The Vassar Bubble Has Popped

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News flash. Vassar College has released its audited financial statement for the fiscal year 2016.[1] It’s a shocker.
  1. Before you open it, have a seat. Breathe deeply.
  2. Find the bottom line (p. 17). Subtract $928.8 million (June 30, 2016) from $983.0 million (July 1, 2015). Yes, it’s true. We suffered a net loss of fifty-four million dollars.
  3. Clutch your chest and hyperventilate.

Vassar’s budget-busting collapse in 2016 is exceeded only by the endowment’s plunge in the 2008/9 financial crisis—but that was a blow that was felt by all colleges. Last year many investments did just fine: fossil fuels were the only sector that suffered significant market losses.[2] For our beloved Vassar, however, a record $92.3 million received in net revenue for tuition, room, and board, supplemented by a meager $10.4 million in charitable donations, could not offset a $17.1 million loss on investments (guess why), coupled with a $51.1 million drawdown on the endowment for operating expenses. On 30 June 2016 Vassar closed the fiscal year with $54,157,000 less wealth than the year before.[3]

Had we lined up those lost Vassar dollars end-to-end while we still had them, they would have stretched the full length of Interstate 80 from the East coast to the West and almost back again, with just 94 miles yet to go for a cool swim at the Atlantic beach from which we started. But let’s bring it on home: Had the college in 2016 invested wisely enough and expended funds cautiously enough merely to break even, Stephen Dahnert, our VP for Finance and Administration, could have closed out the year by giving to each and every Vassar student a spanking new Honda Civic LX ($20,275 x 2,435) and still come out way ahead.

You can’t say that no one saw it coming. Last May, Boilerplate published a special report on the college’s finances: “When the Vassar Bubble Pops — What Then?”[4]

That’s no longer just a hypothetical question.   The bubble has popped. So what shall we do now? Clearly, something different: Keep on losing fifty million a year and historical Vassar College will soon be history.

ENTER ELIZABETH BRADLEY, our eleventh president. It would be unfair to Dr. Bradley to say that she has arrived in the nick of time. The nick-of-time moment passed years ago. Relative to our peer colleges, Vassar’s endowment-blimp has been losing altitude for more than a decade. President Bradley arrives after careless drones have just nicked another six-percent hole in the envelope. To repair the leak and stabilize our trajectory, she will need everyone’s cooperation. Sacrifices will have to be made.

Forget the Honda Civic. Think about the college. As Vassar moves forward under a new President, and (hopefully) a new Dean of the Faculty, and (hopefully) a new Vice President for Finance and Administration, and (hopefully) far fewer Deans and Associate Deans and Assistant Deans and Directors and Associate Directors and Vice Presidents altogether, what would you—the student—most like to see? Greater financial-aid discounts to low-income and middle-class applicants? New faculty-hires (young rising stars who can mentor you and assist you with their professional contacts and letters of recommendation)? Improved racial diversity? Better support services? Air-conditioning in the residence halls? Conversion from heating-oil to solar? Better food in the Deece?

Dream on!  In February, the Board of Trustees will be meeting with Betsy Bradley to discuss the college’s financial straits. Here’s a prediction (you heard it here first, but it has already been whispered throughout the faculty): in the aftermath of eye-popping losses, the Board will prepare the way for President Bradley to announce the end of “need-blind” in favor of a “need-sensitive” admissions policy. The alternative: make the change anyway, but don’t announce it; or at least, not for a while.

Either way, if you’re attending Vassar on financial aid and your kid sibling wants to follow in your footsteps, you may as well give your parents a heads-up: that younger sibling will not get the same deal you got. There’s not enough money to spread around without putting the endowment into a nosedive—or, as our generous Trustees would prefer to call it, “financial disequilibrium,” which is a condition in which your lifeboat has a hole in it and you’re sinking faster than you can bail.

Applications to Vassar? Down 8.5%—and the rate of decline is accelerating. Vassar still receives favorable notice in the press and in college-rankings for our generous tuition-discounting, but how much longer can that last? If Vassar abandons its trump card, a professed commitment to need-blind admissions, new applications may drop another ten percent or more.

