A study released by the college’s vocational bureau showed that, of the Class of 1938, 49 percent were pursuing further study, 28 percent were employed and 10 percent were married.
The New York Times reported that Vassar students were raising money over their semester break to fund two scholarships for the following year for refugee Jewish students from Germany. It also noted that the college had granted a second semester scholarship to an Austrian refugee recommended by two current students whose family had fled Vienna the previous spring.
Remarks on the subject of “Tolerance” by President MacCracken, Dr. Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University and playwright Marc Connelly, at the annual dinner of the Urban League, were broadcast over radio station WMCA. “We in America can not look upon what is happening in Germany,” Dr. Johnson told the gathering, “as something separate.” Noting that 17 states in America were organized on a basis of racial superiority, he declared, “what we face in Germany is a natural external consequence of the sin which has beset us and which we have never been willing to remove.” The New York Times
At the faculty's request, the trustees approved a plan for inviting refugee scholars to the college. From 1939 to 1943 20 scholars took part in this program. By 1940, 11 noted émigré scholars were or had been regular members of the faculty, including Moritz and Elisabeth Geiger, Boris Karpov, Alfred Salmony, Richard Krautheimer, Ernst Krenek, Guido Ferrando and Adolf Katzenellenbogen.
The students also raised money to bring refugee students to Vassar for the coming year.
The college announced that anthropology, taught since 1925 in the zoology department, would become a separate department, offering majors in physical anthropology, cultural anthropology and archeology. The work of the department was coordinated with courses in art, geology, Greek and Latin, and field trips to the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of the American Indian in New York City were part of the new curriculum. A five-year grant from the Carnegie Corporation supported summer field work in American Indian archeology in the Hudson Valley.
Six posters prepared by the public discussion class of Professor of English Helen Lockwood ’12 and posted on the bulletin board near the Vassar post office presented the class’s study of the investigation of the Federal Theatre Project by Rep. Martin Dies’s House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities. The class published its results in February in The Vassar Review, but when a poll showed that few on the campus had read the report and that of the 60 percent of those questioned who had heard of the Dies committee, 74 percent favored its continuation, the class decided on a public presentation.
The first poster referred readers to the accounts of the hearings and to the class’s published report. The second posited the reason for such a committee’s coming into being: general fear caused by the economy and abetted by the rise of totalitarian ideologies abroad. It suggested that the fear would abate if unemployment, low wages, poor housing and tax problems were resolved, reasoning that foreign ideologies would seem less worrisome in a robust and renewed economy.
Weighing the committee’s purported aim—investigating activities that undermined the Constitution—against its methods—charges based on hearsay and outright misrepresentation and refusal to hear responses from the FTP for months after making the charges public—the third poster declared that the committee itself violated constitutional principles. The fourth poster, studying the investigation’s central question—Is the Federal Theatre Project communistic?—listed the specific charges, analyzed the evidence presented and answered the question in the negative.
A fifth poster assessed the accomplishment of the Dies committee, concluding that in distracting attention and resources from the causes of social ills—anxiety and fear—the committee was ineffectual and even harmful. An evaluation of the FTP in the final poster asserted, by contrast, that it was creating a new American theatre, relieving some need in the process and, overall, enriching the culture. The New York Times
Dr. Erich W. Zimmermann, Kenan Professor of Economics at the University of North Carolina, gave the first of four lectures on the American landscape and the environment, funded by an anonymous donor and intended to focus students’ attention on America’s natural heritage and to encourage their interest in conservation. The other speakers, later in the spring, were Dr. Douglas Johnson, geology department chairman at Columbia, Dr. Ira N. Gabrielson, chief of the biological survey bureau of the Department of Agriculture, and Dr. William Crocker, director of the Boyce Thompson Institute of Plant Research, a privately endowed research facility in Yonkers.
"Sculpture of India," the Eliza Buffington Memorial Exhibition arranged by German-American art historian Alfred Salmony, was opened in Taylor Hall. An artist, Eliza Buffington ’06 was the founding librarian at the Rhode Island School of Design. Salmony, a member of the faculty of the newly-established Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, provided an introductory essay for the exhibition’s catalogue, Sculpture of India: Eliza Buffington Memorial Exhibition April 12 to May 12, 1939 (1939).
Professor Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University lectured on "The Intellectual Revolution in the United States, Especially in the Nineties."
