Vassar College Fall Convocation
September 1, 2010
Welcome to Fall Convocation – an occasion for us to gather and reflect on the challenges and opportunities in the coming academic year, and, I hope, an occasion to reflect on the tremendous privilege it is for all of us to be at Vassar and participate in its transformative mission.
As was announced yesterday, Virginia Smith, Vassar’s 8th president, serving from 1977 to 1986, passed away on Friday at the age of 87. I had the pleasure of meeting her on a couple of occasions, most recently last spring in her home in California, where, as I said in my welcoming remarks at the spring convocation, we spent an afternoon talking about Vassar and some of the things she was particularly proud of having accomplished. These included aspects of the multidisciplinary curriculum, the creation of the Exploring Transfer program, and the acquisition of primary sources, notably the collection by and about women that was gathered during her tenure and is now designated as the Virginia B. Smith Manuscript Collection. She brought to Vassar the experience of working as a faculty member, as an attorney, in educational administration, at the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education, and just prior to coming to Vassar, as the first director of the federal Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. In the broadest terms, Virginia Smith’s wealth of talents and interests successfully managed the then-still-incomplete transformation of Vassar from a college of 1500 women to a co-education college of 2100 students. She was in that way, and in many other ways, a strong and effective agent of change and builder of the institution where, as I said, we are gathered today to reflect on the privilege of being here and participating in its mission.
In that spirit, please join me by standing for a moment of silence to remember and honor Virginia Smith.
[Moment of silence]
Some here today arrived only a week ago. I make it a point to visit each residence hall on move-in day, partly to witness the spectacle of an army of student fellows, house leaders and other volunteer upperclassmen in uniform t-shirts happily swarming each new student’s arriving car and delivering its contents to the appointed room while astounded and thankful parents look on, sometimes in stunned silence. It is a sight that someone said reminded him – particularly viewed from a distance – a bit like a colony of ants resolutely dismantling some prey and carrying off the spoils to store in recesses of the nest to sustain the colony in the coming winter. It’s actually not that farfetched a metaphor. Viewed close up, however, nothing could be more upliftingly human than the shared joy and satisfaction of this ritual of welcoming. You’ve come from a wide variety of places and backgrounds – more so than any previous Vassar class – you’re smart, interesting and ambitious. We’re excited you’re here and we want you to know it from the moment you arrive.
Some of those volunteers were seniors, and your uniforms today foretell a different ritual and provide a reminder that this year will be special. You know well the opportunities and challenges that Vassar offers and are poised to continue to make the most of them as you focus on those final courses, theses and projects. There is, I suspect, still a bit of a sense of unreality, perhaps even denial, that what may have seemed like an unlimited resource of options three years ago, now has you scrambling to fit together all the pieces of your ambitious academic and extra-curricular lives. The one reassuring message I can give you is that neither the learning nor the bonds formed through shared interests and experiences ends with graduation, as the thousands of Vassar graduates I’ve met around the country and the world constantly remind me – either explicitly, or as is evident in their rich and fulfilling lives.
This year, as you may be aware, is also special for the College as we prepare to celebrate our 150th anniversary. On January 18, 1861, the charter of Vassar College was established and on that date in 2011 we will begin to throw ourselves a party. Planning for that party has been well underway thanks to the leadership of Professor of Art Susan Kuretsky and Director of Development for Regional Programming John Mihaly. There will be events on campus and arranged for alumnae and alumni in the US and around the world, including special exhibitions at the library and the then-reopened Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, works of dance, theater, music and poetry commissioned for the celebration, lectures organized by academic departments and multidisciplinary programs, and a history course taught by Professor Rebecca Edwards next fall, portions of which will be open to the College and local community.
Many of these Sesquicentennial events celebrate the highest expressions of scholarship and creativity that have characterized Vassar. In this sense, it they also provide a reaffirmation and rededication to our academic mission, and, I hope, an inspiration throughout the local and extended Vassar community.
I wish I could also expect with the same confidence that the wider public will form from whatever awareness it will have of these events a more accurate and more meaningful sense of the great contribution that Vassar and colleges like us make to the lives of our students, and through them to the greater society in which we live. My hesitation to expect such awareness is a result of knowing that there is much misunderstanding and even intentional distortion about the nature of the education that takes place at these institutions. Two examples appeared these past few weeks as opinion pieces in the New York Times and the Washington Post – both of which prompted me to write replies – and hopefully either mine or others will find their way into print.
Both pieces target the institutions that are generally viewed as the most prestigious. One piece makes economic arguments, the other curricular. Let me say a few words about each.
