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A Royal Marriage (full text)

By Barbara A. Foote '40

One long ago summer during a Charlottesville holiday, Bob end I were invited to attend a meeting of the Albemarle County Historical Society. The speaker of the day, a young professor of history at the University of Virginia was to discuss “Robert E. Lee's History of The War Between the States.” On our way to the meeting Bob and I confessed to each other that we felt illiterate: we hadn't realized that General Lee had written such a history. It turned out that he hadn't, Our speaker quoted from notes, letters, and diaries, proving without a doubt that General Lee had intended to write a history of the war (and that had he done so It would have been a monumental addition to the literature of the period), Regrettably, the General was prevented from this undertaking by a combination of considerations and events which I have since forgotten.

The title of this paper is similarly 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 Villard) 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!

A loyal friend took over my duties at my mother's tea, and I flew off to New York, filled with a curious mixture of excitement and foreboding. I was the newest and almost the youngest trustee, having come to the Board in October, on nomination by the alumnae. I had attended my first meeting two months earlier, on one of those mellow October weekends when weathered brick arid stone glowed In the reflection of the turning eaves and the cloistered campus seemed to stand serenely apart from the confusion and congestion of New York City. Or of New Haven! Vassar had looked as timeless and secure as any institution could In the latter half of an uncertain century, True, the trustees had laced the dilemma of rising costs and a small though discouraging decline In applications for admission, but we had nevertheless confidently approved plans for renovation and new Construction that would total ten million dollars, Were all these to be scrapped?

We had also heard a preliminary and fragmentary report from the Committee on New Dimensions, a trustee, administrative, faculty group established In Septembor and charged to study the future of the college. What would become of this?

On the flight to New York I listed the persons who would be affected if Vassar were to leave Poughkeepsie for New Haven: students, faculty active and emeriti, administrators, employees, local merchants and businessmen. Except for the students, many of them had spent the greater part of their lives in the service of the college. Finally, there was my own constituency - the Alumnae, twenty-two thousand of them. How would they react to the possibility of dislocation?

At the bottom of my yellow legal sheet was the question: 'What happens when a little corporation is swallowed by a large one?'

We met in an anonymous conference room in mid-Manhattan, All twenty-two trustees gathered around the long table, bowed their heads in prayer, and addressed themselves to the question of the day. Chairman John Wlikie asked President Alan Simpson to explain the genesis of the startling invitation. Another trustee, identified long months later as Julius Stratton, former President of MIT and currently Chairman of the Board of the Ford Foundation) had Invited Mr. Simpson and Kingman Brewster, President of Yale, to a quiet dinner in his Manhattan apartment. Afterward, he had turned to his two guests, saying, “Kingman, you want to introduce women to Yale: Alan, you're looking for new dimensions for Vassar, You two should have a lot to talk about.”

So they had. Their host ushered them into his library, with a bottle of brandy - and left them alone. That evening's unhurried conversation had resulted in the still secret invitation to Vassar” to study the possibilities of cooperation with Yale University, including a study of the desirability and feasibility of relocating Vassar College in New Haven.” Mr. Simpson had presented this to his trustee Executive Committee a few days earlier. Now on their recommendation he was bringing it to the full board.

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.”

He asked the trustees to consider whether the idea of such a study was feasible.

Mr. Wilkie reported on a conference he had had with Morris Hadley, one of his predecessors, and a senior member of Milbank Tweed, the firm which handled Vassar's legal affairs. They had discussed the legal implications of a possible move. The firm could review the statutory aspects of a removal to Connecticut, the liquidation of Vassar's physical assets in Poughkeepsie, and the transfer of intangible assets and liabilities. The present assumption was that a move would be possible, barring adverse litigation, but that there was “no negligible possibility of such litigation.” The sale of property and transfer of funds would require time - probably from five to ten years. Should the Board decide to undertake the study, Mr. Wilkie reminded us, we would have an obligation to inform Governor Rockefeller, James Allen, State Commissioner of Education, and Samuel Gould, President of the State University of New York (SUNY).

