POUGHKEEPSIE, NY—When the New York State Legislature passed “An Act to Incorporate Vassar Female College” on January 18, 1861, the world’s first college to provide comprehensive higher education to women was officially founded. Less than two months later, on April 12, 1861, the first shot of the U.S. Civil War was fired at the Union-controlled Fort Sumter in South Carolina. On April 9, 1865, Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, VA and by September 26 of that year the first 353 students—including one Civil War widow—were welcomed to Poughkeepsie, NY to attend the eventually renamed Vassar College.
Vassar became a co-educational college in 1969 and today enrolls more than 2,400 students (approximately sixty percent women and forty percent men). At the sesquicentennial of its founding Vassar continues to distinguish itself in a wide variety of ways, including as:
Throughout 2011 Vassar will celebrate its sesquicentennial with a series of special exhibitions, performances, lectures, and related academic activities, including an international conference on the Pulitzer-winning poet and Vassar alumna Elizabeth Bishop, with more information available a special website). On January 18, 2011, Vassar will also publicly announce “Vassar 150: World Changing,” a major fundraising campaign whose $400 million goal will include an ambitious new science facility among its priorities. Vassar's previous major campaign was completed in 1996 and raised $206 million, then a record total for a liberal arts college.
Liberal Arts Roots and Principles
-- missing curfews and chasing eclipses to “Go to the source”
Vassar College offered women for the first time a complete college curriculum, spanning studies in English literature and composition, Latin and Greek, French, German, philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, geography, botany, zoology, and physiology.
This set the stage for the college's hallmark liberal arts curriculum, encompassed now in more than 1,000 courses and offered through 45 academic departments and degree programs ranging from Africana Studies, Anthropology, and Biochemistry, to Chinese and Japanese, English, Environmental Studies, Neuroscience and Behavior, Religion, and Urban Studies.
When Matthew Vassar hired internationally renowned astronomer Maria Mitchell to be the college's first professor, he spoke to key academic tenets that continue to guide Vassar 150 years later. Mitchell was able to continue her research in the newly built state-of-the-art Vassar Observatory, and once teaching, “Maria insisted that students learn astronomy by doing astronomy, a tradition that is upheld today at Vassar,” wrote astronomy professor Debra Elmegreen, the recently elected president of the American Astronomical Society. “By asking whether students had observed something or merely read it in a book, she imparted the importance of gleaning knowledge actively rather than passively. She was legendary for keeping young women up past curfew to make late observations and in the late 1880s she made two cross-country trips with her students to view solar eclipses.”
Similarly, history professor and department founder Lucy Maynard Salmon insisted that Vassar students “Go to the source,” articulating what has become the guiding credo of a Vassar education. Matthew Vassar helped the college begin to provide students ready access to primary source materials with his purchase of the Reverend Elias Lyman Magoon’s art collection – the more than 3,800 works included paintings by such important Hudson River School artists Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Sanford Gifford that are now cornerstone works at Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The Archives and Special Collections Library is another primary resource the college has intensively developed. The library’s rarest holdings include several pages from one of the few Gutenberg Bibles printed in 1455, as well as a late draft of the U.S. Constitution. It holds the papers of such famed writers as Vassar alumnae Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elizabeth Bishop—both Pulitzer Prize winners—as well as those of Albert Einstein and Mark Twain.
The Vassar curriculum's emphasis on primary sources and learning-by-doing has led to over three hundred students each year working individually with faculty as paid research assistants or academic interns. Students and faculty work closely together in Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) and its Ford Scholars Program. Each summer since 1986 URSI has provided a 10-week intensive opportunity for approximately 50 Vassar students to conduct original hands-on scientific research under the direction of a faculty member. Students in the Ford Scholars Program become junior partners in professional scholarship, course preparation, and teaching-related research with Vassar professors in the humanities and social sciences.
Expanding Access to Higher Education
Vassar continues to build on its founding principle of expanded access to higher education by adhering to a need-blind admissions policy—considering applicants without regard for their financial situation, and then meeting 100% of the full demonstrated need of all admitted students for all four years they attend. As a result, currently more than 60 percent of Vassar’s new freshmen receive financial aid from the college, with over $35 million provided to the overall student body this academic year, amounting to more than a quarter of Vassar’s operating budget. “This level of aid certainly challenges the resources of the college. We rise to the challenge because access and diversity contribute immeasurably to the mission of the college and to the strength of our teaching and learning,” said Catharine Hill, Vassar College’s tenth president, who began leading the institution in July 2006.
The Vassar curriculum is broad and flexible, requiring students to make choices about their course of study. The college's nearly 280 full-time faculty members—top scholars, artists, and practitioners in their fields—all hold a doctorate or its equivalent and teach at all levels of the curriculum. Over the decades the curriculum has expanded to include additional areas of study and to allow for new disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches. The college was among the first to offer courses in drama, psychology, and Russian, for example, and it began experimenting with interdepartmental courses in the early 1900s.
Today, Vassar's liberal arts curriculum includes:
Internationally Accomplished Graduates
The more than 34,000 living alumnae and alumni of Vassar College include renowned scholars, writers, social leaders, educators, performers, entrepreneurs, journalists, inventors, public servants, attorneys, and executives. Three graduates, materials scientist and archaeologist Heather Lechtman (1984), environmental health researcher and advocate Ellen Silbergeld (1993), and astrophysicist John Carlstrom (1998) are recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, and two, Maura Abeln (1977) and Rachel Simmons (1996), are Rhodes Scholars.
Vassar’s distinguished alumnae and alumni also include:
Distinguished and Distinctive Facilities
The opening of Main Building in 1865 as the largest building in the U. S. (156,572 sq. ft.) proclaimed Matthew Vassar’s ambitions for his college. At the same time the college has never relied on a predominant architectural style among its more than 50 major buildings. “Vassar, in the college’s determination to be always of its time, gave much more stylistic freedom, asking only that they produce their best," wrote president emerita Frances Daly Fergusson, an architectural historian. Green and open spaces are as central to Vassar’s physical identity. The 1,000-acre campus is maintained as an arboretum with more than 200 varieties of specimen trees, a native plant preserve, a 280-acre ecological preserve, and a Shakespeare Garden.
Among the campus's many distinct features are:
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.