Vassar Stands Alone... And Likes It
Girls Weekend Away, Try to Be Informal
In 1861 a wealthy English brewer in Poughkeepsie, New York, decided that "woman, having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as man, should have the same right as man to intellectual culture and development." Four years later Vassar Female College opened its doors to 353 students, and three years after that, Matthew Vassar died while reading his farewell report to the board of trustees.
Since the first four girls were graduated in 1867, the $400,000 gift of the foresighted brewer has fizzed over into a college of 1400 students, 200 faculty members, 37 buildings, 900 acres, and 16,000 living alumnae.
Vassar girls pursue intellectual culture and development in a relatively lonely corner of the world, and this geographic fact has had considerable influence upon the traditional life of the college. The academic side dominates the student's relationship to Vassar, and the highly organized extra-curricular activities consume much of the rest of her time during the week. But on weekends, the blue jeans, sneakers, dirty shirts, and text-books disappear, and so do most of the students.
In busses, trains, and hired taxis, they speed off to New Haven, Cambridge, Princeton, Williamstown, and New York City. Several times a year the procedure is reversed, and Poughkeepsie is flooded with dates for the class party weekends and special dances.
The Whole Woman
While the administration encourages the weekend exodus--witness the abolition of Saturday classes last year--it realizes that it is responsible for almost all the student's waking hours at least five days a week. The emphasis goes to personal relationships between faculty and students and to extracurricular activities.
With one faculty member to every seven students, it is not surprising that most students, according to a recent poll, feel they are personally well known to at least one faculty member, and over half to at least three. The poll was the work of Dr. Carl Binger '10, head of Vassar's Mellon Foundation, set up in 1949 by a gift of $2,000,000. A preliminary report came out in November, and the results were just about what had been expected.
The 250-page report, conducted over 12 months by the Research Center for Human Relations at New York University, and based on polls of students, faculty, and alumnae, attempted to describe the "social climate" of a residential college.
The Personnal Touch
The most commonly-mentioned source of "good experiences" at Vassar is the academic life, and good students have a better time than poor, though the grades themselves are not a deciding factor. Personal relationships are the keynote of satisfaction at Vassar, and students prefer to be treated by faculty as individuals, rather than as students of particular subjects.
This informality is highly prized in the classroom as well, where students demand a great proportion of time be held for discussion, while faculty hope to increase independence of assignments and class participation.
Four out of five Vassar girls belong to some extra-curricular activity. Art, dramatics, athletics, politics, and journalism are well represented; but Vassar, more than any other college, reflects the modern trend toward bureaucracy. The massive and intricate College Government Association (described in an article on page four), is the latest development in a history of over 75 years of some form of student government. C.G.A. includes a senate, legislative assembly, supreme court, and subordinate bodies extending as deep into undergraduate life as a police department and a traffic court, which handles bicycle violations.
Two Weekly Papers
Other remarkable features of extra-curricular life are the existence of two weekly news-papers and an elaborate "census" system (described on page three) which rates and regulates membership and office holding in the undergraduate organizations.
The Vassar Miscellany News is published Wednesdays and the Vassar Chronicle comes out on Saturdays, but apart from editorial disagreement there are few other differences between the two.
In a representative week (the third in February) "Misc" led with the inaugural production of the Vassar Radio Workshop, scheduled for Saturday; the second lead story concerned Soph Party, and annual original musical comedy scheduled for Friday and Saturday. The Chronicle on Saturday led with Soph Party and relegated the radio story to second position. Within the normal range of Vassar opinion, however, "Misc" is considered left of center and Chronicle somewhat conservative. The divergence is hardly startling.
Surprisingly Democratic Society
Students and alumnae told the Mellon pollers that in "extra-curricular activities the community favors students with certain types of backgrounds." This oblique suspicion of snobbery was dispelled by the report.
Analysis showed that economic, geographic, and religious background plays no appreciable role in campus politics. It showed too that 43 percent of scholarship students hold organizational office as opposed to 34 percent of non-scholarship holders.
The economic and snobbery problems arise rather in the dating pattern, for it obviously requires a little extra money to leave college for weekends or even to invite dates to Poughkeepsie. This is bound to cause a certain amount of social cleavage; for the girls who go to football games in the fall and New York night clubs in the winter inevitably build up a store of experience and reminiscence which excludes the less favored and causes a rumbling of social jealousy.
On the whole, a truer picture of the makeup of Vassar society is given by the fact that while 135 of the 250 schools whose graduates now attend Vassar are public, only a little over 17 percent of the students receive scholarship aid. The first figure is distorted by the larger number of girls from each of the private schools represented in the college.
While Vassar resents being referred to as a school for the daughters of Park Avenue, the dominance of New York City is betrayed by the statistic that exactly half the enrollment comes from the North Atlantic states, and only 20 percent each from the New England and North Central areas. Ten percent are Southerners, and the remainder are Westerners and foreigners.
The "all-inclusive" tuition charge is $1600 a year--due for a raise soon--which is $300 over the normal sum of annual Harvard term bills. Art, music, and dramatic training require extra fees. Thus with less than a fifth of the school on scholarship, with $800 the outside limit on short term loans, and with the "self help" program not expected to net any student quite $200 a year, Vassar College is not troubled with too noticeable economic stratification.
The Brewer Again
The official educational philosophy of Vassar College "is based on the conviction that a liberal arts training at a residential college is the best educational plan yet developed for the fulfillment of individual potentialities and as preparation for useful citizenship."
This statement is quite close to Matthew Vassar's conception of Vassar as an "institution which shall accomplish for young women what our colleges are accomplishing for young men."
To the outsider, Vassar seems full of attractive, friendly girls, interested in personal relationships and the world around them, socially among the most consciously sophisticated, but intellectually among the most healthy naive.
To the student, Vassar is a reasonably happy place to prepare for a life centered in family and community, a good life and a contribution to society. One might even say that the good Matthew's formula has produced a tasty brew.