most ample manner to be an instructor for youth.”

After studying at Columbia University and Union College, Raymond attended seminary and later became an influential educator (at both Madison University [now Colgate] and the University of Rochester) and active abolitionist.

When Raymond assumed the presidency he found in the first year that only one-third of the students could do college-level work. Rather than reject these unprepared students outright the decision was made to start a preparatory division from which the students could progress to regular degree work once they passed qualifying examinations. Students were also allowed to enroll to receive a certificate in music or art, but not a Vassar degree. The preparatory division and these certificate programs lasted until 1890.

Raymond also reorganized the curriculum. He was a firm believer in including scientific principles, mathematics, and modern languages into a young woman’s education. In describing the education he strove to provide during his tenure, Raymond used words that still apply to Vassar today: “Here thought is free, in respect to those varieties of opinion in which the good may differ. The only thing that we ask of our pupils is that there should be thought, honest and earnest.”

Samuel L. Caldwell
Samuel L. Caldwell
Samuel L. Caldwell 1878 - 1885

When President John Raymond died in the summer of 1878, Samuel L. Caldwell was asked to step in from the Board of Trustees to become the third president of Vassar. Born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1820, Caldwell graduated from Waterville College (now Colby College) in 1839. Like his two predecessors, he was a Baptist minister and educator, but he lacked the experience of administering an institution of higher education. A day after Caldwell’s appointment as president, an editorial in The Daily Graphic foreshadowed the problems Caldwell was to encounter during his seven years at Vassar:

Well, Vassar has a new president, and, as we feared, it is not a woman, but a man whose previous training would, it would seem, singularly unfit him for any position requiring business talent… Preaching and teaching theological subtleties to young men is not the kind of preparatory work for the head of an institution like Vassar College. It was never designed that Vassar should turn out Sunday school superintendents and teachers exclusively, yet that is about all it has done so far successfully. A real woman’s institution should have some relation to the liberal culture of the age.

Caldwell’s tenure at Vassar marked the occasion for more alumnae involvement in Vassar administration. In April 1884, 10 alumnae wrote letters to the Board of Trustees expressing concern for the state of Vassar’s affairs and administration. The alumnae also accused Caldwell of not fostering relations between the college and preparatory schools in order to secure a larger and stronger student population. The trustees were in agreement with this dissatisfaction, and Caldwell resigned from the presidency in 1885. J. Ryland Kendrick, another Baptist minister on the Board of Trustees, served as acting president until James Monroe Taylor was appointed president in 1886.

Not entirely unsuccessful, Caldwell’s leadership saw the construction of the Vassar Brothers Laboratory, an up-to-date chemistry laboratory.

James Monroe Taylor
James Monroe Taylor
James Monroe Taylor 1886 - 1914

Yet another former Baptist minister took over where Caldwell left off. James Monroe Taylor, a graduate of the University of Rochester, presided over a long and successful period in Vassar’s history.

Following alumnae protest under Caldwell, Taylor reorganized Vassar’s curriculum. He abolished the preparatory division and the certificate programs in the schools of art and music and reintegrated those programs into the college.

Also during his tenure, Rockefeller Hall, Josselyn House, and the first part of the main library were built; the departments of biology, psychology, chemistry, and political science were established; and the school’s enrollment grew from 291 at the time of his hiring to 1,045 at his resignation. In what can surely be seen as another measure of the college’s development, midway through his tenure Taylor was offered the position of president at Brown University, an offer he declined in favor of staying at Vassar. Despite his general popularity on campus, however, Raymond was not in step with the times, refusing, for example, to allow suffrage meetings on campus, which harmed his reputation among current students and alumnae alike.

Henry Noble MacCracken
Henry Noble MacCracken
Henry Noble MacCracken 1915 - 1946

Taylor’s steady hand enlarged the college and increased its prestige, but it was his successor, Henry Noble MacCracken, Vassar’s first secular president, who, as future president Alan Simpson once said, “brought Vassar truly into the vanguard of American liberal arts colleges.”

