Reunion Remarks Made by the President

Vassar College Reunion
Saturday, June 1, 2024

Thank you, Monica, for the kind introduction and your tremendous leadership of the AAVC this year, a challenging one for us all. Your mindful and creative leadership has made all the difference. Thank you!

Also, a shout-out to all the people who made the reunion possible—Campus Activities, Facilities Operations, Media Services, Communications, Dining, Campus Safety, student workers, and of course Advancement…and in particular: Diana Jedlicka, Jolee DuBois, Katherine Cerino-Jones, Willa Vincitore, and Lisa Tessler—and the whole Alum Engagement team. And last, the many, many alum volunteers, speakers, presenters, and leadership. Thank you all so much.

I am so glad to have us all together in this chapel and investing in higher education and the communities that higher education has enabled at Vassar. Let’s talk about higher education; we are under duress and facing substantial criticism: criticism about how we admit students, our curricular decisions, how we hire and promote faculty. How we do fundraising and how we deal with donors’ preferences. It’s all fair game. And then, there are the self-inflicted wounds: such as being ill prepared for congressional testimony; presidential statements that overreach; peer-review systems that fail to detect and prevent plagiarism.

Although higher education has made errors, and we have made errors, I am not so naive as to ignore the increasingly authoritarian forces globally that seek to curtail our freedom of thought, our ability to dissent, and our embrace of all kinds of diversity. These external forces have been effective in splitting institutions of higher education in ways that weaken these institutions just as we need them most.

The stakes are very high. And it’s a time, and opportunity, for bold leadership on the part of all of us—courageous, grounded and reliable leadership.

I am an unabashed supporter of higher education. The higher education system in the United States—say what you will about it—is still the envy of the world. The data are clear. Those who pursue and complete college degrees have better outcomes; they have more income; they are more likely to have steady and meaningful employment; they have more stability in their family lives; they live longer; they are more supportive of pro-democracy efforts; and they are more prepared to adapt to the technological and cultural revolutions that are in full swing.

Our shared mission, and it will take all of us together, is to preserve the quality of liberal arts education for future generations. Yesterday, I met Phyllis, from the Class of 1948. She’s right here with who she calls her sherpa. She graduated 75 years ago. Mary, who is also here, is from the Class of 1948. These two women are so inspiring, and we want to be sure that this opportunity continues for graduates 75 years hence. I believe that will be the class of 2099! And beyond.

Despite the turbulent environment current for higher education nationally, at Vassar we have much momentum for the future. And even with the challenges we face, I can say that I truly love my job. It is difficult but also immensely fulfilling.

I want to give you some data to share with friends and refer to when you start feeling nervous about where higher education is going. I want to equip you with some information from Vassar that maybe will help.

First, this year was our largest year ever for applications. We had nearly 12,500 applications for a class that will have 685 people in it. It is a tough place to get into, and I’m glad none of us have to apply! We also continue to support need-blind admission, and we continue to meet full demonstrated financial need for students. We also have very high graduation rates. Most important, our first-generation and low-income students graduate at largely the same rate as our higher-income students.

Lest you think the liberal arts does not prepare you for jobs, at Vassar, 93% of our graduates are in jobs, competitive fellowships, or graduate school within six months of graduating. And fifteen years after graduation from Vassar, 70% of our graduates have an advanced degree.

We are expanding important academic programs that reflect contemporary needs. One of these is Data Science & Society. We are also expanding Dance and a number of programs in Environmental Science, Climate, and Sustainability, some with projects on the preserve. In a particularly interesting, “very Vassar” initiative, two weeks ago, I met the president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe, who are the indigenous people who lived on this land, in Dutchess County, before they were forcibly removed by European colonization, and still care for this land. The president came to visit Vassar, and now we have a collaboration with them. In fact, I think we’re going to start a medicine garden on the Preserve with indigenous seeds and guidance from them, as well as offer spots in the summer Exploring Transfer program, philanthropically funded at Vassar for community college students considering four-year college.

In the last five years we have hired more than 50 new professors. Often, particularly during COVID, we were one of the only colleges that was hiring in some disciplines and we recruited top-notch faculty. These faculty are winning awards from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for Humanities, and Fulbright to name a few. Also, we continue to have a tremendously strong interest from students in the humanities. We often hear that STEM is taking over, but at Vassar, we continue to have robust demand in the humanities and social sciences.

Even athletics is thriving! Women’s rugby is number two in the country for DIII; men’s volleyball made the finals of the NCAA; women’s basketball and women’s cross country won their leagues this year; men’s and women’s tennis made their league finals, and for the first time ever, a Vassar person became the national women’s champion in 1500-meter college track. And she was a first-year student!