Mr. Simpson then solicited individual reaction to the proposal. (The official minutes of this meeting are sparse, recording only the final action of the trustees. My own notes are reliable, so far as they go, but have obvious gaps, at moments when I became too engrossed in the discussion to record it). 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. A Yale alumnus remarked jocularly that Yale needed Vassar more than Vassar needed Yale. A lawyer warned of prolonged litigation and consequent erosion of assets. An alumna wondered whether we could not do as well on our own campus, assuming the willingness to spend as much time, effort, and money as the Yale study and subsequent move would require. A thoughtful judge, designating himself devil's advocate, spoke movingly of Vassar's regional responsibility, its roots in the mid-Hudson region.

But it was Mr. Stratton whose statement seemed particularly persuasive.

“I applaud the work of the New Dimensions Committee to date. but I think we should proceed with the study with Yale. Its complexities and economic difficulties are gigantic, and I would by no means minimize the legal difficulties. However, despite these obvious and possible dangers, I think we should make such a study. Even should we decide not to follow through, the study would have had a beneficial effect: Vassar would the face all other changes with a new perspective. Anything else would seem simple!”

Finally, at the end of a long winter afternoon, we faced the question: should we or should we not embark upon the Yale study? As Bob had warned me the night before, it was a loaded question, because the announcement of a study of a merger implies a willingness to follow through, barring unanticipated obstacles. But it was also an irresistable question. How could any self-respecting college graduate refuse to study something? In retrospect, we would have been wiser, I think, to have postponed our December decision and considered the question at a subsequent meeting after the holidays. The vote might have been the same, but we would have had more time to think through its wrenching and far-reaching implications and at least we should have been prepared to announce it properly to our various constituencies.

Instead, within forty-eight hours of our adjournment, each trustee pledged to secrecy until the Yale Corporation could take formal action the next day and both institutions could prepare a joint announcement, the story broke in Paris and was quickly relayed to the Washington Post and the New York Times. This scoop was ultimately attributed to the jubilant indiscretion of a Yale trustee—an interesting footnote on the alleged inability of women to keep a secret:

Initial student reaction to the news was predominantly favorable. Vassar girls swarmed to a rally, bearing signs saying: “N 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.) Other signs were less sanguine. “FIE ON ELI” and “SEPARATE BUT EQUAL.” 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.” Yale student reaction was also generally enthusiastic, although a senior was said to have choked at the news and said, “Yale is dead. Long live Yale. Vassar—of all the ungodly places.”

Faculty response was understandably less spontaneous and more guarded. Even the Vassar deans were taken by surprise and could only say they were amazed and excited by the challenge of the study.

As the news crossed the country, Vassar wives and Yale husbands reacted with all shades of emotion, from enthusiastic affirmation to vitriolic denial. By and large, the Yale alumni seemed less heated than the Vassar alumnae, perhaps because, with or without women, Yale would continue to be the University and the place they recalled.

A hasty letter of apology and explanation from Mr. Simpson to alumnae officers and key donors did little to assuage outraged Vassar feelings, especially since most alumnae had to wait at least six weeks to read this communication in the Vassar Alumnae Magazine. After describing the perils of self-sufficiency and the role of the Committee on New Dimensions and its initial investigations, Mr. Simpson continued, “The work of this Committee has convinced the President and the Board of Trustees that the Vassar-Yale study is the most promising immediate path to follow.” And, later, “if the Vassar-Yale study should demonstrate that for the future Vassar can most fruitfully realize his [Matthew Vassar's] vision by moving to New Haven and establishing close relationship with one of the world's greatest universities, what benefactor of the college, past or present, would feel himself betrayed? Which of us could resist the excitement of building Vassar College a new home?'

A number of alumnae could resist that excitement and so informed the President and the trustees. The first heated letters of disapproval arrived just before Christmas and continued more or less steadily over the next eleven months. Vassar women tend to combine longevity with long memories: witness this portion of a letter from a member of the class of 1907.

