Vassar College Convocation

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Welcome everyone! I am excited and energized to be among this amazing group of human beings. Wherever we are, from on campus to remote locations, we have an unprecedented opportunity to put our collective talents to use—and I have every confidence in our potential to meet this moment with courage, integrity, and care.

Convocation is a tradition at Vassar that began in 1865. In those early days, Convocation was a sermon given by the first president, President Raymond (yes, after whom Raymond House is named), to open the academic year. Not to worry, that tradition is no longer, and I have no intention of giving a sermon.

By 1914, Convocation had expanded to be a parade of faculty and students in full regalia; and I thank Professor Offutt for helping us to reenact this important ritual. Every Convocation has been held in this very chapel building since it was erected in 1904, except during the 1960s, when the ceremony was held in the outdoor theater, and now, when the ceremony is held on the internet due to the pandemic. Although our setting is certainly unique, you join the long academic tradition, common to all Vassar students, of being “called together.”

In August, I had two weeks of vacation, and I am a bit of a voracious reader, so I read three remarkable books during that time. I also am interested in just about everything (like people with a liberal arts education often are), so although these books may not seem related, to me they very much are. The books were: Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram Kendi; Epidemics and Society by Frank Snowden, and Rigged by David Shimer.

The first is a history of racism—basically from the story of Noah’s Ark to present day. The book is a tour de force, was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and was awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction for outstanding literary work by a U.S. citizen.

The second book is an anthology of epidemics through the years, beginning with the Bubonic Plague: the disease spread by fleas that caused the Black Death that killed an estimated 50 million people throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe in the 14th century—between 25-60% of the European population at the time—and ending with Ebola and SARS.

And last, Rigged, the story of covert electoral interference over the last century, with a focus on the history and current-day efforts by both the U.S. and Russian leadership to influence elections. The book ends with the election of President Trump in 2016 and reports primary source data on Russian influence on the hearts and minds of U.S. citizens, if not exact vote counts. A major insight of the book is that the racial and economic splits in the U.S. make this country extremely vulnerable to outside influence over federal elections, the cornerstone of the democratic model of governance.

What do these have in common, you might wonder? For me, they all delve into our collective struggle, in the U.S. and globally, and poor navigation of our relationship with “the other”—people we perceive to be not like “us,” whether that “not like us” is due to race/ethnicity, geographical background, social and economic status, or disease status.

Why do we design categories and put people in them? Organizational theorists and researchers have proposed that using such categories can be adaptive. Classifying people might feel like it simplifies, so we use it to make sense of a complicated world. Or maybe categorizing people into roles helps us organize work, to be productive and efficient in some way. And further, it may reduce our anxiety—again, feeling like a structure, even if imperfect, brings calm; in fact, structures may protect us, if we think the world overall is hostile. If we band together with others we perceive as like ourselves, maybe we feel safer. These benefits: making sense, being productive, and protecting oneself are reasonable advantages to value.

The difficulty, however, is that such categorization of the other, as these books illuminate each in their own realm—racism, disease, and international conflict—risks much more deleterious effects. For instance, in making sense of the world, such categorization can lead to exclusion. Or the pursuit of productivity and efficiency can lead to oppression. Or, most apparent in all three books, efforts toward self-protection move inexorably toward dehumanization of the “other”—whether related to the origin of racist ideas, ancient and contemporary stigmatization of disease and people with disease, or current electoral politics and manipulation.

The fundamental issues of our time are those that require collective action, seeing beyond oneself, being part of something bigger than ourselves. Think about our global climate emergency, the era of pandemics (as COVID-19 may not be the last), persistent and lethal racism, and the yawning global and national economic inequities.

It is one thing to study and talk about these issues and it is quite another to start to prepare oneself to contribute to tackling these issues, reversing the trends we see where categorizing people and ideas leads not to sensemaking, productivity, and protection but rather to exclusion, oppression, and dehumanization.

In some ways, although this is clearly not the year any of us would have wished for, we have an opportunity together on this campus. Let us use this year, not to regret it as “so much less” but rather to imagine and practice living as an interconnecting, caring community—one that recognizes mutual interdependence and commits to putting “we” before “me.”

To practice this sort of living, we need to be all in. We need leadership and we need civic engagement. We need empathy. And we need to recognize we are one human family—from the same ancestor and with our destinies interlocked.

This work is not easy, particularly for those of us raised in the United States where so many have valued individualism and freedom over mutual interdependence. We will face challenges in the year ahead as we negotiate how our individual decisions affect the overall health and safety of the entire community.

Thus, as we are learning and trying to make sense of a complicated and conflicting world that seems to expand in front of us as we engage with new ideas and new people, let us be mindful of each other, relentlessly curious to understand more, open to accepting more, and empathic so as to truly connect more. We can do this. The COVID-19 epidemic and national crises of racism and global warming have made it clear in tragic ways that we have no other choice. We are in this together. We have everything we need, and the future is open to us.

This Convocation tradition is the official opening of the academic year at Vassar. May the year be full of learning, growth, and togetherness for the good of all.

—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College