College announces early departure for President Hill, appointment of Interim President Chenette

After a decade of service as Vassar’s tenth President, Catharine Bond Hill will be taking her dedication to accessible, affordable higher education in a different direction. Earlier this year, on March 29, She announced to the Vassar community that she would be leaving the office and the College at the end of the 2016-2017 academic year. However, in an email sent July 20, Hill revealed that she will in fact be departing earlier than projected, now to officially end her term on Aug. 15.

Hill will leave her place at the helm of the College to begin a new position as Managing Director of Ithaka S+R, a branch of non-profit organization ITHAKA. According to her campus-wide email, “Ithaka S+R is dedicated to helping institutions of higher education and their leaders across the country broaden access to higher education, improve student outcomes, transition to today’s digital environment, and control costs.”

The types of tasks Hill will manage in her new position, however, will be far from new to her. She has long been involved in her home field of economics, and more specifically in the economics higher education. Her work in academia began on the economics faculty at Williams College, and her career has included positions as head of the Harvard Institute for International Development’s Project on Macroeconomic Reform in the Republic of Zambia, as provost of Williams, and at the World Bank. She has co-authored and edited several books about economic reform and the intersection of higher education with income inequality.

Hill focused heavily on financial accessibility during her tenure at Vassar, and expressed her hopes to continue working towards that effort in her next job. She wrote in an emailed statement, “My research work before coming to Vassar definitely shaped my time here. That work focused on the issue of low-income access to selective higher education institutions, and suggested that there were many talented lower income students who would be great students at schools like Vassar. My time at Vassar now informs what I want to do next.”

As her presidency concludes, Hill leaves behind a legacy of commitment to financial aid, evidenced most notably by the reinstatement of need-blind admissions. Additionally, under Hill, Vassar has striven to welcome students regardless of socioeconomic status, particularly by offering grants instead of loans for low-income families. These actions have earned Vassar national accord as one of the country’s most economically diverse private colleges. Hill commented, “Vassar has made significant progress in increasing the socioeconomic diversity of its student body over the last decade. Ithaka’s work can contribute to the higher education sector more broadly to increase that kind of access.”

Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette, with the approval of the Board of Trustees, has since agreed to serve as Interim President while the search for Vassar’s 11th President continues. He will serve from Hill’s departure on Aug. 15 until the appointment of the next permanent president in July 2017. The Presidential Search Committee, which includes faculty, members of the Board of Trustees and two student representatives, is co-chaired by Trustees Geraldine Bond Laybourne ’69 P ’93 and Anthony J. Friscia ’78 P ’15. Laybourne and Friscia affirmed that the search will continue as planned despite Hill’s change in schedule. They wrote in an emailed statement, “We have been receiving nominations since we announced the opening in May. We are also finalizing a spec for the position and an associated website. These will be made publicly available in the very near future. Our plan is to build the candidate pool throughout the summer and begin the evaluation process in September.”

Chenette wrote in an emailed statement that he hopes to make use of the interim year to continue forward with the existing progress that has been made in recent years, asserting, “[W]e have work to do to live fully into the promise of being the diverse and inclusive and affirming community to which we aspire. This interim year will give us a chance to make further progress toward that goal.”

He noted that his primary goal for the next year is not to begin any projects or renovations, but to prepare the way for the next president. “The interim year is a chance for us to collaborate on advancing the kind of education in engaged citizenship proclaimed in our mission statement and to strengthen the foundation for the new leader we will welcome in 2017,” he wrote. Some changes that are to be expected in the coming year though, Chenette affirmed, include new faculty appointments in several offices, such as the Dean of Students Office, the LGBTQ and Women’s Centers, and the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action.

While Chenette serves as Acting President, his position of Dean of the Faculty will be filled by current Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Political Science Stephen Rock, who also served as Acting Dean of the Faculty in 2013. Rock wrote in an emailed statement that he had enjoyed the experience three years ago, and was glad to accept the position again. However, he recognized the difficulty of undertaking a leadership position during a transitionary period, when it will be important not only to preserve the current state of affairs, but also to successfully navigate changes currently underway and those soon to come. “In terms of the position itself, major challenges are likely to include the proposed changes in curriculum and faculty teaching load, maintaining and enhancing the excellence of the Vassar faculty and the Vassar education in the face of continuing resource constraints, and…dealing with issues that aren’t even on my radar screen at the moment,” he commented.

Vassar’s administrators and those searching for the next president are well aware that the current political and social atmosphere, which affects every facet of society, including higher education, has already been and will continue to be visible at Vassar. Chenette wrote, “I anticipate the greatest challenge of the year will involve navigating through a turbulent world while remaining centered on our role as an educational institution dedicated to helping our students gain the skills and perspectives and experiences that will prepare them for purposeful lives.”

While Hill too recognized the undeniable difficulties that students seeking higher education today face, she affirmed that accessibility should be more highly prioritized for precisely that reason. She remarked, “Higher education attainment rates have stalled in America, just at the time when education is more important than ever in terms of life choices, earnings, and income mobility.  And, educational attainment in America depends crucially on income and race, and not just on merit. If we are going to live up to our commitments as a country to equal opportunity, we need to find solutions to these challenges.”

In the meantime, administration and community members have expressed congratulations and well wishes for Hill in her new position. “President Hill has left quite a mark on Vassar and on higher education more generally,” opined Chenette. Chair of the Board of Trustees William A. Plapinger ’74 P ’10 wrote in an emailed address following Hill’s announcement, “The Board is deeply grateful for Cappy’s exceptional contributions to the College over the past decade.  The quality and diversity of our student body, the renovation and construction of the buildings comprising the Integrated Science Commons, the successful completion of the recent capital campaign, and the College’s growing reputation are legacies that should make Cappy and Vassar proud.”

Even as the College hunts for a new leader though, both Hill and much of the community she leaves behind remain confident that the College will continue to strive for success in the coming year. According to the co-chairs, the Presidential Search Committee fully expects to be able to unanimously select an ideal candidate to be Vassar’s eleventh President. “We…see this as an opportunity to ensure that Vassar has a strong leader to guide its future and sustain it as one of the world’s elite liberal arts colleges — continuing to educate students who will have a world changing impact,” stated Laybourne and Friscia.

As she departs, Hill expressed her appreciation for the Vassar community and her high hopes for the future of the institution. She concluded, “I leave Vassar with great affection for the institution…I would simply hope that you all keep in mind the need the nation and world have for bright young people like you to think creatively and contribute your talents to solutions and progress.”

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