April 28, 2010
Welcome to Spring Convocation, the event that marks the end of the academic year, although I suspect that for many of you, as for me, you are facing considerable challenges and responsibilities before that reality catches up with the symbolic promise of today’s ceremony. But reality always has a way of catching up on us, and this will be no different. In a few weeks, I will have finished my grading, freshmen will become sophomores, sophomores – juniors, juniors – seniors (at least if they ring the bell on top of Main Building following today’s program) and seniors – well, for seniors it’s not so simple. You will scatter in many directions both physically and otherwise, but you will also always share a common identity as the graduates of the Vassar Class of 2010, and as will be impressed upon you a little later today, you will also become members in good standing of a somewhat larger, but also very exclusive club, the AAVC: the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College.
I, of course, arrived with the Class of 2010 and together we’ve shared an exciting, if challenging, four years. These were a unique four years for you, and despite the fact that I know several classes before and after yours, these four years will always be uniquely the years of my introduction to Vassar.
I love the selection we just heard performed so beautifully by the Convocation Choir. As Christine Howlett pointed out when she told me what she had chosen for today, the text has a special resonance for a graduating class. It is selected lines from the poem “Song of the Open Road” by Walt Whitman from his book “Leaves of Grass.” It begins:
Afoot and light-hearted,
I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me,
Leading wherever I choose.
What could better capture the ideal of the education that we’ve aspired to provide? It is an education that is less about defining a path, rather very much an education that allows one to choose paths – the open road. It is an education that creates options – life-long options – through both having nurtured a robust curiosity and having developed the tools necessary to satisfy that curiosity. So you have options, as the text says, leading wherever you choose, the world before you.
It goes on
From this hour, Freedom!
which, as the pressures of papers and exams mount in these final hectic weeks, certainly could be read as the freedom of escape from that particular set of obligations and pressure. But, if those of us on stage have done our jobs, the freedom you have “from this hour” is the liberation that is promised by the word “liberal”, in “liberal-arts education”. It is freedom to, not freedom from. And as generations of Vassar students have proven, the freedom of your liberal arts education will include a liberated life of the mind and the freedom to pursue a wide variety of careers and goals.
But this is not commencement. It is not about saying goodbye to the seniors – at least not just about that – it is a moment to pause in the rush of the end of the term to take stock of what we have attempted, what we have accomplished, and what remains to be done. For those of us who are not leaving, plenty of challenges and opportunities remain. To meet those challenges and take advantage of those opportunities we need to know ourselves as an institution.
Insights into who we are as a college come in many forms. I want to take my few minutes today and talk about one of those forms – my mail. I get a lot, read it all (well, most of it), and respond as best I can. More and more of it arrives electronically, and email is a medium in which writers often use less fine filters of form, language and thought. But not always, and, I think, the average quality is better than when it was first introduced – but maybe I have that impression only because some of the newer forms of communication like Twitter can make even the average email look pretty good. Whatever the case, email is certainly different from the handwritten note, which requires more care and commitment. Form matters.
Another aspect of the Internet and the instant access to information is that Vassar is more accessible to those who are not necessarily a part of the campus community. We make a great deal of information available on our official websites and there are any number of social media sites and blogs operated by others where aspects of life at Vassar are presented and discussed. So people think they know who we are. Some of them write to me, and often it is hard to respond, knowing that so much sense of context is missing and knowing that I can’t possibly provide it.
Here is an example.
Two emails arrived this semester that were almost mirror images of each other in terms of coming down on opposite sides of a political issue. Each writer expressed his or her concern by saying that there appeared to be an imbalance – that one point of view dominated on campus at the expense of the other. Both writers were careful not to argue explicitly for suppression of political expression. The concern was reasonably enough a plea for balance. I would hope we’re all in favor of fostering discussions that welcome thoughtfully different points of view. Indeed, it is one of the best ways to understand and evaluate one’s own position, or to form a position. The striking thing about these two letters was that they were looking at exactly the same situation and drawing opposite conclusions based on their own perspectives. I was tempted simply to send them each other’s emails by way of reply, but there are lots of things that I’m tempted to do that give way to my better judgment.
For me the most disturbing thing about the two letters was that they seemed to underestimate the ability of members of the Vassar community – students especially – to be informed and to think for themselves. I’m afraid that sometimes we even seem to underestimate ourselves and our ability to engage in the kind of discussion that builds on facts, reason and good faith, but I’ve seen us do so, and do so magnificently. We’re actually pretty good when we channel our efforts into the kind of dialogue that is worthy of our claim to be an institution with the highest standards of informed engagement. So my replies were to address that point – to attempt to say that I’d hope they’d feel differently if they were able to see us in action – to be reassured that not only are different points of view available, they are being engaged vigorously.
In this regard, I would hope that the efforts many in the administration and student and faculty leadership have made this year to communicate have contributed to what I think has become during the year a productive and informed conversation about the goals and values of the college. We have certainly had to make difficult decisions about some of the things we value, but I hope that we have managed to do so and will continue to do so without losing sight of the larger institutional values themselves – especially our singular commitment to using our resources to provide the very best education for the most qualified, diverse group of students that we can attract.
