Frances D. Fergusson

The Idea of A University: Vassar

VTR Date: March 4, 1997

Guest: Fergusson, Frances D.


Guest: Dr. Frances D. Fergusson
Title: “The Idea of a University”
VTR: 3/4/97

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today’s program is another of an occasional series on what in the Nineteenth Century John Henry Cardinal Newman described famously as “The idea of a university.” Important then, this idea looms ever more challenging to Americans now as we prepare for the Millennium. And my guest today, in heading a major liberal arts college established in the 1860s for women, but now coeducational, plays a most significant role in the continuing reassessment of what goals higher education in America can and must achieve.

A Phi Beta Kappa Wellesley graduate with masters and doctoral degrees in art history from Harvard University, Frances Daley Fergusson became the ninth president of Vassar College on July 1, 1986. And, in once again addressing the idea of a university, let me begin today by asking Dr. Fergusson to elaborate upon a statement she made at a recent Vassar convocation to the effect that, “Liberal arts education in America began because of the fervent belief that it was a precondition for good citizenship and a healthy civic life in our nation.” What did you mean? What is the significance of that statement, Dr. Fergusson?

FERGUSSON: I think it shows some of the very strong influence of Newman and thinking in the United States about higher education. There was in the middle years of the Nineteenth Century an enormous flowering of educational institutions. They were popping up everyplace like mushrooms, all over the American soil. Because every locality, every state, every denomination, every group wanted to have a chance for its particular citizenry to be educated. They picked up very much on Newman’s idea that education was an end in itself, but that it had one very important component, and that was to create better citizens. That people would become good citizens if they had common goals, common ideals, a common understanding of what the country was all about and what their heritage was all about. Taken together, these common goals would create citizens that would move forward towards a better and more effective country.

HEFFNER: But why does the emphasis upon liberal arts loom so large?

FERGUSSON: I think that there are two possible routes that education can go: one is the education for vocation; the other is education for the liberal arts and for the abstract edification of the mind. Newman focused very, very much on the second. He believed very strongly that people who were educated in the liberal arts and sciences would have a quality of mind, a generosity of spirit, an ability to understand the history of their culture and the important lessons that history would give that would give them the ability to be flexible in the current moment. He was fighting very much against the utilitarianism of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century, the kind of writings of Benjamin and his advocates. And he felt very strongly the utilitarianism was of some danger to the country, that it tended to be very much far to the left, that it could, in fact, encourage sedition and other problems. Instead, he saw the liberal arts as essentially a conservative construction that would guarantee the continuity of life and guarantee some of the values that people would carry forward.

Now, what’s interesting about this is that we’ve flipped entirely in our appreciation today. We tend to think of utilitarian education in business or law or medicine as essentially being a very conservative thing; and, instead, we think of the liberal arts as being not at all conservative, but rather, potentially, very, very far to the left, very much the critique of society rather than the reinforcement of society.

HEFFNER: Liberal arts ideal isn’t winning today, is it, if one can put it in terms of winning and losing?

FERGUSSON: It is in some contexts; it isn’t in others. I think that we see a great many liberal arts institutions that have had to very much change the nature of what they do, that their missions have altered to include a great deal of vocationalism, a great deal of studies in areas such as management and accounting, engineering, whatever it may be. The liberal arts colleges in general, of the top tier of the liberal arts colleges in any case, have remained pretty true to the ideals of the liberal arts, and have not altered that significantly.

We believe, fundamentally, that an education in the liberal arts is going to be the best possible preparation for the future. Students who find themselves too narrowly constructed in the lessons they have learned thus far, in other words, those who follow a steady vocational path, will find that they are very quickly outdated in the skills that they have or the knowledge that they’ve learned. Students in the liberal arts, I believe, fundamentally, have the flexibility of mind to take on all sorts of different kinds of challenges as they move along.

HEFFNER: Do you feel under any constraints to respond to those who criticize and say that ideal is an elitist ideal?

FERGUSSON: I don’t think it’s elitist to open up the world to people. I think it’s the exact opposite. I think it is an elitist attitude to say that certain people only should be trained for specific things in life. I think, instead, we’re taking students from across the entire socioeconomic spectrum and giving them the opportunity to move very forcefully in any of the arenas of life. That’s one of the, I think, misperceptions, is that our schools, as elite institutions — and we certainly offer elite opportunities — are elite in their essence. There are… Our student bodies are extremely diverse geographically, ethnically, socio-economically.