The piece that focused more on the economics of higher education is by Columbia University professor Mark Taylor and appeared in the New York Times on August 14, titled “Academic Bankruptcy.” He identifies many of the very real financial pressures in higher education: rising tuition rates, cutbacks in spending, stressed endowments, and others, concluding that we are seeing “the collapse of public education” and the “skyrocketing cost of private education.” He criticizes the expansion plans of his own university and that of NYU and argues that to the contrary, such institutions need to be looking for ways to reduce competition among themselves. He says, “In today’s world, it no longer makes any sense for every school to cover every subject.” and as an example says “it is absurd for Columbia and NYU to have competing philosophy departments at a time when there are few jobs for philosophy academics,” proposing a shared graduate and undergraduate program. I assume the justification for this suggestion implied by noting few jobs for philosophy academics is that fewer philosophy academics need be trained, but eliminating philosophy departments seems like a rather counterproductive way to address that particular problem, if indeed that is his concern. It also ignores the tremendous value in the study of philosophy (or any other subject, for that matter) in contributing to what we seek to provide students at Vassar regardless of their areas of concentration – “the means of a thorough, well–proportioned, and liberal education” as was articulated in the very first Vassar catalogue. In any case, his suggestion seems like a very brave proposal to be made by the chair of Columbia’s religion department – or any other department, I’d guess.
Prof. Taylor’s conclusion is that while, as he says, “American higher education has long been the envy of the world, … today our institutions are eroding from within and facing increasing competition from countries like China and India …”
I’ll refrain from turning my remarks today into a seminar on the economics of higher education, but simply note something he doesn’t address, which is how higher education in this country achieved the position of being the envy of the world – in large part because of the resources we have devoted to it as a society, as institutions and as individuals. It is precisely those institutions that are able and choose to expend those resources that are among the leading American institutions – including the superb and uniquely American liberal arts colleges such as Vassar. Simply in economic terms, such leading institutions are in high demand, and rightfully so given the access to wonderful faculty, facilities and academic programs. And such institutions also are committed to making their programs available broadly through a significant commitment to financial aid. The best way to continue to be the envy of the world is to maintain such commitments to high quality and broad accessibility, not to erode it, as I fear Prof. Taylor’s proposals would do.
The piece that takes a more programmatic perspective is by columnist Kathleen Parker and appeared on August 15, titled “Low Grades on the Basics for Colleges.” In it, she uses a rating system devised by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni – an organization created in 1995 by Lynne Cheney and others to push trustees and alumnae/i to advocate for a certain philosophy of higher education. Just what that philosophy is is strongly suggested by the study they recently published and that serves as the source for Ms. Parker’s column. The study looks at whether an undergraduate program requires courses in seven areas: composition, literature, foreign languages, U.S. government or history, economics, mathematics and science. It then assigns a letter grade to the institution – an A if at least six of the seven are required, down to an F if one or none are. Vassar, it may not surprise you to learn, got an F, with no credit for our language requirement since it is not at a more advanced level, or for either our freshman writing seminar or our quantitative requirements because they can be fulfilled outside of a list of departments ACTA deems qualified to teach them.
We are in very good company. Among the 21 colleges we often use as our comparison group, 14 got an F, with 3 D’s, 1 C, and 2 B’s. Clearly what are generally recognized as the country’s leading liberal arts colleges have something of a different philosophy of education.
More importantly, one needs to ask just what it is ACTA thinks it is measuring by only asking what students are required to study, not what they actually do study. Their grading system is clearly trying to signal that colleges such as Vassar are “failing” their students by not requiring these courses, narrowly defined, or, as Ms. Parker claims, that a college that does not have such requirements views these courses as being of “lesser value” than a college that does. This is, of course, nonsense, insults the faculty of these institutions, and among other things fails to recognize that requiring a course is no guarantee that it will be taught well or that the students required to be there will be engaged. The role of higher education is not just to impart information or knowledge about specific subjects; it is to stimulate intellectual development and foster the means by which individuals perceive and creatively relate to the world around them. Certainly the disciplines singled out by the study provide a reasonable list of important subjects, but any member of the Vassar faculty could make as strong a case for his or her discipline, and rightfully so.
Vassar students should also feel slighted by Parker’s additional claim that “Students given so many choices aren’t likely to select what’s good for them.” I’m not sure what this very strong conclusion about individual responsibility is based on. As a society, we recognize college-age students as adults and expect them to make important and independent decisions based on adequate information and advice – both of which are in plentiful supply at Vassar and colleges like us. A study of the choices made by the Vassar class of 2007 showed that using more nuanced categories of methodologies and subject areas, Vassar students do, in fact make choices that provide both depth and breadth.
Finally, the Parker piece further reduces a decision on choice of college to a formulaic process by suggesting that a relatively low-tuition college that got an A is a better value than, say, the much higher-priced Harvard, which got a D. I shudder to think that families will take that observation at face value without a much better understanding of not only the role of financial aid in expanding the options for attending college, but more importantly of the role of a curriculum developed by outstanding faculty dedicated to student learning in an environment that recognizes and encourages individual student ability and responsibility.
It is this legacy of superior faculty, curriculum, student learning, and access that we will be celebrating this year – the legacy that starts with an army of support on move-in day, and will not even end with graduation.
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