Vassar College

Welcoming Remarks, Catharine Hill, President

Vassar College Fall Convocation
September 12, 2012

Welcome to the 2012/13 Fall Convocation, the occasion that for all of us marks the official beginning of the new academic year. It’s great to see you all here today as we celebrate and dedicate ourselves to the year ahead.

The occasion has additional meaning for some of you. For the seniors, the provenly impressive Class of 2013, it marks the beginning of the end – your final year at Vassar. For the newest Vassar students, the impressively promising class of 2016, it marks the end of the beginning – in the sense that, as your orientation schedule says, Fall Convocation is “the official culmination of the New Student Orientation Program.” I hope by now you are feeling adequately oriented – or at least no longer disoriented – although I can assure you, as can the seniors, that you will discover new and interesting things about Vassar no matter how long you are here. In any event, I trust that after a full week of classes, you are now fully focused on beginning the work you came here to do.

That work is – in the words of the college’s mission statement – to acquire “an education that promotes analytical, informed, and independent thinking and sound judgment; encourages articulate expression; and nurtures intellectual curiosity, creativity, respectful debate and engaged citizenship.” These are lofty goals, but they are goals that Vassar students have met for over 150 years. And they are goals met through students being challenged and supported by an outstanding and dedicated faculty, and met through the many ways in which you as students challenge and support each other.

There was a time when attendance at this event was mandatory – and while such a policy might have had certain advantages, the prospect of speaking to a “captive audience” is not one that I, at least, would have welcomed. The choice is yours. More generally, “choice” is now deeply embedded in Vassar’s culture.

All of us – students, faculty, staff – have in one way or another chosen to be a part of Vassar. For students, choice plays a particularly structured and pervasive role, beginning with the admissions process. As any dean of admissions will tell you, it is a process that relies on informed intelligent decisions on both sides, and the wisdom of those decisions is vital in achieving the goal of fulfilling Vassar’s education mission. The goal – and overwhelmingly the reality – is that you are right for Vassar, and Vassar is right for you.

One of the things we know from that admissions process is that Vassar’s open curriculum is an important consideration for applicants, and is recognized as one of Vassar’s distinguishing features. Vassar also has an impressively wide selection of majors and even the possibility of individually constructed majors. So once you are here, you have a lot of choices over four years as you select at least 34 units of work from the approximately 900 courses offered annually, and a major from over 50 possibilities. That’s a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility in the exercise of that freedom. As a college, we do our best to provide information and advice to guide those decisions, and just as in the case of the admissions process, the result is particularly successful when the decisions are well informed and fully considered.

A reasonable question is what evidence do we have that the results are largely successful. In fact, we have that evidence, both for course selection and choice of major. Graduates’ transcripts, despite all of them being very individualized and concentrated in different disciplines, overwhelmingly demonstrate that Vassar students choose courses that give them a broad education.

A few years ago, the faculty challenged themselves to identify a few important outcomes and skills students would be expected to take from courses and which are largely independent of the subject matter of the courses. They could be thought of as the skills and outcomes that enable the fulfillment of Vassar’s educational mission as set forth in the statement I read earlier.

The final list consisted of thirteen skills and outcomes, including such things as:

After the list of outcomes and skills was formulated, each Vassar course was associated with up to three of them. We then looked at the transcripts of every graduating student.

The impressive results were that:
Two thirds had been exposed to at least 12 of them.
And 97% had been exposed to at least 10 of the 13.

We have other data that relate to choice of major and specifically whether students take advantage of the opportunity to consider majors they might not have had in mind when they came to Vassar. As some of you will recall more readily than others, we ask incoming students for their intended major, if they have one. We also, of course, know the ultimate choice of major or majors for each student. Most students who indicated an intended major, actually majored in something else – in fact, about 70%. That percentage varies by department and program, but for almost every department and program it is more than 50% – that is, more than half change their minds. The overall impression one gets from the data is that Vassar students actively explore their curricular options and take advantage of the rich array of these options in choosing a major.

