The Vassar Girl From Saskatoon
Casual clothes (dad’s old shirt is fine) are proud possessions among the girls at this school on the Hudson. They’re proud, too, of their attractive dean, who once worked for a Toronto bakery. She says: “Democracy takes a lot of your time”
A TALL good-looking woman from Saskatoon named Marion Tait is Dean of Vassar, an old and distinguished women’s college at Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Vassar stands among high elms on the east slopes of the Hudson River 75 miles north of New York City. It is a gynocracy, or government of women, with 1,350 students and 200 faculty members. Thirty-eight-year-old Marion Tait, who is in her second year at the college, is regarded by the citizens of Vassar’s feminine democracy as the nicest new girl they have naturalized recently.
The grey-eyed dean is a Greek scholar, linguist, ice hockey player, fly fisherman and outstanding administrator in an institution which does not regard such a mixture as unusual. The bollege was founded in 1865 by a Poughkeepsie brewer named Matthew Vassar who thought that if Abe Lincoln could free the slaves, Matt Vassar could give the girls a chance. They have taken good advantage of Matt’s liberality. Last year the student body voted not to have beer on the campus. They also voted for a six-day week instead of five, but the hard-working faculty managed to win five from the ardent maidens.
Vassar girls are not bluestockings in spite of their urgent battle of books. They are no-stockings. The place resembles a displaced persons’ camp as the students stride and cycle about in raggedy head scarves, levis or thigh-length shorts, dad’s old shirt, little brother’s loose topcoat, and lumpy gym sox and sneakers. The older the raiment the better. The highest style to be found was a winsome student seen wearing beat-up dungarees and a West Point cadet’s grey melton jacket fastened with horse-blanket pins.
Marion Tait, who heads the academic side of life at Vassar under President Sarah Gibson Blanding, doesn’t wear the undergraduate hobo outfit, but otherwise blends expertly into the searching scholarly air and the practicality of the place. She was always a brilliant student, first at Preston, Ont., public school, then at Galt High and the University of Toronto. In Toronto summers she dispatched a fleet of trucks for a bakery. While writing her doctor’s dissertation in Italy she played hookey from the American Academy for most of the term to visit the Renaissance towns.
Tait is not the Hollywood tintype of a dean. She is tall and slender with a fresh skin, an aquiline nose unmarred by pince-nez, and short swept-back fair hair. She employs lipstick and cigarettes and likes Dixieland music. Nobody at Vassar is scared of her. Students have been known to invent fake problems to have a girl-to-girl séance with the dean.
The dean’s job is not the social and disciplinary problems of students: Vassar has student courts and a warden to handle them. The dean administers the academic effort at Vassar, much of which is handled by a democratic committee system involving the faculty and students. The dean is a member of 11 standing committees: schedule, conference of the seven major (U. S. women’s) colleges, co-ordinating, curriculum, scholarships, students’ records, college senate, admission, calendar days and extension courses. She has meetings at lunch, at 4.30 p.m. when her work day is supposed to be over, and in the evenings. “Democracy takes a lot of your time,” says Marion Tait. In addition she is the main liaison between students and faculty, handles parent relations with the college, travels around the country to meet alumnae groups and occasionally pinch-hits as a Greek instructor. When President Blanding is absent Tait fronts for the college.
Although Warden Elizabeth Moffett Drouilhet tackles the purely social difficulties of students she finds that most student problems are both personal and academic. Dean Tait is involved. Mrs. Drouilhet, who has been warden for 10 years, was somewhat apprehensive when Dean Tait arrived in 1948. Vassar’s retiring dean was the nationally respected C. Mildred Thompson. Warden Drouilhet felt that it would take an exceptional person to fill Miss Thompson’s job. “Marion caught on immediately,” says the warden. “We forgot she was new. She has a genius at knowing when to come out and lead and when to sit back and absorb.”