Educated at New York University and Harvard, MacCracken had taught English at Smith and Yale simultaneously before coming to Vassar. A beloved member of the campus community, MacCracken believed strongly that “a college should be part of the larger community” as well. He wanted to bring Vassar into its surroundings more, and to bring those surroundings to Vassar. MacCracken was one of Vassar’s most civic-minded presidents. He engaged with numerous local and national organizations, including founding the American Junior Red Cross and the Dutchess County Health Association. He also endeavored to make Vassar reflect the realities of society. In 1943, for instance, understanding that some students would want to accelerate their studies to involve themselves in the ongoing war effort, MacCracken initiated an optional three-year program. Also, in an attempt to diversify the college community and keep education open to all, the college awarded more scholarships than ever before during his tenure. And for the first time, both faculty and students were given the power of self-governance. He gave the students greater freedom to determine their own academic goals. New departments were introduced, such as the interdepartmental program, and seniors were encouraged to partake in independent studies.

MacCracken was fired in early 1918 through disagreements with the trustees—MacCracken wanted more oversight of the campus and less trustee input— but the alumnae once again demonstrated their sway and rallied for his reinstatement, ultimately welcoming him back to campus in November 1918, where he would continue as president for 28 more years.

Among his achievements at Vassar were the establishment of the Endowment Fund, the founding of the Vassar Experimental Theater program, the founding of The Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies to publish outstanding student work, the creation of the Seven Sisters when he invited other women’s colleges to collaborate with Vassar on admissions procedures, and the building of Skinner, Blodgett, Cushing House, Alumnae House, the Van Ingen Library, Baldwin, the Wimpfheimer Nursery, and Sanders Physics.

Appropriately enough for a man determined to integrate town and gown, MacCracken’s greatest challenge was probably to guide Vassar through 31 of the most tumultuous years in American history. His administration outlasted two World Wars and saw tremendous change in America and the world.

Sarah Gibson Blanding
Sarah Gibson Blanding
Sarah Gibson Blanding 1946 - 1964

Sarah Gibson Blanding was Vassar’s first female president, and one of its most colorful. Born in Kentucky and charged at a young age with running the family tobacco farm following her father’s death, she often referred to herself as a “horse trader.” She earned her A.B. from the University of Kentucky where she later became acting dean of women. She continued her studies in political science at Columbia and the London School of Economics. She was the dean of Cornell University’s College of Home Economics before coming to Vassar. In the MacCracken model, she was heavily involved in the nonacademic world during her pre-Vassar career, serving on the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation under President Franklin Roosevelt, and the Presidential Commission on Higher Education under President Truman. From 1943 to 1946 she was also a consultant to the U.S. Secretary of War on a program for women in the armed services.

Blanding quickly brought the approach necessary to succeed in the political world to Vassar. She made the system for promoting professors closer to a meritocracy, and over the course of her administration the average salary for professors more than doubled. Her belief was that this would attract top minds to Vassar, and that an excellent academic staff would attract top students. To integrate the faculty into college life further, Blanding instituted the House Fellows program. She revamped the curriculum in 1957 to include more independent work. In 1959, the Coordinating Committee on Educational Policy (CCEP), which the college established in 1956, reported to the college. The CCEP’s task was to make the school more academically competitive. As a result of its findings Vassar increased its expectations for incoming students, and sought to make the expectations for enrolled students just as high.

In many ways Blanding was forward-thinking. Known for her outspokenness Blanding was a fierce protector of academic freedom, especially during the McCarthy era. She encouraged her students to become professionals and compete in traditionally male-dominated fields, and in 1961 she predicted the demise of the all-female college as an institution, eight years before Vassar itself became coeducational. Her aesthetic sense was also ahead of its time. During her tenure, some of Vassar’s more modern buildings—Ferry House, Noyes House, and Chicago Hall—were commissioned.

In 1962 Blanding gave a speech to the students, admonishing them for engaging in un-ladylike activities such as pre-marital sex, drinking to excess, and “vulgar conduct.” Vassar did have a code of conduct at the time, but its stipulations were mostly unwritten, and none of the students could actually be punished for their exploits. Even though a Miscellany News poll taken the week after the speech found that a majority of students sympathized with Blanding’s concerns, enough of them were offended to cause a problem. Blanding’s speech had placed her firmly behind the times, and she resigned two years later.

