The New York alumnae held a meeting at Delmonico’s to share concerns about the present administration of the college and about the trustees’ failure to acknowledge the letters sent them in April by the Boston alumnae.
The New York group sent a strong communication to the board, expressing their concerns about declining enrollment, a rising budget deficit, President Caldwell’s failure to cooperate with secondary schools wishing to prepare student specifically for Vassar—Wellesley had 11 such collaborations—and the constitution of the board, which, well-equipped with clergymen, had few business men and no alumnae. The New York Times
At the invitation of President Caldwell and to please a family friend and former Vassar student, Clara Spaulding, Mark Twain agreed to speak—“as a guest and gratis”—on the 20th Founder's Day. The visit began poorly. Arriving at the college in a soaking rain, he and his 13-year old daughter, Susy, waited, “in damp clothes” and a “fireless room,” for nearly an hour. Although others made them welcome, the president—“a sour old saint” Twain later recalled, “who has probably been gathered to his fathers long ago; and I hope they enjoy him”—approached Twain only as he was about to speak.
“He caught up with me and advanced upon the platform with me and was going to introduce me.
“I said in substance: ‘You have allowed me to get along without your help thus far, and if you will retire from the platform I will try to do the rest without it.’
“I did not see him any more, but I detest his memory. Of course my resentment did not extend to the students, and so I had an unforgettable good time talking to them. And I think they had a good time too, for they responded 'as one man,' to use Susy's unimprovable phrase.”
Susy had begun a biography of her father at the time of the Vassar visit. After her tragic death in 1896, Twain included fragments of her writing in the autobiography he began serializing in 1906.
“He read,” Susy wrote of her father’s reading at Vassar,” ‘A Trying Situation’ and ‘The Golden Arm,’ a ghost story that he heard down South when he was a little boy. ‘The Golden Arm’ papa had told me before, but he had startled me so that I did not much wish to hear it again. But I had resolved this time to be prepared and not to let myself be startled, but still papa did, and very very much; he startled the whole roomful of people and they jumped as one man. The other story was also very funny and interesting and I enjoyed the evening inexpressibly much.”
Twain said of this description, "How charitably she treats of that ghastly experience! …Susy had that disposition, and it was one of the jewels of her character that had come to her straight from her mother. It is a feature that was left out of me at birth." Mark Twain, “Chapters from my Autobiography,” North American Review, Nov. 16, 1906.
President Caldwell preached the baccalaureate sermon for the Class of 1885, drawing his text from Proverbs, xxxvii.17: “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” “A strong intellect,” he told the class, “may go with a heavy heart. It is the liveliness of our disposition, the hearty sympathy we have with other people, the hearty zest we have in our employments, the spirit we put into whatever we do, that makes life go easy or hard.” The New York Times
Under Professor Ritter’s direction, 12 students in the school of music presented a varied program for the traditional commencement soirée musicale.
The orator for Class Day was Betty Campbell Woods ‘85, who spoke on the class motto, “Dabunt Aspera Rosas,” which the class had chosen as freshmen, “at a tender age, when their hands had been already pricked by roses too eagerly grasped.” The recollections of class historian Mary Watson Craig ’85 and the foretellings of class prophet Grace LaMont Chuff ‘85 produced much merriment. Led by an orchestra, the junior and senior classes proceeded to the class tree, where Jane Elizabeth Ricker ’85, “in a decidedly sarcastic vein,” gave the senior charge, to which Caroline Gray Single ’86 replied in “a short response…full of repartee and fun.”
The trustee and alumnae meetings during the day were of a more somber nature. The trustees accepted the resignation of President Caldwell, who terminated his appointment after overwhelming expressions of no alumnae confidence, specifically from the Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Connecticut alumnae associations. The trustees’ acceptance was on the condition that President Caldwell would serve until his successor was chosen, and a presidential nomination committee was formed. Three trustees—Thomas Cornell, Rev. A. P. Peabody and John Thompson—also tendered their resignations.
Reports at the meeting indicated that the college deficit had nearly doubled since the previous year, reaching nearly $14,000, and that enrollment had dropped in the last decade from 400 to 300 students. A special trustee committee, headed by Rev. Edward Lathrop, was appointed “to promote the general interest of the college.”
The lengthy alumnae meeting did not take up the resignation of the president. Committee reports showed that the alumnae had raised $9,000 for physical training in the college, $1,500 for scholarships and nearly $18,000 for general endowment. After much discussion, it was resolved to petition the trustees for alumnae representation on the board. The New York Times
Commencement for the Class of 1885 was held in the Chapel. A program of essays, with musical interludes, followed the traditional organ voluntary. Senior essays included “The Society of Friends—Its Spirit and Form,” by Lucy Davis ’85, “The Intellectual Element in Testimony,” by Sarah Hening ’85 and “The Scholar in Practical Life,” by Mary Ellen Ewing ‘85. Once again, two pairs of seniors took opposing positions on two issues of the day. Mary Smiley ’85 held that “The President of the United States Should be Elected by the Congress,” while Ella Heyer ’85 advanced the idea that “The President of the United States Should by Elected by the People.” Mabel Ruth Loomis ’85, arguing for “The State as Against the Individual,” was countered by Bertrice Shattuck ’85, who made a claim for “The Individual as Against the State.”
34 members of the Class of 1885 received the bachelor’s degree, and the second degree in arts, the master’s, was awarded to Mary Anna Mineah ’70, Harriet D. Drury ’81 and Abby Leach, who also received the bachelor’s degree. The New York Times
Abigail Leach had studied Greek and Latin independently and at the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women—an early adaptation at Harvard for the education of women, known as the Harvard Annex—and, probably at the urging of Florence Cushing ’74, she had come to Vassar in 1883 as instructor in Latin and Greek. Her Vassar degrees were based on the Harvard Annex record and Vassar examinations. The New York Times
As the summer of 1885 passed with no candidate for a successor to President Samuel Caldwell, who had resigned under severe alumnae criticism of his leadership, the trustees met again in New York City. An attempt at a meeting on Jully 21 to nominate Dr. Galusha B. Anderson, president of the University of Chicago, had failed, and his name again was discussed at length without success. The committee then nominated Dr. Samuel W. Duncan, pastor of the Ninth Street Baptist Church in Rochester, who was duly elected.
When, on September 14, the executive committee of the board was informed that Dr. Duncan had declined the presidency. Rev. J. Ryland Kendrick, D.D., trustee from 1875 until 1889, agreed to act as President and Professor of Moral Philosophy until the end of the current year. Dr. Kendrick’s appointment was renewed at a board meeting on December 30, and April 1st was set as the date for another nomination. The New York Times
The Statue of Liberty, France's gift to the United States, was unveiled in New York.
The chapel service was conducted by the Dwight L. Moody, founder of Moody Bible Institute, Northfield School and Mount Hermon School, and gospel singer Ira D. Sankey, known as “the sweet singer of Methodism.” The two men often toured together in the United States and abroad, and they published several books of Christian hymns.