Changing of the Board: Richard Van Demark '77

By Samantha Soper '91

In 1982, a 27-year-old Vassar graduate named Richard Van Demark ’77 was asked to join the prestigious Vassar Board of Trustees. How he was tapped to be a “young trustee” remains a mystery to Van Demark; but he eagerly accepted the position. This year, after 22 years of service he will retire from the board.

Often described as quiet and unassuming, Van Demark nonetheless will leave a great impact on the college. Born and raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he followed in the footsteps of his sister Ruth ’66 and enrolled at Vassar in fall 1973. He spent all four years living in Main House the last right above the Dean of Studies Office, then led by Professor of English Colton Johnson. It was when Van Demark was a student that Johnson first met him and grew to respect and admire him. Van Demark graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa economics major and went on to advanced degrees in business from the University of Chicago and law from Northwestern University. Years later, when Johnson was dean of the college, he “learned a great deal from Richard’s careful stewardship as chair of the budget and finance committee [on the board of trustees]—his intelligence was superb, his positions clear and principled, and his love and respect for Vassar unmistakable.”

The last 10 years of Van Demark’s service have been as board chair, a position that requires an incredible number of hours and level of attention. The charge of the board of trustees is to ensure the long-term health of the college, and it is the chair’s duty to lead that board efficiently and effectively. Some of the issues that face the college, and therefore the board, include tuition affordability, attracting and retaining faculty, the fiscal health of the college, and the physical campus. For each decision that must be made, Van Demark looks toward the long-term effects and outcomes.

For example in October the board of trustees toured the college’s science facilities to assess specific needs. “I think the real issue with science is that it’s not just a matter of the physical building, but also the broader resource and capital issues,” Van Demark observes. “Demands for new equipment and technology are very high in the sciences; so we really have to take a balanced approach, to make sure that we are making a serious effort to provide first-class science education to the students. It’s a real challenge, but that’s always been my focus when you take on an initiative: ‘Is it balanced and sustainable?’” In addition to strategic thinking, when faced with a challenge Van Demark employs the Vassar methodology of collaboration. “We work with the faculty, students, and any affected groups, and that’s terribly important,” he says. A faculty member and a student observer sit on the board of trustees. And under Van Demark’s leadership the AAVC president, in addition to being a college trustee, is now part of the board’s executive committee.

Photo of Richard Van Demark '77
Photo of Richard Van Demark '77
Those who have worked closely with Van Demark praise his focus and dedication to the college. Former chair of the board of trustees James Kautz admires Van Demark’s intelligence and wise judgment, but “most importantly, his splendid partnership with President Fergusson. Together they have taken Vassar from good to great to premier.” In weekly telephone calls and numerous campus visits with Van Demark, Fergusson has developed a close friendship with him. She says, “For the past 10 years, Richard and I have been true colleagues. He, of course, is concerned with the fiscal health of the college, but everything that he does, says, and suggests is also informed by a strong sense of our values and our culture as an institution. He rests his faith in the faculty, and he takes pride in the students. He is always there for me, to listen, to render advice, to talk out thorny issues that must be addressed. He assumes responsibility with grace, dealing effectively with people and policies, never losing his cool or failing to be empathetic with the concerns of others. Richard is one of the most estimable people I know, a true friend of Vassar and to me, personally. We owe him so much more than most people will ever begin to know.”

Though he still had two years remaining on his four-year term as chair, Van Demark feels the time is right for a transition—for the college and for himself. With Fergusson’s presidency ending this year, it’s important that a new chair of the board is in place for the next president because “the relationship between the chair and the president is critical.” (In 2006 William Plapinger ’74, co-chair of the Presidential Search Committee, will assume Van Demark’s position.) And personally, Van Demark is ready to refocus his attention back home with his family and work as a financial consultant. With at least five campus visits, executive committee meetings in New York City, and numerous conference calls in between, “You have to be semi-retired to do this job,” says Van Demark, though he shrugs off the hours he has devoted to his “job” at Vassar by stating simply, “It’s a lot of fun.”

Van Demark’s commitment of his time and energy has not gone unnoticed. Professor of Classics and Former Assistant to the President Robert Pounder says, “With humor, infinite tact, and stunning loyalty, Richard has devoted countless hours to the betterment of his alma mater. No alumnus has done more.” Classmate and current trustee Monica Vachher ’77 agrees, “He is always available—willing to take calls at virtually any hour, from trustees, administration and faculty members, students and parents; willing to travel around the country for fundraising and alumnae/i programs; willing to attend conferences focusing on issues important to Vassar; and willing to undertake virtually anything else that might be helpful to Vassar.... Vassar would be a very different place without his guidance.”

Though modest about his own contributions, his service won’t be unrecognized. AAVC has announced that Van Demark will be the recipient of the 2006 Award for Outstanding Service to Vassar. “At this time, when we are looking back on 20 years of President Fergusson’s tenure, we are also reflecting on how Vassar has changed. Richard, through his amazing, constant, and committed service as a leader, must share some credit for all of the growth and excellence we celebrate,” said AAVC Awards Committee Chair Meg Venecek Johnson ’84.

Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College Awards Program

AAVC started its awards program in 2001 to recognize alumnae/i who have contributed much to the vitality and success of Vassar and AAVC over many years and have inspired generations of Vassar alumnae/i. AAVC currently bestows three awards annually.

The Award for Outstanding Service to Vassar College is presented to an alumna/us in recognition of her or his extraordinary commitment, leadership, and service in promoting the goals and highest interests of Vassar College and AAVC. The award honors outstanding contributions made over a number of years in any or all of these volunteer capacities: class, club, and committee activities; fundraising; enriching campus life; or stewardship as board members, trustees, or donors. Outstanding Service Award winners are ambassadors on behalf of Vassar College to the alumnae/i, and to the larger community.

The Award for Distinguished Achievement is presented to an alumna/us who has reached the highest level in her or his field, including the professions, science, the arts, and public affairs. While demonstrating exceptional talent, application, creativity, and skill within a certain career, this individual must at the same time exemplify the ideals of a liberal arts education and have used her or his position of visibility, power, or leadership to better the human community and serve the wider goals of society.

The Spirit of Vassar Award is given to an individual or group whose volunteer efforts, directed toward Vassar or another worthy cause, exemplify an enduring spirit of community and caring.

To read more about AAVC’s Awards Program or to nominate someone for an award, visit www.aavc.vassar.edu/aavc/awards.html