Hundreds of members of the Vassar community–students, faculty, staff, parents, alumnae/i and trustees—gathered on the weekend of Sept. 23 and 24 to celebrate an event that occurs only once every 10 or 20 years: a Presidential Inauguration.
“The inauguration of a new president is a joyous time in the life of a college, and one that provides us with the opportunity to come together as a community to celebrate our history,” said Vice President for Alumnae/i Affairs and Development Catherine Baer in an interview.
Though President Elizabeth Bradley started at Vassar on July 1, inaugurations traditionally take place in the fall. The occasion featured two panel discussions on liberal arts education and health care on Saturday; a celebration for students at the All Campus Dining Center on Saturday night, featuring music and a special menu; and, of course, President Bradley’s formal Inauguration ceremony on Sunday.
The lavish weekend was rumored among students to cost upwards of $1 million—though the College declined to disclose the cost beyond the fact that it was “considerably less” than $1 million, according to Baer.
Along with Vassar affiliates, a number of attendees were faculty, staff and students from Bradley’s former institution, Yale University. This included a contingent of students from Branford College, one of Yale’s 14 residential colleges, of which Bradley served as Head for the past several years.
Representatives from 49 colleges and universities as close as Marist College across town and as far as the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece, were also in attendance. Among these representatives were the presidents or acting presidents of Yale, Transylvania University, SUNY New Paltz, New York University, Mount Holyoke College, Lawrence University, Wellesley College, Sarah Lawrence College and Mount Saint Mary’s College. Wellesley and Yale’s presidents also served as inaugural speakers.
At 1:00 p.m., after most of the audience had been seated in the College’s stately Chapel, hundreds of student representatives—members of the Vassar Student Association and leaders of student organizations—faculty, the aforementioned delegates from other schools and distinguished visitors like former Vassar President Catharine Bond Hill, walked in procession into the Chapel in caps and gowns and were greeted with the first of five standing ovations during the ceremony.
Chair of the Board of Trustees William Plapinger ’74, P’10 delivered the opening remarks. He recalled the previous inauguration, President Hill’s in 2006, when most attendees had no idea that they were about to experience the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, a recession that would test both Vassar and the nation as a whole.
“Vassar has come through that and has continued to strive to live up to our founder’s ideal to expand access to a first-rate liberal arts education to students who previously were denied that opportunity,” he said. “While there is still much work to be done, today’s Vassar is more representative of the diversity of our nation than it has ever been.”
He noted that while the current political climate is turbulent, Vassar has survived difficult times before. In fact, workers broke ground on Main Building the same day that the first shots of the Civil War were fired. Through it all, he said, “There remains no better preparation for this uncertain world than a Vassar education.”
Plapinger also declared that Bradley will add to Vassar’s many strengths, saying, “In all areas, Elizabeth Bradley has shown extraordinary leadership, combining intellectual commitment and rigor with vision, energy and administrative talent.”
Next, representatives of the Hudson Valley community, Vassar students and faculty, alumnae/i, the Seven Sisters and the Ivy League took the stage to offer welcomes on behalf of their respective communities.
Dyson Foundation President Robert Dyson remarked, “Without any question, Vassar is one of the jewels in the crown of the Hudson Valley,” noting that the College is the eighth largest employer in Dutchess County, with an annual payroll of $140 million and about 1,100 employees.
Presidential Search Committee member and Student Assistant to the President Ellie Winter ’18 shared some of the things she’s learned during her time at Vassar, including the fact that, “Everyone here has a riveting story, an impressive mind, from the professors to the gardeners to the security guards.” She added, “We hope to see in [President Bradley] Vassar’s potential to be a beacon of hope in troubled times, an experiment in what the best minds can unearth together.”
Trustee and President of the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College Missie Rennie Taylor ’68 spoke of the trailblazing nature of the Vassar alumnae/i community, of which living members represent the Class of 1934 to the Class of 2017. She invoked Matthew Vassar’s remarks to the Board of Trustees in 1868, “My motto is progress,” and commented, “And so, by every indication, is yours, President Bradley.”