In June, 1964, at his inauguration, Mr. Simpson said: “Vassar aims at the kind of perfection which is the peculiar province of the liberal arts college as distinct from a university college.” Again, “I remind you that the immensely superior resources of a university—Its mountainous organization for the advancement of knowledge—carries with it no guarantee that the undergraduate will be better prepared for either scholarship, the professions, business or life.” Again, So we are confronted with the paradox which often condemns the undergraduate in the university college to a life of deepening intellectual poverty in the midst of rising research standards. He is the orphan child, the poor cousin, the second class citizen of the university community... The best liberal arts colleges escape this fate by concentrating on his welfare... These colleges fulfill the idea of a community which is so much cherished in the mythology of education and so seldom realized... They are not engaged in the struggle to seem small while growing big; they are small. They are not feverishly hunting for an identity; they have a luminous one... I pledge myself to uphold this splendid tradition.” And yet, two years later we are told that liberal arts education for women Is on the way out and we should go to New Haven to preserve “these precious assets” as a university college! Such contradictions cause one to pause and wonder, as does the “bombshell” exploded in late December, What had been going on behind the scenes that had built up to a “bombshell”?... It all sounds as If plans had been rather determined upon to move Vassar to Yale... This turmoil is very disturbing to many alumnae, faculty and a fair number of students. Uncertainty is very difficult for the human animal and for human institutions... There is no doubt that Vassar must continue to grow and change, but this uncertainty is a tragic way to kill a college.

It is true that the move to Yale would provide some impressive academic advantages. But the price of those advantages would inevitably be the reduction of Vassar to the status of an adjunct, a minor branch of a vast university. Vassar's “identity” would chiefly consist of its occupancy of a collection of buildings squeezed into overcrowded New Haven ... We believe that the most constructive way to strengthen Vassar is to give as much weight and consideration to alternative solutions as are being given to the New Haven plan.

An emeritus professor questioned the fact that the Vassar faculty appeared to have been virtually ignored in the procedure outlined for the study.

What is most noteworthy about this statement is that it makes no mention of the Vassar faculty. Members of the faculty are not involved in the day-by-day work of the study except as “consultants.” If the joint trustee committee is favorably disposed to the recommendations or the two presidents, it may “refer them to the full membership of both the Vassar Board of Trustees and the Yale Corporation, after appropriate consultation with faculties and alumni councils and boards.
“This procedure seems to be in violation of the Vassar Governance which states that ‘The Faculty shall in general determine and shall direct educational policy ... Proposals of the trustees which significantly affect educational policy shall be referred to the faculty for consideration.’ Consideration is not the same as consultation.
—Margaret Meyers

From another alumnae:

It is felt that the college is being railroaded into an irreversible course that will be bitterly regretted.

This is not just the nostalgia of “old grads,” though of course that comes into it. These are intelligent forward-looking women ready to consider any constructive change, but not willing to accept the extinction of Vassar's identity and all she has stood for and accomplished in her long history. And with the best will in the world, the move to New Haven would result in total loss of identity in a very few years.

I cannot believe that there is not still a place for such an institution; I cannot believe that the Inevitable problems cannot be met. I find the proposal to throw all this away so fantastic as to be incredible.

Of course, in the final analysis the matter is in the hands of the trustees, but the alumnae are an important part of the totality which is Vassar College; they as well as the faculty and the present students, should be heard—it would surprise me if more than a small minority of those in any way connected with Vassar will approve of “relocation” and eventual “absorption” by Yale, let alone support it. I know of many who are, even now, altering their wills to provide that the bequests to Vassar, some small, some substantial, shall be valid only if the college remains on its own campus.

From another professor emeritus:

Do we really want to trade 950 acres of the beautiful Hudson River Valley for highrise buildings on a few blocks in downtown New Haven? “I don't want to go,” one observant student was heard to say, “Anybody can get a man, but it takes years to grow a tree.”
—Mildred Campbell

Some protestors tried humor:

Now that Presidents Simpson and Kingman Brewster
Have produced an idea that we can't get use-ter,
The time seems ripe to abandon civilities and examine some of the probabilities
Inherent in moving Vassar, which only rhymes with antimacassar,
Down to New Haven to join with Yale, which rhymes with all sorts of things but especially male.
Is distance so unjust or so cruel that we have to move our school?
Can it be someone suspects that the distance of the treks has an influence on sex?
Or to make the waters muddy, has it an effect on study?
Or could this be one of those ploys to get together with the boys?

After several more stanzas, these co-authors conclude:

P.S. There's one thing we've left out of our tale—
Will the girls call it Yassar or the boys call it Vale?

Mary McCarthy's cryptic comment in Paris was: “They deserve each other.”

As the weeks went on, we heard a few more temperate voices some even congratulating the President and the trustees on the farsightedness which had led to the Yale study. But those letters were the exception. Even our less heated correspondents struck a wistful note:

If a sincere, careful study, quite separate from the Yale-Vassar discussion, shows the college has no future on its own campus, then, like the rest of us, I'm prepared to be dragged screaming into the future, but I shall hate it.