The college observed "Peace Day" with a college assembly in Students' Building. Speakers were Vera Micheles Dean, director of the Foreign Policy Association research department, and Barbara Allen '39, editor-in-chief of the Vassar Miscellany News.
Katherine Anne Porter, novelist and journalist, visited the campus for two days. She talked to students of narrative writing on the sources of material used in her books, and to English majors on background reading for those interested in writing. Her The Leaning Tower and Other Stories was published in 1934, and the novel Pale Horse, Pale Rider appeared in 1939.
Three Vassar students, Mary Atwood ‘39, Barbara Byrnes ’40 and Ruth Frankenthaler ’39, representing the Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths, presented President MacCracken with the Badge of Tolerance of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Alumnae focus at Class Day was on Helen Kenyon ’05, who was retiring from the board of trustees. A former president of the Associate Alumnae of Vassar College, she left that office to become secretary to the new Salary Endowment Fund, in which role she was instrumental in reaching its $3 million goal. Elected as an alumnae trustee in 1923, she was the first alumna to chair the board, from 1928 until her retirement.
More than 600 alumnae, led by a brass band marched from Rockefeller Hall to the President’s House, where they were greeted by President MacCracken. They then proceeded to Kenyon Hall, where a cast of students, under the leadership of Jean Sobotta ’38 amused the honoree with a burlesque entitled “Vassar in Heaven or the Grand Kenyon.” A book of greeting from trustees, faculty and friends was presented to Miss Kenyon, and Mildred McAfee ’20, the president of Wellesley, spoke, praising her accomplishments. At the close of President McAfee’s remarks, AAVC president Susan Copland ’19 presented to the college, on behalf of the association, a Helen Kenyon Lectureship Fund, to be used to bring to the college for several days each year a leader in some field of endeavor, preferably a woman, to give one or two lectures or demonstrations and to meet informally with students.
Class Day exercises for the Class of 1939 were held in the Outdoor Theater, concluding with the traditional Daisy Chain. The New York Times
Former trustee Rev. Dr. Arthur Lee Kinsolving of Trinity Church Boston invoked the 1936 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of poems by fellow New Englander Robert P. Tristram Coffin, That Strange Holiness, in the title of his baccalaureate sermon to the Class of 1939. “The occasion of one’s graduation,” he told the class, “is the time for pondering the issue of the difference between the best and the second best. One sees it in its fullest clarity in youth.” This "strange holiness" so constitutes youth, he continued, "that we are constantly in search of that 'summum bonum' in life." A gradual loss of clarity “as life spreads out into middle age,” he proposed, was a model for the current "world predicament.” Truths and half-truths are indistinguishable to weary elders, who, becoming “adept in this new social science of ‘alibiology,’” lose “the very capacity for aspiration. As we find the priceless thing in ourselves beginning to fade, we are lost to our true element, holden to earth, mundane creatures in a mundane world….The way out will be pointed again by those persons who have discovered the folly of making themselves their own ends and have recovered the vision of the true good in life in contradistinction to its goods.” The New York Times, The Miscellany News
President MacCracken conferred the bachelor’s degree on 252 members of the Class of 1939 on what he referred to as “this my twenty-fifth appearance as dispenser of diplomas,” the day, he confided, of his wife’s birthday and the 32nd anniversary of their marriage. His informal tone continued as he bade farewell to five trustees. “No college,” he said, “could accept without concern the retirement of such members as Jean McCoy Allis, Stephen Pierce Duggan, George Henry Nettleton and Russell C. Leffingwell, but when with them Helen Kenyon of 1905 bows a farewell as trustee, our state of mind must be, as Ko-Ko remarked, ‘simply appalling.’”
After bidding farewell to two faculty colleagues, Professor of Spanish Edith Fahnestock and Professor of History Eloise Ellery ’95—“two who have built their whole lives into the fabric of Vassar instruction….teachers of the modern world, travelers and commentators upon it”—he turned his attention to the graduates. “And now last,” he said, “but not least, in all this farewelling comes our ‘good Trebonius,’ the class of 1939. You are all thinking, ‘What about us? We are the ones that are really leaving. The others are just taking off some harness. They will still be here at Vassar, working for it, no doubt, just as hard as ever in independent ways, but we shall be gone in the morning.