The faculty supported the 2007 move to need-blind. Most of us still do. Vassar thereby gets the best students, regardless of family income. (I mean, just look at you—whether rich or poor, you’re terrific). The opposite extreme—making ability-to-pay a priority for admission—would result in a campus largely populated by lower-achieving rich kids. A vote for need-blind admissions is a vote for high academic achievement and for socioeconomic diversity. But someone has got to pay. Without draconian cuts in college administration, supplemented by a massive increase in private donations, Vassar’s need-blind admissions and generous tuition discounts will not survive.

The thing to understand about financial aid is that it is not chiefly an expense. It’s a waiver on fees, offset by full-pay students. To illustrate: you and I own competing ski resorts. I charge $1,000 for a season pass. You charge only $600. Let’s say we both sell one thousand season passes at the sticker price, and we both sell two thousand passes to low-income college students and senior citizens for just $500. For the discounted passes, you and I net exactly the same revenue ($1 million). My total revenue from season passes is nevertheless higher than yours (by $400,000), and my average revenue per skier ($666) is higher than yours ($533). But my reported “financial aid” to low-income skiers also totals one million dollars (2,000 x a $500 discount) while you issued only $200,000 in financial aid (2,000 x a $100 discount). So if my slopes have the highest sticker price in the Northeast but I can still attract just as many full-pay skiers as the lower-priced resorts, it’s a win-win: more revenue for me plus a reputation for big discounts. But my resort had better maintain good powder, fast chair-lifts, and tasty cafeteria food. If I begin to lose my full-pay skiers, I won’t be able to offer as many discounted season passes to my financial-aid skiers. And if I compensate by raising my season pass to $1,200, the full-pay skiers may as well hop on a plane to Idaho every weekend and ski Sun Valley instead.

Crisis: At the exact moment when my revenue no longer covers my fixed expenses, the whole shebang can go downhill with breakneck speed. To prevent catastrophe: If I can’t get away with raising the sticker-price, then next year everybody who has been getting a discount must pay more for a season lift-ticket.

Having bumped Trinity College into second place, Harvey Mudd into third, and Sarah Lawrence into fourth, Vassar is now the priciest baccalaureate college in North America.[5] If the sticker price gets much higher, the full-pay students will go elsewhere; in which case, we also lose the means to attract bright middle- and low-income students by the widely-honored custom of soaking Peter to subsidize Paul.

We’re already in trouble. Applications to Vassar over the past six years, 2011-2016, have fallen from 7,985 in 2011 to 7,306 in 2016. During the same five-year period, all but one of our twenty self-identified peer colleges report increased applications (the exception: a 2% decline at Williams). Applications to Bryn Mawr College for the same six-year period are up 23.8%. Franklin & Marshall, up 40.0%. Mount Holyoke, up 12.9%. Smith, up 21.3%. Swarthmore, up 19.4%. Applications to Vassar? Down 8.5%—and the rate of decline is accelerating.[6] Vassar still receives favorable notice in the press and in college-rankings for our generous tuition-discounting, but how much longer can that last? If Vassar abandons its trump card, a professed commitment to need-blind admissions, new applications may drop another ten percent or more. As our “selectivity” goes down, Vassar also loses ground in those infamous but influential national rankings, so that ambitious parents will be saying, “Honey, maybe you should think about applying to Davidson or Hamilton instead.”

Because revenue cannot be increased significantly by further spikes in tuition, the college hereafter will need to admit more full-pay students—lots of them, even if they’re not half as smart as you and your classmates. But the repeal of need-blind is at best a salve, not a cure. For one thing, just because we admit more wealthy applicants going forward, it doesn’t mean that they will come: our “yield” (those who enroll after having been admitted) is much higher for lower-income than for wealthy applicants. With all of the priciest colleges competing for students from Choate, Harvard Westlake, Horace Mann, Hotchkiss, Lawrenceville, Phillips Academy, Phillips Exeter, Riverside Country, Winsor, et al., the graduating seniors of those elite schools can write their own ticket to the college of their choice. To woo and win the richest of preppies, Vassar needs flashy amenities that we can no longer afford, such as A-list faculty and convenient parking for student-owned Audis and BMWs. But to enroll top-flight middle-income students such as yourself who might otherwise go to Amherst or Bowdoin or Cornell or Xavier or Yeshiva, we need to offer big discounts on the comprehensive fee.

