Enrollment for the year was 275, the lowest in the history of the college. The growth of other colleges, the comparatively higher costs at Vassar and the presence of the preparatory school were blamed for the decline.
Matthew Arnold lectured on Emerson. Recalling his early times at Oxford—“whispering from her towers the last enchantment of the Middle Age”—he spoke of his reading Emerson. “To us at Oxford Emerson was but a voice speaking from three thousand miles away. But so well he spoke, that from that time forth Boston Bay and Concord were names invested to my ear with a sentiment akin to that which invests for the names of Oxford and or Weimar….”
But, he told his audience, on later, serious reflection, “…in truth, one of the legitimate poets, Emerson, in my opinion, is not.” In fact Emerson, whose poetry lacked “directness, completeness, energy,” was "neither a great poet nor a man of letters."
Reviewing Arnold’s lecture, The Vassar Miscellany scolded him for his “academic narrowness,” adding "We of to-day...have no desire to be led back into medievalism even by such cultured and classic teachers as Matthew Arnold."
A senior who dangled a toy mouse on a string over Arnold’s head as he spoke was reportedly expelled from the college.
Alumnae representatives met in New York with President Caldwell and several trustees to discuss an investigation that the Alumnae Association had covertly undertaken which indicated that the primary cause for the college’s present difficulties was the president’s “want of the necessary executive and administrative ability,” a concern that had been noted in The Daily Graphic, a newspaper owned by a Poughkeepsie businessman, the day after Caldwell’s appointment had been announced.
In April, ten Boston alumnae signed identical letters, copies of which were sent separately to each member of the board, calling for Caldwell’s resignation. The board tabled the requests on technical grounds, and no responses were sent to the senders.
On a fact-finding tour of women's colleges in anticipation of the opening, in 1885, of Bryn Mawr, its dean—and future president—M. Carey Thomas wrote a complicated and decidedly mixed evaluation to her close friend Mary Elizabeth Garrett. The very presence of a "Lady Principal" seemed inappropriate, and she found the Vassar example, Abby Goodsell '69, "not agreeable, little souled, not literary or scholarly, too fond of rules and system." The teachers, women, were superior to the men, who were professors, prompting a conclusion: "Perhaps men cannot teach women easily." Professor Maria Mitchell, however, was exceptional: "It was a sensation to sit opposite Maria Mitchell at table, or to be in her study and see her lying on the couch at full length speaking sarcastic, rather bitter, wholly loyal things. I felt, little as personal enthusiasm is in my line, that I would do anything to show my reverence for her and I think I shall be guilty of keeping the tiny bunch of flowers she gave with what she says is her customary remark, 'a bunch from my garden, Miss Thomas, my whole garden.'"
"On the whole," writes Thomas's biographer Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, "despite Vassar's 'intolerable rules,' she liked the collegiate tradition. 'Vassar seemed to me monastic and charming. I can't express how it impressed me, but unlike anything else I had ever seen.'" Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, The Power and the Passion of M. Carey Thomas
The New York Times reprinted an accounting in The Poughkeepsie Eagle of the “quality and quantity of food consumed” at Vassar. Marveling at asparagus beds that yielded “70 to 100 bunches daily,” and the yearly output, “1,800 bushels,” of the potato fields, The Eagle observed that “Great care is taken in the selection of meats for the college” and that “Vassar bread has always been noted for its excellency.”
The article concluded with staggering statistics on the annual food consumed:
“Fresh meat, pounds 94,158 Milk, quarts 86,591
Flour, pounds 58,600 Eggs 92,000
Butter, pounds 14,567 Canned vegetables
Sugar, pounds 26,181 cans 5,917
Coffee, pounds 2,638 Bananas 28,856
Caramels, pounds 405 Oranges 21,102
Dried fruits, pounds 5,546 Clams 36,200
Nuts, pounds 1,527 Pickles, bottles 209
“The largest item of expense was for meat, $15,546.52, and the next largest, $4,644.05 for milk. But if there is one thing more than another that the average Vassar student yearns after, it is a nicely browned pancake. Vassar’s pancake griddle is 10 feet long and 3 feet wide, and 2,400 pancakes are consumed at breakfast.” The New York Times
Class Day for the Class of 1884 was cool and cloudy. ‘84’s president, Alice Blanchard ’84, opened the exercises at 2:30 pm, and the oration, history and prophecy followed by, respectively, Emily Townsend ’84, Martha LaVaughn ’84 and Minnie Cumnock ’84. At the class tree ceremony, Lydia Katherine Smith ’84 gave the senior charge and passed Matthew Vassar’s spade to May W. Craig ’85, who gave the junior reply. After the senior class records were buried, the class song, composed by Caroline Walch ’84 was sung.
The annual June board meeting and the alumnae meeting reflected the overcast day. At both, the precarious situation of the college budget, the continuation of the preparatory division and President Caldwell’s administration were main concerns. The alumnae requested that the trustees establish a conference committee comprised of three trustees and three alumnae to discuss matters of mutual concern. The proposal was “favorably received.”
At the trustee meeting, President Caldwell denounced newspaper accounts charging him with mismanagement as “false and malicious,” and the trustees endorsed a resolution in his support:
“Resolved, that on accepting the report of the President this board recognizes the peculiar character of the work of the President and Faculty of the college and the great responsibility which is devolved upon them. The board is satisfied that the work of instruction and the internal administration in every department of the college have, during the past year, been faithfully performed, and it expresses its entire confidence in the ability and fidelity of its President and in his devotion to the true interests of the college.”
It was also resolved that a vigorous effort would be made to supply additional funds which might, eventually, permit the closing of the preparatory division. Alumnae contributions might help, it was said, in this regard.
Four trustees—founding trustees Martin B. Anderson and Samuel S. Constant, Rev. Frederick D. Huntington, D. D. and Henry G. Marquand—having resigned, the board elected Rev. Augustus H. Strong and Rev. Henry C. Potter to fill two of the vacancies. The New York Times
30 members of the Class of 1884 were awarded the bachelor’s degree in Commencement ceremonies in the Chapel. During the preceding program, senior orations on a range of topics were given. According to The New York Times, Mary Elizabeth Adams ’84, in a “Study of Nihilism,” averred that nihilists, generally, were “composed of unoccupied and restive spirits and disappointed men living in religious stagnation and amid a lack of Christian growth,” and in “The Theology of George Eliot,” Kittie Acer ’84 thought that “George Eliot deserves the Christian pity of those who have been taught a more inspiring faith.” The traditional opposing orations were doubled this year: Alice Blanchard ’84 and May Amanda Chapman ’84 thought, respectively, that Egypt belonged to the Egyptians or that it belonged to England, and Justina Merrick ’84 and Jessie Spafford ’84 debated, in their addresses, the success or failure of the public school system.
Daisies from the fields near Main were first used for decoration in the Chapel at Commencement. In 1889 they were used at the Class Day exercises.