Inauguration of the 11th President of Vassar College
Sunday, September 24, 2017
Thank you for coming to share this moment with me. I want to give some special shout outs to begin. First, to my new family—the Vassar students, faculty, staff, and alumnae/i—thank you for welcoming me so graciously into your home. Second, to my most recent past family—the students and fellows of Branford College and Yale; I can’t believe you made it! Thank you. And most importantly, to my first and forever family, my children Alice, Kate, and Tim and my amazing husband John, who I met in graduate school on this very day, September 24th, 33 years ago!
I am honored by the Board of Trustees’ invitation to serve as the 11th president of Vassar College, and moved by the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the remarkable college presidents who have preceded me. I am particularly thankful to my distinguished immediate predecessor Cappy Hill, who is here to share in this event with us. Thank you to each of my colleagues who participated in panels yesterday or made greetings and remarks today. I am delighted to stand amidst so many who have shaped, challenged, comforted, and inspired me.
Why do we hold inaugurations? The ceremonial pomp and circumstance is fun, but something more important must happen here, too. Today, we have a dual-task before us: we remember the institution’s history, and we chart a path into the future. The president has the challenge to set forth an institutional vision and a set of priorities in a way that weaves the past and the future together to build a cohesive path forward.
Giving such an address is a tall order for someone who has been on the job just two-and-a-half months! But that is how it is. New college presidents are at once asked to be active, forward-looking, and visionary while also undertaking a “listening tour,” remaining open, and carefully contemplating decisions before making any moves. In other words, we are supposed to both lead and follow the community at the same time.
This challenge brings to mind a favorite quote, about balancing opposing views, from American novelist and Vassar parent, F. Scott Fitzgerald (his daughter was Vassar 1942). He wrote:
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
So, off I go—working to be both bold and humble, imaginative and grounded, visionary, and practical. Let’s see if I can meet the Fitzgerald challenge.
I will start by recalling some important elements of Vassar’s history.
First, Vassar has been a pioneering institution with ambitious, progressive ideas from its very beginning. As most of you know, our founding mission was to provide women the kind of first-rate college education that was then available to men. In 1861, Matthew Vassar faced an unbelieving world, one that thought women were physically and mentally ill-suited to education. Some even thought that education might compromise women’s reproductive capacity! In establishing this college, Vassar had a big idea. As he said, “It is my hope…to inaugurate a new era in the history and life of women.” This was not merely: “let’s create a college;” it was “let’s start a whole new era!” That was a bold idea!
Second, Vassar has stood for the importance of searching for truth. This is known on campus as “going to the source.” The first faculty member at Vassar, the renowned astronomer Maria Mitchell, was famous for asking her students, “Did you read that in a book, or did you observe it yourself?” In the 1860s and 1870s, she took her students to the Western frontier to see solar eclipses, record observations, and submit their observations for publication. The advice, “go to the source,” has served Vassar students for generations. This careful consideration of what is true is particularly germane today, given the cacophony of conflicting information we are exposed to every day, fed in part by social media.
Third, Vassar has always had a firm sense of place. Matthew Vassar and the many scholars who have lived on this campus since 1861 have known that the environment shapes how we think and feel. Trustees and scores of architects, artists, teachers, and learners have been deliberate—purposeful—in creating the space around us. When buildings have been refurbished—think of the Vogelstein or New England—their history and beauty has been preserved. We have a tradition in which every year the graduating class undertakes plantings to deepen their lasting presence in this arboretum that is our campus. Even the design of the meandering paths influences how we learn here, providing time for solitude, wandering, and reflection.
Since living on campus, I have marveled at the intellect, the creativity, and the authenticity of our students and faculty. I now realize that these characteristics are rooted in a history of bold ideas, dedication to searching for truth, and a clear sense of who we are.
With this history in mind, I turn now to suggesting an institutional vision and set of priorities.
My vision is that Vassar retains—and strengthens—its position as a national model for liberal arts education: a model that provides the highest quality education, is accessible, and empowers its students and faculty to tackle the most pressing intellectual and social problems of our time. My vision is that Vassar is a deeply trusted institution and that it plays a pivotal role in sustaining liberal arts education in a place of substantial, positive influence in our society.
This vision is expansive, and I offer it knowing full well that while aspirations can be infinite, resources are always finite. So where do we begin this work?
A key priority is the faculty and the intellectual environment of the college. Vassar has a world-class faculty and my priority is to keep it that way.
Our faculty are known as top scholars, researchers, and coaches in their fields. They are also profoundly committed to the educational mission of Vassar. They create and re-create a curriculum that steeps students in the traditional disciplines and in multidisciplinary thinking. Faculty and students together wrestle with timeless issues about the human condition and our place in the world. The Vassar approach to teaching engages students fully in rigorous study and debate, developing students’ capacity to confront new ideas and formulate creative approaches to nuanced challenges.