President Bradley comes to Vassar from Yale’s Branford College. Yale has need-blind undergraduate admissions and meets 100% of financial need. The minimum wage paid for work-study jobs is $12.25 an hour.  83% of Yale students graduate without loan-debt. Yale’s tuition and fees this year are $45,800; and Vassar’s, $53,090. Yale this year (including Branford College) has 5,453 undergraduates, Vassar has 2,450. But Yale’s endowment as of 30 June 2016 (with a 3.4% return on investments) stood at $25.4 billion.  That means Yale has in the bank $4.1 million more per student to spend on instruction and services than will be available to Elizabeth Bradley upon coming to Vassar. Catch-22: She can’t hike tuition much higher without losing full-pay students. But she can’t keep admitting students with financial need when the college’s own financial needs cannot be met.

When I was a new Ph.D. from the University of California applying for an assistant professorship, Vassar was still one of the fifty wealthiest colleges or universities in America. Thirty years later in 2015, Smith College was the 51st richest.   Grinnell, #50, Swarthmore, #49, and Wellesley, #48. Vassar by that time had dropped to the 99th position.[7]  That decline in turn limits the benefits and services that we can provide to our students, and may even diminish the value of a Vassar education.

Our accelerating financial slide has not yet put a dent in the quantity or cost of administration. By 2015, Vassar was already spending more dollars-per-student on “Institutional Support”[8] than most other baccalaureate colleges. And yet, despite persistent warnings and many red flags, Vassar’s 2016 expense for administration climbed 12.5% to another record high ($38.9M). Fund-raising costs rose 14.1% (to $7.3M). The “Instruction”[9] budget was again flat-lined.

Financial mismanagement of an organization works somewhat like cancer in an organism, or like a planet that is flatulent with greenhouse gases: to all appearances, everything’s fine until the symptoms become painful.

(One bright spot: Net revenue from student payments, after financial aid, has risen three years in a row. But that’s because the administration since 2013 has held the line on discounts while continuing to hike the comprehensive fee.)

Our Poughkeepsie neighbor, Marist College, last year set full-pay tuition at $33,250, when Vassar’s was still just $50,500. Vassar offered more generous financial aid: $61.9M in discounts spread among 2,435 students (an average of $25,400 per capita); many of whom, of course, received no discount at all. Marist, with 5,121 full time students, awarded just $49.6 million in financial aid (average: $9,700 per student). The bottom line: for tuition, room, and board, after financial aid, Vassar students paid an averaged $38,000 each to the institution for a year’s study, while Marist students paid an averaged $24,500.[10]

Those tuition funds, once collected, were then spent differently. For every dollar siphoned off for Institutional Support, Marist spent $3.89 on Instruction while Vassar spent $1.89. Or, to put it the other way around: for every Instruction dollar, Marist tacks on a thirty-cent surcharge for administration, and Vassar, fifty-three cents (omitting in each case the budgets for “Student Services,”[11] “Research,”[12] and “Academic Support” [13]).

Think of endowment-cash as helium that keeps the balloon air-borne. Financial Aid and Institutional Support are the freightage. For every burdensome financial-aid student that you throw from the basket without a parachute, you gain some lift. Or you can eject unproductive officers (with or without a golden parachute), and ride the updraft—that is, unless your plan is to add more. As Vassar’s tenth president, Catharine Hill produced new deanships and new vice-presidencies like rabbits from Matthew Vassar’s top-hat, but at college expense. Her first executive action was to fire our capable and well-liked Director of Administrative Services (an African-American), on alleged grounds that his position on Hill’s “new team” was to be eliminated (he filed an EO suit and settled out of court). He was replaced with Cappy’s newly created Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources; a newly created Associate Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources; a newly created Assistant Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources; plus a Faculty Housing Manager. If the College moving forward under President Bradley can now muddle along with just one less dean or vice president, that nets a savings for all 2,450 Vassar students of $101-$154 a year (depending on which superfluous deanship is eliminated).

