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Spring Convocation Welcoming Remarks, Catharine Bond Hill, President, April 30, 2008

Welcome to the 2008 Spring Convocation – an occasion that is rich in tradition when we gather as a community to wish the senior class well as they prepare to graduate in just 25 short days, and to welcome the rising senior class as they assume their place of student leadership.  

Those of you who are familiar with the traditions of this occasion may have noticed two untraditional aspects of today.  The first is that I was unaccompanied as we came in.  I should have been paired with today’s featured speaker, Dean of Faculty Ronald A. Sharp.  Some of you know that Dean Sharp underwent surgery early last week.  He had, in fact, every hope of being here today to deliver his address in person despite the surgery, and actually might have been here except for the unavoidable schedule of follow-up examinations.  He sends his sincere regrets for his absence.  

There were several alternatives that we considered to deal with this eventuality.  Asking a substitute speaker to write and deliver a Convocation address on short notice wasn’t really an option, and Ron had already carefully prepared his remarks for this occasion.  So we have arranged what those of you who were at Commencement last year will recognize as something of a new tradition – that of hearing the speaker’s remarks by recording.  I refer, of course, to Terry Gross sadly having to miss Commencement to attend her father’s funeral.  Instead, we played a recording of her address, which, since she is after all a radio personality, actually seemed somehow appropriate.  It worked for Commencement.  I think it will work for Convocation.  But I promise you, I am not planning on making this a tradition for future commencements or convocations!   

The other break with tradition is that the point in today’s program that is listed as “remarks” by the VSA president is usually the remarks and the passing of the gavel from the outgoing to the incoming VSA president.  I can assure you (or, at least I hope I can assure you) that Sam Charner has not rewritten the VSA constitution to retain power in perpetuity.  The problem simply is that the timing of the elections this year means that the new VSA president is yet to be chosen, so there is no one to pass the gavel to.  As with the missing speaker question, the missing VSA president question was what to do?  It did not seem right to deny Sam the opportunity to give the remarks that would normally precede the ceremonial transfer.  I’m sure Sam will arrange some appropriately official ceremony later – perhaps in the Mug.

The Class of 2008 is a class that has made its mark on the College in many wonderful ways.  We will miss your creativity and energy and your positive engagement in making decisions and choosing directions for the College.  But as you will discover very quickly, Vassar will be eager to have you continue to be involved and in many ways – mostly through the AAVC (the Alumnae and Alumni of Vassar College) whose representative today will present your class banner.  Following today’s ceremony there is a reception in your honor at Alumnae House to emphasize just that point.  But independent of any organization, your Vassar degree will forever be an important part of your identity – one that will provide an instant bond as you happen on other alums almost anywhere in the world, and one that will open doors of opportunity – and one that I hope even more you will use to open doors of opportunity for others.  

Class of 2009:  Many of you have already taken important positions of leadership and I know you are eager to continue to work on issues and initiatives that are under consideration now.  There are many important matters at hand – decisions about science facilities, the way in which the curriculum is taught and experienced, plans for the bookstore and the Arlington neighborhood, continuing to find ways for Vassar to be engaged in the local community, and for the local community to engage with Vassar.  

Let me focus briefly on one such important matter before I introduce today’s speakers, and that is the character of the campus community.  It is in my mind an overwhelmingly positive character, as evidenced first and foremost by the high standards of academic excellence that we set and meet on a daily basis.  

I also see the positive character of the community in the dedicated engagement of so many in the stunningly rich array of organizations, teams, and performing groups at Vassar.  All contribute to a spirit of positive energy, social activism and creativity, and all extend an invitation to join in – in addition to an invitation to enjoy the publications, concerts, plays, discussions, outreach, competitions, lectures and special events that those groups arrange.  Often these activities are linked to the academic program – activities organized by departments or majors committees to showcase student research or stage cultural programs, to name just a few examples.  It has been great for me to see the support that these activities have.  The cheers at the packed Bardavon performances of the VRDT have a wonderful flavor of pride and friendship, as well as of appreciation for a stunning performance.  The spirit exhibited at the finals of the national men’s volleyball tournament was as thrilling as it was deserved for having a Vassar team play for a national championship.  And what can I say about attending a performance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show?  (except the fact that it by tradition takes place at midnight, which seems like a perfectly adequate excuse for never going again?)

But we all know that the character of the Vassar community is not without areas and times when we fall short and disappoint, or even fail badly.  Some feel that the community does not include them, or that it does not even understand how or why they might not feel included.  As a community we tell ourselves that the goal of diversity is among our highest priorities, yet achieving that goal requires a commitment to inclusion beyond the commitment simply to being a diverse community.  I believe we have that commitment, but I also know that we have a long way to go and that the goal of inclusion is one that requires constant effort and attention.  

There have been occasions, some this year and even this month, when acts of malice or insensitivity have made us aware that not everyone at Vassar understands or supports these goals.  We are, as a community, shocked by such acts – they are disturbing, out of place with the values we tell the world and ourselves we represent.  

