April 25, 2012
Welcome to Spring Convocation.
This is one of the most noteworthy events in the countdown to the end of the term – three days to Founders Day, six days to the end of classes, twenty days to the end of finals, and just twenty-five days before Commencement.
Convocation is also an important opportunity to honor and preserve our traditions, and to reflect on who we are as a college and who we aspire to be.
At this year’s Fall Convocation, I talked about the history of that traditional start of the academic year, beginning with the very first Fall Convocation in 1914. I explored some of the ways in which that event and Vassar have and have not changed since that time. The tradition of Spring Convocation has seen many more changes than its fall counterpart, but its historical roots are deep as well.
As long ago as the 1930s, there was in the spring what was called “Senior Chapel” with required attendance. It featured an address by the faculty member who had served as the senior class advisor. Senior Chapel also included the awarding of various prizes and honors related to academic, athletic and artistic accomplishments. It also included the singing of “Gaudeamus Igitur,” as we will do at the conclusion of today’s program.
The event had associated with it a good deal of celebration following the ceremony, referred to as “Salvé Night.” This included the singing of class songs, and what was described as “revelry”. Evidently in 1939 that revelry got somewhat out of hand, 11 members of the junior class wrote a letter to the Miscellany News that read in part: “It is with deep feeling of shame and embarrassment that we saw members of our class behaving like little bullies off campus. To pummel and annoy seniors, to push over tables and break glassware is the sort of behavior we might expect of […] storm troopers, not Vassar juniors who had been earnestly exhorted at Senior Chapel to live intelligently, and who had received from a generous, good-natured senior class, the beloved Salvé.
The “Salvé” referred to was the traditional tribute – “hail” in Latin – from the outgoing senior class to the junior class, and a salutation that still makes a regular appearance at Vassar, particularly at Reunion among the older classes. In any event, the celebration on “Salvé Night” continued to be excessive. Five years later, in 1944, it was reported that “The Junior Class has been asked in a recent class meeting to restrain the merriment within the bounds of reason and propriety, and to exclude the Juliet, the Alumnae House and the [Library] from the celebration grounds.”
In 1954 the name of the ceremony was changed from Senior Chapel to Senior Convocation, but the problems with the associated Salve Night continued, prompting the threat in 1964 to end the practice. The 60s were, of course, a period of widespread change, and the end of the decade saw the end of Senior Convocation. It was, however, revived in 1975 at the initiative of student government leaders, and renamed “Spring Convocation” so as to be clear it was not just for seniors. That ceremony is essentially the program that we have today.
Among other things, this history reminds us that Vassar and institutions like ours respond to changes in the larger context of the world around us in ways that preserve the special character of the institution. The most enduring character of Vassar is that of being a liberal arts college, which is fundamentally expressed in a curriculum that broadly and rigorously develops qualities of mind, as opposed to training for more specialized purposes. Typically associated with this model are a residential campus, small classes, and close contact with faculty.
The most prominent liberal arts colleges, including Vassar, also are highly selective and have endowments and donors that allow them to maintain excellent facilities, support a faculty of exceptional teacher-scholars, and offer substantial financial aid. This puts us in select company. And the opportunity to study at such an institution, and Vassar in particular, is an opportunity open to very few. But I don’t mean to exaggerate. Excellent undergraduate programs can, of course, be found at large universities and also at community colleges, but the unique combination of factors that come together at Vassar, and institutions like us, seem to me to be more likely to provide the ingredients for a transformative education and to do so more consistently than any other model.
I hope the seniors here today, especially as Commencement fast approaches, are able to look back and feel that you have made the most of the opportunities of the past four years. And even so, I suspect that more than a few of you have a long list of things that you regret not having been able to do. Those are good regrets, and will provide the raw materials of a lifetime of learning. For those of you with a year or two or three remaining at Vassar, I hope these observations offer a reminder of just what opportunities those years still hold, and reinforce your resolve to take advantage of them.
But I would go further than expressing those sentiments as hopes, I would contend that the privileged position of this particular educational opportunity carries with it responsibilities as well – and not just the responsibilities of students to make the most of the experience. Those of us charged with advancing Vassar’s mission, of course, also have responsibilities. One aspect of that for me is to promote our values and practices in higher education, not just at Vassar, but more generally, and also to respond to higher education’s critics, who lately seem to be more numerous and strident.
Particularly dangerous, it seems to me, is the sentiment expressed recently by Rick Santorum. He criticized President Obama’s call for expanded educational opportunities beyond high school by representing it as snobbery and a means of luring students to college to be indoctrinated by liberal professors. The remark is astounding, particularly coming from a man with advanced degrees himself, but it is also dangerous since its only likely effect is to dissuade families without Santorum’s educational sophistication from aspiring to send their children to college. Students from those families are already very much underrepresented in colleges, and particularly at the stronger liberal arts colleges and universities.