When Warden Drouilhet’s social trouble shooting turns out to have academic aspects Dean Tait is
consulted. Once a student came to the warden’s attention because of a defiant attitude toward the 10.30 weekday deadline on getting back to quarters. Mrs. Drouilhet checked the girl’s scholastic standing with the dean, who found her brilliant in her studies. They probed into the girl’s family background. The saucy scholar came from a professional family which had given her great freedom at home, but she had come to Vassar from a strict boarding school. She flouted Vassar’s ground rules while at the same time flaunting a top scholastic standing to her family. Without interviewing the student the two educators pondered the unusual problem.
“Marion thought of a clever solution,” says Mrs. Drouilhet. “She checked the girl’s instructors and found the student particularly liked a philosophy course. Marion talked with the philosophy prof, who agreed to take over the problem. He encouraged the student to undertake an ambitious special study project. The girl flew into it. She forgot to go out in the evenings. She and the prof became friends in the conferences they held on the
study project and they talked over her rule-breaking quite casually. The girl herself described her attitude as silly. So our work was done without Marion or I seeming to take a hand. The student was the kind of person who would have probably resented intervention by myself or the dean.”
Vassar’s student government includes a judicial branch for undergraduate self-rule. The chief justice is a petite blue-eyed number from North Carolina named Ebba Jo Tate. The Vassar crime wave is usually quelled in the residential houses, where curfew breakers are dealt with, but Ebba Jo has to sit solemnly on a dozen big-time raps a year, library book jobs, thesis plagiarisms, or absences on calendar days, which are the days immediately before and after holidays.
Ebba Jo and the dean once had a befuddled malefactor who had written a paper liberally supplied with whole passages lifted out of books —without quotes. The student was a transfer
from another college where, it seemed, nobody thought anything of getting up a term paper stenographically. “She was confused about our critical method of work here,” said Ebba Jo. “The dean explained to her our method of going to the sources and thinking for one’s self. In cases of plagiarism tae Vassar governance code provides that the offenderis other instructors shall be warned. But Dean Tait just threw the rules out the window. She said, “We’ll trust the student and not embarrass her with her other instruc-
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Dean Tait’s own philosophy for getting along with students is, “Honesty conveys itself very quickly to young people. You do not make up their minds for them. You help them to make up their own. You can’t be phony about it. They know rig,»t away. If you are on the level with them you can afford to make mistakes.”
Dean Tait’s secretary is Jare Knight, a blond English girl, who applied for the job when Tait was appointed. Mrs. Knight was invited to be interviewed by the dean in the Vassar Club in New York. “It was a steaming day in August,” Mrs. Knight recalls. “I was slowly melting as I sat picturing what tne dean would be like—a large starched dragon, no doubt. I saw this cool - looking type come in and my heart sank. I thought ‘There’s the one who’ll get the job.’ She came over to me and said, ‘I’m Marion Tait.’ We talked clothes, smoked cigarettes and interrupted each other a good deal. Two days later she offered me the job, and said, ‘I’ve hesitated because I wondered what they would think if a Canadian and an Englishwoman turned up at once. But shall we risk it?’ ” The invasion was an instant success. Vassar is a worldly place: there were seven Canadians and a Hawaiian in the first class of ’67.
Miss Tait’s first surprise at Vassar was to find that the dean rated a twelve-room house, a handsome brick Georgian pile just off campus. “I had been living in two rooms for so long I swore I’d never be burdened with furniture or books,” she says.
“You’d be surprised what it takes just to furnish a kitchen.” Two years later the dean’s residence is almost completely fitted out, although there are some remote chambers the dean and her houskeeper, Mrs. Geneva Norton, just forget about.
The pine-paneled study is the most-
used room. The built-in bookshelve are almost full of the books Tait swore she’d never have—much poetry, shelf after shelf of Greek and Latin classics and a wide range of contemporary novels and reporting. Her phonograph record shelf has a core of Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms, two albums of Susan Reed’s folk songs and an unacademic touch by the Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street.
