The Last Page

A Royal Marriage

By Barbara Austin Foote '40

My mother, Barbara Austin Foote ’40, served on the Vassar Board of Trustees during a tumultuous time in the college’s history, when Vassar was in talks to merge with Yale but ultimately decided to remain independent. The following text is excerpted from a paper, an account of those negotiations, which was presented to the Chicago Fortnightly Club in 1973.
— Markell Foote Kaiser ’66

The title of this paper is misleading, for this “Royal Marriage”—although touted in widely publicized bans and seriously contemplated for almost a year—was never consummated. It refers to the proposed affiliation between Yale University and Vassar College.

My first inkling of this came one Monday morning in mid-December, 1966, when the telephone interrupted my bed-making. The caller was a Vassar alumna (Mary St. John Villard ’34) and co-trustee in New York, asking whether I could attend a special meeting of the Board of Trustees to be held in New York on Wednesday afternoon. I said I didn’t see how I could because my mother was having a Christmas tea that day and counting on my help. The voice at the other end said, “Well, you’d better get here, because we’re going to talk about moving Vassar to New Haven.”

I can still see the picture she conjured in my mind’s eye: a line of vans moving at snail’s pace, cautiously negotiating the winding roads between Poughkeepsie and New Haven, each one carrying a precariously balanced building—the library, the chapel, Main, or an assortment of carefully balled class trees!

We met in an anonymous conference room in mid-Manhattan. All 22 trustees gathered around the long table, bowed their heads in prayer, and addressed themselves to the question of the day. Chairman John Wilkie asked President Alan Simpson to explain the genesis of the startling invitation. The president’s premise was that the liberal arts colleges “must either ally themselves with the great centers of learning or face loss of stature.” The Yale invitation offered Vassar a chance to make such an alliance, which Mr. Simpson described in glowing terms: it would be “a royal marriage ... a union to rival that of Harvard and Radcliffe ... a prospect daunting and dazzling.” In general, the trustees reacted positively, though cautiously, to the invitation. Several persons thought that an affiliation with Yale might provide the answer to Vassar’s most serious problems: geographic isolation, faculty, and student recruitment. At the end of a long winter afternoon, we faced the question: should we or should we not embark upon the Yale study? How could any self-respecting college graduate refuse to study something?

Initial student reaction to the news was predominantly favorable. Vassar girls swarmed to a rally, bearing signs saying, “NEW HAVEN HERE WE COME” and “WE’LL MOVE JEWETT, BRICK BY BRICK.” (A picture of that sign vastly irritated older alumnae, who helped build that dormitory, brick by brick.) The college newspaper congratulated the president on a “truly bold, progressive commitment to an auspicious future for Vassar,” concluding its editorial, “There is a brave new world beyond Raymond Avenue and its center is in New Haven.”

A number of alumnae could resist that excitement and so informed the president and the trustees. The first heated letters of disapproval continued for 11 months. Most of the trustees had very little involvement with the actual study process, except we were constantly on call as interpreters of the rationale for the Yale study. We met with many groups of alumnae, in Poughkeepsie and elsewhere. Several times the Yale administrators arranged tours of New Haven for members of the Vassar Board. After walking about the site, we were given a regal reception and luncheon at President Kingman Brewster’s house, where he and his aides answered our questions and spoke with high optimism of Vassar’s future in New Haven. Alumnae continued to mistrust that kind of future. A group of dissidents took the back cover of the fall issue of their magazine for an arresting ad: IS THIS TRIP NECESSARY?, stating firmly their reasons for doubts. This was answered in a subsequent issue by another group urging alumnae to withhold judgment until the facts were in.

The meetings of October 19–20 marked the high tide of our debate. On November 20 we met once more, to record unanimously our preference for Vassar in Poughkeepsie, and to pass appropriate resolutions of wholehearted appreciation to Yale for the unique opportunity it had afforded us.

I have no doubts about the validity of our decision to remain in Poughkeepsie. Had we decided to move to New Haven, Vassar as Vassar would have ceased to exist. It is interesting and wryly amusing to consider what might have happened had we taken that course. If one searches for reasons beyond those cited in the trustee statement of November 20, 1967, I would emphasize a reluctance to join the throw-away society by appearing to subscribe to the theory of built-in obsolescence. One does not liquidate a living college!

To read the full paper Foote wrote, visit the online addtions of this issue.