And this from my predecessor as an alumna trustee, at the end of a letter expressing her confidence in the ultimate judgment of the trustees and her willingness to face change if it proved necessary: “I am poor nursery stock and bleed at the roots when transplanted.”
—Elizabeth Coonley Faulkner '24

Meanwhile, in New Haven and Poughkeepsie Yale and Vassar had organized themselves for the actual work of the study. There was a Joint Trustee Fellow Committee composed of four members of the Vassar Board and four members of the Yale Corporation. There were parallel staff organizations, headed by Yale Associate Provost Alvin Kernan and Vassar Dean-Elect Nell Eurich. Vassar's responsibility was 'to project the educational design and relationship as well as the structure to support the educational program.' The two staffs began by collecting and exchanging information on such things as course enrolment, classroom usage and load, admission statistics, graduation requirements, and so on. The Vassar staff studied a number of existing coordinate relationships: Harvard-Radcliffe, Columbia-Barnard, Tulane-Sophie Newcomb, and others. The two presidents had successfully petitioned the Carnegie and Ford Foundations for funds to underwrite the study. Each Foundation made a grant of $160,000, much of which was unused and returned when the study was completed.

There was also faculty involvement though not to the full extent which the Faculty considered its prerogative. President Simpson appointed an ad hoc advisory committee of ten faculty members to consult with Dean Eurlich and her staff group. Here the President committed a tactical error which was to haunt him for the duration of the study and beyond, for he overlooked the faculty's right, under the governance of the College, to elect the members of such a committee. This it proceeded to do, and for the next ten months the Dean worked with not one but two faculty advisory committees!

Also, thanks to the insistence and persistence of a number of trustees who were unwilling to concede that the only road for Vassar led to New Haven, the Committee on New Dimensions received an augmented budget and a redefinition of its charge: it would be responsible for the study of alternatives, including (1) the desirability and feasibility of a coordinate college for men in Poughkeepsie; (2) Off-campus experience for Vassar undergraduates; (3) New undergraduate programs; (4) Selected graduate activities; (5) Continuing education for women; (6) New patterns for residential living; (7) The possibility of cooperation with the State University of New York.

For eight months, from January until early September, 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. We attended the April and June meetings of the Alumnae Association, and the February and May meetings of the Board of Trustees, we heard discussed reports of the progress of the two studies. Much of our time and energy was spent fence-mending for President Simpson, whose credibility had been questioned ever since the premature news leak about the Yale study. The President had tried reason and all the arts of persuasion, but had failed to dispell suspicion and resentment in some quarters. This was compounded by what many returning alumnae regarded as a one-sided hard-sell for the Yale alternative during the reunion weekend. Mr. Simpson's address to the Associate Alumnae was taped without his knowledge by some Californians who wanted to be able to replay it for their distant Vassar Club. Unfortunately the tape differed noticeably from the edited version mailed to Alumnae officers around the country. This discrepancy widened the credibility gap. In the view of some unhappy alumnae, the trustees were merely the unwitting pawns of an ambitious hard-driving President, who had set his sights single-mindedly on Yale. Mr. Simpson was aware of this hostility and reacted by speaking tensely and often harshly in addressing formal alumnae meetings. He used his gift for alliteration to excess in referring to “Weeping Winnies and Moaning Minnies.” It was a period of great strain on both sides.

Several times during the summer the Yale administrators arranged tours of New Haven for members of the Vassar Board. We were shown the prospective site available for Vassar, seventeen acres occupied by the Culinary Institute of America, adjacent to the campus of the Yale Divinity School. This was on Prospect Street about a mile from the University Campus, on a hill commanding a view of the city of New Haven and the distant countryside. Additional property on both sides of the street was expected to be available eventually, for a total of about fifty acres, less than a quarter of the space occupied by Vassar in Poughkeepsie. This location would require high-rise cloistered construction as well as shuttle bus service to and from Yale's academic buildings. Edward Barnes, Yale's consulting architect, showed us rough models of his concept of Vassar's buildings. After walking about the site, we were given a regal reception and luncheon at the President's house, where Mr. Brewster 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.

