Higher Education in the 21st Century

Dutchess County Regional Chamber of Commerce Breakfast, Poughkeepsie, NY
Wednesday, February 21, 2018

I am delighted to be here, and to have the opportunity to meet so many new neighbors, colleagues, and friends. In December I was here for the holiday celebration and I am delighted to be back.

I want to start by making a confession: When my husband, John, and I were looking at the possibility of my submitting my name to be the next President of Vassar, one of the big draws in Vassar’s favor was Poughkeepsie. I grew up in a town very much like Poughkeepsie, called New Britain Connecticut, which was a factory town. My father worked at Fafnir; my uncle at New Britain Machine, and many others worked at Stanley Works. And John, my husband, grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. Both these cities are post-industrial areas with a small number of major employers who left the cities—and all the attendant issues.

So, for us, Poughkeepsie was a real draw, and feels like home. And now that we are here, we are excited to be getting to know people and institutions.

This morning, I wanted to talk about a vision of Poughkeepsie as a college town, and about what we at Vassar have been doing, are doing now, and plan to do, as an integral part of the greater Poughkeepsie community.

  • On Monday—it was President’s Day—I invited all the local college Presidents to my house on the Vassar campus. The presidents of Marist, SUNY New Paltz, Dutchess Community College, and Mount St. Mary shared a meal and we talked about how we might work together for the betterment of our home region.
  • We are keenly aware that education, along with health care and tourism, ranks among the largest sectors of our regional economy. At Vassar alone, we employ 1,100 people who not only work but also live and shop in Poughkeepsie and the Hudson Valley. In fact, last time I was here, I met a person who was looking for a job in dining at Vassar and is now a proud employee on the salad bar! Many of our employees, from faculty to administrators and staff, are active citizens, volunteering and taking leadership roles in their local communities.

Vassar’s rich history with Poughkeepsie goes way back to our founder. Matthew Vassar himself was elected President of the Village of Poughkeepsie in 1835, on the “Improvement” ticket! And our ties remain strong.

  1. For example, this year we are observing the 15th anniversary of the Vassar College Urban Education Initiative, supported by the Dyson Foundation and now headed by my husband has more than 100 students a semester working with teachers and teenagers in the Poughkeepsie public schools, and we are very thankful for it – as our student hopefully give of themselves but also certainly benefit from the experience. We even have an office in the high school now!
  2. For nearly a decade, our Exploring College program, also made possible through the Dyson Foundation, has been helping local high school students who are academically promising and from low-income backgrounds prepare for higher education. Approximately 50 Vassar students are serving as tutors and mentors to high schoolers from Poughkeepsie and neighboring, who come to campus one summer and periodically through the academic year.
  3. And we have a large Community Engaged Learning effort run by Dr. Lisa Kaul, which places 200 students a semester in 100+ local agencies. In fact, this is a place where the college presidents discussed our potential collaboration as we all place many students a year in agencies, and thinking about to align this work with the community’s strategic and deepest needs and to ensure the most impactful approaches are goals we all share.

We have some new programming on the horizon.

Power and Peril: Teenagers and Mobile Technology: Thanks to the generosity of the husband of a Vassar alumna from the Class of 1969, this summer our campus will play host to a two-week course for local middle and high school students, grades seven through nine.  This class is aimed at increasing both their creative skills and their life skills as users of mobile technology. Our faculty, working with staff from The Art Effect, and nearly a dozen Vassar students are developing a cutting-edge syllabus to impart both the power and potential pitfalls of using this ubiquitous technology. 

Lifelong Learning: While much of the work I have been describing engages the younger members of the Poughkeepsie community, one of our newest initiatives, the brainchild of a Vassar faculty member, is directed at those 55 years and over.

  • This spring will mark the debut of the Lifelong Learning Institute, an adult educational program offering a broad range of non-credit educational courses, with classes taught by retired and active Vassar faculty, as well as local volunteers who have offered their expertise. The first classes are scheduled to start in April. More than 240 people registered for 150 spots in 21 classes.

Good neighbors: We are looking to be good neighbors, in any and every way we can. I will give just two more examples.

  1. Last month, we announced that we have forged an agreement with Dutchess County Public Transit to cover the cost of Vassar students/staff riding county buses. Those showing a Vassar ID will ride at no charge, and we will reimburse the county for each ride. We made this decision not only to encourage our students and staff to use public transportation to travel to work, internships, and shopping, but also to contribute to sustainability by reducing automobile use.
  2. Finally, I will mention an example that, I hope, illustrates how we are open to enlarging our role as part of the larger community. It came to our attention that our campus increasingly has become a popular location for students to have their photos taken for prom. But because this evolved informally, our campus security staff had no direction on how to handle a considerable influx on certain spring afternoons, and they were put in the position of having to ask the students to leave. We are now reaching out to the high schools to organize photo shoots, so that we will be prepared for our visitors this spring. We want them to know they are welcome on our campus. It’s a small thing, but as we all know, small things matter.

In closing, I want to say that a major reason I chose to apply to be President of Vassar was because I knew the College had spent the better part of a decade successfully diversifying its student body, and I knew that Poughkeepsie, like my hometown of New Britain, already was a very diverse place.

In a world that is so terribly polarized, I saw at Vassar an enormous opportunity to help build a sense of inclusive community, accepting of difference, and thoughtful in its disagreements—both on and off campus.

This is not just feel-good talk; it is fundamental to Vassar’s mission. It speaks to the values that are at our very core as a liberal arts college—and we are in it, with you as partners, for the long haul.

I deeply appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts with you, and to bring you up to date on Vassar’s work in the community. And I am eager to hear what’s on your minds!

Thank you.

—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College