Commitment to Community: An Interview with Fran Fergusson

By Leslie Granston '88

If you haven’t visited Vassar in a while, the first thing you’ll notice is that the grass is literally greener. On a balmy May afternoon during pre-exam study week, the moist hiss of sprinklers is background noise for students basking on sunny patches of lawn. Amble around campus, and you’ll encounter well-maintained benches placed at thoughtful intervals, perfect for contemplation and procrastination.

Walk into Main, past the Message Center, up the stairs between the first and second floors, and step into Frances Daly Fergusson’s spacious, bright office. Vassar’s ninth president marks her 15th anniversary this year, and although much has changed under her watch, her Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Christopher Wren and Nell Gwynne, are still around, and their human companion always has a warm welcome for an alumna. It’s good to be back.

Good indeed. Since 1986, the year Fergusson came to Vassar, the school has been increasingly on a roll. For starters, there’s the snappier-looking campus, thanks to ongoing renovations of and additions to its buildings and grounds. There’s the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, a state-of-the-art athletic facility, and a major addition to the library. A new center for drama and film is in the works. New academic programs, including Jewish studies and environmental studies, have deepened the curriculum (plans for a media studies program are underway). And in 1996, Fergusson and a phalanx of volunteers completed a record-breaking fundraising campaign in excess of $200 million, which is being used to expand Vassar’s self-improvement.

Not surprisingly, all the spit and polish has attracted more high-school seniors. According to Fergusson and David Borus, dean of admission, the school is fielding unprecedented numbers of applications from students — who generally rank higher in their classes and score higher on the SATs than in days past — and accepting fewer of them than ever: about one third. Much to the delight of Fergusson, The Wall Street Journal recently included Vassar on its list of "New Ivies" — along with other former "safety schools," such as Duke, Swarthmore, and Johns Hopkins — that have become almost as hard to get into as the Ivies. "All of this definitely has to do with Fran’s input," says Borus. His sentiments are echoed by a variety of others who work with Fergusson.

The president herself, however, is quick to share credit with the faculty, administration and staff, as well as students, trustees, and alumnae/i. She also admits that all is not perfect. For one thing, Vassar, like its peer schools, would like to increase its success in attracting more minority students. (Currently, students of color make up about 22 to 25 percent of each entering class.) Another is the perception that the school is not as strong in the sciences as in the arts and humanities. (Fergusson, in fact, characterizes the sciences at Vassar as "superlative.") As she sits down to answer questions for the Quarterly in a well-modulated voice, Fergusson is forthright in her commitment to the school and its people. Although she is an alumna of Wellesley (class of ’65) and holds a master’s and Ph.D. from Harvard, a gold Vassar ring discreetly adorns her finger. What follows is an edited version of her conversation with the VQ.

Vassar Quarterly: You were appointed to the presidency of Vassar in 1986. What’s changed most significantly since you came on board?

Frances Fergusson: When I arrived there were three major issues that needed to be addressed. As an architectural historian, I believe that spaces have a very large effect on behavior. The campus felt rather alienating and unfriendly because it was congested and unkempt. The morale of the faculty was quite low. Salaries had slipped, teaching conditions were not as good as they had been, there was a perception that we were in danger of losing the quality of students that they had been used to teaching. We also needed to work on the issue of community. People felt themselves to be individualists with no larger concept or commitment to community. Now we talk a lot about community. It’s not something that you ever fully achieve, but the conversation’s always there.

And certainly we’ve been able to improve everything from faculty salaries to the teaching and research facilities, which are now quite phenomenal and getting even better. We are without a doubt a very desirable school right now.