HEFFNER: You’re talking about Vassar now.

FERGUSSON: I’m talking about Vassar, definitely. Yes. But other schools of the highest, as it were, quality in the liberal arts throughout this country are schools that are making an extremely strong effort — and I can’t overstate that — an extremely strong effort to make sure that we are incorporating a wide range of individuals within our institutions. It’s not at all an education for just those who are very wealthy or who have had some benefits and advantages in their past.

HEFFNER: Suppose we raise that question in another way, and suppose I ask you whether that education doesn’t, however, create an elite. You make it not for an elite; but aren’t you creating an elite?

FERGUSSON: Well, perhaps we’re getting back to your first question about what good citizenship is. And I think what we’re creating are people with the humane sympathies to go out and do things for the rest of the citizenry of this country, that one person once said to me, “Why should we contribute to Vassar? There are so many good causes out there. We have so many important things that are happening in our own locality, so many crying needs that exist.” And my answer was, simply, “You should because we are educating the people that are going to go out and address those needs, that you, as a Vassar graduate yourself, are out there addressing them. If you look around you, you see many, many other Vassar graduates at your side.” So we are educating people who care about society and are going to go out there and do something about the issues that exist, that are not content to just simply carry forward in a kind of routine way with the lives that they have existed, but keep looking out beyond those lives and seeing what needs to be done and making sure that there is some attention to those broader means.

HEFFNER: What you were doing in emphasizing the liberal arts curriculum is, I gather, not what many, many, many institutions of a higher education are doing in this country today. In terms of numbers, raw numbers, students being educated… Forgive me. I shouldn’t say that. …students going to institutions of higher education. And what you’re doing is, in a sense, a very, reflects a minority effort.

FERGUSSON: I think that’s accurate. I think that more and more people have recognized the importance of contact with the liberal arts and education in the liberal arts in order to create people who have the flexibility to face the future. And, to some extent, I think the liberal arts are coming back in people’s awareness of their importance. But you’re right that a great deal of education today is more vocationally based, or much more specific.

If we go back to Newman for a second, I would say that Newman’s ideals are probably best being seen today in the liberal arts colleges rather than in the universities, because we are small enough to talk about some of the integration of knowledge that was so important to him, and instead of people being, again, in the universities, tracked within departments within very stipulated and careful boundaries of knowledge, that in a liberal arts college everything interconnects, that there is a great deal of conversation across those boundaries, and that we’re able, in multi-disciplinary ways, to show people the integration of knowledge and the application of knowledge as well, how it relates very directly to the world at large.

HEFFNER: Well, Dr. Fergusson, you say “small enough.” How small is small enough?

FERGUSSON: I think it’s small enough so that you have a faculty that knows one another, small enough so that there is conversation across disciplinary boundaries, small enough that students can see the faculty working out some of these issues across those boundaries with them, small enough so that, again, in Newman’s terms, it is truly an alma mater that values its children one by one, and not as a whole. I think in the colleges of the United States today there is a real emphasis still on trying to work with each individual to promote that individual’s full abilities, and to try to make that individual into the best possible person that he or she can be. Universities will do that with some of the people who are there, but the education is much more of a mass education within the universities today. And intellectually, it’s an education which keeps those rigid boundaries of departments to a far greater extent than what we see in the liberal arts college.

HEFFNER: And in terms of numbers or percentages, where are American young people going?

FERGUSSON: They’re going more to the universities, obviously, than to the liberal arts colleges. Liberal arts colleges represent a relatively small number of institutions and relatively…

HEFFNER: And getting smaller?

FERGUSSON: And getting smaller. …and a relatively small number of individuals who go to them.

Interestingly enough, I think students put a great deal of value into the term “university.” As they start looking around to where they want to go to school and think about what their futures will be, they assume that a university is going to offer them many more opportunities, because it is larger, because it has so many different departments, because it combines both the liberal arts and many of the vocational opportunities. In fact, if they come to a liberal arts college, they’ll find that the entire institution is devoted to them and open to them in a way that may not be true within a university setting, and that there are these permeable borders among all of the disciplines and among all of the departments which allow them to develop their own intellectual life to a much richer and fuller degree.

HEFFNER: As we approach the 21st Century, and as we approach the 300 million people in our own country, what’s the inevitable fate of the smaller college?

FERGUSSON: Again, I think it’s a diverse fate. I don’t think there is any one fate.

HEFFNER: You don’t.