My research over the last decade has focused on examining that underrepresentation and the means by which it might be addressed. The current stress on the educational system across the country threatens to worsen existing underrepresentation and close off a traditional and important pathway of equal opportunity in America. Funding for public education has suffered, particularly relative to funding for health care and prisons, and property-tax caps and legislative gridlock on taxes have combined with the recession to greatly limit the funds being provided for public education at all levels. This inadequate funding affects quality at a time when data show that the US is falling further behind other countries in reading, math and science. Public colleges and universities have responded by sharply increasing tuition, so all of these factors combine to limit the availability and quality of educational opportunities – except for the wealthy – and contribute to the phenomenon of income inequality in America, which has been brought into focus by the Occupy Movement. That inequality puts pressure on the country in many ways, not least of all by making more people feel as though the educational system does not serve their interests, further eroding support for it. Increasing funding is not the only means of reversing those trends, but it is a major factor and essential if public institutions are to play their historical role as a vehicle for individual and collective progress.
Government funding and financial policies are important for private institutions as well, of course. Federal Pell grants and various subsidized loan programs support financial aid, and agencies such as the National Science foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities support many research and curricular programs. Gifts and endowment support over 40% of our annual operating revenues, both of which are encouraged by special treatment under existing federal tax policies. Tuition and fees supply just half of our annual operating revenue. This support from the government is part of the country’s recognition of the value of education and the important role of private non-profit institutions in supplying this public good.
As is evident from that mix, the cost of attending Vassar is being subsidized for every student. Even students who are not on financial aid receive a subsidy for their Vassar education. This commitment is one way in which we make Vassar as affordable as possible for all students. In addition we supply financial aid to fulfill Vassar’s commitment to its policies of need-blind admissions and meeting full demonstrated need.
Financial aid is thus a key factor at Vassar and other private colleges in meeting our responsibility to address the growing inequality of educational opportunity in the country exacerbated by increasing inequality of incomes. It is also important to recognize the educational advantages for all students of a socioeconomically diverse student body and I’ve argued that rankings such as US News and World Report should add socio-economic diversity to their measures of excellence. Over the last decade, the wealthiest private institutions have adopted grant and loan policies in support of low-income families, but it is challenging to sustain these policies. Despite the efforts to identify and attract highly qualified students with family income in the bottom 40% of the income distribution in the US, that cohort continues to be under-represented at these wealthiest institutions. In fact, the bottom 80% is under-represented at these schools. Institutions need to continue to do what they can to address this under-representation. It is to their own benefit, as well as the benefit of our society.
One place where all of these underlying issues have come together recently is in programs to provide access to higher education to military veterans. In the relatively peaceful period following the much-protested war in Vietnam and the end of the very unpopular draft, military service functioned for many as an employment option with limited expectation of exposure to combat. This shift of military service from being expected of a broad cross-section of the population to a choice driven in part by economic factors, has meant more recently that the burdens and dangers of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been borne disproportionally by enlistees from lower-income families. This has allowed others to pursue a greater range of options, including going directly to college. I want to be careful to recognize that many other factors play a role in individual choices regarding military service, a prime example being Benjamin Busch, author, actor, artist, Vassar graduate and Marine Corps veteran who was just on campus. He was here in conjunction with a Mellon Foundation program that promotes dialog between the military academies and select liberal arts colleges – most notably including West Point and Vassar.
In recognition of the service performed by returning veterans, the government is providing educational benefits through the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and many private colleges and universities, including Vassar, have signed up for the Yellow Ribbon program, which supplements those benefits for enrolled veterans. Unfortunately, very few of those eligible have found their way to select private colleges, typically preferring programs with more pre-professional options. But the ways in which a liberal arts education prepares students to think critically and express themselves effectively are as valuable to a veteran as they are to any other student. With over 2 million veterans eligible for these GI benefits, the issue is not whether there are those for whom a liberal arts education is their best choice, but rather how can we best go about identifying and attracting them.
To this end, as was announced recently, Vassar has become the first college in a pilot program created jointly with the Posse Foundation, an organization that has been very successful in placing academically qualified low-income students in select liberal arts colleges. This new program is designed to bring a cohort of ten veterans per year to Vassar, subject to our confirmation that they meet our admissions standards.
I see this program as bringing together a great many of the issues crucially important in ensuring that the very best opportunities of higher education are opportunities for all qualified students. These are also the issues that have recurred throughout my remarks today – the issues of government support of higher education, inequality of wealth distribution, under-representation of low-income students at select liberal arts colleges, the educational value of a diverse student body, and a recognition of social responsibility.
The events of the next twenty-five days before Commencement will rush upon us and past us before we know it. Don’t let them go by without taking the time to reflect on who we are – both individually and collectively – and what we aspire to be.
And don’t let them go by without a bit of revelry – although perhaps not the revelry of the former “Salvé Nights”.
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