It is a wonderful feeling to have a campus that has these pride points. At the same time, we have much to do and many challenges ahead. As you know, we are in the middle of a campaign, a comprehensive campaign. And I want to talk a little bit about this. I am sure you’ve heard about it, but the title of it is Fearlessly Consequential: A Campaign for Our Collective Future. It is a mouthful, I know, but we are an intelligent group, so we can manage it! And I do feel when we started to use “Fearlessly Consequential” as a phrase, alums from all years started to nod like “oh, yeah, that’s who we are.” We are not afraid of anything, and we want our lives to make a difference. But I think it is the second part of the title that is really the most important, which is a “campaign for our collective future.” It is for Vassar, certainly, but it is also for something bigger than ourselves—it is for our collective future. Vassar’s mission and the education people receive contributes to democracy; the education gotten here helps graduates not be deluded by AI and other tricks that might be in the environment to get us to be more contained. The education at Vassar is purposely shaped to support a pluralist, peaceful, free, and inclusive society, and that, in my view, is why this campaign is so very important.

Our goal is $500 million, and we are at $330 million. We have about two and a half years to go, and we are still working on several priorities. I wanted to frame those for you. First—and I think it all begins here at accessibility, and it is particularly to be able to sustain our need-blind commitment—we are raising $100 million for financial aid endowments. So very, very important and a top priority. I think we have raised about half of that so far.

We also are working to have this campus continue to be a transformational experience for people. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but most people go through Vassar, and when they leave, they think differently. They have new ideas. They are more critical about what they have been told. They are more questioning of everything. I think they are more confident that they can, in fact, really make a difference.

Do we have a campus that sustains that? There are so many things that are needed. For instance, we need the proper health-promoting facilities, we need the mental health services, we need the ability to do restorative practices, we need interfaith programs. We are a campus where edges meet, meaning we bring people together and they’re going to disagree and potentially really have tough, tough, times. But, if you can manage through that, then you’ve got engaged pluralism. You have pluralism, where people are not assimilated and they are not segregated, but they are engaged with each other.

We’ve been working on that obviously this semester but also for years at Vassar. Today, there’s a particularly heightened need for this kind of culture on our campus. We have to be able to tackle the most difficult and contested issues, the most contested, without dehumanizing each other. And with the recognition that we are always in pursuit of greater understanding. We don’t already know everything, and we are never going to know everything, but rather the educated person is always in pursuit of greater understanding. And it’s very hard when emotions run high. People are passionate, they are sure they have the answer, and they tell me that: “You don’t understand Professor Bradley, it’s this.” And, I think if we could keep those two pieces in mind—about not dehumanizing (even when you just can’t believe the other person feels a certain way, still humanizing them), and about knowing our humility: that we’re still trying to learn—then, we can continue this kind of transformative experience students have here.

I talked about financial accessibility so we can take the students who are most prepared for a Vassar education, not just the students who can afford it. I talked about sustaining the transformative nature of campus life.

And last, we are investing heavily in what Vassar does to create enriching lives and careers after Vassar. I gave you the statistic about 93% of students have desirable work and study opportunities within six months after they graduate, which is a wonderful statistic. We also have 90% of students getting an internship at some time during their college. Lots of community-based education now that helps people transition to the real world.

We now want to strengthen the “liberal arts approach to career education.” That’s a four-year approach for students who want to do this. For instance, in one’s first-year, it could be about: Who am I? What are my values? What do I like to do? If you can figure that out when you’re eighteen, you’re good. And sophomore year, we have Sophomore Career Connections, which is an effort many of you have been part of where alums come to teach and mentor our students in every field you can imagine. About 100 alums come to campus to meet with nearly 200 students for a weekend in January. It’s a wonderful, wonderful program for sophomores, with great outcomes. We’d like to create something in junior year that really allows students to integrate what they learn. In their first year: Who am I?; in sophomore year, What’s out there?; in junior year, okay, I’m going to make the match—what should I be doing for my internship?; and then senior year, preparing for all the transitional needs to go into real life after Vassar. All of this takes staff and resources. We are building a gorgeous new building on the north side of campus for Admission and Career Education together. So, we will have a signature building there designed by Maryann Thompson, an internationally renowned architect, who is the first female architect for a whole building at Vassar and a Vassar parent. We have absolutely had female architects working on renovations and redoing various buildings, but this is a whole building—made possible by a major gift from Dede Thompson Bartlett, class of 1965. It is a gorgeous, inspiring building to host both Admission and Career Education, and we are raising money for the needed staff.

In ending, we all know that we live in a fraught time. But today, right now, in this chapel, let’s take a moment to feel joy. Joy that 1,700 Vassar graduates are gathered here today on this campus to share memories and reflect on what a Vassar education has meant. Joy in reconnecting with this arboretum, which has nourished so many conversations, so many friendships, so much discovery since 1861.

Sometimes alums ask me how they can help. And, of course, your volunteerism matters a lot. Your philanthropy is wonderful. Your mentorship of students, of faculty, of fellow alums—it’s all so meaningful. The nice emails you send me are also nice, but most central in this time is building and sustaining the social fabric among all of us. Call your Vassar friends. Send notes to bolster each other. Let us relish in these relationships that began at Vassar and are going to echo for a lifetime. Because that’s really what we need in this time. We need to see each other’s humanity and relish in being each other’s joy.

Thank you so very much.

—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College