Vassar College

Convocation Remarks, James A. Kelly, V.S.A. President

Good afternoon, and welcome to Convocation and to the 2008-2009 academic year. 

To my own super fine Class of 2009 – it’s time.  We’ve all worked hard during our years here at Vassar, and now we have one last push to finish the work we started.  The future ahead feels a little scary – grad school apps and job interviews are new things - and I’m sure we’re all feeling those same butterflies about leaving Vassar.  We can’t know for sure what will happen next year – but we can be sure that this year will be the best we’ve ever had.  I’d like to think that in the next year, we ought to go big or go home.  This is it.  Let’s finish our time on top.  And speaking of finishing on top, make sure that if you didn’t get to ring the bell atop Main during the spring, you head up there after Convocation is over.

To the Class of 2012 – you follow in a long tradition of amazing Vassar students.  I envy that you have four years ahead of you at this wonderful College.  Cherish these days at Vassar.  Take note of autumn’s beauty, stop and watch the squirrels scurrying about.  When the winter creeps in, lay in the snow and look up at the sky.  Learn from your teachers, and look out for your friends.  Know that your education does not end when class is over, and take advantage of extracurricular opportunities along the way.  Know that Vassar will always welcome you and will always be your home.

I am proud to call Vassar College my home.  When Matthew Vassar founded the College in 1861, he set out to provide an education for women that was comparable to the best men’s institutions of the day.  By setting out to do so, Vassar began a tradition of attempting to break the mold of social institutions that perpetuate inequality and distract us from the progressive pursuits of achieving a more just society.   His tradition was guided by a great colleague – Milo Jewett – who steered Vassar towards building a women’s college instead of a hospital.  His work was followed with more progressive feats by future leaders, like Henry Noble MacCracken, the fifth president of Vassar College.  The Vassar Encyclopedia notes that “internationalism and pacifism were large themes in his life,” and that he advocated for expanded admission of international students to provide broader perspectives on campus in what was then a rapidly globalizing world.  Vassar’s progressive tradition has continued to this day with our tenth president, Catharine Bond Hill, as the College has instituted a need blind policy to make a Vassar education more accessible to students from a variety of backgrounds. 

We’ve made great progress in the 147 years since our founding – but we’ve got so far to go.  In recent years, we have become increasingly reliant on the lead of others – schools like Swarthmore, Bowdoin, Williams, and Amherst.  There was a time when the first question we considered when developing new policies was “what is right for Vassar students?”  More likely now we here “what are our competitors doing?” or “how can we get ahead of school x?”  In the 21st century, living in a world that has become increasingly global, and where our students are realizing their place as global citizens, we must ask more of ourselves.  We must strive for the best education, not because we see Amherst at the top of the US News rankings or because we are trying to get ahead of our peers.  At Vassar, we must strive to be leaders because we believe, first and foremost, in doing what is right. 

The time to lead is now.  On a vast array of issues, Vassar is at a crossroads.  We can become pragmatists, choosing what is right in spite of the fact that it might be hard to make those decisions, or we can sink into the status quo, avoiding change because it would disrupt the normalcy.  In his final address to the Board of Trustees, Vassar cautioned against leading without a clear vision of why we want to be leading.  He said, “it is quite certain, that if we follow on in the old beaten paths, we will make no progress; if we do no more than others have done before us, we are only copyists, and not progressionists.  My motto is progress.” 

The wise words of Vassar ring true today.  We are confronting a variety of serious issues, ranging from our vision of what it means to live in a healthy community to our mission of creating a more accessible education.  While the solutions will not be easy, I agree with Vassar.  Let’s move forward in the spirit of progress, and let’s strive to be leaders.  Let’s be leaders solely because we care so intimately that a Vassar education should be a distinctive one.  Let’s be idealistic with a tinge of realism, and let’s keep moving forward.

This year, the Vassar Student Association Executive Board will be dealing with the issues head on.  I will be working with the rest of the exec board – Nate Silver, VP for Student Life; Camille Friason, VP for Academics, Caitlin Ly, VP for Operations, Alex Dempsey, VP for Activities, and Marcelo Buitron, VP for Finance – to craft a set of changes that make the priorities of students elemental and even foundational in all decision-making processes.  We’ve been talking for years about how we might make Vassar a better place, but this year it’s time to connect those words to actions.

It’s time Vassar.  We made great progress two years ago when we created a need blind admissions policy.  That’s great – but it only applies to domestic students.  It’s time that we institute a need blind policy for international and transfer students. 

We live in coeducational facilities, but we don’t ever challenge the gender binary.  We had some great discussions last year about gender neutral housing, but they were only discussions.  It’s time for a sensible policy that values what is right for Vassar students. 

We’ve all been talking about sustainability – last year you turned off your lights and set your computers to sleep mode during the dorm energy challenge – but we have yet to develop an overarching commitment to curbing our carbon footprint.  It’s about time that we make a commitment to carbon neutrality – we ought to be good stewards of the earth we know and love. 

This year, the VSA leadership knows that it’s time.  We’re here to work for you – and we’re here to ensure that we achieve a need blind policy for every student, and to develop a commitment to achieving carbon neutrality, and to follow in our progressive tradition by finally approving gender neutral housing.  We’ll let our actions speak loudly – we will invest in the Davison construction to provide space for student organizations and for student band practice space.  We will develop a student’s bill of rights with Security and we’ll look to our student leaders for input on important issues.  And on October 10, we will host Meet Me in Poughkeepsie.  We have asked student organizations, faculty, and offices to host various events off-campus and hope to send a large portion of the student body out to these activities.  We will look to you for your guidance on all of these issues.

In the spirit of making progress at Vassar, we must remember our connections to the world around us.  Although we occasionally feel like we’re living in a bubble, Vassar is not immune from events in the world beyond.  If you’ve picked up a newspaper anytime in the past eight years, you know we’re not doing too well.  We’re plagued with a world of rising inequality, seemingly endless war, and while the world seems increasingly connected economically, its feels like we’ve never been so far apart as a human race.  War is never the answer, and difference is not a sin.  If we are to ever achieve a more cooperative global order, we must understand that our differences are the ties that bind us.  While we often unite along the lines of our similarities, we must acknowledge that when we unite along the lines of our differences, we create great synergies, where one plus one equals far more than two.  We’re all in it together, and it’s time for our generation to speak loudly against divisiveness that pushes us apart.  It’s time to stand together.

Bad news is not inevitable.  I have seen Vassar students stand up against injustice and intolerance and I have seen Vassar as an institution move forward.  I have faith that the looming concerns of the world at Vassar and beyond will be addressed by our generation – and particularly by Vassar students.  You are all amazing individuals from all parts of the world, and you lead yourselves with grace and dignity each day.  We need more like you in this world.  I can’t wait to see what the year ahead holds, and while I’m sad that I’ll be leaving Vassar in just a few short months, my heart beats a little stronger because I know that when I’m out in the world I’ll still be with you in spirit.  We will be great.

I know that John Mayer has been running around saying that our generation is waiting on the world to change.  Let’s not wait Vassar.  Let’s begin by looking to ourselves to take responsibility for making it happen, and may we remember to take care of one another while we’re getting there.  It’s time. 

Let me leave with you with three pieces of advice: Love one another.  Speak up.  And Vote. 

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