L.B. Dale and A. Lichtenstein Professor of Chinese and Japanese and Presidential Search Committee member Peipei Qiu discussed Bradley’s commitment to engaging with the Vassar faculty long before she arrived on campus, noting that she had met with some 80 faculty members prior to this semester and had read many of their published works.
Wellesley College president Paula Johnson explained the connection between Greek mythology and the Seven Sisters, the association of seven historically all-female institutions of higher education that comprises Vassar, Wellesley, Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College and Smith College. “[The Seven Sisters] refers to Atlas and Pleione’s seven daughters, changed into stars by Zeus. In the night sky, they live on as the star cluster known as the Pleiades. On Earth, they live on as seven great lights of liberal arts education … Like our namesakes, we, too, shine brightest in the darkest of times.”
Though some wonder why Vassar remains a part of the Seven Sisters since it became co-ed in 1969, Johnson remarked that the coalition’s connection has always been about making higher education accessible to those who ordinarily don’t have the means to attain it. Just as Vassar allowed women to be educated in the 19th century, so too does it now show leadership in accessibility for low-income students. “I have no doubt that Vassar will continue to show us the way forward,” Johnson said.
Finally, Yale President Peter Salovey took the stage. He said that although Vassar—Yale’s former sister school—chose to go co-ed rather than merge the two colleges in the 1960s, as Radcliffe and Harvard did, “Vassar is special to Yale.” He also praised his former colleague, saying, “[Bradley] attacks problems with a fierce commitment to their solution, and through it all, her commitment to her principles, to balancing what should be with what is possible and to the integrity of the educational process, reigns supreme.”
Next, Yale’s Francis Writer-in-Residence Anne Fadiman recalled a discussion over dinner with Bradley and Yale students about the importance of a liberal arts education. “A liberal arts education allows us to meander,” they decided,
and perhaps “liberating education” would be a better term, due to its ability to free students from the narrow path of a pre-professional degree. “Under the leadership of Elizabeth Howe Bradley,” she added, “Vassar will give you everything you need, but it will not tell you which route you should follow.”
Plapinger then officially inaugurated Bradley, who, appearing to wipe away a few tears, took the podium to deliver her inaugural address.
After expressing the humility she feels to have been chosen to lead Vassar and to continue learning and growing in her new position, Bradley spoke of her plan for the school. “My vision is that Vassar retains and strengthens its position as a national model of liberal arts education.” She noted three key priorities to achieve this goal: To do more to support Vassar’s renowned faculty, to create an inclusive campus culture for students of all backgrounds and to strengthen Vassar’s ties to the community of Poughkeepsie and the mid-Hudson Valley.
In addition, Bradley promised that Main Building, Raymond House, Blodgett Hall and Chicago Hall will be renovated, and that Vassar will be carbon-neutral by 2030. She also mentioned her hope to start a summer education institute here.
Like Plapinger, Bradley noted the uncertain future Vassar’s students are facing. “At this time in our history, some may capitalize on fear and discontent and anti-intellectualism,” she said. “But Vassar will be resilient, an anchor in tough, turbulent times. Together, we’ll rediscover trust—our trust in people and the institutions that serve them. As the president of Vassar, I am committed to strengthening this institution to stand as a place of optimism, of integrity, in the time ahead.”
Bradley concluded, “I want to ask each of us to reflect. Look around. We are the beneficiaries of the learning and leadership that has come before us and we are the stewards for future generations. Let us draw on the strength from each other and take on the challenge of ensuring that Vassar remains the unique higher education institution that it has been for our nation, our world and for the tens of thousands of students who have walked on this campus. Breathe in, and think. The future is open, and unknown. We have everything we need. Let us be free in our curiosity, responsible in our community and full of hope for our collective future.”
The ceremony closed with a choral rendition of Barnum’s “I cannot hold thee close enough!” and a benediction from Yale University’s Chaplain Reverend Sharon Kugler before the hundreds of attendees and speakers filed out of the Chapel, looking ahead to see how Bradley will fulfill the vision she has laid out.