“Well, as to that, the first thing a graduating person has to learn is that she is just part of a procession, even at this commencement, which is yours and your parents’. The alumnae ask to share Vassar, and every alumna is more than just her class, it appears. It is seventy-four years of striving toward achievement in years of generous self-cultivation, of strenuous effort, of high fidelity to the record.
“You will come to feel, if you do not already feel it, that it is a pretty fine thing just to be a part of that record.” The New York Times
Its funding removed by Congress, Hallie Flanagan’s Federal Theatre Project ended, the first of the WPA projects to close. The target of communist-hunting congressmen, it had become anathema to union leaders and administration budget overseers as well, owing largely to its great success in the three major theatrical markets, New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Writing in The New York Times at the time of Hallie Flanagan’s death in 1969, her FTP collaborator John Houseman wrote: “Those of us in the theater will remember her for those three fantastic years in which she and her collaborators turned a pathetic relief project into what remains the most creative and dynamic approach that has yet been made to an American National Theater.”
A supplement to the curriculum focusing on issues of peace and war was announced. Developed over the past semester by a group of students and faculty members, the plan took into account the relative lack of disciplinary preparation most students would bring to understanding the fundamental factors involved in the preservation or violation of peace. They thus ruled out the establishment of a new course or new courses on the subject, fearing that they would likely be either superficial or restrictive.
Under the plan students in certain courses in sociology, political science, geography, psychology, philosophy, religion English, comparative literature and drama were allowed to center their long papers or special projects on subjects related to peace and war. In addition, work designated as general credit in the major field could be devoted to a study of some aspect of the question of peace and war. As independent study, this work, overseen by a member of the student’s major department, could be undertaken at any time after the first semester of the sophomore year, could be a program carried out during a summer and must have been completed before the beginning of the student’s senior year.
The participating departments also prepared summer reading lists on this subject for all students, regardless of their election or not of the credit options.
The college initiated a series of visits by refugee scholars from Europe. Eleven scholars visited the campus during the academic year, spending two weeks at Vassar lecturing, holding informal discussions with students and faculty and taking part in a range of campus activities, both academic and extracurricular.
Germany invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II. The Soviet Union invaded the country on September 17, and ten days later Poland surrendered to the Germans.
Fall Convocation marked the beginning of Vassar’s 75th year and of President MacCracken’s 25th year in office. “There is no ban,” he told the students, “upon the subject of war in any course of study, nor in our college society. We need only to remember that the contribution we can make is that of the thinker. We teachers will try to see to it that your studies shall seem not remote but a part of life today, with meaning pertinent.” The New York Times
Former trustee Russell C. Leffingwell gave an outdoor classroom near Ely Hall, designed by Molly S. Drysdale ’31.
"The trustees…established a committee on Undergraduate Life, and discussed the general college policy quite frankly with [students.] It was after one of these sessions that Russell Leffingwell, formerly Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, and an active trustee, expressed himself as so delighted with the students' maturity in dealing with these questions that he wanted to signalize the day in some way. Thus was built the open-air classroom, with its praise (by Pericles, of course) of free discussion, and of the value of action after it. 'For we Athenians have the peculiar power of thinking before we act, and of acting too.'" Henry Noble MacCracken, The Hickory Limb
President Roosevelt congratulated Vassar on its 75th anniversary: “The seventy-five years we commemorate are half the life span of our nation. Not often in our history have we faced a period so threatening to our peace and to our ideals as now. Vassar women are counted among our national leaders in education, business, science, and the arts. They are equipped for leadership in their communities. This leadership will be needed in the years before us as never in the long and impressive history of Vassar.” Vassar Alumnae Magazine
The student curriculum committee, led by chairman Rosalie Thorne ’40 and the group’s advisor, Professor of Economics Mabel Newcomer, initiated a time study. Each student received a booklet, “Where Does Your Time Go?” and was asked to fill out a daily table recording the number of hours spent on specific academic work, exercise, sleep, relaxation, specific extra-curricular activities, specific self-help, specific cultural activities and absence from college. In addition, the publication asked students to respond to a range of questions about students’ perceptions about their courses’ subject matter, their methods of instruction, about attitudes toward class attendance, even about whether participation in the survey had affected their work or leisure habits.
The student committee had conducted a similar study in 1925, leading to a reconciliation of faculty expectations and student responses, and it was expected that the data gathered would have a similar effect. The booklets were to be returned on December 5.