Finally, in mid-September, we received the study reports—three thick volumes—a full ten pounds!—of multilithed pages from the Yale University Printing office, each book impressively inscribed with the name of the trustee for whom it was prepared. And a single, somewhat slimmer volume, mimeographed sheets in a familiar black snap binder from the Committee on New Dimensions.

The first of the Yale volumes contained the report of the Joint Staff Committee on feasibility, indicating with remarkable supportive detail that it would indeed be quite feasible for Yale University to accommodate Vassar College in New Haven. True, some Vassar classes would probably need to be scheduled at other than optimal times of day, and some of the heavily elected courses in each institution might have to be closed for cross-registration, but over-all things could be worked out. If Vassar should insist on having switchboard operators respond to incoming calls with “Vassar College” instead of “Yale University,” there would be additional costs involved, but everything could be managed. Total costs of relocation were roughly estimated to run between seventy-five and eighty million dollars. This volume carried two prefatory letters from Presidents Brewster and Simpson, commending the study and urging its formal adoption.

The most interesting part of the Yale study was contained in the second and third volumes, the Departmental Reports Submitted by the Chairmen or senior representatives of each academic department which Vassar and Yale had in common. In the late spring the two presidents had directed their departmental chairmen to meet with their counterparts and to explore in some depth the possibilities for coordination. They were asked to discuss such specifics as curricular cooperation, physical facilities, and faculty relationships, including the opportunity for members of the Vassar faculty to teach graduate students. In reporting to his President each chairman described his meeting in his own way. One reads these volumes in tandem, from Anthropology and art to Russian, Sociology, and Spanish.

They were fascinating. Again and again, a chairman in either institution began by referring to a conference conducted in complete cordiality and candor. Yet, as one read further, in most reports, certain underlying differences in educational philosophy became apparent.

Vassar writers tended to emphasize a strong commitment to the teaching of undergraduates. The Yale professors, on the other hand, considered this only part—and frequently a secondary part—of their academic responsibility, often subservient to research and graduate teaching.

“The main concern [Vassar's] was the nature of contact between students and teachers. Dr Wright, who has a Yale PhD (1946 Zoology), said that she had chosen to teach at Vassar because she wanted the experience of repeated contact with a given developing undergraduate student on her way through to the senior year. Under the Yale scheme of things, this would probably not be possible: usually only one course contact with a student is made at the undergraduate level. We saw no hope of ameliorating this situation.”
—Yale: Biology, II, p.3

The Vassar report in Biology comments:

I agree with our Yale hosts that certain aspects of undergraduate education would be benefited by a coordination of the efforts of departments. For example, the advantage of being able to participate in a wide variety of seminars and in ongoing research cannot be denied. However, the coordinate situation as we discussed it, i.e. having all courses at Yale, has disadvantages. Perhaps the most serious is that it shifts the emphasis from a small section type of teaching to the large lecture type, not only in the freshman year, but in the sophomore and junior years as well. Yale's Biology II now has 382 students and 2 lecturers who do not teach lab. It is hard to see how there can be much interaction between faculty and students in this type of situation. Furthermore, I do not believe that an instructor who teaches only one three-hour laboratory per week has as great a commitment to the course and to the students as one who does both lecture and lab.

The same two reports offer evidence of an unmistakable condescension on the part of the Yale men toward their Vassar counterparts.

Since only three or four tenured individuals are likely to be involved in the move of the Biology Department of Vassar to New Haven, it seems far simpler and academically desirable to fuse the two departments at the outset. The few Vassarites who would be added to our department could, at worst, constitute a trivial burden, but they would in no way diminish the quality of our department. In a single fused department, any non-tenured staff who chose to come to New Haven would, of course not be reappointed unless they met Yale's standards.
—Yale, Biology, I, p. 2

It became clear that many of the faculty members at Vassar are reluctant to move because of a completely understandable desire not to complicate their lives. They asked: “What can Yale give us that we don't already have?” We mentioned the following: a) Graduate students of good quality and abundant quantity. b) Exciting seminars and vigorous cultural life. c) Strength in depth in almost any of the fields represented by their faculty. d) Decreased teaching loads, increased opportunity for research and better facilities in which to do it.