Let me move outside of the context of Vassar to the important choices facing the nation this fall with the national elections. There are many things one might say about the elections, including expressions of despair with the lack of serious discussion and analysis – either by the campaigns or the commentators – of the important and complex issues facing the country. Our country seems to be at an incredibly important (and difficult) time in its history. We face a variety of serious challenges, and seem to have lost our way in terms of working together to address our problems. This of course may result from disagreement about exactly what those problems are, about how to weight different ones, and about the appropriate solutions. And, part of the problem could also be that there really isn’t anything that we call our national interest, but just a set of individual interests and at this moment in time in the United States, these interests seem to be diverging, and as a result discourse seems to be taking on increasing amounts of animus towards the views of others.

Manifestations of this are everywhere: What is the appropriate role of government in our country? Who has a right to health care, to an education? At whose expense? Who has a right to live and work and go to school here? Should we care about the environment and what does the evidence really tell us? If deficits are a problem, does that mean we should address them during a recession when many are suffering the psychological and financial costs of unemployment? The list is really long.

The election offers an opportunity to be politically engaged – minimally by voting if you are eligible. And even if you are already pretty sure you know who you are going to vote for, take the time to consider the political issues in ways consistent with the goals of the Vassar mission statement I read a portion of earlier. That is, try to approach the issues through analytical, informed, and independent thinking, sound judgment, articulate expression, and with intellectual curiosity, creativity, respectful debate and engaged citizenship. So too, you might apply the relevant skills and outcomes of your Vassar education, particularly intellectual openness and a capacity to respond to others' points of view. Cultivating a capacity to respond to others’ political points of view can be something of a challenge sometimes on this politically liberal campus, but nothing clarifies one’s point of view quite like having it be challenged.

I’d also like to recommend a small book by Arthur Okun titled “Equality and Efficiency,” written in 1975, in comparing different points of view. In it, this then Fellow at the Brookings Institution draws a distinction between matters such as rights that are, or at least should be free from market forces, and matters where market forces are allowed and appropriate, even beneficial.
The category of rights include what we think of in the US as our constitutionally guaranteed liberties, such as the right to free speech, the right to vote, and freedom of association, but it includes other rights as well, such as access to public parks and other public facilities. These are rights that Okun identifies as universally distributed and prohibited from being either bought or sold.  Societies and communities make decisions about these rights.

Matters that are to be allowed to be allocated by markets are also decided by society. Unlike rights, these matters, such as operating a business, lack such universality and protection, but ideally result in efficiencies and effectiveness that have benefits in term of innovation, choice and economic development.

An idealized formulation postulates states of perfect equality and protection of rights on the one hand and perfect market efficiency on the other, but as a practical matter, any existing policies and policy proposals fall somewhere in between.  My travels this year have included many places in the U.S., as well as Cuba, Brazil, and China. These societies have made different decisions about these issues over time, with important implications for the well being of their people. Too much market and too little market both pose significant risks, with both Cuba and China offering interesting examples both today and in the past. And my travels to visit alums in the U.S. this summer took me to places where natural resources like beaches have made their way into private hands, while in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the beaches are important public spaces.

Okun uses two examples of rights that our society at the time he was writing had chosen not to let the market determine: the obligation to serve in the military at times of war and the right to vote. In response to a very unpopular draft and Vietnam War, we moved away from that obligation and decided on a voluntary army, and Citizens United has moved us away from each individual's vote having equal weight. These are examples of how societies make choices over time.

What I’m suggesting today, is that this model of equity versus efficiency offers a useful framework in which to understand and compare differing points of view on specific issues in this election year and the choices that we face. To what extent should (or could) health care be an absolute right on the one hand, or left entirely to market forces on the other. In the abstract, one might make the case for either extreme, but in reality, proposals for health care systems fall in between.  Okun’s formulation provides a useful tool for understanding and comparing the political positions on many issues, say, social security, campaign financing, environmental protection, and, of course, access to higher education.  In short, take advantage of this political season to further your understanding of the issues – no matter how unhelpful the politicians and pundits.

But at a minimum, if you are able to, VOTE. As I hope you are aware, Vassar, thanks to the initiative of the VSA is making available a service called TurboVote. My office, the Dean of the College’s Office, and the VSA are supporting that effort financially, but I’ll leave it up to Jason who I believe is about to provide some more detailed information.

I hope you will take seriously the choices you have, and that you will apply the goals and principles of your Vassar education in the consideration of those choices.

Use this year wisely and well.

Thank you.

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