Vassar Today

Presidents' Page: Life Lessons

By Catharine Hill

A college campus can be a strange sort of microcosm, uniquely isolated from certain aspects of society while inextricably linked to others. Just as students need the time and space to contemplate, explore and develop critical thinking skills, they must also understand and engage the very real factors that affect their lives.

I’d like to address two of these factors specifically. One is the economy, which students must deal with but can’t control; the other is alcohol use, which is much more a matter of individual responsibility.

It would be impossible, not to mention irresponsible, to shelter our students from the current global financial turbulence. Similar to ways that many of you as students confronted other events of national importance, this issue presents current Vassar students with a serous challenge, but it also provides an opportunity for them to learn from that challenge. As I conveyed to you in a recent letter (and in a similar one to the campus community, which is available at, the value of Vassar’s endowment has been affected by the economy, and this decline will unavoidably affect some operations of the college. In dealing with these challenges, the college remains committed to its core mission of educating our extraordinary students with an academic program that is strong in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and multidisciplinary programs. As I expressed in my letter, which is one part of a continuing conversation with the Vassar community on this subject, I am confident that we have the ability to manage these challenges in ways that will leave us stronger in the future. As an economist, I can scarcely think of a more “teachable moment.”

Just as citizens of the world must adjust to these new economic realities, students must also face the daily challenges that are a part of college life. As they mature and prepare for what they drolly refer to as “the real world,” adult decisions face them along the way. College-age drinking, and binge drinking in particular, have received national attention recently, thanks to the Amethyst Initiative (, a statement of concern about this issue signed by some 130 college and university presidents and chancellors. While I have declined to sign the statement, for reasons I shall explain, I do wholeheartedly agree with the signatories of the Amethyst Initiative that responsible conversations about drinking need to take place.

Citing “a culture of dangerous, clandestine binge drinking,” the initiative appeals to elected officials to “support an informed and dispassionate public debate” on the topic. The statement goes on to implicate the national drinking age of 21 in the binge-drinking culture and for “ethical compromises” made by students, such as using fake identification.

The challenge, as I see it, is to educate our students and provide them with the necessary support to make good decisions for themselves. I’d like to share with you just a few of the measures being taken on campus to that end.

Because the drinking dilemma often arises for students quite literally where they live, our first approach to educating them on the subject takes place in the dorms. House Fellows and Student Fellows are excellent resources for support when it comes to both social and academic challenges that students encounter. Having these trained and trusted leaders integrated into the residential experience provides a safe and inclusive environment in which students can develop.

Encouraged by the energy surrounding the Amethyst Initiative, Acting Dean of the College Christopher Roellke and I have been meeting with students in town hall-style gatherings held in the dorms. In these discussions and others, students express an impressive level of concern, honesty, and intellect that reflects the complexity of the issue as well as their willingness to address it responsibly. The Office of Health Education and the Vassar College Drug and Alcohol Education Committee, a group of students, faculty, administrators, and staff members, are also working to promote the health and safety of Vassar students in this regard.

Our most promising defense against problematic binge drinking is the strength of our community. Our students have an uncommonly strong sense of mutual respect and responsibility for each other, and this comes across in their enthusiasm for open dialogue about the issue of campus drinking, as well as in their looking out for each other’s safety and well-being. Indeed, students have intervened for the protection of their classmates on multiple occasions. They’ve also engaged in healthy debates about the nature of some campus parties, and have taken the initiative to lessen the emphasis on drinking at these events and to create productive alternatives to alcohol-centered activities. This sense of community is reinforced by policies that promote responsible behavior and hold students accountable for their actions.

I am optimistic about the conversations that the Amethyst Initiative has sparked, especially at a time when many important issues may be overshadowed by the state of the economy. I have declined to sign the initiative, because in addition to promoting conversation about responsibility, it also has been interpreted by many, particularly in the press, as advocating lowering the drinking age. I think that such a change is a topic ripe for debate, rather than ready for Vassar’s endorsement. I hope you will join us all in this very important conversation.

President Cappy Hill signature
President Cappy Hill signature