Commencement Address

Deborah Bial

President of the Posse Foundation

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Thank you, President Chenette—you really have been a great friend to Posse, and a great support; we appreciate it. Thank you Bill Plapinger, Your Chair, for providing leadership on both the Vassar and Posse boards, and thank you to the entire Vassar Board of Trustees, your amazing faculty, and to the wonderful staff, friends, and family of this incredible college. It’s an honor to be here and to be a part of this graduating class.

I feel especially privileged to share this day with Vassar’s first class of graduating Posse scholars. Vassar did something extraordinary when it partnered with the Posse Foundation to establish the Posse Veterans Program, a program that identifies really talented men and women who have served in the U.S. military post 9-11 to go to some of the top colleges and universities in the U.S. in teams—in posses.

When your last president, Cappy Bond Hill, called me up, and she suggested this idea of applying the cohort model to post-9-11 U.S. vets, we said “Okay.” Vassar at the time had, I believe, 1 veteran on campus. Today there are between 30-40 veterans on your campus. That’s truly a meaningful, powerful, and inclusive change. And I am thrilled to be here alongside the first Posse graduates, these men and women who are here on this beautiful day—Fernando Braga, Carl Calendar, Edwardo Delatore, Patrick Hood, Josh Ridley, Keith Coleman, Jack Eubanks—it’s a thrill to be here with you; it’s a historic moment.

And on this Memorial Day weekend, when we remember those who lost their lives defending this country, some of whom were friends and fellow servicemen and servicewomen of yours, it is appropriate that we also thank you for your service, and that we thank you additionally for beautifully paving the way for other United States veterans to contribute to and benefit from outstanding institutions of higher education like Vassar. Your success makes it possible for theirs. Thank you.

So, to the entire class of 2017—congratulations! I’m excited for you, and I hope you’re feeling it and enjoying this moment. I think everyone here knows that Vassar began as a women’s college in 1861. You know probably that it was the first degree-granting college for women in this country, and women thrived in this environment. It didn’t become co-ed until 1969. As you just heard, your chair, Bill Plapinger wasted no time—he was part of that very first co-ed class. But women have come a long way, haven’t they. In fact, women now thrive in a multi-gendered college, just as well as in a single-sex institution.

We can say that many of our historically disenfranchised populations have come a long way—African-Americans, the LGBTQ community. We can say that because it’s true. We have made progress. We have come a long way. But a long way is not enough. It is not all the way. A few weeks ago I heard President Clinton give an important speech about diversity. He talked about how much better our decisions are when we make them in diverse teams. It’s just a fact. We make better decisions when we work in diverse teams. But President Clinton went on to make what I think was the most important point. He said, “We need to expand the definition of ‘us,’ and shrink the definition of ‘them.’”

Think about it. We have too many “thems.” We are too polarized as a nation; we too often pit one group against another. Think about race, class religion—think about politics. We too often build groups based on hate. We build systems and institutions that keep “them”—those others—out. The wall is only one literal example. We find ways to protect the narrow “us,” and that is wrong. The result is a set of social and political problems that exacerbate the separations.

When we rule out consensus decision making, we rule out smarter solutions. Without the benefits of diverse teams and problem-solving, we make the decisions that benefit the few, or only slices of the American population. We leave too many to suffer, and then we look at those who suffer as “them.” The problems that affect you and me today are profound. We have terrible tensions between police and community, two groups that should be united. We have a justice system that works differently for different groups of people, often based on race and class. It often seems that those who are most in need are offered the least, and those with the most are given even more.

The patterns of poverty and hardship are obvious and we see them start at birth, with inequities in childcare. We fail to take care of the planet, which puts our children and our grandchildren in peril. And really, the image of this country as a dignified land of inclusion is fraying. It is now, at times, condemned for its posturing and ridiculed for its ignorance of world issues. Do we want to be part of a more global “us,” or a country that walls itself off and alienates others?

We need you, who graduate today with a stellar education in your pocket, to stand up for the things we’ve been too slow to address. You are graduating today with a big choice. Because you have a Vassar degree, your youth, and each other, the whole world is open to you. This makes you privileged, and it gives you a voice that not everyone has. It gives you power that not everyone has. As you step off this stage with your degree in your hand, your network around you, and your foot on the newly paved street to success, you have a big choice. You can choose to stand by, or you can choose to stand up. And I ask that you stand up.

We are in a new and uncertain time in the United States. What’s your reaction to the news, to the messages we’re hearing every day, about alternate facts, threats to national security, about spending cuts that affect healthcare, social security, education? What’s your reaction when you see journalists intimidated and insulted for asking questions? One was recently arrested, and this past week, one was assaulted.

What message are we sending if we stand by? What message are we sending to immigrants, to Muslims, to the black community, to women? These are not partisan questions; they are human questions. Whatever you end up doing with your life, and your career, I ask you, will you stand by, or will you stand up? What role will you play to protect the very core of what this country stands for? I hope you agree that we must not stand by in the face of threats to the environment, to human rights, to a woman’s rights to choose—we must not stand by until every citizen has the right to vote without fear of intimidation at the voting booth.

Our rights to freedom of speech and access to information and to the right to assemble are precious and we must protect them. We must not stand by. We don’t want to create a future where we will face regret. Women need to stand for the right to have strong personalities, to be brilliant and ambitious, and still be liked—to be strong and still be liked. This combination of being strong and liked should not be exclusive to men. We need to stand for the right to hold public office, to change a Senate that is today 80% male and 90% white to one that is representative of the gender and racial breakdowns of our country, representative of all genders and all races.

We need to stand against those who think sexual assault is material for a joke or a wink or a nod. We cannot stand by when we hear the excuse that violent comments against women are just locker-room banter. Women still need to stand up for equal pay. We are a civilized society in which the rights of all should be protected by all, and we can’t stand by if our rights are threatened by any kind of ignorance, misogyny, or bigotry. The civil rights activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel, who walked beside Martin Luther King and John Lewis, said, “For many of us, the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling, and yet our legs uttered songs, even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

I love that. Be part of a fight to expand the definition of “us.” Use your voice, use your legs, march, use your feet, stand up, make a statement. Christian Ventura, Lily Platt, Sam Hammer, you’re going to stand Christine Flynn, you’re going to make a statement. Asia Alman, Michael Woods, Abby Johnson, we need you. To all the students at Vassar College, if you have ever stood for a friend, or a member of your family, if you have ever stood up for something you believe in, even if it was hard—I ask you now to stand. I ask you all to stand.

We are relying on you to be strong, to be deliberate, to be clear-thinking, to be compassionate, to be resilient and brave. We are mothers, we are fathers, daughters and sons, we are sisters and brothers. We are all women’s rights leaders, we are all civil rights leaders, we are all human rights leaders. Look around. As individuals, we are strong, but together we are an army. Congratulations everyone, and good luck.