Nancy J. Vickers at her first May Day
Nancy J. Vickers at her first May Day


President of the College Nancy J. Vickers looks to the community
for visions of Bryn Mawr in the 21st century.

Alumnae were not amused. Reunion Stepsing was about to begin when lightning flashed over the towers of Thomas Library, and hundreds of rainspotted singers had to move their folding chairs from Taylor Steps into the Great Hall. For a moment, the ceremony seemed spoiled. But as the singing began, the faces and clothing now visible only intensified the interplay of generations expressed in song.

President of the College Nancy J. Vickers sat at the edge of the crowd singing along. What she saw and heard consolidated an understanding that had been building during her first year at Bryn Mawr as she participated in the cycle of traditions along with freshmen. “Reunion Stepsing showed me how these events are central to the experience of every Bryn Mawr student and work across generations to create a community,” Vickers said. “This is an intensely built community, I think in part because traditions are student run and so much a part of the life of the College. I also think that Bryn Mawr is quite exceptional in this—even more so than the other women’s colleges.

“Traditions mistresses Erin Hunter ’99 and Carolyn Lloyd ’99 were fabulous throughout the year, introducing me to the College’s traditions with energy and an enormous sense of fun and spirit. They had the wisdom to realize that this was going to be a very important part of my initiation to Bryn Mawr. After the Inauguration, in December, many people came up to me and said they were stunned that I actually sang the College hymn when it struck up. I owe that to Erin and Carolyn’s making sure I learned Sophias philae with the freshmen before Lantern Night.”

The ritual of May Day made Vickers feel “right at home as a Renaissance scholar.” Wearing a dress and tunic made for her by students, she rode in the parade on a float, tossing bead necklaces to the crowd.In her May Day speech, she described a workshop she attended during New Presidents’ School at Harvard last year: “Most colleges, it appears, are starved for rituals, and it behooves new presidents to invent them. ... As part of our exercise, we each had to describe the traditions at our school and what new ceremony or ritual we planned to introduce. When my turn came, I began to talk about Lantern Night, Parade Night, Convocation, Hell Week, May Day, the ringing of the Taylor Bell.... They stopped me before I had scarcely broached my topic, and moved on to the next person!”

Vickers has settled “very comfortably” into her Bryn Mawr life. Home includes a First Cat, “Beatrice Lillie,” whom she adopted after the death of Lilley’s previous owner, Elizabeth Colie ’35. This year, she will continue to visit alumnae/i groups in the United States and Canada. She is also teaching a class, Italian 207: Dante in Translation, on Monday evenings. (See A TY DANTE for some of her thoughts on Dante in the video age.)

“On-the-road events come and go in great spurts and flourishes,” she said. “Meeting alumnae/i and parents and getting to know them is exhilarating and exciting.” The question alumnae/i have asked Vickers most frequently during her travels is what she has found most surprising in the course of her first year.

“There seem to be fresh surprises every day!” she said. “But there is one in particular that is broad-based. When I accepted the job and began to sense how strong the community feeling was at Bryn Mawr, particularly among its graduates, the more I wondered whether I would ever fully be accepted, coming as a new person from the outside. Frankly, people have gone so far out of the way to welcome me that whatever lingering doubt there was dissipated very quickly. I’ve been quite taken aback by the gestures of generosity and welcome.”

Tromps through local woods

Vickers describes the learning curve of her first year as “extraordinary.” “Intellectually, I have always been interested in ranging about, in moving on, and in learning about fresh new areas,” she said. “The necessity of doing so is one of the aspects of this job I most enjoy.

“I go from getting up for early morning tromps through the local woods with the director of grounds to reviewing College policy on the tenure decision process to picking up the vocabulary appropriate to organizing tri-College transportation to learning how financial estates are managed.

“ ‘Envelope,’ the architectural term for the exterior of the building, is a word that I learned very quickly when I got to Bryn Mawr. Merion is a good example of a recently refined envelope. Additional capital projects include the envelopes of Glenmede and Goodhart—the problem with Goodhart is not the corroding of the pointing but of the stones themselves. That poses a serious challenge that could not have been neglected if we are to preserve and maintain this extraordinarily beautiful building.

