President's Welcome, "Putting Yourself in Another's Place." Spring Convocation, April 30, 2014

— Catharine Hill, president

Welcome to Spring Convocation.

I suspect you would all agree with me that, after the past winter, this year spring will feel particularly welcome, when it finally arrives. The winter was certainly one that few of us would care to repeat, and one that did test our capacity to deal with what, for the College anyway, were extreme conditions. It’s easy to take for granted the various campus services, such as meals or maintenance, that are essential to Vassar’s operation. So I want to take this opportunity especially to thank the staff who provide those services every day, but particularly for how they met the challenges of some extremely trying days and circumstances this winter.

One of the innovations suggested by Bob Walton, our new Vice President for Finance and Administration, was that he and I should commit to meeting with every employee in small groups– about 15 per group. With over 650 employees this means about 45 meetings. This morning was the 22nd such meeting.

I’ve really enjoyed these sessions and my sense is that most of the participants have as well. One of the keys to the success of them, I think, is that they are intentionally a broad mix of staff and administrators rather than all being from a particular department, office or area of responsibility. We are there as individuals, and given the mix, many have never met.

This isn’t surprising. In our daily routines, most of us interact with a relatively small group of people, with little mixing of those who work in different roles, departments or parts of campus. We get used to the relative comfort of familiar surroundings and shared perspectives, with little reason or opportunity to change or challenge them.

In these meetings, after everyone has introduced themselves, including a brief description of what they do and how long they have worked at Vassar, (ranging from over 40 years to a few months) we open the floor to comments, concerns, and questions. Some have had issues that have weighed on them for years, some more recent. Parking always comes up. Sometimes, there is a easy resolution, but even if there isn’t, there is benefit in the communication, particularly since everyone in the group gains greater insight into what others do and the challenges they face. And people have suggested some great ideas.

In a modest way, these meetings break down isolation. And it’s easy to not even realize how isolated we can be – how few other voices we are really hearing, and how limited the experiences we share.

This is something of an issue in other aspects of campus life as well. It’s easy for students and even faculty to function with very limited interaction across disciplines, majors, identity groups, activities, issues, concerns. And it’s easy to imagine or actually create barriers to greater interaction. I think such real or imagined barriers have played a role in some of the issues that have arisen this year – perhaps not more than any other year or any other issues, but no less troubling because of that.

I want to make some observations about avoiding or breaking through such barriers, and some of the ways we might think about how we respond individually and collectively when contentious issues arise.

The statement I sent a little over two weeks ago addressed this to some extent, primarily by reminding us of the expectations we set for ourselves. The statement was sent to all parents and alums as well, partly in the recognition that bloggers and reporters had begun to portray the College as a place either without standards or as incapable of living up to them – portrayals understandably constructed to advance particular points of view. My message acknowledged the concerns of various constituents, and called for using Vassar’s strengths of intellectual rigor and mutual respect to have productive conversations about the issues. Particularly for the benefit of those off campus, the message also provided some examples belying the representation of the campus as incapable of having productive discussion – examples that no blogger was likely to publicize.

I thought you might be interested in some of the responses to that message – almost all of it coming from alums and parents.

  • Most were very positive – some saying they’ve never been prouder to be associated with Vassar.
  • Some very negative – saying they’ve never been more ashamed to be associated with Vassar
  • Some offered insights, assistance, and ideas (some helpful, some not).
  • Some simply expressed bewilderment – understandable if my email was their only source of information, a useful reminder that not everyone knows or cares about what is happening at their alma mater.

Among the replies that were more than short expression of approval or disapproval, were those sharing insights from their experiences in other countries … Pakistan, Mexico, Venezuela, France. Some provided suggestions for working with specific agencies or programs specializing in respectful dialogue across strongly held differences. Several urged me to take a position on the fundamental underlying political issues and seemed to expect that my doing so would be taken as persuasive guidance by students and faculty. Some assumed my presidential powers allow me to control individuals or events – an assumption which is perhaps at least somewhat understandable for someone unfamiliar with the freedoms of expression and association that are hallmarks of the best American academic institutions. Several reflected on the issues and activism of their own days as a student and on the importance of being passionate, with one calling his experience “fundamental in the development of my character, morals and integrity.”

One response in particular reflected on the writer’s personal experiences and how she avoids discussing religion with some friends and family and politics with others, since such discussions invariably become angry and unproductive. She laments this as a lost opportunity, but wonders if one reason such conversations fail is that people don’t take the time to learn about issues in sufficient depth. It is here, she suggests, that Vassar has an advantage and an opportunity since here education is not only valued, but it is what we do! And she’s right.

We should be able to have productive difficult conversations. And one key is to learn about issues in depth, including how others think and feel – and why. In contrast, approaches to difficult issues that are intentionally confrontational in nature, while they succeed in one level in raising awareness of an issue, can make it even more difficult to discuss the issue because people shut down and don’t test their views in a meaningful way.

In addition to promoting learning, a place like Vassar has a second characteristic that sets it apart from the larger American society, and that is as a voluntary diverse residential community. In April, I invoked Vassar’s stated commitment to both free speech and an environment “free from intolerance, disrespect or harassment.” That statement goes on, “Because Vassar is a residential college, and because it seeks diversity in its membership, individuals have a particular obligation beyond that of society at large to exercise self-restraint, tolerance for difference, and regard for the rights and sensitivities of others.” Because of our being a diverse residential community, we are at particular risk of being like the alumna who can only have conversations about difficult matters with those family and friends who share her views. We end up only talking within perspectives, not across them.

In a recent opinion column, Charles M. Blow argues that American culture increasingly what he calls, “self sorts”— we physically separate ourselves along certain characteristics. His focus is in part about self sorting by race, but also about self sorting by income and education. America, he says, has become increasingly segregated along those lines and as a result we find it harder to relate to each other. As he says, “We need to see people other than ourselves in order to empathize. If we don’t live around others we do ourselves and our society damage because our ability to relate becomes impaired.”

There is another kind of self-sorting taking place in our society, and that is self-sorting by ideology. Ironically, as more and more information has become available thanks to technology, it is increasingly possible for us to limit our sources of information to those that reinforce rather than challenge us politically, culturally or intellectually. And many do limit themselves, with one result being an increasingly polarized and paralyzed political system.

Vassar brings together a diverse community – now more than ever in its history – highly selective, so not diverse in terms of demonstrated academic potential and achievement, but substantially diverse socio-economically, racially, and geographically. This is a tremendous opportunity – one that calls for special efforts to maintain respectful conversations across those diversities and our individual interests, activities and associations.

We do a pretty good job of promoting such interaction – especially for new students through, for example, structured orientation programs. Residential life (at least for freshmen and sophomores) promotes such interaction as well, as do courses (especially introductory courses). By the junior and senior year there can be some impediments to interaction—increased focus on a major, living in small group apartments, and not eating at ACDC. Self-sorting can be an issue, perhaps especially for juniors and seniors – at least an issue that one should think about.

As I have learned with our meetings with groups of employees, even a modest effort in the direction of increased interaction across diversity can be productive. We should not underestimate the potential value in other aspects of campus life of equally modest efforts to engage with others in trying to understand and discuss issues, particularly those with the potential to be difficult and divisive.

So my simple admonition is to treasure the opportunity at Vassar not to “self sort”. Learn about issues and challenge yourself and others. And as you leave Vassar, resolve to continue to be open to hearing, understanding and interacting with as diverse a community as you can find.

Thank you.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, April 30, 2014