Yale-Vassar: The marriage that almost was

Vassar students celebrate in Dec. 1966 after hearing Yale and Vassar officials were considering a merger.
Vassar students celebrate in Dec. 1966 after hearing Yale and Vassar officials were considering a merger. Photo by YDN Archive.

While this year marks the 40th anniversary of the enrollment of women in Yale College, it could have been the 42nd anniversary instead.

Rather than empty stretches of greenery along upper Prospect Street, there might now be a bustling little campus near the Divinity School where the Yale Farm, Farnam Gardens and Betts House now stand. Instead of driving down Route 22 to Poughkeepsie, New York, Yalies might now be able to just walk up Science Hill to see their friends at Vassar College.

This photo ran in the News on Feb. 1 1967 under the headline
YDN Archive
This photo ran in the News on Feb. 1 1967 under the headline "Vassar's Women: Will they compete?"

At least, that’s what former University President Kingman Brewster and Vassar President Alan Simpson envisioned in 1966, when the two schools contemplated bringing the women’s college from Poughkeepsie to New Haven — a move Vassar trustees ultimately rejected. Though Yale’s proposal to Vassar captivated both schools from December 1966 until November 1967, and in the end, coeducation came to both schools by the fall of 1969. The Vassar-Yale study — which examined the feasibility of a move — prepared the University for the impending arrival of female students.

“Once we had gone into exploring the Vassar merger, there was no going back,” Henry “Sam” Chauncey Jr., the special assistant to Brewster who served on the Yale committee studying the proposal, said in an interview. “The ultimate effect of exploring that merger was to bring coeducation to Yale the next year.”

WAITING FOR WEDDING BELLS

Brewster and Simpson assumed their presidencies on their campuses in 1963 and 1964, respectively, when coeducation was no more than a hypothetical for either school. But both knew something needed to change: Simpson believed Vassar was stagnating and needed a new direction, while Brewster wanted to ensure that Yale kept up with the times.

“What Brewster was trying to do, frankly, was to make Yale more attractive to men by having women present,” said Gaddis Smith ’54, Yale historian and emeritus history professor.

So in March 1966, the Yale Corporation officially announced the University’s interest in bringing women to campus — but as part of a coordinate college arrangement like those between Brown University and Pembroke College, between Harvard University and Radcliffe College, and between Columbia College and Barnard College.

Yale shunned the possibility of pairing with nearer women’s colleges, such as Albertus Magnus College up Prospect Street, and Connecticut College in New London, Conn., preferring Vassar as the most desirable partner college available. The idea was born when a Vassar trustee and friend of Brewster brought Simpson and Brewster together for a meeting, Chauncey said. Alongside Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges, also members of the “Seven Sisters” group of elite women’s colleges, Vassar was already a longtime destination for Yalies looking for dates and weekends of fun.

“That wasn’t the only way you could see women, but one of the major ways,” Michael Winger ’67 LAW ’72 said.

Driving down to Poughkeepsie after classes for dinner and drinks was common practice for Yalies, as was racking up speeding tickets on the way, John Brim ’68 recalled.

But having a car was no prerequisite: groups at both schools would frequently charter buses back and forth for about $5, round trip.

Vassar girls often came to New Haven to see a football game and remain for the weekend, usually staying at the Hotel Taft on the corner of College and Chapel streets (now an apartment building), said Beth Dunlop, who graduated from Vassar in 1969. On one weekend, Dunlop remembered, the Taft was so full she had to sneak into her date’s Saybrook College suite to sleep, “very chastely,” on a daybed.

COLD FEET

Many Vassar girls themselves were in favor of coeducation, said Elizabeth Daniels, a 1941 Vassar graduate who was the dean of students at the time and chaired Vassar’s New Dimensions Committee, which studied ways to bring men to campus.

“There was a lot of anxiety on the part of the students to get involved with coeducation,” Daniels said. “They thought Vassar was sheltered.”

So when Brewster and Simpson announced in December 1966 that the two schools were forming a joint committee to study the feasibility and desirability of Vassar moving to Yale, students at both schools applauded the idea. Dozens of girls showed up to cheer Simpson when he made the announcement, singing “Boola Boola” and “The Whiffenpoofs Song,” the Vassar Miscellany News reported.

By that spring, most of the residential colleges had formed social relationships with Vassar residence halls, while the Young Democrats and literary magazines on both campuses began to merge and run joint events.

Vassar alumnae and faculty, as well as Poughkeepsie authorities, were less enthusiastic. In hundreds of letters to the Vassar alumnae magazine, Simpson and Vassar trustees, Vassarites vigorously decried the proposed loss of their historic campus and the presumed loss of institutional identity that would follow.

Simpson argued back, telling alumnae in one speech, “Vassar College cannot go it alone … You can stay in Poughkeepsie and find yourself the victim of a silent move, one not so dramatic, a move away from excellence.”