“I’ve also learned that presidents respond to numerous constituencies whose interests can be at odds with one another. Part of the difficult side of the job is keeping the institution responding to each of them. Last fall, I had a sequence of 21 dinners at Pen y Groes with small groups of faculty members. Those were very illuminating conversations—I learned a great deal not only about Bryn Mawr, but also about each of them, their interests. and their special place in the Bryn Mawr faculty. I’ve met with all of the staff departments and have been especially appreciative on the occasions where folks had enough faith in me to be very candid about the downside as well as the upside of working at Bryn Mawr. I also learned much from those conversations and very much appreciated the candor.”

Visions for Bryn Mawr

In Vickers’ mind, one project stands above all others—to involve the community this spring in a thoughtful assessment of Bryn Mawr’s most pressing needs and to make some decisions about the best use of its resources.

“I am asking everyone to help me identify four or five key priorities, which I will dedicate my energy and attention to achieving during my tenure here,” Vickers said. She explained that her leadership role has been to initiate the process, to encourage all community members to work with their self governance bodies, and to set deadlines. What she does not want to do is direct the discussions.

“First, I want to hear about the visions different people have for Bryn Mawr in the 21st century,” Vickers said. “I found from my work at USC that I am good at listening to many constituencies and then mirroring back to them what they have expressed in the form of a coherent and compelling plan. I also bring an external perspective to ensure that, as we articulate a plan, we don’t lose sight of the position Bryn Mawr occupies in the broad landscape of higher education.

“My first agenda item is to do no harm,” she said firmly. “Planning who we want to become over the next five to 10 years has much to do with shoring up and protecting the strengths that already exist. I think we do a fabulous job of educating graduate and undergraduate students—but simply treading water at this point would not be healthy for a bold and dynamic institution.

“Everyone in the community needs to feel energized by this project, that the College is moving in an exciting direction, and that they want to participate in terms of their particular constituency. If only a very small group of people or just the president seem to own a set of initiatives, it will never happen.”(See the next Bulletin for an article on the College’s self-study report, which has been prepared for the Middle States evaluation that occurs every 10 years. The full report, which will be available on the College’s Web site in January, will provide a foundation for this spring’s discussions.)


Alumnae often ask Vickers whether she has felt any pressure for Bryn Mawr to go coeducational. “To date I have felt no pressure whatsoever for coeducation!” she says. “What’s interesting about American higher education is that it offers students a vast array of choices about the kind of institution they want to attend. Single-sex schools occupy a very specific section of that broad market, which strikes me, personally, as one to be cultivated and nurtured. Here at Bryn Mawr, 98 percent of graduated students express their delight at having gone to a women’s college.”

Arts programs

Vickers reports that alumnae/i also consistently ask her about the status of the arts programs and graduate programs at Bryn Mawr.

“It’s crystal clear that there’s some discomfort with decisions that were reached between Haverford and Bryn Mawr to share arts facilities and staff,” she said. “This seems to depend on the generation of the questioner—graduates of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s are more comfortable with the relationship.“Part of what somehow doesn’t seem to have been entirely accepted or embraced is the division of labor and facilities so that the Haverford student who does theater comes to Bryn Mawr and the Bryn Mawr student doing music goes to Haverford—which is not to say that we don’t have a concert presence on campus! We do this for some academic departments as well—geology at Bryn Mawr, religion at Haverford, for example.

“The future of small liberal arts colleges depends largely on their ability to work consortially and to share resources. With knowledge exploding in all directions, those of us with 100 faculty or thereabouts are simply not in a position to teach it all or have the facilities to house it all properly. Bryn Mawr and Haverford are among the smallest institutions. We have to keep remembering that even the most direct competition is more often than not twice our size, has twice as many faculty, twice as large an endowment.

“The arts are alive and well here, and student interest is expanding, not diminishing. My own scholarship has been engaged with critical analysis of the arts, and I think there are some areas we could consider supporting more vigorously, but this will be one of the programs we all need to discuss and review this year.”