The realization that these decisions are writing the future history of the College is even stronger than it might be otherwise as we approach the celebration next year of our Sesquicentennial. I’ve been enjoying absorbing as much of our history as I can, including spending a very interesting and enlightening afternoon in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago with Virginia Smith, Vassar’s president from 1977 to 1986. She is astoundingly strong in spirit and in her awareness and concern about Vassar. Programs such as Exploring Transfer are a part of her legacy, as are aspects of the multidisciplinary curriculum that has come to characterize what we do and she is rightfully proud of those contributions. She is quite a presence, and nothing makes history less abstract than being able to engage with those who lived it. I took the occasion to re-read her inauguration address and was struck by how clearly she saw the importance of diversity, especially in consideration of some of the discussions we have been having this semester. She said:
If students all had similar backgrounds, similar experiences, identical goals, we might be able to achieve instant community far more easily, but would have lost one important element of education, the experience of working, thinking, and studying with others who differ [from ourselves] in a number of ways.
Looking farther back in Vassar’s history, Henry Nobel MacCracken, Vassar’s fifth president from 1915 to 1946, might seem inaccessibly distant, but his daughter Maisry MacCracken celebrated her 100th birthday this year at a party I was privileged to attend and we have become sort of pen pals based on experiences and ideals that we share. She follows the events on campus closely and takes the time to write in an almost-steady hand that mirrors the elegant aging of the woman herself. I love getting these letters. They’re full of the spirit that I see in so many Vassar graduates. At the end of her most recent letter, after a impassioned commentary on the ravages of deer overpopulation, she signed it “Warmly” and then in parentheses, “but not too fired up, Maisry MacCracken” adding proudly “Class of 1931”. Next year she’ll mark her class’s 80th reunion, as we celebrate the College’s 150th anniversary.
Let me conclude by talking about one more letter that I received recently, although it was not actually addressed to me. About a month ago, Betty Danniels, showed up at my weekly senior officer meeting asking if she could show us something. I hope you all know Betty – or at least know of her – Vassar’s historian, Professor Emerita of English, and member of the Class of 1941 (admitted by Maisry MacCracken’s Father) and who, speaking of birthdays, will be celebrating her 90th next month. Betty was incredibly excited to share with us a letter written by Maria Mitchell that Betty had just received from a donor who found and purchased it in Boston. Maria Mitchell, of course, was Vassar’s very first faculty member and a distinguished and celebrated astronomer. The letter reads with a wonderful freshness and surprising relevance. One reason is that, frankly, it has a little bit of the sound of an email to it. She is writing, we assume, to an alumna or other friend of the College. The letter is dated Feb. 26, 1886, so the College is 25 years old and Prof. Mitchell is about 65 and near retirement.
Here are a few passages (liberally sprinkled with explanation points and somewhat randomly placed commas):
You probably do not know, that, in consequence of a monied tightness, there is a danger that the observatory at Vassar, may be shut. In this emergency the New York Alumnae, 100 strong, have voted to give about $10,000.
The Boston Alumnae have asked me (poor me!) to beg for more! I intend to ask all the comfortable-to-do people I know for $1000 each! I have already asked our mutual friend Chs. F. Coffin for $50,000. He said “Thee is right Maria Mitchell – never by by retail, by by wholesale.” I look, every mail, for his check!
Go to every rich man in San Francisco and beg! And, altho’ I ask large, I do not hesitate to receive, small. Do not be afraid to send a little. … Please send me names of rich California persons to whom I can write.
There is also a passage of a somewhat different tone:
Personally, this is little to me. I am too old to stay at Vassar much longer. But I dread to see an effort which has been made for women for twenty years, die of inaction.
I should note that $50,000 in 1886 is the equivalent of well over a million dollars today.
Evidently Prof. Mitchell’s pleas did not go unanswered. As you may have noticed, Maria Mitchell’s observatory still stands [now the Judith Loeb Chiara '49 Center at the Maria Mitchell Observatory] and astronomy has been a centerpiece of the Vassar curriculum for the almost 125 years since this letter was written.
I hardly need to point out how this resonates today in our current state of “monied tightness”. It resonates in even the most literal of terms; I actually spent some time over spring break in San Francisco looking for “rich California persons” – although I don’t remember referring to them as such quite that bluntly.
Today’s financial challenges can seem as daunting as those of 1886 evidently looked to Maria Mitchell, and we too dread the consequences of inaction. But we certainly have not been inactive, either in our efforts to secure the College’s financial future or in the planning that is necessary to ensure that Vassar is a leader for another 150 years through maintaining an outstanding faculty and curriculum, and having the physical plant that supports them and our equally outstanding students. Some of these plans have been necessarily delayed, particularly with regard to maintenance on our physical plant, but that is being addressed to some extent since such work can be financed through a newly issued tax-exempt bond. And even though we have not been able to commit to starting projects such as the proposed science center, the planning for that and other projects central to our mission has continued and will be ready to be implemented once funding allows.
I know Maisry MacCracken will be impressed, and I’m pretty sure Maria Mitchell would have been too.
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