President MacCracken announced an agreement between the trustees and the Associate Alumnae of Vassar College: in recognition of the college’s 75th anniversary, AAVC would seek to double the scholarship endowment, currently $1 million, by June 1940. Scholarship aid at Vassar had started with a $50,000 endowment designated by Matthew Vassar in his founding gift. The president’s announcement stated also that Vassar would seek to add an additional million dollars to the general endowment.
A quarter of the student body received scholarship aid in the 1938-39 academic year.
Professor Emeritus of Psychology Margaret Floy Washburn ’91, who had retired 1in 1937 after suffering a stroke, died after a long illness. At graduation, she hoped to study in the new field of experimental psychology at Columbia, under America’s first professor of psychology, James McKeen Cattell. Allowed only to audit Cattell’s courses, on his recommendation, she gained admission to the new Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell, where she was the first graduate student of British pioneer E. B. Titchener. Vassar certified her work at Cornell for a master’s degree in absentia in 1893, and her Cornell PhD in 1894 was the first doctorate to a woman in psychology. The “father of experimental psychology,” Wilhelm Wundt published her doctoral thesis on the influence of visual imagery on judging distance and direction in Philosophische Studien in 1895.
Washburn joined the Vassar faculty in 1903, and she became a major figure in American psychological research and theory as well as a much-admired teacher and colleague. A past president of the American Psychological Association, in 1932, she was the first woman psychologist and the second woman scientist to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
The Child Study Department received grants from the General Education Board and the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation to carry on a research program in the study of child behavior. A later grant was made by the Ittleson Family Foundation.
By January 1960 sixteen films financed by these grants were made in the series "Vassar Studies of Normal Personality Development.”
President MacCracken announced that the college had received a $17,500 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for theater research based on the records, productions and experiments of the Federal Theatre Project, which was closed down in June. The FTP’s director, Hallie Flanagan Davis, returned to the college to direct the research. The study had four goals: production of a summary of the project’s four years; publication of bulletins disseminating techniques introduced by the project; completion of various other research projects and indexing the FTP records.
The annual conference of the Vassar Political Association, a long-standing student-faculty organization, addressed “The Place of the South in the Nation.” At the opening session, Walter White, secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spoke on “The Negro in Southern and National Economy.”
The following day, Sterling Brown, poet and professor of English at Howard University gave two readings from his work, and Louise McLaren, director of the Southern Summer School for Workers, in Asheville, NC, led a panel discussion that included Gardner Jackson from Labor’s Non-Partisan League and Harriet Young ’34, regional secretary of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. In the evening, Wilson Gee, director of the University of Virginia Institute for Research in the Social Sciences spoke on Southern agricultural problems, especially as regarded cotton production, and the assistant to the chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Robert Sessions, spoke on the TVA and its programs.
On the conference’s final morning, Dr. Otto Klineberg from Columbia’s department of psychology addressed considerations of the Negro as a race, and after lunch Jack McMichael, chairman of the American Youth Congress, spoke on educational and vocational opportunities for young people in the South, and Hugh MacRae, a plantation owner and business man from Wilmington, NC, spoke about the Southern plantation and its future.
Dr. Gee concluded the conference with a summary of the several events. The New York Times
An assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler failed.
The Experimental Theatre transformed Christoph von Gluck’s 18th century opera Orfeo et Euridice into a dance pantomime production using recorded music. The production hoped to combine in dance the movements and direction of the action, the emotions of the characters and the moods of the music. The production was directed by the assistant director of the theatre, Esther Porter Power ‘32 and Martin Fallon, instructor in stage design.
The Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations.
Sixty international students from Vassar, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Union, Williams, Bennington, Skidmore, Elmira and Russell Sage broadcast Christmas greetings to their families in English, Chinese, Hindustani, Japanese, Hebrew, Dutch and Spanish over General Electric’s short-wave stations WGEO and WGEA. Carolinda Waters '41, from England, promised to send her family a case of butter. The New York Times
Gifts of alumnae and other friends of Margaret Floy Washburn, '91, professor Washburn's residual estate and designated contributions to the 75th anniversary fund were combined to establish the Margaret Floy Washburn Fund for student aid, with preference to students showing promise in psychology. Margaret Floy Washburn was professor of psychology from 1903 until 1937 and for many years was chairman of the department. She established one of the earliest departments of experimental psychology in an undergraduate college.