Vassar has long been suffering from what the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service calls “Excessive Executive Compensation.” One million dollars a year may be excused (some may argue) as “fair and reasonable” payment for the college president whose fund-raising activities yield a cash haul of $50 million a year in alumni donations. But the president who hikes his own pay to $300,000 a year on dwindling alumni support and a withering endowment has some explaining to do. It’s one thing to outspend your resources and leave your successor holding the bag. President Hill took the bag and left our new president holding an I.O.U. for $172 million in long-term debt acquired since 1 July 2006, when Cappy first reported to work.

Financial mismanagement of an organization works somewhat like cancer in an organism, or like a planet that is flatulent with greenhouse gases: to all appearances, everything’s fine until the symptoms become painful. But by that time it may already be too late for the ailing subject to be saved. In their February meeting, the Board of Trustees will issue President Bradley a prescription for two life-saving remedies: Increase revenue. Reduce spending.

Warning: you, the student, may experience side effects from the prescribed treatment. $12.25 an hour compensation for student-employment will not be one of them.

But while we’re on the subject, the Admissions Office teases potential applicants to Vassar with a promise of gainful employment: by working the maximum eight hours a week for the maximum $10 an hour, a first-year student can “anticipate earning about $1,750 during the year.”[14] Welcome, class of 2020: refuse financial aid, take a work-study job, and you can expect to pay Vassar’s full $65,490 comprehensive fee for 2016/17 in just under thirty-seven years. What? You mean to tell me that college officers giving themselves six-figure salaries cannot afford to give smart and highly skilled work-study students a raise to $15 an hour? President Hill could have covered much of that $5 boost, just from her own personal expense account, which was raised in 2007—her first year in control of the budget—from $2,988 to $23,601, and climbed upward from there. If our senior officers with compensation packages of $200,000 – $700,000 a year had to work for student-wages, they might well rethink the values implicit in Cappy Hill’s self-contented remark, that “it is better to be rich and not that smart, than it is to be smart and poor.”[15]

For an institution as for an individual, to increase income is more difficult than to cut spending. We cannot forever squeeze more tuition dollars from your parents or from Pell Grants. Where, then, will the money come from? From charitable giving? Yes, gifts from loyal alumni! Start dialing, and let them know: we could use some help, here.

Alas, that has not gone well, either.

Apart from need-blind admissions, the signature projects of Cappy Hill and Jon Chenette—redevelopment of the Arlington Business District; a permanent military presence on campus; increased surveillance; administrative colonization of Blegen House, of Pratt House, of the College Center, of Kendrick House; a proposed Convention Center on the site of the Josselyn tennis courts—never generated much enthusiasm from alumni donors; or from the faculty. Even the “Integrated Science Center” met with tepid enthusiasm. The Hill administration pushed ahead with a $90-million design, a concrete bridge spanning the Fonteynkill valley from Skinner Music Hall to the Chapel and no tree left behind. But that project went so deep underwater, so fast, that the Trustees in 2012/13 had to come to the rescue with an astonishing $26.6 million from their own personal wealth—nearly as much as the other 38,000+ alumni put together. A year later, the Trustees contributed another $16.2 million.[16] Meanwhile, alumni participation in the annual fund fell to an all-time low of 27.9%; to another record low in 2015 of 23.7%; to another record low in 2016 (not yet computed but estimated to be lower than 20%, unless we write off those alums who have said they no longer wish to be solicited).[17]

I mention Amherst because Biddy Martin last year burned through college cash even faster than Cappy Hill—but with this difference: Amherst had a financial cushion. Having no reserve to fall back on, Vassar hit the tarmac. And it will be Vassar’s students, not Amherst’s, who will feel the concussion: in the years to come, financial aid, student services, instruction, research, the library, may all come under the budget knife.