Housekeeper Norton is the undisputed chief of the Tait fan club. “When I came,” said Mrs. Norton, “the dean said to me, ‘You take this house and make a home out of it.’ If I do something around the house she never fails to notice it. If I forget to do something she never mentions it. I never knew her to be cross. Oh dear, I hope nothing happens to her.”
No Discrimination Against Males
For a couple of hectic months before Mrs. Norton came the dean had to do her own housework after a 16-hour day on campus. She cooked her favorite steaks, roast chicken and roast beef. During this time the dean’s mother came for a visit from Preston, Ont., and immediately pitched in to run the house. “Now, Mother,” said Tait, acting for once the way a dean should act, “you came here for a rest. You are absolutely not to do any housework.” The order stuck.
Harry Howe Ransom, a young bachelor who teaches political science —a quarter of the Vassar faculty are men—is on several committees with the dean. Ransom says she is very broad-minded and doesn’t discriminate against the helpless male minority. He attended faculty open house at the dean’s place recently and stayed two hours without seeing the hostess. It turned out that the dean was upstairs throughout her reception, talking long distance to a troubled parent. However, Tait did manage to attend the junior prom this year. Ebba Jo Tate reported, “She wore a ravishing green evening gown and spent the evening dancing with the prom chairman’s
Marion Tait’s wardrobe leans to suits and sweaters. She has a dressmaker in New York who dreams up special numbers delicately balanced between high fashion and the conservative touch people still expect of a dean. Jane Knight went along to a fitting and commented on a new frock, “Marion, I love it. It’s not at all academic.” Tait said, “Why, thank you, Jane. That’s the nicest thing you could say.”
The Vassar faculty committee which picked Marion Tait out of 200 candi* dates for the deanship had somewhat visionary qualifications in mind. One of the committee members said, “There are places that turn out deans readymade, but the students wanted a young woman. The faculty wanted a teacher and scholar and the administration wanted an administrator. They don’t turn this type out in dean factories.” Tait met the requirements, although she had never held a top administrative job. The faculty was charmed with her personal history.
She was born in Saskatoon in 1911 of an English mother and a Scottish father who died in the 1918 ’flu epidemic. The young widow boarded Marion and her baby brother with an uncle in Kitchener, Ont., and went to work as a Toronto department store clerk. The dean laughingly admits that she was “a problem child.” She raised ned all over Kitchener and she was fond of running away. She once joined a passing parade to see the world and was fetched home by the cops. Years later Marion visited her harassed uncle, then retired and living at Castle Douglas, Scotland. The old gentleman said, “Whoever would have thought you’d turn out to be a lady?”
Nights with D. H. Lawrence
When she was in high school in Galt, Ont., the Tait versatility asserted itself: while editing the school paper and captaining the girl’s athletic team she passed her senior matriculation exams with 13 firsts. This brought a large portfolio of scholarships, including one from the IODE, and a proud civic farewell as she set out for Victoria College, University of Toronto.
“As an undergraduate,” she says candidly, “I belonged to a group that considered itself intellectual, radical and sophisticated. We were supercilious about athletics and sat up all night talking about T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence and Freud.” But she was on the ice hockey team.
She stayed at Victoria as an instructor to win her M.A. Then came a fellowship at Bryn Mawr, a leading women’s college in Pennsylvania, which sent her to the American Academy in Rome in 1937 for her Ph.D.
She taught classics at Bryn Mawr and Sweet Briar in Virginia, where she took up fly fishing. Before coming to Vassar she was seven years at Mt. Holyoke, in South Hadley, Mass., another of the big seven women’s colleges. The Vassar selection committee noted that she advanced from instructor to assistant professor and increased the enrollment in elementary Greek from two to 10 students while at Mt. Holyoke.
