Vassar Today

Two Faculty Members Hang up their Robes

By Vassar Quarterly

William Miller
Senior Lecturer, Drama

Affixed to a seat in the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film is a touching tribute by former students to the retiring senior lecturer who has influenced the lives of many who have passed through the drama department. It reads: “For William Miller, designer & craftsman, yet best at focusing young minds & building character.”

Miller has taught stagecraft and lighting design at Vassar for 28 years, spending thousands of hours guiding students as they created sets and lighting designs for their own projects and more than 100 Vassar stage productions.

Though Miller has made an indelible impression with his disarmingly honest feedback, students report that he usually softened the blow by uttering, “Now, I’m not yelling at you…” before sharing his wisdom. Quite a few of Miller’s former students have gone on to careers as professional lighting and set designers, and many have credited his candid approach with helping them to grow into professionals with confidence in their own creativity and abilities.

Their teacher reckons, “What made this work is that I cared that people learned how to ‘see’ — not just to look at life, but to ‘see’ and to understand what is around them.”

Initially, Miller predicted that he would spend only a few years at Vassar, but the presence of the late Professor Thaddeus Gesek, whom Miller describes as the “closest person to a genius I’ve ever met in my life,” helped to change his mind. Miller says of the set designer: “He taught me more about painting scenery in two hours than I had learned the entire time I was in graduate school.”


Miller admits that he has learned a great deal from his students as well. “I’d been here about four months,” he says, “when I realized that the students at Vassar were going to teach me more than I was going teach them.”

In honor of his retirement, a group of former students produced Lighting Minds: Lessons Learned from Bill Miller at Vassar College, 1981–2009, a 108-page hardcover book filled with recollections of the man and his influence. Students and friends also created The Bill Miller Theatrical Fund, which will bring theatrical design-focused lectures, workshops, and master classes to the campus in an effort to preserve his legacy.

Miller intends to spend a lot of time “repaying” his students in the next few years. “I promised them, when they were taking my classes, that when I retired, if they ever wanted to have me come and critique their work, I would. And I have,” he explains. “But I’m not sure they’ll keep on asking because I won’t be going there to tell them how great they are. I’ll be going there to tell them what I really think.”

Robert Suter, Professor of Biology
Robert Suter, Professor of Biology
Robert Suter
Professor of Biology

Robert Suter had just completed his graduate studies in animal behavior at Indiana University when he came to Vassar to fulfill a one-year contract with the biology department. One year turned into 32.

Over the last three decades, Suter has become Vassar’s very own “spider-man,” focusing his research on how spiders interact with their physical environments. He has studied burrowing wolf spiders, spitting spiders, and spider locomotion on water; in a nutshell, he investigates how spiders “do what they do.” In the classroom, Suter has taught a range of subjects, such as invertebrate biology, animal behavior, and biopsychology.

“If my students are better at reading the Science Times or Nature or understanding science as a whole, then I have accomplished my goal to teach them to think well about biology or neuroscience rather than just to accumulate facts,” says Suter.

Suter is a founder of the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI), a summer program that has given hundreds of Vassar students the opportunity to work one-on-one with a faculty mentor, in many cases coauthoring papers for scholarly publications.

He has shared his infectious love of science with students in the Hudson Valley as well. He and his wife Valerie, a former physics teacher and head of the science department at nearby Arlington High School, created the pioneering program Exploring Science at Vassar Farm in 1982 to expose elementary-school children to natural history and hands-on science, and to protect Vassar Farm from encroachment by developers and others seeking to use it for non-educational purposes. With the help of former professor Margaret Wright, Exploring Science has blossomed into a well-known science-education program, where 35,000 children have come to learn about science.

Bob Suter and a colleague
Bob Suter and a colleague

Suter also has been involved in Vassar’s Exploring Transfer (ET) program, in which students, primarily from regional community colleges, explore the possibility of attending a four-year institution by participating in courses taught by Vassar professors and speaking with current students. Suter notes that graduates of the ET program who later enroll at Vassar have tended to become some of the best students at the college.

Though retiring, Suter will remain active in research, a pursuit he considers the “backbone” of his intellectual life. In addition to his research on spiders, Suter will work with his former biology department colleague Kathleen Susman to study the cell biology of learning in nematode worms, and with physics professor Jenny Magnes to study the physical basis of irridescence in beetles.

— Elizabeth Randolph and Tiffanie Duncan

Photo Credits: William Miller: Michael Gottlieb; Robert Suter: Noah W. Fowler '09
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