The decline in alumni support is not for lack of direct mail and telephone calls. Indeed, Vassar’s expenses for fund-raising during the Hill-Chenette years have blown through the roof, climbing by 2015 to the third-highest of any college in our peer group and rising another 14% in 2016. The swelling ranks of our Develop­ment/AAVC staff (60) now outnumber our Assistant Professors, Instructors, and Lectur­ers combined (48). But it seems that the more we spend on fund-raising, the less we receive from our alumni. The college’s audited financial statement for 2016 indicates that Vassar garnered just enough in private giving last year to cover the college’s cost in asking for it: Add salaries and benefits for the Development staff—almost $400,000/year for the VP alone—plus $7.3 million in fund-raising expenses, for a meager haul of $10.4 million in restricted and unrestricted gifts (a level we haven’t seen since 2005), and the whole endeavor looks like a wash.[18]

Have our alumni no loyalty? No pity? Why are they no longer giving to the alma mater? Do they not see that the house is on fire?

There may be many reasons for the seeming parsimony. Here’s one: The alumni, even those who majored in the sciences, chose Vassar because they love the humanities. That well-roundedness has not been a subsequent clog on their scientific careers. Members of the AAVC and AAAVC have bragging rights in virtually every field of mathematics, medicine, and the sciences.[19] Always strong in the sciences, Vassar’s science curriculum only grew stronger under President Fran Fergusson, an art historian. So how are the alumni to understand this maddening compulsion of the Hill-Chenette administration to starve the humanities, from early-decision applications right through post-commencement fellowships? Our number of History majors since 1 July 2006 has been reduced by 35%. English, by 36%. Film, by 39%. Art 45%. Jewish Studies and Medieval Renaissance Studies, by half. American Culture, Hispanic Studies, Latin American Studies, Independent Program, all reduced by 57%-80%. Africana Studies, down by 90%.[20] Do these senior officers not realize that they are slowly destroying Vassar’s character?

From 2007 to 2016, through dismissals and attrition, the Hill-Chenette administration reduced the teaching-faculty in my own department from 39 to 27 (to 21, if we omit two members newly retired, two others who may not return after their sabbatical, and two persons denied tenure who will not be returning next year; none of whom is likely to be replaced). The upshot: in the current academic year, thirty-seven of the catalogue-courses in Vassar’s once-famous Department of English are not being taught because we have no way to staff them.[21]  In terms of body-count in the classroom, most of what we teach now is the Freshman Writing Seminar. Students have already been forced either to choose another major than English, or not graduate on time.  Next year promises to be worse.

On the plus side: thanks to a sweeping change in admissions policy having nothing to do with financial aid, the sciences at Vassar are thriving better than ever. Biology majors are up 246% over 2006. Geography, up 225%. Biochemistry, up 111%. Computer Science, doubled. Economics, Mathematics, Neuroscience, Physics, and Religion, all up 30%-60%.[22] Those are worthy pursuits, every one of them. You may have come to Vassar to study economics, or science, or math. You may even have been admitted to Vassar because you wanted to study the hard sciences. Super. My own son, Blake, class of 2006, was a Vassar math major. He received an excellent education, now earns more money than I do, and loves his job. I consider his success one of the best compensations I could have from Vassar for my thirty years of service to the college. But here’s how a majority of our living alumni think (right or wrong): Vassar has enough science majors. Save the humanities.

Thanks to social media, Vassar’s 38,000 alumni of record are remarkably well-connected, not just with one another but with their fondly-remembered classroom instructors. When communicating with former students, a prof. may occasionally address current campus issues. No big deal. But when six of ten employees believe that the college is headed in the wrong direction, and can get no hearing from senior officers or the Board of Trustees, that’s a problem: the alumni tend to side with the faculty and stop giving. And once someone stops giving to the alma mater, it can be difficult for the Development Office and Alumni Association to restore donor-loyalty.

