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Country's 1st Women's College Celebrates 150 Yrs

 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:

  • The first college established with a teaching collection of original art works (now numbering over 18,000 including pieces by Rembrandt, Picasso, O'Keeffe, Pollock and other masters);

  • The first college to grant an undergraduate degree in Cognitive Science (1983);

  • A college whose graduates have won 12 Pulitzer prizes, including the 2009 journalism prize for public service (one Pulitzer in fiction, one in drama, one in biography/autobiography, three in poetry, three in journalism, and three in history);

  • The institution Time Magazine/Princeton Review cited as the College of the Year in 1999 for the Exploring Transfer program that boosts promising community college students;

  • One of the top ten liberal arts colleges annually since 2004 for graduates earning the most Fulbright fellowships;

  • The college which in 2010 had both an alumna awarded the U.S. Presidential Citizen's Medal as well as 80 freshmen enroll as the first person in their family to attend college.

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 Bishopboth Pulitzer Prize winnersas 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.

Evolving Academics

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:

  • The Experimental Theater: After professor Hallie Flanagan’s 14-month European study tour of modern theater, she launched the Experimental Theater in 1927 with an unconventional production of Anton Chekhov’s “A Marriage Proposal.” By 1933 T.S. Eliot had attended Vassar’s world premiere of his “Sweeney Agonistes” and The Experimental Theater had produced Euripides’ “Hippolytus” in ancient Greek.

  • Field Work: Since the 1930s, as a complement to Vassar’s departmental curricula, faculty members have supervised students’ examination of how theories and the practical experiences of a particular discipline interact. Every year hundreds of students earn Field Work credit interning with a variety of organizations, agencies, and professionals, whether locally, regionally, or as far away as New York City.

  • Greenhaven Prison Program: Led since 1979 by Lawrence Mamiya, a professor of religion and Africana Studies, this course combines discussions among Vassar students and inmates at New York’s Greenhaven maximum-security prison with class meetings on campus to examine issues such as race, class, stereotypes, and economic opportunity. An annual campus gathering reunites Vassar alumnae/i of the course and former Greenhaven inmates.

  • Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory (IRRL): Established in 2004 by biology, computer science, and psychology professors in the college's Cognitive Science Program through a major National Science Foundation grant and matching Vassar funds. The lab makes possible simulations and tests of complex systems, and supports a variety of faculty and student research.

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:

  • Nancy Dye ’69, president emerita of Oberlin College.

  • Crystal Eastman 1903, wrote the first worker’s compensation law and co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union.

  • Darys Estrella ’92, head of the Dominican Stock Exchange.

  • Jeffrey Goldstein ’77, U.S. Treasury undersecretary and former World Bank managing director.

  • Nancy Graves ’61, first woman to present a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

  • Phil Griffin ’79, president of MSNBC cable television network.

  • Dr. Bernadine Healy ’65, first woman to head the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

  • Grace Hopper ’28, U.S. Navy rear admiral and computing pioneer who coined the term “computer bug” and whose compiler program created the basis for subroutines and other digital computing advancements.

  • Gladys Hobby ’31, microbiologist who brewed the first batch of penicillin tested on humans.

  • Huang Hung ’84, entrepreneur, journalist, and cultural guru who writes one of China’s most widely read blogs.

  • Rick Lazio ’80, U.S. Congressman from New York State.

  • Nancy Harkness Love ‘35, pilot who convinced the U.S. Air Force to create the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) during WWII, and who went on to command the WAFS and the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

  • Paula Madison ’74, first African-American woman to run a network-owned TV station in a top five media market.

  • Vicki Miles-LaGrange ’74, Chief U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Oklahoma.

  • Lucinda Franks Morgenthau ’68, first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and a former New York Times staff reporter.

  • Pauline Newman ’47, Circuit Court Judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal District.

  • Linda Nochlin ’51, art historian and professor famed for her 1971 article “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

  • Eben Ostby ’77, co-developed the Pixar animation system used to make “Toy Story,” the first full-length animated feature film created entirely on computers.

  • Elizabeth Titus Putnam ’55, Student Conservation Association founder and U.S. Presidential Citizen's Medal winner.

  • Ellen Swallow Richards 1874, sanitary chemist who produced the world’s first water purity tables and the first state water quality standards in the U.S.

  • Richard Roberts ’74, U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Columbia.

  • Vera Cooper Rubin ’48, astrophysicist who proved the existence of “Dark Matter”, which can't be detected by its emitted radiation but can be inferred from its gravitational effects on stars and galaxies.

  • Rev. Petero Sabune ’77, Africa Partnership Officer for the Episcopal Church and former chaplain of the Sing Sing maximum-security prison.

  • Jane Smiley ’71, Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

  • Meryl Streep ’71, two-time Academy Award winner for acting and 16-time nominee.

  • Dr. Claudia Thomas ’71, first African-American female orthopedic surgeon and a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

  • Sau Lan Wu ’63, physicist who has played a key role in identifying two of the seventeen subatomic particles said to explain everything known about matter.

  • Ethan Zohn ’96, co-founder of the Grassroot Soccer program for AIDS prevention in Africa.

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:

  • Main Building (1865), complemented by the College Center (1975): Main housed the entire college when Vassar began, other than the Vassar Observatory completed the prior year. With the 64,000 sq. ft. College Center addition to Main’s rear wing, the combined structure continues to be the hub of campus life, from administrative offices to three dormitory floors, a cafeteria, bookstore, art gallery, and nightclub.

  • Thompson Memorial Library (1905), an aggregate of five libraries most recently complemented by the Martha Rivers and E. Bronson Ingram Library addition (2001): Thompson Library remains one of the world’s most iconic collegiate gothic buildings and is frequently named one of the most beautiful libraries. It houses more than one million print volumes, as well as numerous electronic resources.

  • Noyes House (1958): Eero Saarinen, well known for the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, designed this crescent shaped dormitory to fit the edge of a circular field. Noyes is one of Vassar’s modern gems along with the Ferry Cooperative House (1952), a departure from conventional campus living designed by Marcel Breuer, who went on to such larger projects as the Whitney Museum in New York.

  • Class of 1951 Observatory (1997): The facility's two 20-foot diameter dome rooms respectively house 32-inch and 20-inch reflecting. It replaced the original Vassar Observatory (1864), which originally boasted the nation’s third strongest telescope and like Main Building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

  • Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film (2003): At 54,000 square-feet, it features professional grade production, rehearsal, and performance facilities. The Vogelstein Center more than doubled the usable space of the demolished Avery Hall (originally called the Calisthenium and Riding Academy, on whose "footprint" the new facility was built. The new design also incorporated and restored Avery's historic façade.

  • Since the Calisthenium and Riding Academy opened (1866) and Vassar established the nation’s first collegiate physical education department (1895), facilities for physical education and intercollegiate sports have grown to accommodate dozens of courses, 23 NCAA Division III teams, and two varsity club sports.

Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.



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