While they agreed that these arguments were persuasive, they also felt, and made quite clear their feeling, that they would be coming to Yale as a result of an artificial process which would mark many of them as second class citizens for the remainder of their academic lives. While we admitted that this might be true, we also emphasized our desire to accommodate without prejudice all of tenure rank who chose to come, emphasizing that there were many jobs to be done for which their talents are well suited. I think it is fair to say that we did not completely convince them.
—Yale, Biology, II, p. 3

And from the Vassar side:

Another matter discussed briefly was the relative numbers of male and female faculty members at Yale. Professor M. agreed that there is prejudice against women in Universities and admitted quite candidly that he would never hire a woman instead of a man. He suggested that if we were to maintain separate but cooperating departments at Yale, the Vassar department could fill some of its appointments with women scientists.

And, following a favorable comment on the Yale opportunity for the pursuit of individual research interest,

However, it seemed to me that the Yale department did not offer our faculty members status. Although we were invited to teach undergraduates, it was as laboratory instructors, not as directors or co-directors of courses. The implication of this is that In going to Yale, Vassar faculty, some of whom have long and distinguished teaching records as well as good research productivity, would move from a situation where they have respect and affection to where they would have to compete with instructors for a place in the sun. This could only have a demoralizing effect which would surely influence performance unfavorably.
—Vassar, Biology, p.7

One detects a note of condescension in many of the Yale reports!

Members of the Yale Department of Art suggested at first that “a room in the Yale museum might be put aside and designated as the “Vassar Room; where a portion of our collection might be permanently shown (and changed according to need). 1 After Yale visited our department, and our collection was seen, the tenor of thought shifted in the direction of our having our own museum. Many donors and alumnae have given gifts of money or works of art to the Vassar Gallery because they wished to give us a small museum that serves primarily a teaching function. It should be foreseen that owing to the vast resources of Yale, these donors will not sustain their interest in enlarging the Vassar collection. To make the point in exaggerated form, no donor can be expected to be interested in having his gift to Vassar stored in the Yale basement.
—Vassar, Art, pp. 6-7

The Yale Drama Department spokesman observed, “It seems clear to all of us that the presence of both men and women on campus can do no harm to any serious drama program.
—Yale, Drama, p. 1

From the Yale Department of Mathematics:

In order to achieve a harmonious and congenial single mathematics community, free from second-class citizens (which is the situation in the Yale Mathematics Department at the present time and is one of Its most attractive features), it will be essential to transform the present Vassar faculty to a research-oriented one.
—Yale, Mathematics, p. 3

The same writer concluded with a gratuitous and prophetic note to Mr. Brewster:

I should like to conclude this report with a final strictly personal postscript which, I hope, is not out of place. My first reaction on hearing of the possibility of a union of Yale and Vassar was one of enthusiastic approval. I am 100 percent for co-education at the undergraduate level and believe that separate education for the two sexes in our present day culture is an anachronism. However, the more I have thought of the proposed Vassar-Yale “marriage” and considered the problems of joining a university with a liberal arts college, the less enthusiastic I have become. For Yale I believe the best way to achieve co-education is simply to admit women!

One lighter note: it was amusing to discover that members of various intellectual disciplines tended to express themselves in characteristic language Thus, the Vassar geologists wrote of the “erosion of the Vassar that we have here”; Yale psychologists noted “anxiety... and a sense of threat” in their Vassar colleagues. So did a Yale biologist, who wrote, “It appears that one of the major lessons they carried away from this meeting was ‘There is no room at the inn.’ Our failure to indicate that they would be completely welcome in our existing buildings apparently impressed them badly. I can only conclude that their basic insecurity about the move caused a selective remembrance of unfavorable impressions.”

My favorite among these expressions comes from the Yale Professor of English, who wrote: “It is of course obvious to anyone that certain tariffs would have to be erected for a period of years, since a spell-binder in one area of literature, whether a member of our department or of theirs, would draw all students like Cleopatra coming down the river in her barge, leaving Antony whistling to the wind.”

My impression was that the Departmental reports indicated a need for considerably more space and equipment for the two institutions, whatever the nature of their cooperation, than the Joint Staff Committees had recognized in their study. If so, this was simply another example of the perennial tug-of-war between faculty and administration!