One of the most important jobs of a college president is to inspire the alumni to open their hearts and checkbooks to the ongoing mission of their alma mater. Presidents Debora Spar (Barnard) and Laurie Patton (Middlebury), though paid much less than Vassar’s president, have received from their respective constituencies more than twice Vassar’s yield in private gifts, year after year after year. So, too, for many others. The president of Amherst College, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, is one of the nation’s most highly paid: in 2015, Biddy received $11,000 more in salary and deferred compensation than our own Cappy. The telling difference is that Martin from 2006 to 2015 increased Amherst’s endowment by $856 million, while Vassar’s endowment during the same nine-year period increased by $241 million—$97 million of which was contributed by our incredibly generous trustees, $54 million of which was then lost again in 2016.

As recently as 1998, Vassar was wealthier than Amherst. We should be wealthier still. Vassar has 69% more living alumni of record than Amherst (2015/6: 38,400 v. 22,700). Other things being equal (although they never are, of course), one might expect our endowment to have grown at least 50% faster than Amherst’s from robust alumni giving to both schools. Instead, Amherst’s endowment today stands at more than $2 billion while Vassar has $928 million and shrinking. That’s still a lot of moolah but not enough to support comparable academic programs. Take the line-item for “Student Services”: Amherst last year spent $16,267 per capita on student services; and Vassar, $7,598 per student. Amherst also exceeded Vassar in per-student expenditures for Academic Support, Research, the Library, and Academic Prizes. I mention Amherst because Biddy Martin last year burned through college cash even faster than Cappy Hill—but with this difference: Amherst had a financial cushion. Having no reserve to fall back on, Vassar hit the tarmac. And it will be Vassar’s students, not Amherst’s, who will feel the concussion: in the years to come, financial aid, student services, instruction, research, the library, may all come under the budget knife.

If we can unite in our diversity, with respect for one another, for civility, for college legislation, for right-sharing of endowment resources; and if everyone participates fully in our educational and social mission, then the money will eventually take care of itself.

If President Bradley wants to get off on the right foot with alumni and faculty, she might consider announcing an immediate if temporary cap of $200,000 for annual compensation-packages, including her own. It’s a great honor to be a professor or a senior officer of Vassar College. Those who are devoted to our educational mission should not need to be bribed with corporate-sized pay to participate in the continuation and development of Matthew Vassar’s dream.

Either way, the search committee and our Board of Trustees have clearly made a wonderful choice.

I have been reading about Elizabeth Bradley. “From her arrival on our campus, she has been a champion for innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration,” said university President Peter Salovey. “She has enriched immeasurably the life of our campus community.” Comments from Yale on news of her departure were full of admiration from colleagues and students alike, with congratulations to Vassar mixed with deep affection and a bittersweet sense of loss: “spectacular news for Vassar but a sad day for Branford” (C. Sheard); “An inspired choice” (D. Blumenthal). “Big coup for Vassar. You’ll be missed at Yale, Betsy” (D. Bach); “Vassar has no idea how lucky they are!” (S. Addenbrooke). Bradley on coming to Vassar will exhibit a “great commitment to the underserved students there” (K. Moore).[23]

An economist with expertise in public health policy, Dr. Bradley has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers and has three books, the most recent of which is titled, The American Healthcare Paradox: Why Spending More is Getting Us Less. That sounds to my ears like a scholar who will quickly grasp the Vassar College Tuition Paradox. I believe that Betsy Bradley will find ways to meet the challenges we face without reducing either the instruction budget or student services. With cuts elsewhere, she may even be able to maintain financial aid at current levels.

Now that we know who will be leading us forward, there is no better time than right now for us to think about who we are, what we stand for, and where we want to go. If we can unite in our diversity, with respect for one another, for civility, for college legislation, for right-sharing of endowment resources; and if everyone participates fully in our educational and social mission, then the money will eventually take care of itself.

