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MARCH 2007

President Catherine Bond Hill: Vassar College
By Lisa K. Winkler

President Hill
President Catherine Bond Hill

Two days after Catherine Bond Hill was inaugurated as Vassar College’s 10th president on October 29, she sponsored a Halloween party for the Vassar community. To her surprise, students didn’t choose to dress as characters from Star Trek or detective mysteries—some of her spare time passions; instead they donned tailored khaki suits, white tops, conservative silk scarves tied loosely at the neck, and single strands of pearls. To Hill, it was the highest compliment. “I was flattered they felt comfortable enough to dress like me.”

The Halloween party is just one of the ways Hill is becoming acquainted with the faculty, students and alumnae since beginning the job in July. From traveling around the country, to attending college events and hosting dinners at the President’s house, Hill is meeting one of the short term goals she’s set for herself: getting to know the people that compose this esteemed liberal arts college. Known as Cappy, thanks to a hard-of-hearing aunt who mangled Cathy, Hill exudes an enthusiasm that already has endeared her to the college community.

A graduate, former provost, and economics professor from Williams College, Hill, 52, brings to Vassar a background that focuses on affordability and access in higher education. These issues, said Hill in an interview with Education Update, present challenges not just to Vassar but to all schools. “We want to be able to attract and retain the best and the brightest students from across the United States. As high school students become more diverse, we have an obligation to attract a more diverse student body and that means socio-economic as well as racially and culturally,” she said. Though about 55 percent of Vassar’s 2,400 students receive financial aid and all aid is need-based, many talented students see the cost, nearly $45,000 annually, and don’t consider applying. Hill’s research has examined bias in recruiting methods and has recommended ways to reach students, such as first generation children of immigrants, who might not know about elite colleges. Hill would also like to increase the number of international students, now about 7 percent of enrollment from 45 countries. Attracting a diverse faculty also concerns Hill. As fewer students nationwide enter doctorate programs, the competition for talented staff has increased, she said.  

While Hill is grateful that Vassar faces “no immediate crises,” she wants to ensure programs that contribute to Vassar’s strengths continue. These include: Exploring Transfer, a partnership with seven community colleges that exposes students from two-year colleges to Vassar and encourages students to apply to four year colleges; an active Field Work office which provides volunteer opportunities for students; and a Career Center that offers lifelong counseling, internships, data bases, and other services to Vassar students and alumna. Hill acknowledges that students and parents seem more worried about “what’s next” than when she was an undergraduate in the 1970s. Vassar has responded by providing opportunities for students to be exposed to different industries. Excursions to New York City, for example, to visit various business offices, and an extensive career-mentoring program, are available. Vassar has a long history of service, Hill said, and today’s students are “more altruistic than ever. Many come from high school already involved in community service. They’re incredible multi-taskers and want to continue volunteering while at Vassar.”

Hill had never been to the 146-year-old Vassar until she began interviewing for the job last year. She, and her family, including a stray dog, have moved into the President’s house on campus and are the first family to live in the house in 70 years. Her husband, Kent Kildahl, is the head of the Upper School at the Riverdale Country School. Her son John graduated from Williams and is about to begin a job in Poland. Thomas is a senior at the Kent School, and Liz, a sophomore at Riverdale. Moving to Poughkeepsie isn’t the first time the family has relocated for Hill’s job. A sabbatical from Williams brought her to Zambia, where Hill worked with the Ministry of Finance from 1994-1996. Hill credits her husband with being flexible to accommodate her career. “Deciding who stays home with a sick child or finding jobs in the same place, can be challenging,” she said.

Coming to Vassar, for Hill, had a lot to do with timing. She’s impressed with the institution’s history of innovation and its commitment to liberal arts education. She holds degrees from Williams, Oxford, and Yale and worked for the World Bank and the Fiscal Analysis Division of the U.S. Congressional Budget Office. Her responsibilities at Williams included overseeing the annual budget and long-range financial planning, the college’s art museum and libraries, offices of Admissions, Financial Aid, and Information Technology. These vast experiences all led to becoming a college president. Though widely published, she remains most passionate about what she believes liberal arts colleges are all about: teaching. She’s already taught one class in labor economics and plans to teach an advanced economic seminar next year. “It’s a great way to know what’s on students’ minds through a different way. It demonstrates to faculty that teaching matters, that I value and know the huge amount of time and effort that goes into successful teaching,” she said, noting that a teaching commitment makes her schedule less flexible, much to the chagrin of other administrators. “I get to drop everything to teach, “ Hill said.

Hill’s adamant that the value of and demand for a liberal arts education, from small colleges like Vassar and Williams for example, will flourish. “As we change as a society, as we think about the world kids will be facing over the next several decades, it’s [liberal arts] the perfect education. People need different kinds of skills, analytical, problem solving, written and oral communication, and working as a team. That’s what liberal arts does,” she said.  

Vassar has no plans to increase its enrollment, currently at 2,400, and its applicant pool increases every year. Many of the buildings and facilities on the 1,000 plus acre campus, which includes farmland and gardens, were either newly constructed or recently renovated during the past two decades. Further renovations are planned for residence halls and some science buildings. The goal, said Hill, “is to keep thinking about what we do, and do it better.” While she’s thinking, she’s having fun getting to know everyone. “I go to as many events I can,” listing student drama productions, sports events, and lectures. “They know when I’m there and like it,” she said.#



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