Back in New Haven, most of the Yale community took the study in stride. Vassar, after all, had a sizeable dowry: library and museum collections, faculty, prestige, good students and a $63 million endowment.

But the match was not to be. After months of visits between the two schools, tours of potential sites on campus and negotiations between Yale academic departments and their Vassar counterparts, the Vassar trustees unanimously rejected Yale’s proposal, bowing to pressure from alumnae and faculty who wanted to maintain the college’s independence.

In hindsight, even Brewster’s trusted assistant Chauncey said he believes Vassar made the right decision.

“I think it would’ve been a terrible mistake,” he said. “But that’s playing Monday morning quarterback.”

STUDY BUDDIES

One major obstacle to the move was the difficulty of integrating the Vassar and Yale faculties and academic policies. Though the joint committee wanted to give students from both schools a chance to cross-register in courses, Vassar’s representatives wanted to preserve the college’s institutional identity above all.

“Vassar professors were afraid Vassar would be given the undergraduate teaching and the Yale professors would continue to be top dogs,” Daniels, also an English professor at Vassar, said.

Vassar faculty feared being relegated to second-class status and protested that their own courses were likely to be undersubscribed, Smith said.

Still, Daniels said, some Vassar departments, including her own department and the History department, were eager to begin work with their Yale counterparts.

But the proposed academic arrangements were troubled at best. Though the joint committee insisted Vassar would be kept as autonomous as possible, the educational philosophies of the two schools were too different.

As Vassar had no graduate school, the college hired and promoted faculty mainly because of their teaching and not their research, said Eve Katz GRD ’66, a French instructor who served as the secretary of Yale’s study committee.

“That was a hard marriage, it seemed to me,” Katz said.

And for all the Vassar faculty’s efforts to remain independent, Yale would likely have absorbed the college not long after, just as Harvard assimilated Radcliffe and Brown incorporated Pembroke.

Pembroke merged with Brown in 1971, emerging as the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women 10 years later, and Radcliffe became a research institute on Harvard’s campus in 1999.

“The Vassar faculty and graduates who were opposed to the relationship were right, I think, by saying that Vassar’s separate identity would be submerged,” Smith said. “That idea of a coordinate college was a great idea, but was 50 years too late.”

Vassar faculty ultimately voted 103-2 in favor of adopting coeducation directly in Poughkeepsie, rather than seeking it in New Haven.

LET’S GET PHYSICAL

Many members of the Vassar community were reluctant to give up their century-old campus, which also functions as an arboretum. Under the Yale-Vassar plan, the college would have taken over Yale’s Divinity School campus and built a library, more classrooms, dorms and a student center around it in the former home of the Culinary Institute of America, now the Betts House. But the Vassar students had the last laugh, given that the Culinary Institute moved to Hyde Park, just north of Poughkeepise.

“Vassar was obviously too large an institution to put on any one small site,” said John McGuerty, the New Haven city planner at the time.

City officials opposed Yale’s plans to construct a campus on Dixwell Avenue, behind Payne Whitney Gymnasium, because Yale would have had to take over too much city land.

Vassar representatives who visited the site criticized the presence of the Winchester rifle factory nearby and bemoaned losing their pastoral home for sooty, industrial New Haven.

The Vassar alumnae were particularly concerned about losing their beloved trees, Chauncey recalled. Each class of Vassar students traditionally plants or adopts a tree on campus.

Whenever Vassar trustees visited Yale, “I made a point of showing them every tree I could find,” Chauncey said. “They wouldn’t have a campus without beautiful trees.”

Because the new campus would be a fair hike from the main campus, Yale promised to expand its shuttle service up Science Hill.

It is hard to say what impact a small but fully functional campus would have had on Science Hill, not too distant from the site of Yale’s two planned residential colleges. The separate campus might have reinforced Vassar’s independent identity, but it also might have encouraged Yalies to set foot on the north end of campus more often, said Glenn Murphy ’71.

“People trooping up and down the hill would have integrated the campus vertically,” he said.

He added wryly: “A separate campus would’ve protected the tender young maidens from the slathering young Yalies down the hill. But being a chem major myself, that was my home turf!”

ON THE REBOUND

Despite Brewster’s and Simpson’s efforts and Yale’s many beautiful trees, Vassar trustees voted against moving their college on Nov. 20, 1967.

Even though the study failed, it set the stage for the adoption of coeducation at both schools less than two years later, those who were involved in the planning agree. Though some alumni at Yale, and Kingman Brewster himself, had opposed full coeducation at Yale earlier in the 1960s, the Vassar study opened the way for women to come to Yale College.

“The exercise we went through was a very helpful step in preparing various constituencies for coeducation at Yale,” said Katz, the Yale study committee secretary.

