Spring Convocation Welcoming Remarks, Catharine Bond Hill, President, April 29, 2009

It is my pleasure to welcome you to this wonderful ritual occasion marking – if not the end of the academic year – at least the beginning of the end. There is still much to do – papers to write, exams to be taken, parties to attend, and for the seniors, preparation for the next stage of your lives – the stage after Vassar. Many of you know exactly what you will be doing – jobs, graduate school, maybe taking some time off – others are busy trying to finalize those kinds of plans – and some of you, perhaps, haven’t a clue what lies ahead. If we have done our job over the past four years and you have done yours, you will discover that the education you have achieved will provide you with interesting choices and powerful tools to discover and adapt.

I want to take a few minutes this afternoon to talk a little about why I think a Vassar education is successfully liberating in just that way, and what we need to do as a college to ensure that as we face difficult choices we will preserve that essence of what makes Vassar so outstanding.

We gather at a particularly “interesting” moment in the college’s history, facing as we are along with most everyone and everything in the country, the new financial realities created by the sharp decline in the markets and the resulting effect on the nation’s economy. We need at this moment to take stock of who we are and where we are going. By coincidence this is the year Vassar is undergoing the process of being reaccredited – which happens every ten years, and means that the degrees we will award in a few weeks will have the official stamp of approval.

As a part of that process we have spent the year undertaking an extensive self-study leading to the visit of the team appointed by the agency that is responsible for granting our reaccreditation – the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. In fact, that visit, as many of you are aware, took place this very week, and the team just hours ago completed their visit by reporting their preliminary findings. They were impressed by what they saw and heard, and I’m confident that Vassar will in fact be reaccredited for another ten years.

This is particularly good news for the seniors.

I can’t say that it is particularly surprising news, but reassuring nonetheless. I’ve learned, however, to plan for any eventuality, so let me share with you what I had as my fallback position if we’re not reaccredited. It arrived a few weeks ago in the form of a letter from some sort of investment company – the very letter I hold in my hand. Let me read it to you in its entirety. And as Dave Barry would say, “I’m not making this up.”

“Dear Catharine” — already I’m disarmed by the familiarity — “A multi hundred million dollar corporation is interested in exploring buying Vassar College. Please call me, Catharine. I will set a telephone appointment for you to chat with a Senior Vice President who will share with you the buyer’s name and give you a good indication of the purchase price for Vassar College. Very Truly Yours, [signed by a senior vice president]”

What do you think?

But this is actually only one of the options being offered. There is a postscript, which I like even better: “P.S. Catharine, in the alternative, we can help you buy one of your competitors.”

So what could be more satisfying than a successful takeover bid for Nazareth College as revenge for beating our volleyball team in the championship semi-final match? Or we might aim for Hudson Valley hegemony by buying up Marist and Bard. SUNY New Paltz is presumably not for sale – although from what I read about the state’s budgetary problems, it might be worth a phone call to Governor Patterson. Some might argue for taking a shot at whomever is one position above us on the US News and World Report rankings. At the very least, we should create a Board of Trustees committee on mergers and acquisitions.

But it looks like all that can wait for another ten years thanks to the success of the Middle States process. And it has been a success, due in very large measure to the leadership of Professor Robert DeMaria, who chaired the self-study steering committee on campus, guided their writing of draft sections of the self-study, and edited those drafts into an impressive document of 256 pages and an appendix of another 500 pages. He also worked with Middle States on every aspect of the process, including organizing the visit of the team over the past three days. Simply put, he did a huge amount of work, did it exceptionally well, and the College is in his debt. Thank you, Bob. I also want to thank the steering committee and the very many others who had a role in the process, particularly Dayle Rebelein who provided invaluable administrative support.

So what have we learned, and in particular what have we learned that will inform our responses to the current economic conditions? I would say that the overriding and reassuring conclusion is that Vassar has the resources necessary to deal with this, and that those resources, if we take care of them, will allow us to continue to be an exceptional and innovative institution for at least a second 150 years.

