Vassar College Fall Convocation
September 7, 2011
Welcome to Fall Convocation. This is a gathering which, as it has every year since 1914, marks the ceremonial start of the academic year. This year is very special, as I expect most everyone is aware – the year of Vassar’s Sesquicentennial. It has been an occasion for considerable celebrating with special programs, events and speakers – and accompanied by no small amount of material relating to Vassar’s rich history. As one example, as I hope you’ve been noticing, every weekday the Vassar homepage has had a new image from our archives, each accompanied by a link to the story behind that image. Today’s is, appropriately enough, of Convocation. Check it out, if you haven’t been doing so already, and watch for other special events and programs throughout the term.
The constant thread throughout Vassar’s history is the way in which those who have worked and studied at Vassar have defined the institution. Students, who spend a mere four years in residence but then become alums, form the foundation of the extended Vassar community. Faculty, many of whom devote their entire careers to the college, essentially are the college, and their dedication and excellence as artists, scholars and teachers is what makes Vassar a truly outstanding institution. Staff and administrators also often serve the college for long periods, contributing to everything we do, and are some of Vassar’s most legendary figures.
A special welcome then to the class of 2015, the newest members of the college, and the unplanned victims of a freshman ordeal named Irene. One of the traditions that older alumnae often speak of is the bonding that took place in residences when each had its own dining facilities. We seem to have recreated that briefly two weekends ago by asking you to stay in your dorms during the storm and delivering you peanut butter and pizza. That not only kept everyone safe, it also reportedly created a strong sense of community and identity in the residences. We’d like to find a way to have that happen every year – just not that way!
You join a student body headed by this year’s seniors – already having provided leadership and having impressed everyone with their energy and ability. As seniors, you are already well aware of the resources that Vassar offers and increasingly aware that the time to make use of those resources is limited. Make the most of the year. We’re looking forward to working with and for you as you do so.
There are a few historical figures that everyone at Vassar has at least heard of. One of those is history professor Lucy Maynard Salmon who taught at Vassar from 1887 to 1927. Her admonition to students to “go to the source” has become a cornerstone – almost a cliché – in Vassar’s approach to education – the reliance on primary sources not only in the study of history and the humanities, but that same reliance on gathering one’s own information and data in almost every discipline and situation. I want to take that advice today, and draw on primary sources to talk a little about Vassar’s history, particularly about the history of this very event, Fall Convocation.
Fall Convocation was, in fact, the creation of Lucy Maynard Salmon – a part of her proposal for a comprehensive orientation for new students before the start of classes, including a campus tour of every facility from the library to the sewage disposal plant. The first Fall Convocation, held in 1914, is recorded in detail in the Miscellany News edition of September 25th of that year. It includes the full text of some of the remarks, including those of Professor Salmon, who was, naturally enough, the principal speaker.
Traditions often evolve over a period of time, but listen to the description of the start of the ceremony:
“The academic year was officially begun Monday morning, September 21st by a convocation of students and faculty in the college chapel. For the first time in the history of Vassar its opening has been dignified by the formal assemblage of its members. At eight forty-five, after the three lower classes had been seated in the body of the chapel, an academic procession of the seniors and faculty filed down the center aisle. The Seniors, who entered first, were marshaled by the president of the class. Miss Thompson led the faculty as they followed in reverse order of appointment. The student body rose during the impressive entrance.”
And I kid you not, the next sentence begins
“Dr. Hill opened the convocation…”
Apart from the detail of time and day of the week, everything in that description has been preserved – the chapel location, and an academic procession led by seniors marshaled by the president of the class, followed by faculty in reverse order of appointment (a detail that although it is not entirely self-evident – certainly isn’t surprising if you watched and wondered about the order).
As today, in 1914 there were several speakers.
The Miscellany News article reports that economics professor Herbert Mills gave a short address of welcome. As a part of his remarks, Prof. Mills lamented that “many students had left college without having seen the art museum or the laboratories and urged that everyone take advantage of the fact that the buildings would be open to all students during the next week.”
I’d hate to think that there are any current Vassar students who leave without having seen the art museum or our science facilities, but it would not surprise me if many leave without having seen, say, the newly renovated art library, or the geology museum in the Aula, or the fitness center (at least from the inside) or any number of other campus resources and facilities. So I echo the sentiments of Prof. Mills in urging everyone to explore the campus and take full advantage of those resources.
Prof. Mills was followed by English professor Amy Reed who “spoke on the early history of the college in the hope that we should do our work in the spirit of the best traditions.”
I won’t summarize that presentation of Vassar’s history, but I do want say a few words about that history by quoting from a newspaper that was sent to my office last spring by someone with no connection to Vassar, but who recognized that an article in his copy of the February 2, 1861, edition of the New York Weekly Tribune might be of interest to us. As a college, and particularly this year, we like to talk about Vassar’s founding as an event of great innovation and importance, but any institution likes to talk of itself in those terms. It is both reassuring and inspiring to hear a voice from 1861 reinforce just how important an event this was – a voice untainted by any retrospection or pride on what Vassar has become. Here are some excerpts from the article:
“A bill was introduced … in the Senate at Albany … and has … become law, so important in character and novel in purpose, that it calls for something more than a passing notice. It is to constitute a body corporate composed of thirty distinguished citizens … , the corporation to be designated the Vassar Female College, and to be located in Dutchess County, near Poughkeepsie. The object of the corporation is, as the name implies, to promote the education of young women in literature, science, and the arts ...”.