Alan Simpson
Alan Simpson
Alan Simpson 1964 - 1977

If Blanding was the straight-talking Southerner, her successor Alan Simpson was the polished Oxford gentleman. Few had come to Vassar with as impressive a résumé as Simpson. Educated at Oxford’s Worcester and Merton Colleges and Harvard University, Simpson had just completed the reorganization of the University of Chicago’s undergraduate college when he took the position at Vassar. He would need every bit of that education to help him guide Vassar through the challenge of transitioning to coeducation.

When Simpson was hired, it was by no means a sure thing that Vassar would go coeducational, and if it did, how it would be done. Vassar chose full coeducation by a long, often wandering, and sometimes controversial consideration of a variety of alternatives for the college’s future. In December 1966, the Board of Trustees decided to study the possibility of affiliating with Yale, relocating Vassar in New Haven. Reactions were mixed, and in 1967 the Yale-Vassar project was terminated. Coeducation was instead adopted, and in 1968 the Vassar charter was amended to allow men to matriculate and reside at Vassar. In 1969, male students came to Vassar as exchange students, and in 1970 the first freshman male students arrived on campus.

The move to coeducation made enormous demands of the college. Vassar’s alumnae would not support a cut in the number of women admitted to Vassar each year, so admitting men meant significantly increasing the size of the college. More faculty would have to be hired, and the male students would need a place to live. Simpson took a surprisingly enlightened view to incorporating men into campus life and decided, among other things, to forego parietals.

Simpson’s tenure also included the Vietnam years, a period of unrest on campuses all over the country. Simpson realized that times were changing, but asked the students for a “sense of decency” as well as “style and grace” in their activities.

Through all the changes, Simpson also managed to build a new student center, the All College Dining Center, and Olmsted Hall, while expanding the library and Kenyon Hall. During this time the curriculum also changed. In the Curriculum of 1969, part of the 1969 Comprehensive Plan, distribution requirements were abolished to encourage independent work, and more advanced and introductory classes were added to the catalogue. Simpson famously declared, “Any education that matters is liberal.” He wanted Vassar to be a place of independent thought and personal freedom, and he made his policies reflect that desire. Every woman (and man) at Vassar today feels his influence.

Virginia Smith
Virginia Smith
Virginia Smith 1977 - 1986

Perhaps because the liberal-minded Simpson had run the school on a budget deficit for some of his administration, Vassar’s next president was a much more practical type. Virginia Smith came to Vassar from the federal government, where she had been director of the fund for the improvement of post-secondary education in the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Prior to her federal work, Smith had earned a B.A., M.A., and law degree from the University of Washington. She was assistant vice president at University of California, Berkeley, before her presidency at Vassar.

Charged with improving the school’s financial situation, Smith nevertheless achieved a variety of things during her tenure as president. On the academic side, although she was not an advocate of increasing vocationalism in the liberal arts education, she sought to hire professors who also had experience working in nonacademic fields, believing that this would make for “an education that provides a concept of usefulness to society outside of paid employment.” Smith also acquired many manuscripts for the library’s Special Collections, including original work by Vassar alumnae Elizabeth Bishop ’34 and Mary McCarthy ’33. On campus, Mudd Chemistry and the Walker Field House were constructed during her tenure; she also balanced the budget and placed renewed emphasis on improving alumnae/i relations. Smith was also vocal about turning Vassar into a true example of coeducation, where women were as prominent as men in faculty and student leadership positions.

In 1978 a group of students interrupted a Board of Trustees meeting to protest Vassar’s investment in five companies that were known to do business in South Africa (at that time still under apartheid). At first the college’s judicial committee tried the students for their conduct, but persistent student activism eventually lead Smith to form the Campus Committee on Investor Responsibility. Finally, in 1985 the Board of Trustees unanimously accepted a gradual South Africa divestment policy. Smith also spoke out against the Reagan administration. When the U.S. President cut grants to institutions of higher learning, Smith gave interviews denouncing the policy, saying that it would lead to “stratification by institution.”

Frances Daly Fergusson
Frances Daly Fergusson
Frances Daly Fergusson 1986 - 2006

In Fran Fergusson’s first letter to the college community, she stated her priorities were improving the art gallery and renovating the drama facilities. With the construction of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and the new Center for Drama and Film, Fergusson has achieved those goals. But she has done so much more in her 20 years as president of the college.

