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President's Welcome, Fall Convocation, Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Welcome to Fall Convocation.

Even with about a week of classes behind us, I still sense the energy and excitement of a new year – an atmosphere of limitless potential for learning and for welcoming the challenges that lead to an expanding understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Limitless potential is not a bad way to think about what we cultivate here. I hope that was part of how our newest students, the impressive Class of ’17, experienced move-in day – one of my favorite days of the year, a day filled with energy and joy. I might even characterize it as the second-most joyous day of the academic calendar – with Commencement, of course, unrivaled as a celebration – a celebration of the limitless potential of life after Vassar, grounded in the hard work and rewards of four years of study. For first-year students, Commencement seems (and is!) a long way off, but for seniors – wearing your graduation gowns today is a reminder of how soon that day will come. In fact, if I’ve counted correctly, you have 256 days to go! Use them wisely. You have excelled in many ways. Use this year to push your limits.

There are lots of individual stories one could tell about Vassar graduates realizing some of that limitless potential. We’re privileged to have a fabulous example on campus today and over the next two days. In 1955, geology major Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam wrote a senior thesis proposing the creation of a student volunteer conservation corps to help maintain our national parks. She and another Vassar alumna attracted the attention of the National Park Service with the proposal, and the result was the formation of SCA, the Student Conservation Association. Since 1957 SCA has engaged over 60,000 students in conservation work – now expanded far beyond the Park Service, even to urban settings – to the participants’ great benefit as well as that of the environment and the environmental movement.

In 2010 Ms. Putnam was recognized for her pioneering work by President Obama, with the awarding of the Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian award. Closer to home, Vassar honored her the same year with the AAVC “Spirit of Vassar Award,” and in her acceptance remarks, she spoke explicitly of the limitless potential of a Vassar education, saying: “Vassar’s richness of opportunities, strength of diversity, as well as its enthusiasm for learning provides an unsurpassed foundation for its students. The invaluable support of faculty and students alike, the encouragement of independent thinking, and the practice of ethical behavior prepare students for leadership – the opportunities are limitless.”

Liz, regional SCA Fellows, and Vassar students, faculty and staff will be planting over a 1,000 trees and restoring trails over the next two days at the Vassar Farm and of course additional volunteers are welcome. I will be there at 9:30 on Friday.

And I believe Liz is here – if so, would you please stand and be recognized?

As I reported a few weeks ago, I returned in July from a semester’s sabbatical leave. I combined some travel on behalf of the College with a visiting fellow position at Oxford University for about three months, during which time I worked on several papers on the economics of higher education. I’m grateful for sabbaticals and I am particularly appreciative of Jon Chenette for filling in as Acting President and Steve Rock as Acting Dean of the Faculty. Knowing the College was in such capable hands made my time away possible.

One of those papers examines the relationship between educational opportunity and income inequality in the US, inequality that has increased significantly over the past four decades. What is particularly relevant to Vassar and institutions like us committed to socioeconomic diversity, is how the increasing income inequality in the U.S. has complicated our mission, contributing to higher tuition, higher costs and greater financial aid than would otherwise be the case. Rising income inequality is of concern for many reasons; the challenge it is creating for American higher education’s commitment to equal opportunity and socioeconomic diversity is certainly one of them.

I want to say a little bit more about a second paper, since it provides me a structure in which to talk about what is so very special about Vassar and what we need to do to sustain and enrich our educational program. That paper examines the three broad categories of colleges and universities: public, private non-profit, and for-profit, and analyzes the differences, similarities, and interrelationships among them. Why has American higher education historically been dominated by public and non-profit institutions? What accounts for the recent rise in the role of for-profit institutions? What are the implications for institutions like Vassar? In particular, is there something about selective private liberal arts colleges that makes us less vulnerable to developments at for-profit colleges? The answer to that last question is, thankfully, “yes.”

Both from the data and anecdotally, we know that many students who enroll at Vassar have seriously considered other Vassar-like non-profit colleges. Certainly no surprise there. (Think Brown, Wesleyan, U of Penn, Oberlin for example.) Many of you also considered public institutions, such as the state universities, say, the University of California system, Michigan, and SUNY. But very few of you probably even looked at the option of attending a for-profit institution, much less applied to one. (U of Phoenix, Kaplan are examples.) There are lots of reasons that is the case, particularly for those just graduating from high school. But for many older students who may be looking for training leading to a specific career, or are only interested in non-degree programs, for-profits can be an appropriate and attractive option.

Military veterans looking to continue their education tend to enroll either in public or for-profit institutions, with fewer exploring the opportunities at non-profits, say, Vassar. We were reminded of this when we agreed to participate in the government’s Yellow Ribbon Program, which supports veterans’ education financially – much like the GI Bill® did following World War II. But in several years of participation, we enrolled very few veterans, as was the experience at many of our peers.

We believe strongly in our mission and in the great value of a liberal arts education as the foundation for a lifetime of learning and fulfillment in many ways. And we are committed to extending the opportunity for such an education across a broad spectrum of the population. With that in mind – and as you are certainly by now aware – Vassar acted on that commitment in the case of veterans by forming a partnership with the Posse Foundation to identify and enroll a group of eleven veterans in this year’s class. Additional groups will enroll in the coming years. And, Wesleyan University just announced that they will be the second school to partner with the Posse Foundation and admit a Veterans Posse for the coming fall. We hope many more schools will follow.

