Published: September 7, 2010
Virginia B. Smith, a lawyer and economist who helped shape the contours of higher education as president of Vassar College, as a high public official in Washington and as a member of influential private research groups, died on Aug. 27 in Alamo, Calif. She was 87.
Her death was announced by the college.
As president of Vassar, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., from 1977 to 1986, Ms. Smith led a $100 million fund-raising drive, recruited students from community colleges, increased the endowment, raised faculty salaries and reinforced the college’s commitment to minorities.
More broadly, she worked to increase public support for higher education and to extend its benefits beyond traditional elites, goals that have been addressed by steady increases in federal and state financial aid and, most recently, by President Obama’s support for community colleges.
“At a time when many educators assumed that high-quality education and widespread access to it were mutually exclusive, she devoted her career on and off the campus to proving them wrong,” he said. “It was the combination of things she did, her leadership in every position she held.”
Ms. Smith was chosen to lead Vassar from among 450 candidates for the job partly because she had a strong vision for using the Vassar presidency as a model of innovation for American higher education, said Elizabeth Runkle Purcell, who was chairwoman of the selection committee.
Ms. Smith arrived at her commitment to educational reform by apprenticing with Clark Kerr, the former president of the University of California system, who was known for trying to meld low-cost and high-quality education. In 1952 Mr. Kerr asked Ms. Smith, one of his former economics students, to join the Institute of Industrial Relations, which he had founded at the University of California, Berkeley, as an instructor and director of public programs.
After Mr. Kerr became president of the California system in 1958, he again recruited Ms. Smith, who had been on a leave of absence to study trade union education in England. In 1965 she was named as an assistant vice president of the entire university, the first woman to hold that appointment.
In 1967 Ms. Smith joined the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education as a researcher and later became its associate director. The commission, led by Mr. Kerr, made recommendations that continue to be influential, including ones on how better to categorize colleges and universities.
In 1973, President Richard M. Nixon named Ms. Smith the founding director of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, a part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. With a board of advisers, she dispensed $43 million in grants to 340 projects.
In 1975, Change magazine, which covers higher education, included Ms. Smith among the 44 most important leaders in higher education in the United States.
Ms. Smith’s appointment as the eighth Vassar president was announced in April 1977. When The New York Times asked her why she had been chosen, she replied matter-of-factly, “Because I was the best qualified.”
Ms. Smith was the second woman to run the college and the first one to arrive there after it had become coeducational. The first male exchange students had come to Vassar in 1969 and the first freshmen the next year. Around 41 percent of Vassar students were men at the end of Ms. Smith’s presidency in 1986.
Virginia Beatrice Smith was born in Seattle on June 24, 1923, one of six children of a tool-and-die operator. She earned bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees from the University of Washington. She taught economics at what are now the University of Puget Sound and Seattle Pacific University.
Ms. Smith is survived by her partner of 57 years, Florence Oaks; her sister, Bessie Francis; and her brother, Frank.
In 1990, she came out of retirement for a year to be acting president of Mills College, a traditionally all-women college in Oakland, Calif., after the trustees’ decision to admit men had set off protests on campus. The trustees reversed their decision, and Ms. Smith, despite the Vassar precedent, applauded.
“The environment provides a special freedom of development,” she said of women-only education, at least at Mills. “Anyone who has had contact with women’s education knows it’s a different process. It would be great if, at some point, every woman could have some of this — sense the freedom of it.”