As with other universities around the country, coeducation might have been on its way, but the Vassar study — not to mention Princeton’s announcement that it was adopting coeducation in 1969 — helped to accelerate its arrival at Yale.

When Winger came to Yale as a freshman in 1963, “it didn’t seem like anybody questioned single-sex schools at that point,” he said. “I don’t think anybody expected that there would be any kind of coeducation in their time.”

When women did arrive at Yale in the fall of 1969, they were a highly visible minority, squeezed into Vanderbilt Hall because no new dorms were built for them, Murphy said. A merger with Vassar would likely have lessened the gender imbalance and smoothed the transition, he added.

But today, Yale bears hardly any traces of its failed engagement to Vassar, or even of its former single-sex existence.

When Vassar alumna Dunlop, now an architecture critic and mother of a Yale graduate, took a tour of Yale several years ago, she had to explain to the tour guide that when she was in college decades ago, Yale was not coeducational.

“The look she gave me was one of an absolute lack of comprehension, as if I were a survivor from a prehistoric era,” Dunlop recalled. “But I think that’s good.”

Comments

  • explorer

    “People trooping up and down the hill would have integrated the campus vertically,” he said.

    more likely horizontally,..

  • Jane

    It’s too bad they didn’t merge. I was a freshman at Vassar in 1973. There were a few men there. Lousy social scene. My sister had been in the last class of all women at Vassar and she was always going off to Yale and Princeton for dates. She had a great time. But it wasn’t much fun being at Vassar at the dawn of co-education.

    My women friends who were in the first class at YAle, of course, had a blast.

  • geographically speaking

    you don’t go down to Poughkeepsie from New Haven, you go up

  • Y90

    This was a very interesting article and a little facet of Yale history that I knew nothing about.

    I’m frequently quick to criticize, so in this case I wanted to compliment the author and the YDN for a good effort.

  • Class of 1973

    For the record, Princeton’s decision to go co-ed followed, not preceded, that of Yale.

  • Vassar Grad

    We were happy to get our own men, thank you.

  • 9Y4

    explorer, you are naughty!

    I think this really worked out well for Vassar.

  • Yale alum with a Vassar mom

    Bad move by Vassar. President Simpson was right – by not merging with Yale, Vassar indeed embarked on a silent decline. While once one of the elite “Seven Sisters,” Vassar is now a second, or even third-tier institution. Generally speaking, it’s much harder on a school’s culture for a female school to take on men, vis-a-vis a male school to take on women (male schools tend to have more “traditional institutions,” for example a football team, which attract more “traditional” men, so schools like Vassar and Sarah Lawrence end up attracting more of a gay/artsy male crowd). Of course, hindsight is always 20-20, and I can’t blame Vassar for wanting to keep its independence. No one can predict how these things play out, though it seems that President Simpson did have good foresight.

  • Y’10

    To #8: Vassar continues to be one of the most selective and prestigious schools in the country, competing with Amherst and Wesleyan at the top of the small liberal arts college chain. And may I ask what exactly you’re implying by bringing up Vassar and Sarah Lawrence’s attractiveness to the “gay/artsy male crowd” as a negative? Unless I’ve misread your statement (and I hope I have), that kind of overt homophobia is not acceptable at Yale today, especially considering how “gay/artsy” our current male crowd is. Or are you suggesting that Yale too has fallen to a second or third-tier position due to its current demographics?

  • Yale alum with a Vassar mom

    To #9: Vassar is not at all in the same league as Amherst and Williams. Vassar is still a good school, sure, but not the first tier institution it used to be. In the same vein, no one would argue that, say, Washington U. in St. Louis isn’t a good school, but by reputation, it’s simply not in the same category as Yale. There’s no use arguing over something can’t be definitively proven, but the bottom line is that older Vassar alumni are well aware that their school has gone downhill since it bypassed the Yale merger, and later accepted men. This is not to say that it was wrong of Vassar not to merge with Yale – the opposition had good points, particularly about losing a beautiful campus. But it’s a widely-felt and unspoken truth that Vassar is not the place it used to be.

    My point regarding gay/artsy men is that a woman’s school that takes on men (Vassar/Sarah Lawrence) will rarely – or at least, will take a very long time – appeal to a “traditional” cross-section of male applicants, due to the absence of “traditional male” institutions like a football team. There is nothing homophobic about pointing this out. And there’s nothing wrong with gay/artsy people, either. It’s just that at a smaller school like Vassar, the gay/artsy vibe becomes more dominant, and a school can be pigeon-holed, and Vassar loses out on potential qualified applicants who don’t want a school with a strong gay/artsy vibe. Yale is gay/artsy as well, but it’s a much larger student body where there are all kinds of people/activities/lifestyles to attract all kinds of people. I realize what I’m saying is politically incorrect, but it happens to be true.