Fergusson graduated from Wellesley with a degree in art history, and received her master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard. Her first teaching job was at Newton College (which later merged with Boston College), where she was an assistant professor of art and later department chair and director of the division of humanities and fine arts. In 1979 she was elected a Danforth Associate for Excellence in Teaching and Commitment to Students. In 1980 she became the assistant chancellor at UMass-Boston; and then at Bucknell University, she was the provost and vice president of academic affairs before coming to Vassar.

In addition to the art and drama centers, Fergusson’s administration also has seen the massive renovation of Jewett House and Alumnae House and the construction of the Athletic and Fitness Center, the Class of 1951 Observatory, the Priscilla Bullitt Collins Field Station, and a major addition to the library. Committed to the growth of Vassar’s multidisciplinary curriculum, Fergusson has overseen the creation of the Jewish, Environmental, and Media Studies Programs.

Beyond Vassar, Fergusson sits on the board of overseers at Harvard, was a trustee of both the Ford and Mayo Foundations, and is the recipient of numerous awards reflecting her many contributions specifically to the fields of education and art history. Most of all, she is a woman of integrity who over the last few years has not shied away from controversy. She has made known her views on U.S. presidential policies in a way that forces even those who disagree with her politics to admire her passion and honesty.

Catharine Bond Hill
Catharine Bond Hill
Catherine Bond Hill 2006 -

On July 1, 2006, Catharine (Cappy) Hill will take over the post of Vassar’s presidency. As provost and the John J. Gibson professor of economics at Williams College, Hill is a noted economist whose work focuses on higher education affordability and access, as well as economic development and reform in Africa.

“The American liberal-arts college experience has shaped my life in fundamental ways,” says Hill. “Vassar has long been an extraordinary leader among liberal arts institutions in its commitment to educational innovation and creativity and in its efforts to provide access to all students. I am honored to have the opportunity to continue to build on those achievements.”

Visit www.vassar.edu/10thPresident/ to read more about Hill.

1855: A Grand Vision

Milo P. Jewett suggested the idea of a college for women to Matthew Vassar. “If you will establish a real College for girls and endow it, you will build a monument for yourself more lasting than the Pyramids; it will be the pride and joy of Po’keepsie, an honor to the state and a blessing to the world.” The idea caught the imagination of Vassar, and then and there Vassar College was born.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Matthew Vassar bought land for his college. “It is my hope to be the instrument in the hands of Providence, … which shall accomplish for young women what our colleges are accomplishing for young men.”

1860, Nov. 6
Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States.

1861: Milo P. Jewett

Main Gate
Main Gate
1861, Jan. 18
Vassar College was chartered with “An Act to Incorporate Vassar Female College,” passed by the New York State Legislature.

Matthew Vassar
Matthew Vassar
1861, June 4
Matthew Vassar dug the first spadeful of dirt for Main Building on the site of a former racetrack. James Renwick Jr. was the architect and William Harloe the contractor.


1864: John Raymond

Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, prohibiting slavery.

1865, December
Philaletheis, a literary society, was founded. This was the first student society.

Alaska purchased from Russia for $7.2 million.

College colors chosen: Sunrise (pink) breaking through grey of intellectual life.

Swamp Oak
Swamp Oak
The class of 1868 planted a swamp white oak as the first Class Tree.

1868, June 23
Matthew Vassar died as he addressed the Board of Trustees.

U.S. continental railroad completed with the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah.

The Associate Alumnae of Vassar College was organized.

The students’ magazine was renamed Vassar Miscellany.

Three baseball clubs were formed, the Sure-pops, the Daisy-clippers, and the Royals.

1978: Samuel L. Caldwell

Telephone service was established at Vassar.

The trustees ruled that students and faculty might have steak for breakfast if desired.

Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty
Daisies were first used for decoration in the Chapel at Commencement.

The Statue of Liberty, France’s gift to the U.S., was unveiled in New York.

1886: James Monroe Taylor

The first alumnae trustees were elected at the request of the Alumnae Association.

Strong Hall
Strong Hall
Strong Hall, the first dormitory outside of Main Building, was completed.

Mu Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was chartered at Vassar, the first chapter at a college for women.

Phi Beta Kappa
Phi Beta Kappa
The first intercollegiate debate between women’s colleges was won by Vassar over Wellesley.

Ground was broken for Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library.

1908, June 13
Inez Milholland ’09 held a suffrage meeting in a small cemetery adjacent to the college after President Taylor had forbidden a meeting on campus.