The report of the Committee on New Dimensions described the various options available to Vassar in Poughkeepsie in less precise but highly optimistic terms. To some extent, I suppose this freed the trustees to indulge in their individual preferences, to glean “selective” impressions. The report outlined the possibilities of a more flexible curriculum, with many options for off-campus study and experience, the introduction of men, in either a coordinate or coeducational setting. It described two graduate institutes, each rooted in long term Vassar interests—one for the study of Man and His Environment, the other for the Advancement of Teaching. It spoke of cooperative relationships with other institutions including SUNY, as well as with “progressive interests In the mid-Hudson Valley in the development of the region.”

The cost of implementing these alternatives was estimated to fall within a range of fifty to seventy-five million dollars.

The trustees had a week in which to digest these two reports before gathering in New York on September 23 for the first of five fortnightly meetings.

At the outset we agreed that relative costs would not affect our deliberation. Either alternative would be expensive. Vassar's future should be settled on the basis of educational policy rather than financial expediency.

President Simpson spoke eloquently of his strong conviction that the Yale affiliation offered the best hope for Vassar's future: it would be “the best solution to the problem of coeducation, the best, most brilliant solution for the problem of limited academic resources, the best protection for Vassar's identity, in an age in which that identity was very likely to change, the best place in which to continue our commitment to undergraduate education and to the special needs of women.” He spoke of the risks, the sacrifice of the beautiful and spacious campus, the possible threat to a separate Vassar faculty. Questioned specifically about our ability to maintain the latter, he said he thought this could be preserved but was quietly contradicted by a trustee member of one of the Study Committees, who reminded him that the committee had agreed at its last meeting (without predicting a time table) that eventually the two faculties would have to be merged.

We reviewed in more detail the legal and financial questions of the previous December—and the additional fact that the consent of the New York State Regents would be required in order to dissolve Vassar as an educational corporation. If the Board of Regents refused its consent the college would be powerless to act in opposition. It was pointed out that it would take a certain number of years to design and build a new campus and that we could not act until we had cleared the Regents and most of the anticipated restraining legislation—a matter of several years at best. How might that affect the morale of students—present and prospective, not to mention faculty—and alumnae?

There was a chance for questions.

“Tell me,” asked our thoughtful judge, “is Yale as conventional and stuffy as its reports make it seem?”

“Or is it stuffier?” interjected another trustee.

“Yale is responsible for its own image in these reports,” replied Dean Eurich crisply.

Once more the President urged the Yale move: “We have a choice between being first-rate with the risk of being dependent and being independent and second rate.”

Once more he was challenged. First by Mr. Stratton, then by the judge: “Isn't that a narrow spectrum of excellence? Let's not go to Yale to save our eminence. Maybe let's go to save theirs, but better—to bust them up! One thing that haunts me, damnit, is that you don't liquidate colleges! Who knows? The original Vassar may be the Berkeley of the year 2000. I think the question is a lot wider than you think Alan.”

Essentially, as we discussed it over the next few weeks, the choice narrowed itself to the removal—lock stock, and barrel—of the college and its transferable assets to Yale and New Haven, or remaining in Poughkeepsie and undertaking a massive program of curricular revitalization and physical renovation By mid-October, Mr. Wilkie, whose calm, courtly, eminently fair presiding did so much to guide us through these tempestuous meetings, reported to the Board that half the trustees had told him they had made up their minds on the basic issues and were ready to come to a decision. On the basis of his informal head count, he doubted that the Board could muster the necessary two-thirds majority required for the decision to proceed to move.

Mr. Simpson continued to press for Yale and for more time to continue that study and marshal more persuasive arguments. Sensing coalescing opposition, he assured the trustees that he would support whichever decision was made with “enthusiasm and vigor.” He reminded us that we must anticipate the complaint we would get from people who would say, “You've never given us a chance to say 'Yes' to Yale.” He thought the alumnae had had their chance: “My heart would not bleed for them.” He was still smoldering over alumna Dorothy Sieberling's explosive Life article, “How Date They Do It!” which had appeared the previous week. Charging that Vassar had caught Yale on the re-bound, after Connecticut College for Women had rejected a prior invitation to come to New Haven, the story had voiced all the doubts of the past ten months, substantiating in living color the contrast between Vassar's pastoral and New Haven's urban settings. Both Presidents considered this article an inaccurate, dastardly, possibly fatal blow to the Yale-Vassar cause. It was repeatedly muttered at Yale that this could never have happened had Henry Luce been alive! Mr. Brewster and Hedley Donovan exchanged salty letters in which Mr. Donovan defended Life and the accuracy of its story quite convincingly. (These letters were not printed).

