Tribute to Retiring Faculty: William Hoynes Remarks for Commencement

Sunday, May 22, 2022
by William Hoynes, Dean of the Faculty

Commencement is a day of transition for more than just our graduating seniors. Today, we recognize six members of Vassar’s faculty who completed their long and dedicated tenure of service to the College this year. This is a moment to celebrate their accomplishments and to express our gratitude for their profound contributions to the Vassar community during the decades they have spent on our campus.

I’ll be sharing brief tributes to the six wonderful faculty members marking their retirement transitions today, representing the many distinguished faculty who have touched the lives of today’s graduates.

To my colleagues who are in attendance today, when I read your name, I ask you to stand to be recognized. To the faculty and students, I ask for your applause at the conclusion of my remarks, which I hope will resonate in the hearts of the faculty we recognize today with deep gratitude.

M Mark, Adjunct Associate Professor of English

Professor Mark joined Vassar’s English Department in 2001, teaching courses on creative writing and literary nonfiction. M’s popular First-Year Writing Seminar “Deception: Some Truths about Lies” was prescient in its engagement with vital questions for both writers and readers. And her Media Studies seminar “Adaptations” was ahead of its time in considering how cultural products are repackaged and repurposed in different media forms and on new media platforms.

M played a key role in the redevelopment of the Vassar London Program in Media and Culture, and she made a major contribution to the development of our Media Studies program. M is known as a wonderfully generous mentor and advisor, working with students in the English Department as well as the Media Studies and STS programs, where she advised dozens of senior theses and capstone projects with great success.

As the founding editor of PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers, M helped to connect students with opportunities in the literary world, and she served on the editorial board of Vassar Review.

Thank you, M, for the creativity, care, and joy in learning you have shared with your students and colleagues for the past 21 years.

Maria Höhn, Professor of History on the Marion Musser Lloyd ’32 Chair

Professor Höhn joined Vassar’s History Department in 1996. She was Chair of the History Department and Faculty Director of Research Development, and she served on the Steering Committees of the International Studies and American Studies programs.

Maria taught courses on German history and is a scholar of the American military presence in Germany. Her book GIs and Fräuleins was the first book to address the experiences of African American soldiers in Germany. Her newest book, the co-edited volume Migration, Displacement, and Higher Education: Now What?, will be published this summer, and includes contributions from Vassar faculty and alums.

During her years at Vassar, Maria invested in the College in ways that leave a powerful legacy. She built the Mellon-sponsored military-civilian exchange program between Vassar and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and she founded the Consortium on Forced Migration, Displacement and Education, funded by a major grant from the Mellon Foundation, which spurred the launch of Vassar’s new Correlate Sequence in Migration and Displacement Studies.

Maria is the recipient of many prestigious awards and grants, including the 2009 NAACP Distinguished Community Service Award for her contributions to the history of African American GIs. She brought two major international conferences to Vassar: the 2009 conference “African American GIs, the Civil Rights Struggle, and Germany” and the 2019 “International Conference on Global Displacement and Mental Health.” Each brought scholars from around the world to the Vassar campus.

Thank you, Maria, for your creative leadership and for sharing your passion for public history with the Vassar community. Your work has enriched the lives of your students and colleagues in ways that will long endure at Vassar.

Rodica (Gutsie) Blumenfeld, Associate Professor of Italian

Since joining the Vassar faculty in 1991, Professor Blumenfeld has taught just about every course in the Italian curriculum; she also taught popular courses in Film and Women’s Studies. Gutsie was Chair of the Italian Department, and she directed the summer program in Siena several times.

Gutsie’s scholarship and teaching focus on feminist approaches to literature, film, and colonial and post-colonial studies. After her groundbreaking book on gender in Carlo Emilio Gadda’s novels, she wrote several innovative articles on gender and on migration in Italian film, and she published a volume on the Jewish-Italian writer Giorgio Bassani, which grew out of one of Gutsie’s innovative classes.

Gutsie mentored generations of students with care and enthusiasm, conveying her passion for meaningful intellectual engagement. Gutsie’s students have had the privilege to experience her commitment to rigorous training in feminist and post-colonial criticism, her genuine interest in underrepresented voices in Italian film and literature, and her model of a collaborative classroom that has built a lasting community among three decades of students.

Thank you, Gutsie, for bringing your creativity and passion to the classroom, for emboldening our students to push themselves to ask difficult questions, and for always bringing a sense of hope and possibility to your work.