The Charter for Vassar College was signed on 18 January 1861. A few weeks later, at Poughkeepsie’s Hotel Gregory, Matthew Vassar met with our first Board of Trustees. There he stated his ideals, his mission, and declared his vision for the college that would forever bear his name. Placing certain restrictions on the endowment, Vassar presented the trustees with a tin box containing one half of his personal fortune—$408,000 ($10.6 million in 2017 dollars)—plus a deed of conveyance for 200 acres of land. If our founder were now resurrected from the dead to meet with the Board of Trustees in February 2017, perhaps he would keep his cash and share five six-packs with them instead—but I think not. I believe he would be dumbstruck with joy to learn what a great institution arose from his dream. The world since 1861 has been changed for the better in so many ways, and by so many different Vassar grads, that if he had it to do over, who knows, Matthew Vassar might even have passed on earned privileges for himself and his family—a bigger house, a new horse-and-carriage, a Florida vacation—in order to invest a little more in his college. In any case, I think that Mr. Vassar from his current resting place will not object if I remind the Board what his dream was all about, in his own words (with my added brackets and italics, for clarity):

“Gentlemen [and Gentlewomen]:

“As my long-cherished purpose to apply a large portion of my estate to some benevolent object is now about to be accomplished, it seems proper that I should submit to you a statement of my motives, views, and wishes…

“It is not my purpose to make Vassar…a charity school whose advantages shall be free to all without charge—for benefits so cheaply obtained, are cheaply held. But it is believed the funds of the institution will enable it to offer, to all, the highest educational facilities, at a moderate expense (as compared with the cost of instruction in existing seminaries). I earnestly hope the funds will also prove sufficient to warrant the gratuitous admission of a considerable number of indigent students annually (at least, … as a loan to be subsequently repaid from the avails of teaching or otherwise). Preference should be given to beneficiaries of decided promise, such as are likely to distinguish themselves in some particular department or pursuit…


“I desire that the College may be provided with commodious buildings, containing ample apartments for public instruction…

“After the College edifice has been erected and furnished with all needful aids and appliances for imparting the most perfect education of body, mind, and heart, it is my judgment and wish that the amount remaining in hand should be safely invested, to remain as a principal; only the annual income of which should be expended in the preservation of the buildings and grounds, the support of the faculty, the replenishing and enlarging of the library, cabinet, art gallery, etc., and in adding to the capital on hand [i.e., no drawdown on the endowment]; so that the College, instead of being impoverished and tending to decay from year to year, shall always contain within itself the elements of growth and expansion, of increasing power, prosperity, and usefulness.

“In conclusion, gentlemen [and gentlewomen,] this enterprise—which I regard as the last great work of my life—I commit to you as a sacred trust, which I feel assured you will discharge with fidelity and uprightness, with wisdom and prudence, with ability and energy.” [24]

—M. VASSAR (Feb. 26, 1861)


Postscript, from a member of the Vassar community, 155 years later:

Dear President Bradley:

In May 2012, after nearly six years of a relentless crusade that finally wore down faculty resistance, Catharine Bond Hill imposed upon the Vassar College community a new and greatly diminished Mission Statement, rescinding the stated mission of the Fergusson years—and replaced it with a milquetoast paragraph in tortured syntax that says nothing specific except to note that Vassar was founded in 1861. As your first order of business—before you announce cuts in financial aid, and before you begin the work of fund-raising—please articulate anew what you believe the mission of Vassar College should be. If you share our values, you can count on our support.

Welcome to Vassar College, one of the world’s great academic institutions. Let us now join hands to make it even greater.

Donald W. Foster                                                                                                                                                                 Department of English                                                                                                                                                                   Vassar College


Correction: On Feb. 3, NACUBO released its Endowment Study.  Vassar remains 99th for institutional wealth.  The original version of this article stated that Vassar was no longer one of the 100 wealthiest schools.

