POUGHKEEPSIE, NY - Virginia B. Smith, president emerita of Vassar College and a noted thinker and leader in American higher education, died on Friday, August 27, 2010 in Alamo, California. She was 87 years old.
Dr. Smith, an attorney and economist by training, played a number of prominent roles in a career that spanned more than a half century. In addition to leading Vassar for nearly a decade, she served as one of the first women in the senior leadership of the University of California System, staffed the influential Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, and was the founding director of the federal government’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE). Smith came out of retirement to lead Mills College as interim president, and she advised a number of national education and policy groups.
Smith received widespread acclaim for her efforts to improve higher education. She received 11 honorary degrees over the course of her career, and was named one of American higher education’s most influential leaders by Change magazine. In 1999, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education established the Virginia B. Smith Innovative Leadership Award to annually recognize an individual who has made extraordinary contributions to improve opportunity and excellence in higher education.
“Higher education has lost a trailblazer, a visionary, and an innovator in Virginia Smith,” said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center. “She was a tireless advocate for ideas to make quality education a reality for more Americans and a leader who inspired and taught others to contribute to those endeavors,” he added.
Dr. Smith began her academic career in 1947, teaching business and economics at the College of Puget Sound and Seattle Pacific College. She joined the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley in 1952, teaching interdisciplinary courses on labor and management at the university’s Institute of Industrial Relations. In 1958, she moved to the Office of the President at the University of California, becoming the first woman to serve as assistant vice president in 1965.
Smith was tapped to join the staff of the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education in 1967, where she served as principal researcher and later as associate director. The Commission, a national organization directed by Clark Kerr and funded by the Carnegie Corporation, recommended significant changes in higher education policy and management, and its reports are considered by many to be the most influential studies of American higher education in the 20th Century.
In 1973, President Nixon named Dr. Smith as the founding director of FIPSE at the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. FIPSE made seed grants to colleges and universities for initiating improvements and developing innovative programs that exist to this day, including the LaGuardia Middle College in New York. A team of evaluators cited the program she conceived and implemented in 1976 as “a model for other federal agencies that attempt to encourage change.”
Vassar College Leader
Dr. Smith became the eighth president of Vassar College in 1977, the second woman to lead that institution. During her tenure, she led efforts to reorganize and strengthen the college’s administrative and academic offices, spearheaded a $100 million fundraising drive, and secured initial funding for the award-winning Exploring Transfer program, which introduces community college students to a four-year liberal arts college experience. Smith also championed the creation of a collection of original manuscripts from noted authors and thinkers, including naturalist John Burroughs, poet Elizabeth Bishop, and author Mary McCarthy. On her retirement in 1986, the college named the collection in her honor. At the time of her death, Smith was preparing an oral history of her tenure at Vassar.
“Virginia Smith led Vassar College during important years of its development into an exceptional coeducational institution,” said Vassar president Catharine Hill. “Her leadership of an extraordinary fundraising program to strengthen the institution and her innovative support of expanded access to liberal arts education were among the important accomplishments of her presidency, on which Vassar continues to build today,” she continued.
In 1990, Smith took the helm of Mills College, serving as interim president. She also chaired the college’s board of trustees.
Later YearsDr. Smith advised a number of education and policy organizations, including the National Center (of which she served as a founding director) and CAEL (of which she chaired the board of directors).
Dr. Smith is survived by her sister, Bessie Francis, and her brother, Frank Smith, both of Washington State. She is also survived by her life partner of 57 years, Dr. Florence Oaks, of Alamo, California.