Vassar Today

President's Page: An Education on the Road

By Catharine Hill

An important part of my first two and a half years as president of Vassar has been spent on the road, listening to you in your hometowns. In fact, travel is an essential aspect of my job. As central as the campus community is to Vassar, it is only one part of the larger Vassar College community that extends across the country, and around the world. While we have many wonderful and effective forms of communication nowadays, from print and telephone to email and the Internet, there is nothing quite like hearing from you face to face.

For even the most devoted alumna or alumnus, the college can seem a remote place when campus is hundreds or even thousands of miles away. My travels allow me to bring an immediate sense of life on our campus to Vassar alumnae/i, parents, and friends. Even more importantly, I gain the opportunity to listen to what our graduates have to say about the college, reflecting perspectives that are shaped by their own lives in areas as diverse as New England, the Southeast, the Midwest, the Rockies, the Southwest, the West Coast, Europe, and Asia (all areas where I have traveled in the last three years to see you).

In the question-and-answer sessions, which are my favorite part of these visits, one message comes through more clearly and more consistently than any other: it’s how much you care about Vassar. Lately that’s been particularly apparent in the questions I field about how the college has been faring in the current worldwide economic crisis, and the thanks that I’ve received for keeping college constituents up to date about the steps that we’re taking to meet those challenges. But it also comes through in questions about matters that may seem less weighty, but are no less significant in underscoring what Vassar means to generations of graduates — questions that give me, in turn, the chance to talk about what has changed at the college and, more often, what has remained pretty much the same as you remember it.

For example, when someone from one of our older classes expresses concern about whether the library still gets used in an age of electronic communications, I am able to say that it is more central than ever to the intellectual life of the campus, with its vast holdings of print, electronic, and other materials that keep Vassar students, as always, going to the source — and young grads will give a knowing laugh when I add that you should see the library at midnight when exams are looming! When another alumna expresses nostalgia for days gone by of catching a movie at the Juliet Theater, I have the opportunity to relate Vassar’s role in the ongoing revitalization of the Arlington neighborhood, including plans to transform the old Juliet space into the college’s new bookstore. When a Vassar graduate, with her spouse in tow, talks about the days of the “Yale Trail” and wonders what the social life has been like for subsequent generations of Vassar students, I use that opportunity to introduce them to more recent Vassar graduates who live in their area and are married to each other!

President Hill in NYC
President Hill in NYC

President Hill at a 2007 alumnae/i program in the Frederick P. Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center, speaking with writer Lucinda Franks Morgenthau '68

Because the audiences in my travels are primarily Vassar alumnae/i, with some parents, students, and prospective students mixed in, the questions can be pointed, but once again, that allows me to reassure them that the Vassar they love is still there. Is the academic program as rigorous as when I was at the college? (Yes, and Vassar’s small classes and impressive record of hiring our top choices for open faculty positions are two reasons why.) Are the arts still important? (Vassar has more student theatrical productions, concerts, and dance performances than ever.) Have athletics facilities gotten better? (They certainly have, with the latest improvements, the new athletics fields at Prentiss Field, celebrating their inaugural season as home to the college’s baseball, field hockey, and lacrosse teams.) Is Vassar still attracting the best and the brightest students? (At a time when other colleges and universities are reporting a drop in student applications, the number of students applying for a place in Vassar’s Class of 2013 actually has increased over the past year, to nearly 7,500.)

I’ve learned a lot about who you are and what matters to you as I travel, and I hope those of you who’ve had the chance to meet me have learned a bit about your college’s president as well. For those of you I’ve yet to meet, I’m looking forward to hearing from you when my travels bring me to your corner of the world, and your neighborhood, or, of course, on campus here in Poughkeepsie!

President's Signature
President's Signature