Over the years, change within Vassar—from a more free-spirited institution to a more straitlaced one—walks a fine line between being perception and fact.
Last semester during his talk, writer Jeffrey Eugenides described his idea of the model Vassar girl, an icon that has pervaded media representations of the College: “The Vassar girl was always dressed in a black turtleneck and capri pants and smoking cigarettes… Deep, dry, sarcastic, wonderful girls, either wildly sexual or subtly suicidal.” This image of freeness, open-mindedness and rebellion is one that has persisted in the outside world’s imagination. From within the Vassar bubble, however, there are rumblings that such is no longer the case—that Vassar is becoming more mainstream and less weird.
Since its founding as an all-women’s college, Vassar women became attached to the image of sexual allure, unconventional beauty and radical feminism—which television and moves often use as punch lines. You see this in Miss Congeniality, when Ben Bratt tries to impress Sandra Bullock with his young Vassar-student girlfriend who is writing a paper on law enforcement, who soon asks Sandra for a woman’s perspective for her paper. In an episode of the Simpsons,Lisa meets a typical Vassar grrrl—a woman who lifts up her arms to reveal hairy armpits and exclaims, “Come to Vassar and un-conform with me!”
But women aren’t the only punch line; the idea of Vassar is as well. More recently, the movie Pitch Perfect used an establishing shot of Vassar to create the scene for the fictitous Barden College. The image portrays a typical college, but inside it is an a cappella group mastering the art of uniqueness and creativity to win singing competitions, not unsimilar to Vassar, of course, with its nine a capella groups.
Nonetheless, Lily Lanier ’15, voiced the concern that perception and reality don’t quite line up: “I chose Vassar because I wanted to be able to go to some elite prestigious college and also find a place that had alternative thinking and was committed to values outside of academia. I think I was surprised and a little disappointed with some of the disconnect between the reputation, self-perception and promotional identity versus the one that exists here.”
Perhaps this disparity is the result of slow, barely noticeable shifts in students’ motivations for coming to the College. Marc Michael Epstein, who has been teaching in the Religion and Jewish Studies Departments at Vassar for 24 years, lived to see changes in the ‘hippie’ movement since the ’60s. He said, “I think students are as politically aware as they were twenty-four years ago, but I think they are politically aware in different directions. So, for instance, there always was a lot of talk about gender at Vassar, but now the question of the gender binary itself is being interrogated and that’s very exciting. There is a lot more talk about race than there was when I started here. I feel that students do take initiatives when the personal is at stake.”
Though these changes can be subttle, a more visible indicator of change at Vassar is style. Epstein said, “It’s kind of interesting how styles come back. I wouldn’t call the neo-hippie stylistic trends fake in any way. They are just as ‘authentic’ as they were in the ’60s where sons and daughters of heirs and heiresses were going around dressed in ripped jeans with flowers in their hair and not showering or shaving. I think the same sort of thing is happening today—we see the desire of the comparatively affluent to associate themselves with the larger mass of humanity on earth whose concerns are calling to them.”
Still, some students feel Vassar is leaning away from the “liberal” in liberal arts. But while they may notice shifts on campus in regards to style, academics and activism, it’s hard to pinpoint from where the changes originate. Lanier said, “I think to live up to a lot of its reputation, Vassar would have to make sacrifices it’s not prepared to make in terms of abandoning its bureaucracy and pursuing alternative education and giving students real leeway and agency. It’s also really hard when you are trying to play the elite small college game. So I don’t necessarily fault Vassar. I think it’s not an anomaly in terms of colleges in general.”
Epstein said, “The students are consistently bright, but they tend more now to narrow themselves rather than open themselves up. And I think part of that is fear of the realities of the job market.”
This leads to another avenue for getting a firm grip on the idea of change: the Admissions Office. The friendly face of Admissions is always trying to attract applications. Then the question follows: Is administration changing the student body?
Director of Admissions Art Rodriguez maintained, “I’m not trying to change the admissions process. What I’m trying to think about as we move ahead is ‘what are challenges that we may deal with in admissions as we think about changing demographics?’ I think that the character of what the student is are things that we will continue to appreciate. It’s just who might make up those individuals who display that character may change.” He continued, “The goal is to make Vassar attractive to a range of students… We are trying to build central pipelines. And years from now, if we are not deeply rooted in parts of the country where we are told to see population growth in high school graduates, then it might be a disservice to Vassar.”
With this idea of looking to the future, the job market in science and technology has sprung up over the years and students have caught on. Albert Muzquiz ’17, a tour guide at Vassar, noticed, “I think what’s interesting is that there are a lot of things that Vassar is known for, like art and theater and those sorts of things. But a lot of the admitted students we have been seeing recently haven’t been interested in that. I’ve had a number of tours were people don’t even want to go into the theater which is kind of rare because that’s kind of what our tour is. I think it has a lot to do with our science building. I’ve seen a lot more people who are science-motivated.”
What emerges is a catch-22 scenario: To maintain Vassar, the hippie waters must be diluted and other, more conservative students mixed in, much to the fear of some students. However, Rodriguez suggested that one thing will forever remain the same, which is that Vassar is a place to be curious and bold.
In an enrolling students questionnaire sent out by the admissions office, an outsider’s perception of Vassar has changed slightly, perhaps to the extent of being barely noticeable. In 2010, 10 percent said Vassar was career-oriented and four years later, this number bumped up to 14 percent. And like a seesaw, an opposite reaction followed: a decline in the image of Vassar as “relaxed.” It seems that the distinction between perception and fact is so smeared, that to describe Vassar’s change is, in writer Lauren Slater’s words, “shaped, if it could be, like a question mark.”
Lanier, a four-year varsity soccer player, connects the dots between soccer and education. She said, “It shouldn’t be so much about playing the school game, but pursuing things outside of attainment… When the team is so focused on performance, it gets in the way of creativity.”
In Rebecca Schuman’s ’98 “The Sad Demise of Collegiate Fun,” she lamented the changes she saw since being a student at Vassar. She wrote, “…much of the unstructured free play at college seems to have disappeared in favor of pre-professional anxiety, coupled with the nihilistic, homogeneous partying that exists as its natural counterbalance.” Is Vassar becoming this?
Perhaps. Cristina Caso ’14 said, “Vassar got a lot less weird throughout my four years there, but even Vassar at its least weird is still pretty weird.”
Perhaps not. Epstein said, “I think that it’s endemic, native, to be a citizen at a four-year liberal arts college, to think by the time you are a senior that the whole thing has gone down tubes and that things were so much open and free and generally better during your years than they are now.”
The temptation to think Vassar is losing its vibrancy, its open-mindedness, and its liberalism is not ill-interpreted. However, that’s the perspective of a straight line. Rather, imagine a circle, small or big, that is being endlessly retraced and re-interpreted. This is the pattern of survival; Vassar has yet to lose its theme of intellectual curiosity. Lanier said, “At a four-year college, the student body has to perpetually recreate itself. You lose one batch and have to circle around and replace it.”