It is wonderful to see you all here today.
This ceremony marks the beginning of a new academic year, the 143rd in the history of Vassar College. It is an occasion that reminds us that those who came before have given us a remarkable gift of place and purpose, a gift that comes with opportunities and demands, and a gift that exists in the context of educational traditions extending far beyond this place and this time.
The faculty are here in their colorful caps and gowns and hoods to declare that they are ready once again to be the catalysts of and partners in your education. You seniors, the Vassar class of 2008, have for the first of three occasions this year donned your version of that academic garb. It is a symbol of what you are in the final stages of achieving. And, it is also a kind of early warning that you all too soon will be concluding your time at Vassar, at least your time as a student. Some of you may find that reminder a bit sobering – some even a bit frightening. I suspect that most aren’t really thinking that much about graduation today, but I’d like you to. This procession in caps and gowns is a reminder that this is your year to make the most of the position of leadership that comes as a result of your accomplishments – as well as your longevity. Make the most of that position – enjoy it, but also recognize that it comes with responsibilities.
And, think a bit about all the things you wanted to do at college. It is not too late. You still have this year. Take that course you always wanted to take. Talk to that faculty member you think is really interesting. Check out someplace in the community that you don’t know anything about! Try something new. If there is something you think would make Vassar a better place, help make it happen.
A special welcome to our new students, the already amazingly impressive class of 2011! You have chosen Vassar and Vassar has chosen you – all 681 of you. That makes you not only the newest class, but also one of the largest (in fact, the second largest in Vassar’s history). You have arrived with an impressive list of accomplishments and interests, but most of all you are here because of what you want to accomplish, and, I hope, because of an eagerness to explore and develop new interests. This is just the place for that – not only in the classroom, but through exploring the rich and varied resources of people and organizations on campus, and the equally rich opportunities in our extended community.
You will understand, I hope, if I find myself curiously identifying with not just the senior and freshman classes, whom we are celebrating today, but also with the sophomores – those new to Vassar last year (like me) but who, thanks to the warmth and generosity of this place, now feel quite at home and, having had the summer to reflect and renew (and play a little golf), are looking forward to building on the foundation of that exciting – if somewhat overwhelming – first year.
First years, you will feel like us sophomores, in just a mere 12 months. Really, and it will go by amazingly quickly. Much happened last year, and I want to take just a few moments to talk about a bit of that and how it relates to the plans for this year, especially regarding the opportunities for students to be involved. Indeed, many of the developments of last year came about through the initiative and engagement of students.
This will be the year that Vassar conducts a comprehensive self-study leading to the visit of the agency that will decide whether to re-accredit Vassar as a degree-granting institution for an additional 10 years. Not to worry. The integrity of your degrees is secure, because for institutions like Vassar, the exercise needs to be thought of as an opportunity more than an obligation – an opportunity to step back and take stock.
We are really well positioned to do this. This is because this is also the second year of a long-term planning process on campus. Standing committees and special task forces have been hard at work, especially in the key areas of diversity, the curriculum, residential life, admissions and financial aid, facilities, and community relations – stepping back, taking stock, and looking to the future. A group called the Priorities and Planning Advisory Council (or PPAC for short) was formed last year, as a kind of clearing house for that work as it progresses.
In two of those areas – diversity and community relations – we recognized last year the benefit of forming a committee in each area to focus on and coordinate efforts. So we formed the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence and the Community Committee. Each is broadly based on campus, and in the case of the Community Committee includes several participants from off campus.
There were plenty of other changes and initiatives last year. Today, I just want to mention that the goal of many of these efforts is to connect Vassar and its educational mission to our larger society. While our physical place and the immediate Vassar college community are wonderful, we are truly special because of what we contribute to our community, the country and the world outside our walls. Let me be specific by citing two examples.
The first is the initiative from last year that expresses that goal most directly, namely the decision announced at Commencement in May to move to a need-blind admissions policy. This sends a clear message that we do not want low income to be a barrier to a Vassar education. This policy is, of course, directly important to the students who will be admitted now who wouldn’t have been otherwise, but it is also more broadly important in establishing inclusion as a foundation for the entire campus. It strengthens and reaffirms our sense of ourselves.
The second example also involves our sense of ourselves, and that is the work of the Community Committee in enhancing Vassar’s relationship to the surrounding region. This also has much to do with the sense that the surrounding region has of Vassar. So in addition to looking for ways to encourage and enable community programs, the committee will also be in a position to raise awareness of just how much Vassar is already involved in the community through existing programs – many of them long-standing – but all too often working in relative isolation and without recognition. Through new programs, improved coordination, and recommitment to existing programs, we hope to strengthen and reaffirm Vassar’s commitment to its community.
So that leads naturally for me to conclude this welcome by giving one of my favorite pieces of advice: be involved. The opportunities are great – the needs and the rewards are even greater. Make that involvement a part of your education – make it a part of who you are. There is a national election coming up and campaigns have started – be involved – if you haven’t already done so, register to vote. Reflect on what really matters to you and then act on what you care about most. There are so many ways to do this.
Class of 2011, welcome to Vassar and Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County. (And, remember, we’re taking a class picture after Convocation today in front of Main.)
Seniors – class of 2008 – fast forward a year or two and try to think of things that looking back you will be wishing you had done at college and didn’t – and then do them this year!
Everyone else, welcome back and have a productive year.
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Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.