  • Peter Rosen

    The author missed an important behind the scenes event.
    I was working part time for the New haven Redevelopment Agency and was asked to make some theoretical plan sketches for the Yale campus showing how Vassar facilities could fit in.

    One night, at a drunken mixer I sat at a table with two girls, and when asked about my work, I drew the existing plan on a napkin and gave it to them.

    A few days later, I had a chance to see the Vassar newspaper, and to my surprise there was the drawing I had made, and a headline to the effect – “Here’s What Yale Plans for Vassar”. Little did I know those two ladies were working on the Vassar paper. That was the beginning of the end.

    Peter Rosen
    Yale ’68 MFA

  • Amateur Historian

    I agree with “Yale Alum With Vassar Mom” (posts #8 and #10) that it is easier to bring co-education to a previously male college than a previously female school.

    The evidence is right here in New Haven, as mentioned by both Yale Alum and Y’10 (post #9).

    Yale is as gay/artsy as any college in America. Indeed, I would assert that Yale is in an exclusive “extremely gay/artsy” category occupied by no more than two or three other schools — perhaps Brown is the only other clear member. Yet Yale maintains much of its centuries-old ambience which pre-dates Yale’s embracing of the gay/artsy culture that began in the Seventies and accelerated in the Nineties.

    I can only think of one university that developed the other way — Florida State, which began as a women’s college. How did they do it in Tallahassee? As suggested by Yale Alum, they built a top-flight football program. It might be sad but the most significant thing Vassar could do today to raise its profile nationally is start a football team.

  • S. Riane Harper

    The Vassar Encyclopedia has a long article about the proposal and ultimate decision-making, including some interesting information from the “Vassar-Yale Study” that proposed exactly how the marriage would work. http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/coeducation/the-vassar-yale-study.html

  • S. Riane Harper

    Also, a fun fact: Joe Lieberman was the legal advisor to the Vassar-Yale Study.

  • RaMina Mirmortazavi ’08

    I’m wonder if poster #8 has been to Vassar lately. Yes there is certainly a very visible LGBTQ presence on campus, but we still have plenty of guys who are into “traditional” male things like sports and burping. I’m glad Vassar remained independent, if only because their current financial aid policy made it possible for me to go to an elite, private, expensive, liberal arts college. Yale’s current financial aid policy probably wouldn’t have made that possible for me. Yale and Vassar are great schools, and several of my professors spoke highly of their grad school experiences in New Haven. But they are very different. You can’t really compare the two.

    Vassar is still a first-tier liberal arts institution. To say it has somehow declined, and to imply that’s because of the population we attract, is incredibly negative and offensive. We don’t need a Greek life or a football team to attract incredibly qualified applicants. Our applicant pool increases every year, and our admissions office can choose form the cream of the crop. Going to a small, liberal arts school isn’t for everyone. Some people want to go to a larger school, like Yale or UT, and that’s great. And, quite frankly, if someone doesn’t want to apply to Vassar because we have “gay/artsy” guys on our campus, I think they have bigger problems and shouldn’t go to any school known for its arts programs.

    PS- I had plenty of dates with wonderful, artsy, intelligent guys at Vassar. There are still lots of straight guys to be found. Not that it matters.

  • Yale ’09

    #8 I think you need to get out of your little part of New Haven for a little while.

  • vassar ’12

    Though these rankings shouldn’t be given too much weight, they’re at least worth examining. #8, you sadly have a very warped view of higher education outside of your Yale bubble.

    http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/liberal-arts-rankings

  • vassar ’12

    It would also appear that Vassar “beat out” Brown, Cornell, UPenn, Dartmouth, to name a few.
    http://www.forbes.com/lists/2009/94/colleges-09_Americas-Best-Colleges_Rank.html

  • Vassar ’71

    I entered Vassar fall of ’67 and as I recall, the prevailing sentiment among students by then was not to leave our beautiful campus and be shipped off to the then quite unattractive place that was (is?) New Haven and be second class citizens there. I also agree that Yalies drove up, not down, to Poughkeepsie.

  • Princeton Class of 1970

    Re # 5: In fact, the first 13 women to receive Princeton A.B. degrees graduated with my class, and most of them have gone on to achieve considerable distinction. They were offered the opportunity to graduate as Princetonians because the decision to coeducate had been made in their junior year at Princeton (i.e. 1968-1969) as students in the Critical Languages Program.

  • Yale CC ’08

    #8, I agree that Vassar is not in the same league as Amherst/Williams/Swarthmore. To say such a thing was true would be akin to placing Washington U and Northwestern in the same category as HYP, though the former institutions are outstanding and amongst the best in the world.

    But I do take offense to the idea that Vassar is a second or even third-tier school. Though one may argue that some moderate (more probably, very slight) decline has been taking place, Vassar remains one of the best colleges in America. Calling it a second-tier school only makes sense relative to the top three LA colleges. On an absolute scale, it is a ridiculous assertion.