— Catharine Hill, president
Welcome Faculty, Staff, and Students!
I appreciate your being here on a day when the heat and weather might naturally incline many to be elsewhere. I especially welcome members of the class of 2016, as you begin your senior (and final) year here at Vassar… every May when we begin to prepare for Commencement, I always remark on the fact that it seems like Fall Convocation was just yesterday, so just beware! The year will go really, really fast. Take full advantage of it, do the things you’d wished you’d done in the first 3 years.
I also want to give a special welcome to the class of 2019, as you are here at Convocation for the very first time – can I have a quick show of hands to see where the freshman class is? You may or may not recognize your professors up here, looking a bit austere in their full academic regalia, but we only dress this way a few times a year! I’m not sure why we tend to do it only when it is really hot out. (I suspect, although don’t know for sure, that these robes were designed for warmth.) I’m not sure I have the authority under the governance, but if anyone wants to take their robes off, feel free. I, for one am going to.
I have it on good authority from Art Rodriguez, Dean of Admissions, that there are 4 of you in this year’s freshman class who are from the state of Kansas. I don’t mean to single out the Sunflower Staters in any particular way, but I want to begin my remarks this afternoon by referring to your state’s motto, “Ad astra per aspera” which (I am told) translates as: “to the stars through difficulties” or perhaps more naturally: “a difficult path leads to the stars”. Now, my fondness for the phrase is NOT because I like saying things in Latin… especially when I am to be followed on the program by an esteemed professor of Greek and Roman Studies. I have been told I can’t pronounce it incorrectly, though, which is good. However, I do think that the meaning of the phrase is emblematic of many major points in Vassar’s history, up to and including the present.
I would like to spend a few minutes illustrating this with some examples, which are separated from each other by approximately 50 years. Let us begin with Matthew Vassar’s founding of the College. We are fond of telling visitors to the campus that in determining the way in which he would immortalize the family name, Matthew Vassar said that he wished to create an institution for young women which would be to them what Harvard and Yale were to young men. Of course, at the time, he meant young white women, probably Protestant and mostly of means, although he did endow our earliest fund for need-based financial aid. But, I’ll come back to this. Nowadays the idea of educating young women seems so reasonable that no one would even comment on it, at least in America and many others countries, but of course not all. But in mid- nineteenth century America, it was not only controversial, but there were groups that were staunchly opposed to the idea.
Ironically, members of the medical establishment of the time were one such voice of opposition. It was then believed that the education of women would lead to a degradation of their health. Apparently it was understood that the college years were important in the development of the female reproductive system, and it was thought that too much energy devoted to the brain would cause atrophy elsewhere. As one Dr. Edward Clarke stated in a book he wrote on the subject, what good would it do the American girl to have “a monstrous brain and aborted ovarian development”? It would not have been lost on Matthew Vassar to know that Doctor Clarke was a Harvard man.
Physical education or participation in sports was also frowned upon as being particularly inappropriate for young women, but the founder stood firm in his commitment to making the college experience the same at Vassar as it was at Princeton or Yale. Thus the hallways in Main Building were built wide enough for the students to exercise in, by walking, on days when the weather prevented outdoor activity. (The alternative story I’ve heard is the hallways were wide enough for beer barrels, just in case the college thing didn’t work out. But, I don’t think there is any basis to that one.)
Even members of Matthew Vassar’s own family initially disagreed with the use of the family fortune on the College. Despite these obstacles, Matthew Vassar never lost sight of his star, and did the hard work (made even harder by the American Civil War) that paved the way for the first students to come to his Poughkeepsie campus in 1865, exactly 150 years ago this fall.