FERGUSSON: I think some of the smaller liberal arts colleges in this country are struggling a great deal to get their message across, in many cases to become something quite different from what they first were. I think a lot of the stronger liberal arts colleges are stronger than ever, attracting more students, having more vital academic and intellectual life than ever before; doing very well, in fact. It’s always a challenge. None of us are easy in terms of our budgets, or easy in terms of all the practicalities of life. But I think that we are seeing an ever-increasing number of students that want to come to our institutions, and who are very much engaged with the ideal of the liberal arts. There really is an ethos that exists among our students, that they want to be broadly educated, that they understand the importance of history, that they understand how they want to know science in order to make sense of this world, that they understand they need to know statistics and data in order to be sensible consumers of the kind of information that’s put out to them at all points. They are really interested in the kind of experience that a liberal arts college offers.

This comes around, I think, to some discussion about how we structure what we teach our students. But what I find exciting is how our students structure what they want to learn; that they come to us with a lot of interest in a wide range of areas, and they don’t believe that they will be an educated person unless they explore that wide range.

HEFFNER: How do you encourage… Well, I should say, “Strike that question,” because, by definition, given what Vassar is and has been, you don’t have to encourage that among your students; they come to you because they know they will have that opportunity. On the other hand, I would imagine that when you move out of the range of the top-notch liberal arts colleges, you have a tougher and tougher time helping students understand what they should structure for themselves.

FERGUSSON: I think it’s capturing imaginations. I, myself, have taught. I taught at U Mass Boston for quite a number of years. And I found there that students in my field, which is architectural history (not exactly what people would normally just decide that they would go into on their own), but once they were engrossed by it, they became very, very strongly fascinated by it. Students want to learn. They want to know something about history. They’ve often not been given a really exciting opportunity to learn all of that. I think that the average student does want to broaden his or her horizons, and it doesn’t make any difference whether they’re at an elite school or a lesser institution by some other definition. If they are given the opportunity, they will engage with the liberal arts and they’ll see the importance of it for their own lives.

HEFFNER: To what degree do you think there is that emphasis at the larger institutions? I’m now not talking about the smaller liberal arts colleges; I’m talking about the universities where scholars must have the same instincts you do, the same sense of what will help our students, but find it increasingly impossible to pursue for them, with them, a liberal arts education. The frustration must be enormous. You know what an educated person can be, is, will be. They must too. And yet the sheer matter of size works against the possibility of University X doing what Vassar College does.

FERGUSSON: I think there are different types of people who go into university teaching, and people who go into collegiate teaching. University teaching is more of a emphasis, I think, on the individual’s involvement in research, in many cases, and the emphasis is placed more on the graduate student as a result of that. There are some very close relationships intellectually that develop between professors and graduate students. The undergraduate is taught, largely, in a larger context, in big lecture halls, and without the same kind of personalization. Not inevitably. I think many of our schools recently have, many of the big universities have recently been talking about the need to alter that a little bit, to begin to engage more with the individual student at the undergraduate level. But the fact of the matter is you have a situation in which a professor teaches fewer courses each semester, in which a professor is encouraged to get on with his or her research, and to publish a great deal, and a situation in which a professor emphasizes the graduate student, perhaps, over the undergraduate. And it’s not as open and as good a circumstance for the undergraduate as it is within the liberal arts college which is devoted solely to the undergraduate.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you about the matter of coeducation. Vassar, when I knew it as a young man, as an all-women’s college. Has the inauguration… Although now how many years has it been?

FERGUSSON: Nearly 30.

HEFFNER: Thirty? Well, I’m that old that it still feels like inauguration to me of coeducation.

FERGUSSON: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: What has it done to the level of education in your estimation? You weren’t there when it was single-sex.

FERGUSSON: It’s very interesting. Because the question is loaded in some interesting ways. I think that when the previously male schools became coeducational, there was a kind of largesse that was implied, that somehow these male schools were taking in women, and this was very, very good of them. And when women’s schools became coeducational, there was some sense of: Was there a problem? Was there a difficulty here? Or do you have to change the curriculum some way to accommodate these men? And none of that was the case. Vassar was one of the first of the schools to become coeducational, male or female. And it did so from a position of strength. It decided it would do so for a number of good, practical reasons. It saw that coeducation was going to be coming along in a lot of our peer schools, and it also looked at geographically where it was, namely, about 75 miles north of here and from the City, and not close to any of the other peer schools. And it realized that socially and for other reasons it needed to become coeducational and to do it early and from a position of strength. And we did so. And we immediately began to attract some very, very good young men as well as young women. But there was no change in the nature of the curriculum. There was no change in the quality of what we were doing. In fact, most of our graduates would say that the rigor of Vassar, which was there when they were there, still remains. And it is an extremely rigorous program all the way through.

