Vassar Today

Remembering President Emerita Virginia B. Smith

By Vassar Quarterly

Virginia B. Smith, who served as Vassar’s eighth president from 1977 to 1986, died this August in Alamo, California, at the age of 87.

Smith was the second woman to be named president of the college. During her tenure, she led efforts to reorganize and strengthen the college’s administrative and academic offices, spearheaded a $100 million fundraising drive, and secured initial funding for the award-winning Exploring Transfer program, which introduces community college students to a four-year liberal arts college experience. Smith also championed the creation of a collection of original manuscripts from noted authors and thinkers, including naturalist John Burroughs, poet Elizabeth Bishop, and author Mary McCarthy. Upon her retirement in 1986, the college named the collection in her honor. At the time of her death, Smith was preparing an oral history of her tenure at Vassar.

“Virginia Smith led Vassar College during important years of its development into an exceptional coeducational institution,” said Vassar president Catharine Hill. “Her leadership of an extraordinary fundraising program to strengthen the institution and her innovative support of expanded access to liberal arts education were among the important accomplishments of her presidency, on which Vassar continues to build today.”

Smith, a noted thinker and leader in American higher education, was an attorney and economist by training, and played a number of prominent roles in a career that spanned more than a half century. She began her academic career in 1947, teaching business and economics at the College of Puget Sound and Seattle Pacific College. She then joined the faculty of the University of California-Berkeley in 1952, teaching interdisciplinary courses on labor and management at the university’s Institute of Industrial Relations. In 1958, she moved to the Office of the President at the University of California and became the first woman to serve as an assistant vice president there in 1965. 

Smith was tapped to join the staff of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education in 1967, where she served as principal researcher and later as associate director. The commission, a national organization directed by Clark Kerr (the first chancellor of the University of California) and funded by the Carnegie Corporation, recommended significant changes in higher education policy and management, and its reports are considered by many to be the most influential studies of American higher education in the 20th century.

In 1973, President Nixon named Smith the founding director of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. FIPSE made seed grants to colleges and universities for initiating improvements and developing innovative programs that exist to this day, including the LaGuardia Middle College in New York. A team of evaluators cited the program she conceived and implemented in 1976 as “a model for other federal agencies that attempt to encourage change.”

Smith received widespread acclaim for her efforts to improve higher education. She received 11 honorary degrees over the course of her career, and was named one of American higher education’s most influential leaders by Change magazine. 

In 1999, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (where she had served as founding director) established the Virginia B. Smith Innovative Leadership Award to annually recognize an individual who has made extraordinary contributions to improve opportunity and excellence in higher education.

In later years, Smith advised a number of education and policy organizations, including the National Center and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.