Catharine Bond Hill is a woman of many scarves and a president with many hats.
But before she embarks on a day of balancing her administrative duties, President Hill walks her dog Nelly and goes for a run around the golf course. “I run very slowly, so jogging is closer to what I do,” she laughed.
At the time of her interview, accepted students had already flooded the campus, which meant that after her early-morning jaunt, much of her agenda was occupied with addressing the prospective Class of 2018 members one way or another. Hill first held a staff forum in UpC to discuss the details about the applicant pool and class demographic. The night before, she had dinner with FOCUS students and that evening she would participate in the campus’ Passover Seder.
Affectionately known as Cappy, Hill became Vassar College’s 10th President in 2006 and was inaugurated with a five-day celebration that included a party entitled “Cappy and the Chocolate Factory.”
From that year on, one of President Hill’s main goals has been to improve affordability and access to Vassar. But just like students, she starts and ends her days on Vassar’s campus.
However, the amount of time President Hill spends at Vassar can be affected by the current demands of her job. When she first joined the College, Hill was sent out on a fundraising campaign. “What determined a lot of my time was going into a fundraising campaign. I think it was clear when Vassar was looking for a new president that would be something the new president would do. I think this past fall there were only two weekends that I was home. That just makes it harder for me to be at things—I would love to go to all the events on campus that I can, but if I’m doing a lot of traveling then that is hard to do,” said Hill.
Some students cite Hill’s frequent absence from the campus itself as contributing to a lack of awareness about general goings-on. A specific incident includes the cutting down of the tree on Graduation Hill, for which many students blamed Hill, sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously.
“I didn’t know that tree had been cut down until I read it in the Misc,” said Hill.
However, Hill noted that she trusts many of these tasks and decisions to the faculty and staff, including her team of deans and administrators, comprised of the Dean of Faculty, Dean of the College, the Vice President for Finance and Administration and the Vice President for Communications. “It’s a big organization with lots of people working here and lots of projects going on. I have a really, really good group of people working for me who are responsible in their areas. There’s an idea that there is a lot more micromanaging than there actually is,” said Hill.
Though President of the College, Hill does not have a hand in every change and alteration on campus, though oftentimes students may think otherwise. Acting Dean of the College Eve Dunbar said, “I’m not always sure that it’s visible the effort that many working within the Dean of the College area contribute in order to create an campus where students might thrive, feel accepted and feel like this is a place where they can grow as human beings. Sometimes we fail, but we’re always striving to serve the students.”
Even though much of Hill’s work involves delegation, one change she did champion was the revival of need-blind admissions. According to the Vassar College Factbook, since the institution of need-blind admissions Vassar has seen a more diversified campus. “In general, I feel my classrooms have diversity in student political points of view, class, ethnicity, race and national backgrounds that create classroom conversations and dialogues that are richer,” said Dunbar.
The need-blind policy may or may not be a positive thing for the College. Said Margaret Mielke ‘14, “It seems to me that it’s more about promoting a certain image of Vassar College that is supposedly progressive, but also financially sound as the college is able to commit to both a large expenditure of the science building and the policy of need-blind admissions.”
While advertised as revolutionary, need-blind admissions may not be as different from Vassar’s previous policy. “Before we were need-blind, we were need-sensitive, which means they didn’t look at your ability to pay before you were on the wait list—so really the difference between need-blind and need-sensitive isn’t that much, even though they try to make a big deal out of it,” said Jeremy Garza ’14.
Dean of Studies Joanne Long upheld the merits of need-blind admissions, but was aware of the College’s old policy of need-sensitive. “There have always been students at Vassar with very good scholarships. Need-blind changed the admissions decision making: students were admitted regardless of need. Before need-blind, many students had full aid, but not all of those who needed it. The result was that a greater number of students having been eligible for financial aid,” said Long.
However, while need-blind may have made Vassar an option for students who at one time could not afford it, a Vassar professor who wished to remain anonymous maintained that it is not without its limitations.
“I don’t think that need-blind should overwhelm all other concerns. If the bathrooms are dirty and there’s no one behind the Kiosk and things don’t work, what are you giving them access to? I think it should be looked at all the time…I think need-blind should be done quietly and then shut up about it…Given how we’re socialized it can create resentment and tensions,” the professor said.
Beyond how the admissions initiative can negatively affect the campus atmosphere, the professor said that though need-blind may give people access it fails to provide students from low-income backgrounds with something even more crucial: a sense of belonging.
“What you have to do is give people ownership in the spaces that they’ve gotten access to. How do you make them feel that this is their space? That’s Vassar’s next challenge,” they stated, adding that they do not believe Vassar has yet addressed this critical problem.
“Some people feel like it’s just enough to have diversity here, but I’m talking about ownership which means that if you own the place you say, ‘I will change it in ways to make myself comfortable.’ If you come to a place as a guest, you have to ask your host, ‘Make me more comfortable, the bed is too hard.’ If you’re an owner of the institution you say ‘I demand these things because this is my space,’” said the professor.
Though this issue is one they believe is at the forefront of Vassar, it is in no way one that is specific to the College, the professor noted. These concerns of inclusion and ownership remain outstanding on the national stage as well. Nonetheless, beginning to make strides in the right direction is essential if the Vassar community wishes to create lasting change of any kind,” said the professor.
“If you give people ownership, they have the power to transform the institution. We have to acknowledge that the people you’re giving access to have something to bring to the institution and it will be transformed by their presence,” they said.