Uma Narayan, Professor of Philosophy on the Andrew W. Mellon Chair

Professor Narayan joined Vassar’s Philosophy Department in 1990. She has been the primary instructor for Feminist Theory over the course of her Vassar career; just about every student who studied Feminist Philosophy during the past 30 years likely studied with Uma. Three decades of students have been riveted by her intensely engaging courses. Uma taught philosophy courses on Contemporary Moral Issues, Social and Political Philosophy, and Feminist Theory, as well as Introduction to Women’s Studies and Global Feminism in the Women’s Studies program, for which she was a longtime member of the program’s Steering Committee.

Uma is a field-defining scholar of feminist theory, recognized globally for her ground-breaking work. Her books include Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism; Reconstructing Political Theory: Feminist Perspectives; and Decentering the Center: Philosophy for a Multicultural, Postcolonial, and Feminist World.

While Uma is a theorist, her distinctive style of scholarship means she is never more than a step removed from real-world conditions, actual laws and practices, and peoples’ lived experiences. In her distinctive style of teaching, Uma encourages her students to look squarely and honestly at inequality and injustice, never sugarcoating the depth of the challenges we face—and students have found this intellectual honesty to be powerful and refreshing.

Thank you, Uma, for your commitment to motivating students to think carefully and critically, and for being so deeply engaged with the serious work of mentoring students. You have given 32 years of Vassar students a rich and rewarding education.

Debra Elmegreen, Professor of Astronomy on the Maria Mitchell Chair

Professor Elmegreen joined the Vassar faculty in the Physics and Astronomy Department in 1985. Debbie taught courses at all levels of the astronomy curriculum, including Life in the Universe, Stellar Astrophysics, and Galaxies and Galactic Structure, and she is the author of an undergraduate textbook on galaxies.

Debbie’s research focuses on the structure and evolution of galaxies at optical, infrared, and radio wavelengths. She is a remarkably accomplished and internationally acclaimed scholar. Debbie is President of the International Astronomical Union, the first U.S. woman to hold this position in its 103 year history, and Past President of the American Astronomical Society. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Astronomical Society. Among her 175 published research papers, 50 were co-authored with her students. Collectively, Debbie’s papers have been cited more than 10,000 times.

Debbie has been a generous advisor to countless students and a supportive mentor to a generation of faculty, providing wise counsel and an inspiring role model for her students and colleagues alike. While it is hard to imagine the astronomy curriculum without Debbie, her influence has been so profound that her presence will be felt for years to come.

Thank you, Debbie, for your deep commitment to supporting your students and colleagues, and for sharing your wisdom and expertise with the College community. Your work has enriched our lives; we will be forever grateful for the opportunity to work with and learn from you.

Mark Schlessman, Professor of Biology

Mark joined the Biology Department in 1980, and has taught courses in biology, American studies, environmental studies, and Native American studies. As an evolutionary biologist and botanist, Mark’s research focuses on sex allocation in plants. He is an internationally recognized authority on floral biology and the evolution of gender strategies in two plant families. Mark and his students have done field research at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado, in New Caledonia, and in Iceland; and herbarium research at the New York Botanical Garden and the Museum of Natural History in Paris.

As a teacher, Mark strived to share his enthusiasm for plants with as many students as possible. His innovative teaching has provided wonderful field-study opportunities for students, including biology courses that traveled to Bermuda and Belize, and environmental studies courses to the American Southwest and Iceland.

Mark has made a powerful contribution to the Vassar curriculum through his work to upgrade our facilities for teaching and his research with plants. Vassar’s living plant collection in the Biology Greenhouse now includes over 700 specimens representing more than 120 plant families. The Vassar College Herbarium is an important biodiversity collection of about 19,000 specimens of pressed, dried, and documented plants. Mark recently obtained a National Science Foundation grant to digitize the herbarium, making images and data from our collection available for research and teaching in the global community.

Thank you, Mark, for your commitment to the craft of teaching and for your leadership in engaging students with the study of plants. Your students, including graduates here today, can look at the trees on campus and recognize which are spruces, pines, or hemlocks. Your work in the greenhouse and herbarium is a testament to your enduring contribution to the Vassar curriculum.

The six of you have completed a combined 189 years of service to Vassar College, and we will truly miss you. Thank you for sharing your passion for teaching and learning with our students. Graduates and colleagues, please join me in expressing our gratitude.

Thank you.