What’s interesting to me is that it’s very, very easy for a women’s college to invite men into its surroundings because of our basic ideals. Women’s colleges were extremely democratic right from the start. They were based on the principle that every single individual should be allowed to pursue that individual’s highest aspirations, and that individual’s interests, even if those were not typical of that particular gender. For example, women would study sciences. Well, this basic principle, that everybody should be supported in their ambitions and their interests was something as important for men as it is for women. There was no differentiation there whatsoever. Our men came in and discovered that they were being seen as individuals. They weren’t being seen as members of a fraternity or as athletes or as members of drinking clubs, or whatever the case may be; but that everything that the college had traditionally offered to women was also there to be offered to them, and that there were no barriers or gender definitions of what they might take or what they might major in. And this has been extremely liberating for everybody.

So that at Vassar today there are, very interestingly, equal numbers in virtually all of the departments. That you see people who are interested in the sciences, both male and female, interested in the arts, both male and female. It’s a very liberating kind of education.

HEFFNER: Of course, I don’t hear from men or about men, that they lose out when they don’t have single-sex education, but I do hear that from and about women. What’s your own… You went to a single-sex college.

FERGUSSON: I did, indeed. I think Vassar does the best of both worlds in the sense that, when I graduated from Wellesley, I was certainly aware of my abilities to be a leader of women. I had no doubts about that. I had had some experience in that at Wellesley. But I suddenly was faced with a coeducational world, and I had to build up my confidence that this was also going to be true in the way that I could work with men in that coeducational world. And I wasn’t really prepared for some of the sexism that I found when I graduated in the mid-1960s.

At Vassar, our young women and young men know that they can lead both women and men. They have that experience. And indeed, because of our experience as a women’s college, people do tend to judge each other by who they are rather than by whether they’re a man or a woman. So, for example, we see that the positions of leadership are very evenly held by men and women proportional to their overall numbers in the student body. There isn’t any likelihood that one position will continue to be held by a woman or by a man over time; they seem to just judge each other according to their abilities, and vote each other into office according to those abilities.

HEFFNER: Are there any pluses, in particular, that you would identify with coeducational education that you would not identify with single-sex education?

FERGUSSON: I think coeducation is what the real world is. The world is a coeducational world. And it is, in fact, better for people to have that experience of having men and women as friends and colleagues and not just as dates. In fact, that’s probably the finest thing of all: that our students really see each other as friends and colleagues, peers. They also have dates, but they enjoy the fact that they can be intellectually and otherwise engaged by people as well.

HEFFNER: We have just two minutes left to our program. What do you see as the future of liberal arts colleges?

FERGUSSON: I think it should remain very strong. I think that liberal arts continue to offer exactly what we said at the start, which is the best possible preparation for effective citizenship. That we can develop some common ideals in what is now a very multi-ethnic society, that we can begin to forge bonds among people, that we can define for people both the sources of their own individual natures at the same time as we can define those goals which are common among all of us too.

HEFFNER: What are the real problems? Financial?

FERGUSSON: The problems of liberal arts colleges? For some, financial; for some, a stream of students coming in, whether or not they have enough applicants. Certainly there are a number of issues in that regard for many of the schools in this country.

HEFFNER: Why do you say, “The stream of students?”

FERGUSSON: There are some schools that are not getting the applications that they need in order to enroll full classes. And we’ve seen that in a number of cases.

HEFFNER: And the reason?

FERGUSSON: And the reason is, I think, that people are worried in economic times of stress, that they do think that they will be more interested in getting that first job, and that the first job is going to be better sought if they have a very specifically vocational degree. And what we need to do is to emphasize to them that the flexibility of mind, of the experience in its larger totality, would be better served if they come to a liberal arts college, that they’ll be better prepared to go on and do what they want to do and need to do in the future.

HEFFNER: So, in a sense, better prepared vocationally through a liberal arts education.

FERGUSSON: For the long term, liberal arts graduates do very, very well indeed, because they know how to become leaders, because they can see the broader picture, because they can learn and they know the lessons of the past, and they can take a longer view than those who might be simply trained, as it were, in a specific discipline or a specific mode of thinking.

HEFFNER: Dr. Frances Fergusson, thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

FERGUSSON: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.