Vassar Today

Geraldine Laybourne ’69 Assumes Presidency of AAVC

By Elizabeth Randolph

The adage “A rolling stone gathers no moss” might well have been written to describe Geraldine “Gerry” Laybourne ’69, whose innovative spirit, intelligence, and drive earned her success as a media doyenne.

Over the course of her career, she has served as president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks, vice chair at MTV Networks, and chair and CEO of Nickelodeon, which she transformed into the most widely watched children’s channel in the nation. Laybourne also cofounded the Oxygen Network, aimed at young women, with Oprah Winfrey and several other prominent backers. 

Now, after serving as a member of Vassar’s board of trustees for 12 years, she will serve as board president of the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College (AAVC) through 2014. She takes the helm from Meg Venecek Johnson ’84, whose term ended in June. 

Laybourne’s new role as president reflects her commitment to giving back to the college she says has been so important in her own development. She admits to having had “a rough start” at Vassar. “I had an older sister there who was in with the ‘in’ crowd, and I’d never lived away from home,” she says. “I partied too much, and I had a terrible grade-point average.” 

But her ambition set her straight. As Laybourne recalls, “My sophomore year I wanted to run for president of Davison House, and I wasn’t allowed to because my grade-point average was too low. So I went to see Dean [Elizabeth Moffat] Drouilhet ’30. I was scared to death because she was ferocious.” Sure enough, the dean refused to budge until the young Laybourne had gotten her grades up. “If you let me run, I will get straight As,” Laybourne promised. “I need to be busy. I need to be occupied. I need to be doing something that makes a difference.” Laybourne says, “The dean took a bet on me, and I graduated magna cum laude.” 

She credits the college with instilling in her the very qualities that made for a successful career. “Vassar taught me how to bring coalitions of people together,” she says. “Dean Drouilhet, during my senior year, rewarded the promise I had kept to her by putting me on the Master Planning Committee. I learned how to run things. I was in charge of the Student Center Committee. I had architects and deans and faculty members and one other student on my committee, and it was fantastic. It just taught me that even though I was too young to be running anything, if I was strategic and thoughtful, I could get people on board. So I owe Vassar a tremendous debt. And I am one of those people who believes in paying in full.”

Those who know of her contributions would say that Laybourne has paid many times over—in addition to serving on the Vassar College board, she’s served as executive in residence, a member of Vassar’s Campaign Steering Committee, and as Commencement speaker in 2000—yet she has generously kept working on Vassar’s behalf. “Being president of the AAVC gives me another dimension of Vassar, which is this incredibly interesting network of people,” she says.

Laybourne knows there will be challenges—she expects the economy to continue to pose difficulties—but she is optimistic. “Honestly, I feel like this is the strongest we’ve ever been,” she says, crediting presidents Fran Fergusson and Cappy Hill with helping to shore up the college’s foundation.

The new president sees the integration of Vassar’s alumnae/i affairs, programming, and fundraising functions into the newly created Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development as a move that will synergize the work of the previously separate staffs of the AAVC and the Office of Development and allow Vassar to serve alumnae/i even better. “We’re going to take advantage of new opportunities,” she says. 

Her intention, she notes, is to “broaden the web of inclusion,” especially among younger alumnae/i, and “to try to figure out how to make technology work for us, how to get people connected in really meaningful ways. One of the things that has been such a joy for me over the years is that because my sister, my daughter, my friends’ daughters, and my nephews have gone to Vassar I’ve had a chance to know many generations of Vassar folks. I would like to see more cross-pollination of classes. I think exploring that will be a fun thing. As I get older, I feel more and more like my job is to bring along the next generation. But I also think it’s the next generation’s job to bring me along, too. And I’m open to that.” 

—Elizabeth Randolph