Electric lighting was installed in Main Building, replacing gas lights.

The brook at back of Avery was dammed to form a lake for skating, called Sunset Lake.

Seniors graduated in cap and gown for the first time.

1915: Henry Noble MacCracken

First issue of the Vassar Quarterly was published.

The Shakespeare Garden was laid out by classes in botany.

1918, Nov. 11
“Armistice Signed, End of the War!” New York Times

Alumnae House
Alumnae House
Nineteenth Amendment to U.S. Constitution ratified, granting vote to women.

The Alumnae House was completed.

Air Mail Stamp
Air Mail Stamp
1928, Oct. 24
The first air mail from Europe to the United States, carried by the Graf Zeppelin, included three letters to Vassar.

Stock market crashed; Great Depression began.

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, educator, lectured at Vassar on “Racial Segregation.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, governor of New York State and a trustee of the college, spoke at the 1931 Commencement exercises.

1936, Apr. 22
Nine hundred Vassar students and faculty members joined 350,000 students all over the world in a “peace strike” with a mass meeting in Students’ Building.

1941, Dec. 7
Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.

Lieutenant Commander Mildred McAfee ‘20, of the WAVES, addressed the students on war service.

1945, Sept. 2
Japan signed surrender terms aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay (V-J Day).

1946: Sarah Gibson Blanding

After the U.S.G.I. Bill was passed, 40 veterans, Vassar’s first male students, attended C-term.

Notorious McCarthy Committee on Un-American Activities hearings began in the U.S. Senate.

The department of mathematics, with the cooperation of IBM, inaugurated a teaching program in electronic computing.

1957, Oct. 4
The first manmade satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched by Soviet scientists.

Billy Graham, evangelist, lectured at Vassar on “A Vital Faith for Today.”

1960, Mar. 15
The students held a civil rights rally with Herbert Hill, labor secretary of the NAACP, and Paul Dubrul. Two days later 100 Vassar students picketed the Poughkeepsie Woolworth store in protest against discrimination in the South.

Kennedy Slain
Kennedy Slain
Betty Friedan, clinical psychologist and author, spoke on campus on The Feminine Mystique.

1963, Nov. 22
President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

1964: Alan Simpson

Civil Rights Act passed.

The college extended curfews for seniors to 2:30 a.m. on any night of the week.

1968, Apr. 7
Vassar canceled classes in order to allow students to participate in a memorial march through Poughkeepsie to honor the recently slain Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

Vassar celebrated Founder’s Day for the first time since World War II.

Male Symbol
Male Symbol
1968, Oct. 18, 19
The Board of Trustees approved the acceptance of male transfer students for 1969–70 and the admission of freshman men in Fall 1970.

1969, Oct. 15
By request of many of the faculty and students, President Alan Simpson authorized all interested faculty to close classes on this day to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam, as part of a nation-wide Moratorium.


Radio Tower
Radio Tower
The first African-American trustee, Marian Gray Secundy ’60, was elected to the Board of Trustees.

Vassar’s new radio station, WVKR, began full operation.

The Student Fellows program selected its first fellows.

The All College Dining Center (ACDC) opened, replacing dining in the dorms.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Columbia University, lectured on “Women, Men, and the Law.”

1977: Virginia Smith


Vassar was the first private college to send students to China.

Vassar was the first undergraduate college to offer a degree program in cognitive science.

1986: Frances Daly Fergusson

Main Building was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Matthew Vassar’s 200th birthday.

AIDS Memorial Plaque dedicated in the Villard Room in Main Building.

Vassar’s capital campaign closed with $206 million raised.

Vassar named “College of the Year” by Time/Princeton Review.

Jewish Studies and Environmental Studies majors added to curriculum.

Peace Garden dedicated to the victims of September 11.

New Center for Drama and Film building, designed by Cesar Pelli, opened.

Vassar’s Exploring Transfer Program turned 20.

2006: Continued Vision

Board of Trustees announced Catharine Bond Hill as 10th president of Vassar College.

—Contributors: Vassar Historian Elizabeth Adams Daniels ’41, Jennifer Dawson ’06, Lila Matsumoto ’06, Daniel Steckenberg ’06

Photos: Special Collections, Vassar College Libraries; Will Faller; Jim Sulley, Newscast