[1] Vassar College, Financial Statements, [FY2016], with Independent Auditors’ Report Thereon. Online, <>, p. 18.
[2] Senior officers, take note: it was a mistake for you to have stonewalled the students of Divest VC.
[3] Ibid., pp. 3, 18.
[4] Boilerplate Magazine, <> (12 May 2016).
[5] See, for example, “Ten Most, Least Expensive Private Colleges,” U.S. News & World Report (9 Sept. 2016)
[6] Vassar College, Vassar College Fact Book, 2015-2016, p. 15, online, <>. Figures for the other colleges are from their published Common Data Sets, also available online.
[7] NACUBO, Commonfund Study of Endowment, 2015, online, <>
[8] Institutional Support: Executive activities concerned with management and long-range planning; fiscal operations including fund-raising expenses; personnel records; campus security, space management, alumni relations. (In the present article “administration” is used as a synonym for “Institutional Support”; but there are of course administrative expenses that attend all of the other budget categories as well.)
[9] Instruction: chiefly, faculty salaries (but also, an undisclosed percentage of officer salaries, including the president’s); departmental administrative assistants; course catalogues, field trips, classroom media services, Learning Center.
[10] Marist College, Consolidated Financial Statements <>.
[11] Student Services. Expenditures for activities and services whose primary purpose is to contribute to the student’s emotional and physical well-being and intellectual and cultural development outside the formal Instruction program; examples include health services, student activities, cultural events, student publications, intramural and intercollegiate athletics, the VSA, counseling and career guidance.
[12] Research:   All expenditures for activities intended to produce research outcomes, including individual and/or project research, as well as costs associated with administration of grants.
[13] Academic Support: Libraries and galleries, academic computing support, course and curriculum development, media services. Also, academic administration (including the Dean of Studies and class advisors)
[14] “Campus Employment,” Vassar College <>. Accessed 13 Jan. 2017.
[15] Catharine Bond Hill, “Athena, Economics, and Feathers,” Fall Convocation, Vassar College (7 Sept. 2016); online, <>. Accessed 13 Jan. 2017.
[16] “Trustee Giving to Vassar,” Fact Book, p. 70. To remain competitive, Vassar cannot afford further expansion or undertake new building projects without first rebuilding the endowment. In 2006 when Hill became president, Vassar carried less than $77 million in long-term debt. By 2013, that figure hit $254.6 million. To erect new buildings with borrowed money when our endowment-growth already lags behind our peers, is madness. In 2016, Vassar paid more than $2 million just to pay down long-term debt. (Vassar College, “2006 Financial Report,” p. 21; “2007 Financial Report,” p. 14; 2016 Financial Report, p. 5.)
[17] In 2005/6 (Fergusson’s last year), 10,911 donors among 32,704 alumni of record (33%). In 2014/15: 10,009/35,879. In 2016: 9,090/38,365. Fact Book, p. 69 (But note that the number of alumni “solicited” no longer includes those grads on whom the Development Office has given up altogether, p.69n.)
[18] Audited Financial Report, pp. 7, 18 (note that the reported figures are in thousands). Form 990, FY2015, Pt. V-A.
[19] See, for example, the many prominent scholars and scientists noted in “List of Vassar College people” <>. Wikipedia’s list of distinguished alumni includes two of our current trustees, the economist Philip Jefferson (class of ’83) and the cognitive neuroscientist, Jamshed Bharucha (class of ’78).
[20] Fact Book, p. 43.
[21] “English Department,” Vassar Catalogue, 2016-2017,
[22] Fact Book, pp. 43-5.
[23] @ebhyale, Twitter (11-12 Jan. 2017) <>.
[24] Matthew Vassar, “Address to Board of Trustees, 26 Feb. 1861.” Vassar College Library, online facsimile, <>. Transcribed D. Foster 18 Jan. 2017. For a printed transcription (with a few mistakes), see Communications to the Board of Trustees of Vassar College by its Founder, ed. anon. (NY: John A. Gray and Green, 1869), 5-8.

1 Comment

  • x says:

    Why is Religion being listed as a hard science? It is a social science and a humanity, like History, Education, Philosophy, Poli Sci, etc. Surely no money is being funneled into the Religion department, it is one of the smallest departments on campus with only around ~5 majors a year. A 30-60% increase in majors means about two more majors. Seems strange to list it alongside Neuroscience, Biochem, and Economics as a “hard science.”

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