I’m proud of the fact that if you were to come to Vassar during the course of the year, you wouldn’t feel that any of the old traditions or commitments to liberal arts education have been lost. Even the students’ extracurricular commitments are often interestingly traditional. This year we probably had a total of seven different Shakespeare plays performed on campus. We had our annual Beowulf marathon in old English, we had the opera workshop, we had the marathon reading of the Iliad and the Odyssey — one or the other each year — and so on. So you can see that our students are not just present-minded by any means, but at the same time that they’re thinking in very advanced intellectual terms. There’s a wonderful balance between the traditional and the new.

How would you describe the current landscape in higher education?

Well, there are a remarkably small number of schools that still remain liberal arts colleges, maybe 30 or 40 schools that are truly, completely liberal arts institutions that haven’t had to mix a lot of vocational and other kinds of studies into the picture in order to stay viable. Certainly, in the 15 years that I’ve been here, questions about Vassar’s viability as a coeducational institution have completely disappeared.

Really? So there’s no longer any perception that Vassar is a "girls’ school?"

Some people do still think that and are surprised that it’s been 32 years since the decision to be a coeducational institution was made. But our students and most of their parents have only thought about Vassar as a coed institution, not as a single-sex institution. Some grandparents may still have the old ideas, but we think of our challenges as the challenges of a very elite handful of coeducational liberal arts colleges, places like Williams, Swarthmore, Pomona, and Amherst, not the world of the Seven Sisters anymore.

You have a reputation for being unusually accessible to students. How do you accomplish that?

I have a student assistant whose main responsibility is to make sure that I’m accessible to students. I have dinners occasionally with students, sometimes at dorm dinners or in their townhouses or TAs, and that’s always very enjoyable. I have open office hours, to which anyone can come. Normally they’re completely filled with people who want to see me about a wide range of things. I have pizza dinners at my house. And of course, with the two dogs, I walk around, though as Christopher gets older, my long walks aren’t quite as frequent as they used to be. I eat virtually every day in the Retreat. All of those are good mechanisms. We keep in close touch with the VSA officers, so there’s a fair amount of give and take. And of course living smack in the middle of campus doesn’t do any harm.

What changes have you noticed in young adults in the past 15 years?

It’s very complex, and I’m not sure that they’ve changed a lot, although we’ve probably become more thoughtful about their needs and interests. I think that students are more likely now to try to resolve problems when they arise through their own very robust governance mechanisms. When the VSA is working properly and has good leadership, it usually helps people to talk things out. Ideally when things are working well, issues get discussed rather than becoming vexed points of conflict.

Does that propensity to talk about problems help the college address issues of free speech that are a sticky wicket on campuses everywhere?

We emphasize discussion because we believe firmly in free speech. So we’re not going to stop somebody from saying something, even if it is wildly offensive. But we would try to counter that with more speech to explain to that individual and others why that might not have been the best expression of our ideals as a community. Free speech doesn’t mean you don’t have ideals of what your community should be. But free speech does mean you have to accept a certain amount of speech that you find unpleasant in order to preserve the right of everybody to have that same freedom.

This year we’ve instituted what we call dialogue dinners, during which as many as 100 or 120 people from all across the campus — faculty, administrators, people from the clerical and service staff, and students — come together to talk about ways in which we work as a community and what we still need to work on. Those have proved to be very interesting. You realize that people are able to cut across age, economic status, race, ethnicity, and all kinds of other differences to talk about common themes and help each other understand the needs of different populations on campus. We also had a community day which had much the same purpose: the chance for people to talk about issues, have dinner together, hear some music, and see drama presentations that dealt with the issues of the community. So we keep working at various ways we can pull people together.

In 1996 you completed a record-breaking fundraising campaign, exceeding your goal of $200 million. Tell us about the campaign and how you pulled off such a feat.