I am convinced that the Life article had no effect on the trustee decision. It undoubtedly relieved the feelings of many aggrieved alumnae, to whom it offered confirmation and apparent vindication of long held doubts. But the trustees had far more substantial and detailed, If less colorful information on which to base a decision.

Somewhat belatedly, the President recognized the obligation to consult the faculty, via its senior elected committee. He hinted that a decision adverse to Yale might cause an explosion among students, though he conceded that it was probable that a smaller number now favored the Yale move than had cheered it a year ago.

The meetings of October 19-20 marked the high tide of our debate. At that time we agreed that the adoption of one of the two alternatives would mean the termination of the other, although there was considerable enthusiasm for a last-ditch effort to salvage some part of the Yale alternative by establishing a Vassar outpost, a small experimental college, In New Haven, while keeping the main base in Poughkeepsie. The theory was that this compromise would give Vassar the best of two worlds. However the Yale Corporation declined that suggestion in short order, saying that a Vassar unit of 500-600 students would not meet Yale's expressed goal of a group of 1500-1600 women undergraduates. Yale also questioned (as did a number of Vassar trustees) Vassar's ability to mount a creditable effort at a distance when its primary focus of Interest and funding would be in Poughkeepsie.

Our next meeting, November 8, was devoted to precise definition of each of our two alternatives and the nature of the statement to be made about the adoption of one or the other. On November 20 we met once more, to record unanimously our preference for Alternative A - Vassar in Poughkeepsie, and to pass appropriate resolutions of wholehearted appreciation to Yale for the unique opportunity it had afforded us.

A Statement by the Trustees of Vassar College

After a year's deliberation over the various proposals for the future of Vassar College, the Board of Trustees has decided that the college should remain in its birthplace.

Confronted by an exhilarating choice between establishing itself as a coordinate college of Yale University in New Haven, and expanding its responsibilities as a center of liberal education on its 950-acre campus in Poughkeepsie, the Trustees have chosen the latter course.

They believe that two distinguished institutions, each engaged in expanding its reach through its own invention, will serve the interests of higher education better than one.

They are confident that an investment of creative energy and resources equal to that required by relocation will enlarge Vassar's capacities while preserving its special values.

The decision has been influenced by loyalty to a place as spacious and beautiful as ours, by confidence in the future of our region, by the desire to be mistress in our own house, by our commitment to the education of women, and by faith in the originality of the Vassar spirit in the discovery of new paths to excellence.

The Board is presenting Vassar's faculty with proposals for a new program to be implemented as quickly as plans can be worked out and funds provided.
—November 20, 1967

Even after five years, this has been an extraordinarily difficult account to write, and it is admittedly the personal perspective of a single trustee. 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. What would have become of the contemplated high-rise cloisters under the assault of contemporary undergraduate living preferences? After a sequestered freshman year on the old campus, Yale's undergraduate women are housed side by side with the men in the residential colleges.

The Vassar trustees agreed then (and still believe) that we made the harder and more ambitious choice. Yale would have offered a certain protection—as well as instant coeducation. An independent Vassar has had its growing pains and will take several more years to achieve parity in coeducation—and longer than that to achieve the full spectrum of educational possibilities suggested in our proposal to the faculty. Curricular reform and innovation are firmly and appealingly established. So, perhaps unwisely, is social freedom. Today's students, who entered college in the fall of 1969 or later, are only dimly aware of the strains of the year of decision.

It was undeniably a costly year. In addition to the outlay in dollars, it had an incalculable price in intangibles, especially in erosion of the quality of the relationship between the college and its alumnae specifically, between the President and the alumnae.

The capital campaign initiated to raise funds to support Vassar's future in Poughkeepsie has brought in an impressive amount—over thirty-three million dollars, though more slowly and in lesser amounts from fewer alumnae than one would hope. A disappointing number have simply refused to contribute at all, claiming that even though Vassar is still in Poughkeepsie, the President and the trustees betrayed its heritage when they decided to admit men. On his side, the President still blames the alumnae for the defeat of the Yale plan. Certainly their attitudes were a large and important factor, but not an overriding one.

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 obsolesence. One does not liquidate a living college!