For that reason, the professor feels that students should look to themselves and their peers to spur the action they might look up to those in the higher echelons of the College to enact. Student activism has persisted as a common thread throughout generations of Vassar students—students should begin to take control of the narrative, the professor suggested.
Said Garza, “There are a lot of instances where I wish I could say that there are institutional roadblocks for students to create action, but part of me feels like that’s not really the case. In my experience doing activism here, students are very anxious about getting in trouble.”
Such has been the case when trying to organize activist efforts for Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as well as the Queer Coalition of Vassar College (QCVC) and the Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics (GAAP), he said.
“I think it’s kind of a felt sense within our current generation to follow the rules—which is different for every generation. Now sometimes when things get out of hand the administration sometimes tries to make it not so big or tries to control it. For SJP for example, we’ve been getting lots of attention based on what we’ve been doing. We’ve gotten contacted by a lot of administrators doing their best to make sure that we don’t make too much noise,” said Garza.
Alejandro McGhee ’16 echoed Garza’s sentiments in an emailed statement, writing, “The administration fosters an environment of student activism that it can control and curb at will. I think Vassar does this to maintain a type of orderly non-revolutionary image to the outside world.”
He added, “I don’t necessarily think student activism has really changed that much since I’ve been here. I know that now more than before students are more strategic and thoughtful about how they go about fighting for their causes on campus.”
Ownership, the professor maintained, is a crucial component to activist efforts on campus. “If students [feel more of a sense of ownership], we don’t need to look to Cappy to do the work. Quite frankly, she’s probably less equipped to do it than you are. You’re the ones taking the classes on race and class and gender and issues affecting your generation. Maybe the thing to do is for Vassar students to push the institution and not look to the institution to push it.”
Oftentimes, President Hill hosts Town Hall meetings to address tensions on campus. Many times these occur following activist efforts. Whether this is an instance of the institution pushing students or not is up for debate. In any case, these meetings are often sites where frustrations and heated discussions culminate. But these Town Hall meetings have always existed, said Garza, though they have taken different forms over the years.
“We set them up as a way to make sure there were lots of different ways communicate with the students and to give them access to the Dean of the College and to speak with the College[‘s administrators]. They work differently year in and year out,” said Hill, adding that they have taken place in residence halls as well as places like the Villard Room.”
Though this is one aspect of the Vassar presidency that has remained constant over time, Garza, a reunion intern who has been able to acquaint himself with former president Frances Daly Fergusson, sees Cappy’s discipline as having a remarkable impact on her leadership style.
“[Cappy’s] background as an economist has completely shaped her presidency in every way. When she comes here, what’s important to her isn’t necessarily the beauty or the small things that we see every day, but more so the hardline numbers,” he said, going on to note that while this may be a critique of Hill, her focus on finances has become an increasing necessity due to the nation’s economy. These are the concerns of liberal arts colleges across the country.
“Cappy’s presidency is much more about cuts, squeezing the numbers and squeezing the workers and the faculty as well because we have to think about the economic health of our endowment,” Garza said.
As an art historian, however, Fergusson was more invested in the aesthetic of the College, taking care to make sure Vassar was pristine from the inside out, Garza maintained.
“I’ve just heard from a lot of people that Vassar used to be more aesthetically beautiful and more manicured. It makes me nostalgic for an era of grounds-keeping that I was not here to experience. At the end of the day I know that Cappy is an economist so her level of concern with the aesthetics of the campus might leave much to be desired,” said McGhee.
Hill, however, believes that the fundamental responsibilities of the president remain rather constant. “If I look back on the period of time that Fran was here, she was dealing with all of the same issues: admissions, financial aid, campaign, supporting the faculty, figuring out how to renovate the buildings and spaces on campus. I don’t know that the difference in discipline has a huge impact,” she said.
Though Hill maintained that both she and Fergusson fulfilled their formal duties as presidents of Vassar, Garza noted that Fergusson’s presence on campus and interaction with students remains unmatched. Fergusson, he stated, had someone who would coordinate her schedule so students would know where and when she was appearing at a campus event.
“She [also] doesn’t have a very big presence among students and many people have made that comment before,” said Garza.
Mielke felt that while Hill is certainly interested in the lives of Vassar students, there may be a concern she finds more pressing. “I believe that Cappy genuinely cares about students, but it seems that there has also been a prioritization of Vassar College’s image (as perceived by the public, media and alumni). Perhaps this is inevitable for an institution like Vassar that thrives on a certain ‘reputation,’ but I’ve still found this tendency very troubling,” she wrote.
Though some students bemoan Hill’s seeming detachment from the student body, maybe what Vassar needs right now isn’t a friend, McGhee suggested. “My expectation of a college president isn’t necessarily that they be everyone’s friend. What I expect is for them to be doing is raising money for and maintaining the College,” he said.
McGhee added, “At the same time I wish more people understood that Cappy isn’t the only person with institutional power on campus. There are times where the faculty are culpable for institutional inertia but often it’s easy to focus blame on one person rather than a group of people or system of governance for a campus issue.”
As values shift nationally and economic crises grow worse before they get better, Vassar students might come to expect different things from the governance of our small institution nestled in Poughkeepsie.
“The president’s job used to be for her to be the leader of the campus and now it might be just for her to raise money. Many people see her job differently. I don’t know if there’s a better way. If she’s running around saying hello to everyone here, that might make people happier but is that raising money?” asked the professor.
They concluded, stating, “It’s not good or bad—it’s just different.”