Beyond Vassar

The Phil Griffin Show

By Thomas Hopkins and Samantha Soper '91

In July 2008 Phil Griffin ’79 was named president of MSNBC, the network where he’s worked since its launch in 1996. He returned to the Vassar campus on November 18, 2008, as AAVC’s Executive-in-Residence.

Mr. Griffin kindly took a few minutes to chat with the Quarterly before his back-to-back schedule got underway, culminating in a talk at Sanders Hall titled “Politics and the Media in 2008.” We discussed a number of topics — Phil Donahue, the O.J. Simpson trial, Rachel Maddow’s meteoric rise, the question of whether or not Fox News has “jumped the shark” — but what we were really eager to hear about was his time in Poughkeepsie.

VQ: So we’re curious to hear about your Vassar days.
PG: Oh, good, let’s talk about that. That way I can’t get into trouble.

VQ: How did you get to the world you’re in now from Vassar? What did you study here?
PG: I was an English major. Shakespeare.

VQ: Who did you study with?
PG: Eamon Grennan. Is he still here?

VQ: He retired a few years ago. But he’s still around.
PG: Love him. You know — and I’ll say this tonight — as an English major, people will always ask you, “What are you going to do with an English degree?” But I say, Look: there’s no better background, there’s no better understanding of human behavior than Shakespeare. And I really do think that’s given me a leg up. Because once you understand human nature — and you understand the importance of understanding human nature — then you know how to deal with everyone. You can pick up most other stuff. Coming out of school, I didn’t fully understand business, but I picked it up through doing it. Obviously I’m not reading Shakespeare every night now. But the lessons I learned — all those issues of greed, deceit, lust, power — I deal with it every day. All those lessons are so valuable. I wouldn’t change a thing.

VQ: There’s definitely some English majors who will be very happy to hear you say that.
PG: It’s always scary when you’re an English major! You think you just had fun in college. You said, “Screw it, I’m gonna read great stuff and talk about it.” Now, I’m not designing the next great car — I hope somebody is, because that’s important — but an English degree served me well.

Phil Griffin at luncheon
Phil Griffin at luncheon

VQ: Why did you choose Vassar?
PG: You know, I was thinking about that coming up here today. Life’s funny. The guy I met with first was great. He was passionate. And he loved this place. He was an admissions officer — George Crowell, I think was his name. He was just inspiring. And then I saw the campus, and I liked the campus, and I wanted to be relatively close to New York City. But in the end — I could say “Oh, I looked at the curriculum,” but no. I had a good experience the day I came up. And George was fantastic.

VQ: Did you have any favorite spots on campus?
PG: Well, the Mug was one of them. I lived at the Mug. I loved the widow’s walk on top of Main. I loved my room my senior year in Main, which was on the corner on the second floor. It had the high windows. The room got so much light. I used to run all over campus — I’m a runner — and I do think there was something sweet about the lake, and the hill. I used to go out there and read, and study, and that was the place you’d take a bottle of wine late at night. I used to walk into town — what was the bar?

VQ: The Dutch?
PG: The Dutch! The Dutch on a cold night. I liked the communal atmosphere of ACDC, that you could go in and find 50 people that you could sit with. I loved the bookstore as well. The bookstore is where I hung out every day.

VQ: One final question: Will there ever be a Vassar alum in the White House?
PG:  Yeah! Why not? Look, the beauty of the election of Obama is that for the first time in a long time I think everybody feels anybody can grow up to be President. I know that’s what we’ve always said, and that’s why we fight wars, but I’m not sure everybody believed it. But nobody else could have done what we just did — what America just did. And anybody can grow up to be President. So I’m hoping — soon! — a Vassar graduate ends up in the White House.