In Memoriam

Nancy Schrom Dye '69 and Ken Robinson

Nancy Schrom Dye '69
Former Dean of the Faculty and Acting President of the College

Vassar was very fortunate to have Nancy Dye as dean of the faculty for six critical years. A superb scholar of women and workers in the Progressive Era, she approached her historical research from a multidisciplinary perspective.

During her years at Vasssar, Nancy gave knowledgeable support to the science and to interdisciplinary studies, both of which grew under her wise guidance. She was also, inevitably and graciously, a mentor and inspiration to women faculty and students.

I spoke at Nancy’s presidential inauguration at Oberlin, noting how very fortunate they were to have her. Nancy and Oberlin, like Nancy and Vassar, were a natural match: all three forward thinking, devoted to the liberal arts, and, in the best way, unique and a tad offbeat. She had a great run at Oberlin and Vassar was justifiably proud.

Nancy’s later work in Asia and the Middle East—as first vice-chancellor (president) of the Asian University of Women in Bangladesh, and, later, as vice provost of United Arab Emirates University—was both unexpected and also true to who she was.

Every institution she touched, every person she knew, experienced her impact, often transformationally. Of course, what all of us most remember is Nancy as a friend and an estimable person—her intelligence, her curiosity, her humor, and her love of family. Her infectious laugh brightened many a day. How sad to lose her so early!

Frances D. Fergusson
President Emerita

The death of Nancy Dye, on October 28, 2015, brought an untimely end to a career of great distinction in American higher education. A member of the Vassar class of 1969, Nancy Schrom majored in history, excelling in the study of American history in particular, and went on to gain a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with an incisive study, later published as a book, of the New York Women's Trade Union League, a pioneering study of feminism and its role in trade unionism. Her first teaching position was in the history department at the University of Kentucky, where she ascended to the position of associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences before returning to her alma mater in 1988 as dean of the faculty and chief academic officer. 

At Vassar, Nancy played a forceful and effective role in curricular and faculty development during her tenure as dean. She mentored women faculty members in particular, and upon hearing of her death, several current and former Vassar faculty from a range of disciplines—Miriam Cohen (history), Gabrielle Cody (drama), Debra Elmegreen (astronomy), Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (English), Sarah Kozloff (film), Kate Susman (biology), Tomiko West (Japanese)—wrote with gratitude of her positive influence on their careers. 

In 1992, when Vassar President Frances D. Fergusson was granted a sabbatical leave, Nancy became acting president. For me, who had been Fran Fergusson's assistant since 1989, it was a privilege to work with first one, then a second, accomplished academic leader (as it was to be also with professor of political science Glen Johnson, acting president a few years later). Nancy did not consider her responsibility as acting president to be that of a place-holder or caretaker. She plunged in vigorously and decisively, bringing change in a variety of ways. Probably her greatest challenge that year was the controversial decision to end the dining functions of Alumnae House. Owing to declining patronage, the food service aspect of the house had become a financial drain. After broad consultation and with clear-eyed courage, Nancy closed the restaurant and pub. Many alumnae/i were deeply concerned, fearing an institutional abandonment of longstanding Vassar traditions—and they said so, in no uncertain terms. It was a hard time for the acting president, but she truly believed that the change would strengthen the college and AAVC as well. Her arguments, rooted in the hard facts, eventually won over most of her critics. During this process, I was able to observe the quality that I came to admire most in Nancy—fearlessness. She was willing to fight for what she believed was right, and that conviction conferred a rare courage. Let me add that she also had deep stores of humor and a finely honed sense of the ridiculous, both of which came to the fore fairly often, sometimes to the great surprise of her more formal interlocutors.

I was also able to observe Nancy's deep commitment to her family during that year of her acting presidency. College and university presidents are lucky if they have even a modicum of time for their personal lives, and it's especially hard for those with young families. Aided by her husband Griff Dye, Nancy offered firm, sympathetic guidance to her children Molly and Michael that paralleled the leadership she gave to Vassar.

In 1994, Nancy left the Vassar deanship to become the first woman president of Oberlin College. She drew on her Vassar experience and created many innovations at Oberlin, raising money, increasing the applicant pool, strengthening community ties, and building or renovating several buildings. Upon her retirement, Nancy served as the first vice chancellor for the Asian University of Women in Bangladesh and then as vice provost of the United Arab Emirates University, where she introduced a residential college for women students.

This lively, deeply intelligent woman used her determination, commitments, and convictions to build a highly distinguished career in American higher education. A child of the arts and sciences (both her parents were academics), Nancy grew into a prominent leader of liberal learning in this country. Her sad departure, when she still had contributions to make, thus seems particularly tragic for the causes she held so dear and worked so hard to advance. Vision like hers continues to be needed—perhaps now more than ever—but we at Vassar can console ourselves with the knowledge that Nancy brought honor to the college that educated her. She, in turn, made indelible contributions, here and abroad, to the education of innumerable students.

Bob Pounder

Professor Emeritus of Classics and former Special Assistant to the President of Vassar College

Kenneth Robinson
Professor Emeritus of Film

As soon as Ken arrived in Poughkeepsie during the summer of 1987, he rolled up his sleeves and launched into the difficult task of creating a proper facility for the study of filmmaking. In those days the film study program lived in the basement of New England Building, in rooms that had previously housed biology labs and frog tanks, and one had to be careful not to whack one’s head on overhead pipes when walking through the film equipment storage room. Undaunted by such challenges, Ken quickly improved the facilities and our equipment, in particular by donating his own cameras and upright Moviola editing machines to the Vassar program.

He was a powerful and successful instructor of filmmaking at Vassar, where he taught for nearly 30 years. Most of our students responded quite enthusiastically to Ken’s tough, razor-edged approach to teaching filmmaking, although a few developed conflicts with Ken’s strong ideas about the proper way to edit a film. Ken enjoyed an equally successful career as a professional filmmaker, during which he edited Prince’s feature film Purple Rain, and created successful films while exploring the work of Vassar’s poet Nancy Willard and sculptor Harry Roseman. When former Vassar President Frances Fergusson announced plans in the 1990s for the creation of a new center for drama and film, Ken contributed significantly to the design of the filmmaking facilities in the new building. Many of Ken’s former students have found successful careers as film and video editors, cinematographers, directors, and screenwriters. He will be fondly remembered by all of his students and colleagues at Vassar.

James Steerman
Professor Emeritus of Film