One response to these events has been to invite campus-wide conversation about them to try both to understand them and address them.  Such a meeting was held this semester and I think there were several points and lessons made there that are worth repeating today.  One was the observation by a student that the best discussions of diversity and inclusion take place in the classroom, but that we don’t seem able to maintain that level of frank and productive discourse elsewhere.  Another point emerged from a number of speakers addressing a wide range of situations that one might summarize as instances of disrespect – not only disrespect of those different from themselves but disrespect for those around them regardless of difference, and disrespect for the physical space of the campus as well.  The observation was made that many forms of disrespect are linked so that to address one might well help address others.  

Let me mention one specific example that is troubling many of us now, namely offensive anonymous postings on Internet gossip sites.  Those postings are particularly offensive when they single out individuals by name and in ways that can only be described as vile.  I suppose to some this is a form of entertainment, but such postings cause real harm.  No principle of free speech can be used to defend the cowardice of these anonymous posters.  Many have asked what can be done.  Some pressure based on principles of decency and their own posting guidelines can and is being brought to bear on the operators of such sites.  While legal options are limited it may be that individuals who are singled out may have legal recourse that the college does not.  We are looking into those options, including the possibility that operators can be forced to reveal sources.  If they can be forced to reveal who is sending these anonymous ugly postings, we will hold the posters responsible using our college’s disciplinary procedures.   But independent of any legal or disciplinary action we need as a community to repudiate the inappropriate use of these sites and take a stand based on our principles.  

  • If you are making these posting, go back and read them and if you aren’t willing to sign your name, take them down.
  • If you know who is doing it, tell them it is unacceptable at Vassar.  Tell them to stop.
  • We don’t want people who attack others in personally vicious ways to be part of our community, and if they hide behind anonymity and don’t take responsibility for their actions, they don’t have the right to be part of our community.

Let me emphasize that I mean to raise awareness of a wide range of disrespect – a range that involves property as well as people.  The two are not unrelated.  Destroying or defacing a poster, as happened just this week outside a faculty member’s office, is a personal attack when done in a manner that threatens.  Even something as trivial as cutting through the yellow ropes protecting newly planted grass seed represents a conscious act of selfishness and disrespect for the physical setting we share, as well as a perhaps less-conscious act of disrespect for the person whose careful work is being destroyed. These acts diminish us as a community – the community that includes everyone on campus.

In these, and in other instances, the importance of taking responsibility ourselves for addressing these problems cannot be overstated.  We need to establish a campus culture where such behavior is just not appropriate or tolerated – where such behavior is just not comprehensible.

There is an interesting example of a community that does effectively enforce its own positive values that might hold something of a lesson for us.  That example is Wikipedia.  I’m not promoting Wikipedia for academic purpose, but the lesson I’m referring to has to do with it being a completely open community – and subject to vandalism – in this case by individuals deleting or sabotaging entries.  According to a study, the median time it takes for someone to detect and correct a mass deletion is 2.8 minutes – and if the vandalism involves obscenity the median time drops to 1.7 minutes.  What is happening is that those who want to protect the integrity of the community are so diligent in doing so that the vandalism eventually stops.  

Of course, making changes in the Vassar community, which is real and not virtual, is not simple and those who would harm the community are unlikely to leave voluntarily, but I also know that the supporters of an inclusive and respectful Vassar community vastly outnumber those who try to sabotage it.  One way to become the community we want to be is to not allow any unacceptable acts or remarks to go by without immediate response.  To connect this back to the community meeting: this is certainly a way to encourage respect for our social and physical environment and to create a more inclusive Vassar community, and perhaps even a way to think about bringing the principles and values of the classroom into more aspects of our lives at Vassar.  

Values clearly stated and acted on become a part of the culture and traditions of an institution, and as we are reminded often – and particularly today – Vassar is rich in traditions.  

There are certainly many more things that we do and will continue to do to pursue the ideals of an inclusive and responsible community.  Focused programming such as the Common Ground Lecture Series will continue, as will the work of the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence to make the many opportunities at Vassar available to all students in a way that encourages participation and promotes achievement.  Student organizations play a large role in creating an inclusive community, as do the faculty in promoting discussion in and out of class.  The faculty who serve as house fellows are especially valuable in this regard.  But the success of these efforts requires an atmosphere of trust and respect. Creating and sustaining that atmosphere is everyone’s responsibility, yours, mine, ours.

I want to conclude these remarks in the spirit in which I began them, which is to emphasize that overwhelmingly Vassar is a vital and vibrant community of individuals almost all of whom are dedicated to the highest values of intellectual inquiry, individual excellence and expression, and social responsibility.  Let us not be diverted from those values nor discouraged when confronted by the realization that they need to be constantly reaffirmed, and let us continue to work to have inclusion and mutual respect be cherished and sustained Vassar traditions.

Thank you.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, April 23, 2008