“However various opinions may be upon what are technically known as Women’s Rights, there is no difference among sensible people as to the right of women to education. Intellectual cultivation for its own sake is a good, and as valuable, therefore, to a woman as a man.” … “Evident as all this is when it comes to be stated plainly, it is nevertheless a fact that education, in the highest sense, is almost an impossibility to the mass of young women in this country. The colleges, the schools of medicine and of science, indeed all the schools of a higher grade, are closed against them ...”
“Mr. Matthew Vassar of Poughkeepsie seems to have taken this common-sense view of an all-important subject, and to have stripped it of the difficulties that have seemed to surround it, by meeting them as a practical man, in a practical way. Taking it for granted that education is of as much value to one sex as to the other, he simply, by a noble and beneficent act, puts it as much within the reach of girls as hitherto it has been within the reach of boys only.” … “…the highest advantages of intellectual culture are to be afforded at rates not exceeding those of similar institutions for boys, and even a limited number to be provided for, whose narrow circumstances require aid;…”
The article concludes: “It begins a new era for woman, of which, we have not the slightest doubt, she will be sure to avail herself.”
One can only imagine how justified the author of those words would feel looking back on them 150 years later.
Professor Salmon spoke next. She began her address, titled “Going to College”, by asking the question, “What is meant by going to college?”
Prof. Salmon talked about the transition from school to college – in both practical and intellectual terms. She talked of college students acquiring “an outlook on the past”, “an understanding of the present” and “a glimpse of the future”. She concludes by proposing that part of the meaning of going to college is suggested by the experience of traveling from Vassar to Mohonk Mountain, on the other side of the river.
A brief aside – last week one of those daily images on the Vassar homepage was that of a group of students on a horse-draw wagon, and the link from the page was to an article in the online Vassar encyclopedia about the tradition of organized trips to the Mohonk Mountain resort, which is still there, about 20 miles from Vassar across the river. The article says that “[i]n 1889, these trips became annual excursions that occurred every October exclusively for the freshmen and senior classes” and that “[i]n order to arrive early enough, the college woke the students at quarter to six.” They traveled by various means: stagecoach, trolley, and finally flat-bed wagons. The article describes the somewhat strenuous journey, during which the students made up songs, and says that “’[t]he ride seems to have been as exciting an aspect of the trip as the experience at the resort itself.”
So everyone in Prof. Salmon’s audience would have understood and appreciated the Mohonk excursion as a trip where making the journey is much more than simply the process of reaching the destination. She concluded her address by answering her question, “What is meant by going to college?” by using the Mohonk trip as a metaphor. She says, “But going to college means that survey of the past and glimpse of the future comes only to those who follow the road that leads up the mountain. The college road is the work of today and all of the tomorrows to come, and no intellectual aeroplane bears us over the four years college course. … Daily intellectual strength comes only from struggling with the problems at hand, and realizing the interrelation of all the problems with which we grapple. Only as intellectual strength is daily renewed can we take the occasional intellectual flight that gives a wider outlook and keeps before us the visions without which we perish.”
These words inspire, even almost 100 years later, and in spite of sounding somewhat dated. It is hardly surprising that Fall Convocation became an established tradition. We are here today as its beneficiaries and guardians.
Given the occasion of marking the College’s 150th year, I would also like to say something about the Fall Convocation that opened the Centennial year. The speaker was another legendary Vassar figure, C. Mildred Thompson, class of 1903, then retired after 41 years as a history professor, 25 of which she served as dean. Her comments largely dealt with Vassar traditions, but not the traditions of occasion, such as Fall Convocation or Founder’s Day, but rather the traditions of Vassar’s founding principles: that it is pioneering, “unafraid of ideas,” residential, non-sectarian, and aiding of students through scholarships. She was even somewhat prophetic when speaking of the tradition of Vassar as a women’s college, which of course in 1960 was less than a decade away from no longer being the case. She said, “Both separate and mixed education have proved useful in this country. Both may survive. The important thing is that education of either kind must be real, thorough, purposeful. Other traditions, far more important than separate education for women, will engage our attention in the time ahead.”
Still when she ventured to predict 50 years in the future – which is to say, today – she foresaw Vassar still as single-sex. Other predictions proved more accurate – that Vassar would continue to be a privately-endowed liberal arts college, generously supported by its alumnae from, as she put it “the abundance or the pittance that is theirs.” She also predicted a greater support from public funds and a corresponding sensitivity to the needs of the public in Vassar’s admission policies, curriculum and college life.
So what might we expect in the next 50 years? I think much of the answer is based in the history I have so briefly explored. It is a history of adherence to basic principles: the New York Tribune statement that “Intellectual cultivation for its own sake is a good” and therefore valuable for everyone; Lucy Maynard Salmon’s recognition that the educational journey of “Daily intellectual strength comes only from struggling with the problems at hand, and realizing the interrelation of all the problems with which we grapple”; and C. Mildred Thompson’s account of the essential Vassar traditions, which have both endured and proved adaptable. These traditions are sure to continue to endure and to continue to enable Vassar to evolve and thrive.
And I predict that on a September day in, 2061, an academic procession will signal the start of Vassar’s 148th Fall Convocation.
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