Well, it was a comprehensive campaign for the annual fund, endowment, and capital projects. We started with a very elaborate planning process that involved faculty and students and staff and trustees and alumni. Then we tested that against what people were likely to want to give us money for. And of course people told us all sorts of things that didn’t always turn out to be true in the longer run. For example, they all said, "Oh, you need to do something about the residence halls," but when push came to shove they were much more likely to give to financial aid or the library or the academic program. So although we reached and exceeded our overall goal, as is true in any campaign there were some areas that overshot their goals and other areas that didn’t quite make it or even begin to make it, such as renovations of the residence halls. It was a lot of work and it was not just focused on me by any means. We had volunteers across the country, all of our trustees, and some extraordinary individuals from our alumni body who put themselves into it heart and soul over a number of years.

The campaign allowed us to do a whole series of important projects for the campus, including the library project, the observatory, and the new athletic facility. We’ve been able to touch virtually every part of this campus in one way or another with the results of that campaign. And we’ve also been able to preserve our ability to give financial aid to any student who requires it, which is really important.

Fran Fergusson
Fran Fergusson

How has technology affected higher education, and especially the liberal arts?

If you walk around the campus now you’ll see all sorts of ways in which technology has transformed how students gain access to information, how they manipulate it and how they use it. It’s there when you go into the library to look up a book or go into the media cloisters; it’s there when you’re in a classroom where technology allows you to look at original documents or maps. We have "smart classrooms" throughout the college, and we have a 10-year plan for renovating all the college’s classrooms to the highest technological standards. We have a science visualization lab that does extraordinary things. You can take a double helix of DNA, for example, and turn it in space; you can examine different components and do all kinds of interesting manipulations. We’ll also be reconfiguring every classroom so that the direct relationships between student and faculty member and between student and student are enhanced. Our new classrooms will have a horseshoe shape, with seats that are elevated towards the back. Whether the classroom is for 16 students or 35, everybody will feel in communication with one another and will be incapable of finding that little corner in the back where you can hide. We are trying to make sure we use technology in ways that are useful, without replacing that very human interaction that is the true base of what we do at Vassar.

In addition to being president of Vassar you are also a board member of the Ford Foundation and chair of the board at the Mayo Foundation. What do you bring from those jobs to being president of Vassar and vice versa?

Being with the Ford Foundation has been my second liberal arts education. It’s been so interesting for me to be able to travel throughout the world and see the circumstances under which people live in very different cultures, and to work on issues that have to do with human betterment and building capacity for people to take charge of their own lives. Unfortunately, this September I end the maximum 12 years of being a trustee, so I have to step down, but it’s been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Ford has helped me to understand more about the range of interests of our students and faculty and has also given me a broader palette for my understanding of a liberal arts education.

I’ve chaired the Mayo Foundation for the last four years, which has been a great honor. Obviously, health care has been a big subject in the United States in the last decade, so I’ve been able to be with Mayo during a very interesting time in its evolution. One of the reasons I might have been chosen is because, in a time of declining dollars in health care, the Mayo Clinic was determined that education and research not be cut short. Of course, I am a very strong advocate for both.

What have you discovered about education in other countries in your travels?

In many cases, it leaves you with an immense amount of gratitude for what is here in the United States. We do have a level of facilities and a level of attention to the individual that you don’t find in most other cultures. The liberal arts college is a unique American institution that is based on several premises — first of all, that students are treated as individuals, so that they’re not lost in some numeric mass. And students in America are encouraged to explore a broad range of intellectual interests and not narrow down too rapidly into a specialization, which is typical of European and other universities. Africa, where I’ve traveled frequently, has some very fine institutions, but a lot of them have suffered and lost ground in recent years. In many of the countries of Africa, usually excluding South Africa, the universities are frequently on strike by either the students or the faculty, or closed down by the government. So it’s virtually impossible for students to enter a university and complete a degree without experiencing ruptures in their lives as students. A semester or a full year can be lost very easily. And of course the facilities are declining in many universities.

How did your own experiences as a student shape you?