Those resources are material in important ways, principally a campus that would be the envy of any college, and an endowment that provides a foundation and creates opportunities. But the essence of Vassar is not in its setting and its financial resources, but in those who form the larger Vassar community: a body of loyal alumnae and alumni, many of whom eagerly and generously support the college; a skilled and dedicated staff who every day enable and enhance our learning, teaching and residential life; an outstanding faculty, for whom teaching is an integral part of their lives as gifted scholars and artists; and, of course, our very impressive students. Truth be told, you were pretty impressive when you arrived, but the self-study lays out the ways in which a Vassar education develops, and even transforms.

But times are tough, and there is pressure threatening each of these strengths. We are falling behind on maintaining the physical plant. The endowment has been substantially reduced. Alums’ ability to support Vassar is diminished. Employment levels will need to be lower. There is stress on maintaining the curriculum while controlling costs. And students and their families are coping with economic stress in their own lives, with significant implications for the need for financial aid.

One source of guidance might be a clear sense of the mission of the college, and we do have a mission statement, which was written as a part of the self-study ten years ago, and which appears in the Vassar Catalogue. I doubt many of us have read it, but it is an impressive – and impressively lengthy – presentation of goals to which I think most of us would readily subscribe. A problem with the mission statement is that it is a little unclear by what authority it was written or what official status it has.

The mission statement that clearly has that official stamp of approval appears as a single sentence in Vassar’s original charter, with two words added in 1969:

“The object and purpose of said corporation are hereby declared to be to promote the education of women and men in literature, science and the arts.”

Now I actually think that is a quite profound statement of Vassar’s mission in that it tells us that the education of students is what matters. Vassar exists for the education of students.

And I do think that we’ve done an outstanding job in living up to that mission, in that it is perfectly reasonable to argue that that every aspect of the work that we do here actually is done in support of educating students. In that sense, our day-to-day activities provide the living elaboration of a mission statement that the page and a half statement in the catalogue is attempting to capture in words. Moreover, I believe that we are as a community fundamentally and profoundly unified in our purpose and in how that purpose is being realized. Our points of contention more often focus on choosing ways we can better achieve our educational goals.

In an era of reduced resources, it is important to keep the primary purpose of our being here as a basis for making difficult decisions. Unfortunately we are in an era of reduced resources. Temporary measures of savings and sacrifice will not be sufficient or sustainable. The financial world has been fundamentally re-set and we have no choice but to correspondingly re-set the operations of the College.

The measures we have already taken this year have been painful, but unfortunately additional and even more painful measures will be required over the next two years. Everything that we are presently doing is important in some way and to some segment of our community, so no program or position is without those who see that work as fundamental. Moreover, of necessity, the decisions will profoundly affect the lives of individuals and so while we will make every effort to proceed in a consultative and transparent process about the principles for making decisions, that process cannot be completely conducted in a public forum.

Which brings me back to the question of Vassar’s mission statement. In the process leading to this year’s self-study, the assessment committee produced a much shorter statement that still expressed Vassar’s most fundamental goals. It is short enough for me to read in its entirety:

The mission of Vassar College is to make accessible “the means of a thorough, well-proportioned and liberal education” [a phrase that appeared in the very first Vassar catalogue] that inspires each individual to lead an active, purposeful, compassionate and imaginative life. To this end, the College is committed to encouraging excellence and respect for diversity; to promoting clear, informed, independent thinking, sound critical judgment, and articulate expression; and to nurturing intellectual risk-taking, emotional engagement, ethical debate, and reasonable compromise.

I want to conclude by making two observations about this very impressive statement.

The first is that it forms the basis of my asserting at the beginning of these remarks that as you face the uncertainties of life after Vassar, you will discover that the education you have achieved will provide you with interesting choices and powerful tools to discover and adapt.

The second is that even though this statement is describing the qualities that Vassar hopes to instill in its students, it is equally profound as a statement of the qualities that Vassar needs to demonstrate in itself as it faces the uncertainty and difficult choices I’ve talked about today – excellence; respect for diversity; clear, informed, independent thinking; sound critical judgment; articulate expression; risk-taking; emotional engagement; ethical debate; and reasonable compromise.

Vassar expects these qualities in its students; Vassar must expect these qualities in itself.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, April 29, 2009