After a protracted dispute involving the role and nature of the chaplaincy at Vassar, George Williamson Jr., Vassar chaplain for 11 years, left the college. An active and popular presence on campus since his hiring in the fall of 1970, Williamson was informed that his third, three-year appointment would be his last, owing to a rule, dating back to the inauguration of the post in 1938, that individual tenure in Vassar’s chaplaincy was limited to 10 years. In April 1979 President Virginia Smith acknowleged that the rule was problematic, extended Wiliiamson’s contract for one year and created a committee to review the role and nature of the college chaplaincy, but not, specifically, to review the incumbent.
Not fully operational until the spring of 1980, the committee, chaired by Sara Huntington Catlin ’34, presented its recommendations to the trustees that fall, primary among them the unanimous opinion “that the chaplaincy at Vassar College should be continued.” The committee also opined that the 10-year tenure limit was “arbitrary and meaningless,” recommending instead a five-year term for the chaplain, with evaluation of the incumbent by a multiconstituent review committee as an appointment drew to an end. Also that fall, five house presidents and 36 faculty members petitioned President Smith and the board of trustees to renew Williamson’s contract, reflecting a widely-held campus view supported also by a petition signed by some 700 students.
At their October meeting, the trustees accepted the main recommendations of the Catlin committee, deciding, however, to open a national search, directed by a search committee consisting of four trustees, two senior faculty members and two students, as each five-year term drew to a close. A month later in an open letter to the committee, Chaplain Williamson withdrew his name from consideration in the search, saying “The recent decisions regarding the Chaplaincy seem to me so to compromise the nature of that office that I cannot in good conscience become a candidate for your open search…. The majority members on the present committee are Trustees. At Vassar, only presidential searches have received so much attention from so many Trustees. To make the chaplain so directly vulnerable to the governing body seriously compromises the calling of the ministry.”
In December 1981 the trustees modified both the protocol for a chaplaincy search and the composition of the search committee, approving a resolution that “the appointment will be for a term of five years, with eligibility for reappointment.” Future search committees would be comprised of “the vice president for administrative and student services, three members of the faculty elected by the faculty, three students chosen by the students and one member of the counseliing services.” “It’s the first time since I’ve been here,” said Vassar Student Association (VSA) President Katie Doyle ’82, “that faculty and students have gotten together on an issue.” The Miscellany News, Unscrewed