I went to Wellesley on a full scholarship, and worked from the age of 14 at least 20 hours a week in various capacities — as a supermarket clerk and other such things. I’m a working-class kid who’s had the benefit of a very elite and fine education. And I see most things through both of those prisms. I understand what it is to want to succeed and not to have the financial capacity to do it on your own. And I see the need for people in that situation to not only work hard, but also recognize that they need help — be it scholarship help or other kinds of assistance or mentoring.

The tenure of a college president is often about six or seven years. You are now past double that. How do you account for your longevity?

The first three, four, five, or even six years are about the toughest because you’re always dealing with new challenges. You have ideas about what you want to do but you don’t yet have everybody’s agreement and, worse, you don’t have the money. Those early years can seem like a constant struggle. Plus the fact that you’re far too busy. Well, that doesn’t end. You always are too busy. Everybody would like all of your time, and you have many constituencies that have a claim on you: students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, the local community, the larger philanthropic community, the boards I serve on. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of that and also maintain some semblance of a private life. But certain things do get better. Problems begin to seem familiar. And there is, of course, the thrill of seeing things happen, seeing the college improve. If I were ever to lose my ambitions for Vassar, then that’s when I should quit immediately. But as long as those ambitions are still strongly there, the situation still has vitality.

Fran Fergusson
Fran Fergusson

And I would imagine that over time you build trust and confidence among the people who support you.

I’ve been fortunate in having a very good faculty, a very good board of trustees, really superb people who love the place and are working hard to make it better. And a constantly renewing student body that just seems quite wonderful to me. Exactly the kind of students that I always loved to teach: very concerned about the world, independent-minded, a little feisty, and very interesting. And our alumni, too, are feisty, interesting, independent-minded — so they’re a pleasure to work with as well. If you put all that together, and if you’re fundamentally a sociable person, which I think I am, then there’s just an awful lot that’s interesting and fun and gratifying about the job. Also, I often joke that I’m living an architectural historian’s dream because I’m building good buildings with other people’s money.

The percentage of minority students stays roughly the same each year. Are there plans to recruit more students of color?

We continue to be a little bit frustrated that we don’t get better results than we do. Students of color represent 22 to 25 percent of each entering class. The fact is that about 30 percent of the class we admit each year are students of color. But we’re in a very competitive situation because those same students are being admitted to all of the best liberal arts colleges. They are looking at a number of options. We have to work very hard to get them to decide to come to Vassar.

One of the areas that we’ve been very successful in is in the faculty area. We have probably the most diverse faculty of any of our peer colleges. About 15 percent of our tenured and tenure-track faculty are faculty of color. I have to give enormous credit to Norman Fainstein, dean of the faculty, who has made that a focus of his time as dean. It’s a wonderful faculty now and it is visibly different than it has been in the past.

What would you say is the biggest mistake you've made?

Well, let's see, we don't want to get too personal. I think there are lots of things, but I'm not somebody who sticks with mistakes. If I see something going wrong, I try to stop it right there and reverse it.

What is the value of a Vassar degree today?

I think it's probably higher than ever, actually. And this benefits everybody, whether you graduated last year or 20 or 50 years ago. The Vassar degree still stands for people who've received a very solid and demanding education, who also have some sense of how to engage with others. I think people still see Vassar as a community in which people are multidimensional and not just career-minded or too focused on one area. People look to our graduates to be literate, good talkers, good thinkers, able to get along with other people in a very effective way. And as the reputation of the college continues to rise, that has even greater meaning in the workplace.

You've said that a liberal arts degree comes with responsibilities. What are those responsibilities, and how does Vassar prepare a student to meet them?

I think those responsibilities are moral and ethical. You recognize that you have experienced a very elite education, with opportunities that aren't available to the vast majority of people in this country or this world. We all have a responsibility to give back in some fashion. It can be social or economic or cultural, but you should understand that you're part of a larger community and that the engines that make community work don't work without people behind them. If our students are listening and participating, it's hard to miss that message at Vassar.

Leslie Granston is a freelance writer and editor in New York City and a member of the VQ's advisory committee.