Evelyn Clark, a witty little Vassar history instructor, who helped pick Tait, says, “We heard what a good job she did at Mt. Holyoke in revising the curriculum. We had just gone through a siege of changes here and there were a lot of strings still untied. We had just gone back to a four-year curriculum after operating on a three-year accelerated basis during the war. We had just gone from the five-and-a-half to the five-day week. There were faculty hang-overs about these changes, which had been made by majority vote. Marion came into a highly charged situation. She sat quietly at faculty meetings and did not plunge in to run the show. She refused to find which faculty • people stood for which plan. She was tactful and got on with everyone with her cool balanced mind and pleasant warmth. When she did speak she carried conviction.”
Vassar’s biggest academic problem is now being tackled by the dean: how
much natural science is required by the well-educated woman? In this science-obsessed era Vassar hasn’t yet found how much physics and/or biology it should require and how it will correlate (Vassar’s favorite word) with its already imposing social science curricula. The dean is thinking over new approaches, which will integrate the sciences and the humanities.
Dean Tait is proud of Vassar’s long record of complete academic freedom. Students and faculty people are encouraged to make up their own minds and act on them, even if that includes open affiliation with unpopular political movements. Aware of the growing attack on academic freedom in American colleges Tait says, “Vassar will stick by its guns to the last.”
The idea of the place is expressed by the term “Vassar citizenship.” It is one of the few colleges which has no restrictive quota for Jewish or Negro students. Entrance is strictly competitive and family wealth is no help. One girl in five is on a scholarship, all of which, by the way, are open to Canadian girls, more of whom Dean Tait would be pleased to see enrolling at Vassar. There are a dozen Canadian students at Vassar now and about 100 alumnae. In fact the first Dean of Vassar, then called the Lady Principal, was a Montreal schoolmarm named Hannah W. Lyman.
Vassar girls are encouraged to study the sources. The college is antitextbook and does not believe in passing out cut-and-dried ideas, but rather giving students all the data and getting them to think. College boys arriving for week-end dates at Vassar are likely to be met and taken to the handsome Gothic library to amuse themselves while their girl friends finish up some reading. A West Point fiancé was taken so often to a Saturday morning Shakespeare class that he took the final exam and almost passed it. Vassar even has male students—the remnant of 100 ex-servicemen who were hospitably enrolled after the war by a college which likes to break stuffy traditions.
Vassar’s barnyard costumes serve to banish dressing-up competition among the girls. Cars are not allowed—millions of bicycles are. Rooms and roommates are drawn by lot, according to
seniority, and everyone pays the same $1,600 a year fee for tuition, room, board and extracurricular activities. As a private school without government aid Vassar has the usual faculty salary problems.
The students help the college on its fund-raising committees and are invited each year to hear the budget read and discuss it. “At Vassar,” an undergraduate said, “committees go on forever.”
Vassar is identified popularly with its famous daisy chain, carried by picked sophomores to honor the seniors during commencement week. Even the daisy chain is not a sacred tradition. Joan Wharton, the black-eyed president of the student senate, says, “The daisy chain may be nice, but I think it stinks. Those daisies cost $50 and we could use the money for something more useful.”
Dean Tait can listen to hair-raising subversive statements like this without batting a grey eye. The girls don’t treat her like a dean. Marion Tait has found that this is the best technique for deaning.
Her watchword is availability. Jane Knight says, “Day or night anybody with a real problem can see her. And, I might tell you, they do. Once we had a miraculous afternoon with nothing in the date book. A man came in and said, ‘I don’t have any problem. My daughter has no problem. I just want to meet the dean she is always talking about.’ That took 40 minutes, then seven other people came in.”
Vassar’s 16,000 graduates since 1867 may be a drop in the educational bucket, but the drop has been like a bicarbonate tablet fizzing around in the bucket. Recently two economics instructors surveyed 7,613 graduates to find out what they had become. The average product proved to be a Republican Episcopalian mother of two active in the affairs of a small eastern U. S. community and administering a family income of more than $5,000.
The pollsters were startled by this prosaic statistical person—she did not sound like Vassar at all. They went over the questionnaires again to find how many graduates fit the average. They couldn’t find a woman among the 7,613 who did. ★