Graduate programs

“Questions about our graduate programs come largely from graduate alumnae/i, many of whom are disappointed that the College is no longer offering graduate degrees in their fields, which is understandable,” Vickers said. “The decisions to cut some of our graduate programs were made a decade ago, when the College had to face the fact that it was attempting to do more than it could afford as a small institution.

“The economic environment for higher education has changed greatly. We have to be careful to protect our distinctive mission and at the same time control the cost of undergraduate tuition, as do other institutions across the country. It does mean that some tough decisions often have to be made in choosing among good options that meet our mission, not all of which can be supported or funded sufficiently.”

The Owl building

The College has decided to establish a combined admissions and financial aid facility where the Owl Bookstore now operates, in the former Clarke House. Construction will begin next year; look for details on the project in this fall’s issue of Money Matters.

“More than a year ago, the architectural firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates completed a year-long study of our campus plan,” Vickers explained. “The decision where to relocate the admissions facility was pondered over several years and made with considerable difficulty. “We have a space problem on this campus. People are doubled up in faculty and administrative offices; students are clamoring for activities space. Many rural colleges own mountains and golf courses; if they want to put up a new building, they can just expand into the next pasture. Even our friend and neighbor Haverford has many more acres of land, much of it both flat and usable, than we do. We have an exquisitely beautiful little gem of a campus that is entirely locked in by residential zoning and, indeed, by houses. Every time we try to make a decision about the most effective use of space, we inevitably confront the need to renovate existing buildings or use existing space. We need an expanded and conjoined facility for admissions and financial aid, which are currently in separate buildings although a single director oversees both operations. These are among, if not the most important operations of the College.

“The Owl Bookstore is located precisely at the point, the intersection of Morris Avenue and Yarrow Street, where visitors coming by car, foot or train first reach the College, and at which they get lost. It is logically and unavoidably the most desirable place for the visitors’ center and admissions operation. The building will need costly renovation, no matter what its use, and has been open for limited hours. The ratio of maintenance cost to use, the critical location and the lack of another suitable space are the reasons for the decision. Facing up to that reality, however, gives us no pleasure. I personally depended upon the Bryn Mawr Bookstore in New Haven, CT and the annual sale in Hanover, NH for books I could not otherwise have afforded—I can even remember which book came from which place. We feel inordinate gratitude for the work done and money raised, and want to work with this dedicated group of alumnae volunteers in every way possible to help them find an alternate setting.”

Is Bryn Mawr a Quaker school?

At Reunion this year, Vickers was asked to explain her understanding of Bryn Mawr as a Quaker school.“The spirit of consensus in which we work—and which I enjoy—through meetings for all parts of the community is very much a part of the Quaker tradition,” she said. “Our student self governance organization is particularly born and bred of that tradition.

“We ceremonially acknowledge and recognize Quaker beliefs, largely through moments of silence at the beginnings of significant events. In terms of religion, our students have a great commitment to their spiritual lives and observe diverse practices. We want them to be able to pursue that dimension of their growth, and we see ourselves as a community that makes it comfortable for all students to observe their beliefs.

“I think, however, that Quakerism permeates the Haverford environment in everyday life more consistently. I got quite a clear idea from reading Helen Leftkowitz Horowitz’s biography, The Power and Passion of M. Carey Thomas, of the double move Thomas negotiated in relation to the Quaker doctrines that the school was originally supposed to uphold. There was both a continuation and a sidestepping for a number of reasons, some of which were entirely laudable and others of which were not.

“Because Thomas wanted to create an environment that was academically competitive with certain European institutions and the grand universities, we have an intensely strong departmental structure in contrast to Haverford’s much looser one. The difference plays itself out in numerous other forms—the way we line up at commencement, for example, is hierarchical; Haverford groups together.

“That said, Quaker principles underlie Bryn Mawr’s longtime commitment to social justice. Our peace and conflict studies concentration flourishes. We have made a reinvigorated commitment to community service.”

cover icon Return to Winter 1998 highlights