The alumnae/i as well as current students have shared with me that the intellectual freedom and challenges they have experienced here have kindled a lifelong love of learning and rich imagination. Honestly, I am humbled to be here among this collection of scholars and educators. Bolstered by bylaws that underscore shared governance, the strong faculty voice here will ensure that we remain grounded in our scholarship and learning.
A second priority is creating an inclusive campus culture.
We stand here at a critical moment in time. Not since the 1920s has the US had as many immigrants as a proportion of the total population as we do today; that decade saw a resurgence of anti-immigration sentiment in the public discourse. Perhaps then we should not be surprised by the uptick in vitriol we have all recently witnessed.
The nation’s diversity is magnified on college campuses. Here at Vassar we have students from 28 countries and 46 states, with a whole range and intersections of races, ethnicities, creeds, gender and sexual identities, and economic backgrounds.
Let me acknowledge that Vassar has not always dealt with diversity as well as it could have. As we integrate our history, Vassar—like the rest of the United States—must recognize that conquest, slavery, and discrimination based on race have been much more pervasive and destructive than we have chosen to understand.
But today, on our campus, we have an opportunity to practice the enactment of a world we want to see: one in which both diversity and unity flourish. Too often, diversity is managed by either over-assimilating people into a common narrative or fully separating—one might say segregating—groups based on identity. These strategies have been tried, and largely failed, in the social experiment that is the United States.
Instead, I have suggested adopting an approach we might call engaged pluralism—wherein we recognize ourselves as both members of a particular group and as members of the larger Vassar community. Engaged pluralism demands that different groups do not merely tolerate each other; they engage each other. They value difference, and they understand that engagement with others is a source of holism, a foundation for shared teaching and learning.
I see an enormous opening to support our residential house communities where these principles are developed, applied, and practiced on a daily basis until they are habit—until they are embedded in our culture.
A third priority for me is strengthening Vassar’s role in its larger community.
Vassar has a rich history of working with Poughkeepsie and beyond—the Vassar Environmental Cooperative, Vassar Urban Education Initiative, the Vassar Refugee Solidarity, our Veterans Posse program, the Vassar Haiti Project, and more. We will continue to be a strong partner, by valuing and listening to the communities of Poughkeepsie and the Hudson River Valley.
I invite us to think creatively about how to integrate local and global partnerships into the framework of a Vassar education. I envision that the Vassar of the future will be home to an innovative model of learning that integrates classroom and experiential learning—using the “open learning” platform approved by the faculty last May. Such a platform echoes the “go to the source” wisdom of our earliest faculty. The combination of scholarly and practical experience deepens comprehension, compassion, and common sense—all of which are essential to becoming an educated adult and living a meaningful life.
We will also look beyond our immediate community and into the wider world. Our students will continue to be engaged world citizens, learning not only from work done here on campus but also from experiences globally.
As a fourth priority, we will honor the illustrious history of Vassar in art, landscape, and architecture, and aim to revitalize our buildings and landscape to align with our goals of accessibility, sustainability, and educational excellence.
Take a look at this campus; it is extraordinary! And we have important opportunities ahead. Main will be reimagined and renovated. Raymond, housing hundreds of students per year, will be updated, along with other residential houses, the athletic facilities, and some academic buildings such as Blodgett and Chicago Hall. We would also benefit from a Summer Learning Institute and inn, both of which would enable Vassar to become an even more compelling destination for visitors of all kinds and would increase the accessibility of Vassar for incoming students, families, and scholars.
We must undertake these building projects in a way that creates sustainable, healthy buildings for the future. These projects can both maintain our architectural signature and position us as a leader of sustainable living. As we confront the enormous environmental threats to our globe, we will research, teach, and model how to live in harmony with our environment, with the goal of being a carbon-neutral campus by 2030.
Now, we are in the home stretch of my remarks and I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the importance of strengthening our collective sense of community.
It is natural to go about our lives at Vassar assessing the institution’s success by what can be easily seen and measured: student and faculty honors awarded, website “hits,” endowment size, and many other metrics. All these are important, and their value should not be minimized.
But there is a larger project here that we can and should keep in our sights. I see Vassar as part of a broader American aspiration to prepare young adults to live meaningful lives and to contribute positively to a dynamic world. Our students will leave Vassar equipped with confidence in who they are and an understanding of history, science, social sciences, literature, and the arts, and having experienced living and thriving in a diverse and inclusive community.
In this time in our history, some may try to capitalize on fear, discontent, and anti-intellectualism. But Vassar will be resilient, an anchor in turbulent times. Together, we will rediscover our trust in people and the institutions that serve them. As the President of Vassar, I am committed to strengthening this institution to stand as a place of optimism and integrity in the time ahead.
In closing, I want to ask each of us to reflect.
Look around. We are the beneficiaries of the learning and leadership that has gone before us, and we are the stewards for future generations. Let us draw strength from each other and take on the challenge of ensuring that Vassar remains the unique higher education institution that it has been for our nation, our world, and the tens of thousands of students who have walked on this campus. Breathe it in and think—the future is open and unknown. We have everything we need. Let us be free in our curiosity, responsible in our community, and full of hope for our collective future.
—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College