President's Page

A Living History

By Catharine Hill
From the first moment I stepped onto the Vassar campus more than five years ago, like so many others before and since, I felt a powerful sense of our college’s history. Elsewhere in this world, one hears about the “burdens,” even the “dead weight” of history, but not at our college. At Vassar, our history is a living, breathing entity that constantly informs our present.

Main Building initially constituted the entire college—classrooms, offices, residences—and today remains the heart of the campus. The observatory that was built for Vassar’s first faculty member and was the site of her famous “dome parties” for students is now the home of the Judith Loeb Chiara ’49 Center at the Maria Mitchell Observatory. The building houses an education department that plays a pivotal role in continuing and augmenting the college’s outreach to the surrounding Poughkeepsie community. Swift Hall, as home to the History Department, evokes the memory of Lucy Maynard Salmon, who taught her students to “go to the source” by finding history not only in official documents but also in the commonplace, examining everyday items such as laundry lists—a radical approach to the teaching of history in the late 19th century that is still pursued and honored in the teaching of history at Vassar today. Do you know of any other institution of higher learning that has, as we do in Betty Daniels ’41, a working college historian who graduated from the school 70 years ago?

If the college’s history teaches us anything, it is that Vassar is and has been, from its inception, a dynamic, ever-changing institution—even as it has created and sustained its own traditions, ranging from the Daisy Chain to Founder’s Day.

Given such a context, it is a delight for me to preside over Vassar’s year-long 150th birthday celebration. What’s particularly gratifying is the excitement the Sesquicentennial has generated on campus and among our alumnae/i. During the first two weeks of the new term, a dazzling array of on-campus activities was organized around the “Sesqui” observance. These included the inauguration of new, anniversary-related exhibitions at both the library and the newly reopened Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, as well as the first staged production of an opera by our own noted composer and pianist, Professor Richard Wilson. These festivities culminated in an all-campus birthday party with performances highlighting the acting and singing talents of many of our students, and a Sesquicentennial Birthday Cake Bake-Off.

Like those who came before them, our current students care deeply about the college and its traditions (which include, at times, the traditions of dissent and protest!). They provide the true raison d’être for something else that was announced on the 150th anniversary of our chartering—the Vassar 150: World Changing campaign, radical in its simplicity and true to our founding spirit.

The first thing comes to mind when one hears the word “campaign” in relation to college fund raising is buildings, and we do have a most impressive and exciting new building in the works; you can read about the integrated science center in architectural writer (and 1969 graduate) Beth Dunlop’s article. But as important as the new science center will be, this campaign at its heart is about our faculty, and above all our students. The most wonderful academic building has meaning only in relation to how well it supports the research, teaching, and study that goes on inside.

Vassar was founded on the very principle of providing access to a first-rate education to those who previously had been denied the opportunity. In 1861, those students were young women. Going foward, they will be bright, promising young women and men whose financial resources ordinarily would preclude their chance to receive a Vassar education. It is incumbent upon us  to create those opportunities, and also to ensure that every Vassar student has access to the full range of extraordinary resources our college has to offer. When we make access to all of that possible, we work entirely within the spirit of our founder—and once again, history comes full circle.

Catharine Hill, President