This is of course not Vassar’s first experience with enrolling veterans. Following World War II returning veterans created a demand for education (in large part fueled by the GI Bill®) that could not be met. Colleges were urged to increase their capacity, and in response, Vassar opened its doors for the first time to men. The veterans, all men, were enrolled in degree programs, attended classes, but did not live on campus. In 1946-47, the first year of the program, 91 veterans enrolled. Three years later the program ended. One curiosity of the program was that since Vassar’s charter only allowed us to grant degrees to women, the male graduates’ degrees were awarded by the State University of New York. To Vassar’s credit, when the charter was changed in 1969 when we went coeducational, the surviving graduates were retroactively awarded Vassar degrees.

The accounts of the experiences of those men make for fascinating reading. By far, it was the fact that the new students were men more than that they were veterans that received the most attention, and in fact presented the greatest challenges, especially outside of class. Extra-curricular activities and social life generally were geared to women, of course, and participation by the vastly outnumbered men could seem artificial at best. As reported in the Miscellany News in 1950, one of the conclusions of the faculty committee formed to evaluate the program was that it suggested “the danger of experimenting with co-education in a timid half-hearted way” – a lesson that perhaps informed the decision in 1969 to become fully co-educational.

But in class, it was a different story, with the veterans accepted by the women and able to offer perspectives that were unique, enriching, and very much appreciated. That same Miscellany News article quoted a Geography professor as saying the veterans made valuable contributions because of their wide experience. Our Posse veterans enter a much different Vassar – dramatically more diverse in many ways – but one that, as in the 1940s, welcomes them and their contributions to the diverse fabric that makes Vassar so enriching for all of our students.

But back to my paper on the different characteristics and roles of public, non-profit and for-profit colleges and universities. There are many factors that make higher education not particularly well suited as a for-profit enterprise. Here are four:

1) Governments subsidize higher education in recognition of its benefits to society, creating and operating public institutions and offering tax and other advantages to non-profit institutions. This disadvantages the for-profit sector.

2) Consumers of higher education need to trust institutions, since, unlike buying a car, the quality of an education is not immediately evident. This too, disadvantages the for-profit institution since a consumer is less likely to trust its profit motive.

3) When the purchaser is not the consumer – as is the case when parents pay for a child’s tuition – then trust again is an issue disadvantaging for-profits since the purchaser can’t directly experience what is being purchased.

4) Public and non-profit institutions have historically been the dominant providers of higher education, so they have the advantage of an established foundation of facilities and resources and reputations.

Despite these disadvantages, for-profit institutions are the fastest growing segment in higher education – still somewhat modest, but in the past ten years the percentage of bachelor’s degrees granted by for-profit institutions has tripled, from 2% to 6%, their share of enrolments in higher education has increased to over 7%, and also importantly their share of Pell grant recipients, federal grants for low income students, has increased to between 20% and 25%. Why is that? Again four factors:

1) States have been cutting back on support for public universities, resulting in dramatically increased tuition charges.

2) Increased demand is not being met by public and non-profit institutions, which often have little incentive to expand, and some of that demand is from students who are focused on job-specific education offered by for-profits.

3) Trust in traditional higher education is being undermined by well publicized and provocative claims that little is being learned, that faculty and administrators are overpaid and underworked, and that non-profits have profit-like motives to pad endowments and fund non-essential operations. (And, we – in public and non-profit higher education – are not adequately countering these claims.)

4) Technology is seen as offering innovations that for-profit institutions are more readily adopting and marketing.

These challenges to traditional institutions of higher education are real. So how is Vassar, in particular, situated to respond to them? I think that the answer is that we are incredibly well situated.

Just speaking financially, one of the advantages we and other non-profit institutions have is the support we receive from donors. Think about it. The idea of donating to a for-profit college is almost unimaginable. Would you make a donation to Apple or Verizon? Or, would you respond to our local public radio station’s pleas for contributions, if you thought it might go to profits rather than programming? The success of our Vassar 150: World Changing campaign – exceeding our goal of $400 million by $31 million – is dramatic evidence of the way in which donor support enables what we do.

But what we do is, in fact, our greatest advantage, and what in fact enables us to raise $431 million. Every campaign event highlighted the accomplishments and dedication of our faculty, often with one or more participating in the event. Every campaign event highlighted the accomplishments and creativity of our students. And, at every campaign event, alumni and alumnae spoke of how their Vassar education had enriched their lives.

But to ensure Vassar’s continuing success and to achieve even more, we need to do more. In particular we need to demonstrate to the outside world that our commitment to educational excellence is undiminished and that the principles of a liberal education are as vital today as they have ever been in establishing the foundation for the greatest realization of an individual’s potential and contributions to society. And we need to continue to strive to fulfill that limitless potential of a Vassar education, as has Liz Putnam, as we are through our partnership with the Posse Foundation, and as we do every day for all our students thanks to the dedication of all involved in this magnificent enterprise.

Thank you. 

Posted by Office of Communications Tuesday, September 17, 2013