Dialing the clock forward by roughly 50 years brings us to the early 20th century, with women’s suffrage becoming a dominant national topic. On campus and beyond, a Vassar student named Inez Milholland became known as a so-called “radical” voice, in her support of equal voting rights for women. Initially, with a very conservative Board and President, this topic was judged to be too controversial and inappropriate for discussion on campus. (I’ve heard that these discussions moved to the grave yard off campus to the north as a result!) While she was a student and later as an alumna, Milholland never gave up her fight, being joined by fellow students and a growing number of Vassar faculty members. Eventually, Vassar’s newly hired fifth president, Henry Noble McCracken made a public statement of support for women’s suffrage, but for him, this was not the easy path, and nearly resulted in his termination as president, as the still-conservative Board asked for him to resign shortly thereafter. A vocal and strongly supportive Vassar community rallied to save McCracken’s presidency, and he went on to become the College’s longest-serving leader, ending a 31-year term in 1946.
Nearly 50 years later, Vassar faced another watershed decision when it considered a merger with Yale University in New Haven. At the time, Yale was still all-male, but lacked a women’s college counterpart, the role that Radcliffe College played at Harvard or Barnard College at Columbia. While the possibility of a merger held many attractive features to some, many alumnae were opposed, especially if it meant abandoning the beautiful Poughkeepsie campus and moving to New Haven. Ultimately, after much study, the Vassar faculty and Board of Trustees also opposed the merger, but used this juncture as a time to consider co-education at Vassar. Of course we all know the result, with the admission of the first male Vassar students as transfers in 1969 and the first male students matriculated as freshmen in 1970. But what might be easy to forget is that in making this choice, Vassar was once again putting itself into uncharted water, being the first single-sex institution in the country to become co-educational; it remains to this day the only one of the Seven Sisters schools to have done so.
Counting forward by roughly another half-century finds us in the present-day Vassar College, and we are once again pushing forward in ways that few other similar institutions are, in making significant changes to the demographics of the student body in a variety of ways, to more accurately represent our society and the world. The current student body is more socioeconomically and racially diverse than at any point in the College’s history, and the third Posse of US veterans brings us to a greater percentage of veterans enrolled than ever before (with perhaps the exception of right after WWII under the original GI bill). The greater diversity of all sorts that has resulted from these and other changes provides wonderful opportunities for us to learn from each other in ways that more effectively prepare our students for the global and diverse society that all Vassar alumnae/i will face upon graduation.
And while this is indisputably a good thing, it is not always easy. As I have said before, it would be far easier if we were all alike, but we would be poorer for it. Instead, we will continue to do the hard work of building an egalitarian, and inclusive college community, clearly not one that agrees on everything, but one that can learn from its disagreements. A glance at any newspaper certainly demonstrates that much of the world has not figured out how to deal with difference and have it be a source of richness, rather than divisiveness and destruction. When our students – you – leave Vassar, we are going to need you to help solve the challenges facing our communities, our countries, and our world.
There are so many reasons why this work is worth doing. America is facing what some consider to be a crisis in higher education, which will be likely to be among the main issues discussed in the upcoming presidential primary and general elections. While the importance of having a higher education degree in order to compete for good jobs – jobs that are interesting and satisfying - has gone up, college completion rates for US students have gone down. This is compounded by the fact that increasing income inequality makes access to higher education more difficult for those families that would benefit from it the most. This undermines some of the core values of our country. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently: “America’s prosperity, our democracy, and our identity as a land of opportunity depend on …[giving] every hard- working student … a real opportunity to achieve a meaningful, affordable degree.” As the presidential primary races begin to take shape it has been exciting to see that major candidates from both parties have included higher education planks in their platforms. I look forward to hearing the discussions that result, and I hope that we see candidates with suggestions for practical and effective changes (and that they will be the ones to be elected!).
Just like the achievements throughout Vassar’s history, these ideals (the “stars” as it were) can only be reached through much work, which will not only be difficult, but is also likely to be controversial. For Vassar, making progress on any of these ideals has meant pushing off into uncharted waters, rather than following a path that somebody else had already laid out. Although sometimes challenging, it is the right thing to do, and has been the way the College has achieved its goals since the beginning. In a way it is what Vassar is known for, and I expect that we will continue to push forward, ad astra per aspera. “The difficult path leads to the stars.”