Vassar’s 11th president Elizabeth Bradley will begin her tenure on July 1, but the campus community got to meet her earlier this year, when she came to campus for a welcome ceremony and talk. During that trip, she met with students, faculty, and administrators, who not only learned why Bradley was chosen for the position, but why she chose Vassar.
My first personal encounter with President-elect Elizabeth Bradley was during the photo shoot that produced the great images you see here. It was at the end of two very long days. She had traveled to campus from New Haven the day before to attend an evening welcome ceremony, where she had given a rousing introductory speech that left heads bobbing in agreement. She had started that particular morning by attending a forum for administrators, where instead of relying on generic comments, she spoke to us about the value of administrative and management work and its importance to the mission of the college. She then continued on a packed schedule of back-to-back sessions with students and faculty members.
By 7:00pm, as the photographer adjusted the lighting in anticipation of Bradley’s arrival, I wondered whether it was fair to ask our future president to smile for the camera at the end of such a grueling day.
Turns out, I needn’t have worried—long days are a piece of cake for Bradley. She was already smiling when she entered, and when her guide introduced me as the VQ’s editor, she took my hand between hers and told me how much she’d enjoyed the last issue. I was impressed that she’d taken the time to read it and also relieved that she seemed to have more than enough energy to get through the shoot.
The first part of the photo session involved members of the Presidential Search Committee. She greeted them with hugs, not handshakes. And throughout the shoot, she was funny, smart, and engaging.
I was sold.
The night before, during the welcome ceremony, Geraldine Bond Laybourne ’69 P’93, co-chair of the search committee, had read a list of qualities that students and colleagues had attributed to Bradley:
“Thoughtful … warm … highly communicative … forward thinking … insightful … always looking for ways to benefit students and colleagues … a model in the diversity and inclusion space … ”
Apparently, those qualities had attracted other colleges and universities, as well. Several had approached Bradley about leadership roles over the past few years, but she wasn’t tempted … until the opportunity at Vassar arose.
It just felt right, she told the audience gathered for the welcome program. “I was waiting for an organization that captured what I really believed in, that had the culture and mission that I wanted to commit hours and hours of time to,” she told students, faculty members, and staff.
What impressed her, Bradley said, was Vassar students, who “question everything ... and never take yes or no for an answer”; the shared governance of the faculty that allows the institution to “lead with education”; and the “deeply held values of diversity” upon which the college was founded.
The latter, she said, “is the central question of our time. How do we get this diverse group and really make it inclusive, so people can be individuals and they can also be a community that feels stronger because they are together?”
Bradley was selected by the unanimous decision of the Board of Trustees after a seven-month search. Seven trustees chosen by the board, five members of the faculty, and two students served on the Presidential Search Committee, also co-chaired by Anthony Friscia ’78 P’15. Isaacson Miller, a search firm with a reputation for placing top-notch executive talent at institutions of higher learning, supported the search.
Input from a range of constituents—students, faculty members, alumnae/i association board members, and Vassar trustees—informed the creation of a 29-page leadership statement that was featured on a multimedia website for candidates; that document served to guide the committee well. The pool of candidates was diverse in many ways.
“The composite we were looking for in a candidate was someone who could run things, someone who would be admired for his or her scholarship, someone who cared about the things Vassar cared about—innovative liberal arts education, diversity,” said Laybourne during her introduction of Bradley. “So to find someone who has actually been a financial analyst, an administrator of a hospital, a leader in academia, a global health leader, and has an international reputation of the quality of President Bradley’s is astonishing.”
For her part, Bradley says the interview process “sold” her on the college. “I was meeting this tremendously vibrant, intellectual, socially engaged group of students, alumnae/i, faculty, and board members who were committed to getting someone who was really excited about being part of a community and doing new things—bringing the community to wherever it could aspire to be. Those few months I was interviewing made an enormous difference for me. … They really made me understand the love people have for this college.” When she received Vassar’s job offer, she said, “It felt like my whole life opened up, and I think that’s what Vassar does for a lot of people.”
Bradley is currently Head of Branford College—one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges. With her family, she has lived among 450 undergraduates. That’s given her a different perspective about students’ intellectual and social needs, she says.
“For people who are outside the campus, it’s too easy to become critical of students, particularly in light of the way they are sometimes portrayed in the media. But if you live with them and you see them at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you understand where they’re coming from. I mean, you still have your moments where you think, ‘Could they turn down that music?!’ But there’s a lot more softness once you live in the community. Also, you get a little leverage, because they know you.”
Her spouse, John Bradley, also works in New Haven—his career has focused on urban community building. He currently runs a New Haven, CT, nonprofit that addresses homelessness, but he will transition to the role of Executive Director of the Vassar College Urban Education Initiative starting July 1.
This summer the couple will experience quite an interesting shift; their three children will all have left the nest before Bradley begins her tenure as president. (Alice, 24, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin a few years ago, works on an organic farm; Kate, 21, just graduated from Yale; and Tim, 17, is going off to college this year.)
But Bradley is hoping the nest won’t feel quite so empty once she begins to venture out to meet constituents on the Vassar campus and beyond. She will travel to at least 20 cities in the U.S. and abroad to meet alumnae/i over the next couple years.
Being the “newbie,” she plans to do a lot of listening.
She’s curious about what alumnae/i think about the college today and how those perceptions change from one person to another. She wonders what it is like for students to live on campus—what they like and what they are unhappy about. She’s interested in hearing about the concerns of faculty members.
And she wants people to be honest with her.
At the end of the day, she says, many of the decisions will fall to her, senior officers, trustees, and the faculty, “But, I think if they learn who I am and spend time with me, they’ll know they’re being heard, listened to.”