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Convocation Remarks

September 12, 2018

I am delighted to see so many people at Convocation this year. What energy and beauty I see from this vantage point! It is good to be together.

At a time when the liberal arts education is under attack with the public questioning the value and expense of higher education, the Convocation ritual of calling together the academic community—both faculty and students—as we are doing today, is a key moment for us.

The Convocation tradition at Vassar began in 1865 as a sermon to open the academic year. By 1914, it had expanded to be a parade of faculty and students in full regalia; thank you Professor Offutt for helping us to reenact this important ritual. The song we will sing later in the program with the direction of Professor Howlett is called “Gaudeamus Igitur” (which means Let Us Rejoice); it has been sung at Vassar’s Convocation ceremony since the 1920s, and almost every Convocation has been held in this very chapel building since it was erected in 1904, except during the 1960s, when the ceremony was held in the outdoor theatre. That outdoor theatre is where you Seniors—robed as you are today for the first time—will, in nine short months, graduate! WELCOME EVERYONE.

Our faculty speaker today, Professor Amitava Kumar, and I have something in common other than the fact that we both work at Vassar. We both have spent time in Patna, the capital of Bihar India. He grew up there, and I worked there on a Gates Foundation project to research and improve the delivery of health care services. Professor Kumar’s book Lunch with a Bigot introduces readers to Patna. I wish I had had the benefit of reading his work before my travels to Bihar!

Why did I ask a writer, and this writer in particular, to give the Convocation address? Well, it was because the process of writing requires one to carefully consider what one is experiencing—big events and small; happy, sad, and mixed; truth or fiction, or both. The art of mindfully contemplating and then communicating what is happening to us seems fundamental to learning, and to healthy adjustment in the ever-changing landscape we share. Hearing from such a remarkable writer as Professor Kumar is sure to make us think and feel, to stir us to learn more.

I wandered a bit in my own liberal arts education. I remember courses on the bosan (a subatomic particle I never understood), on global warming (a class students left in 1980 laughing at the professor’s assertion the earth was warming—my, things have changed), on the economics of labor-managed firms (drawing on Eastern European history) … I recall courses about playwrights like Bertolt Brecht and Sam Shepherd, ancient Japanese poetry, and art history from Delacroix to abstract expressionism. That education captured my imagination and broadened what I felt (at least partially) qualified to talk about. It also humbled me about how large and complex the world is and how we always have more to absorb, more to learn.

But how do we learn? And what is the truth?

These questions haunted me after a public health project I did for the Gates Foundation in 2016, in Patna, India of all places.

In 2009, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began a partnership with the Government of Bihar to contribute expertise to their developing health care system. By 2016, Gates wondered if the Foundation had the right model. They had invested in technical solutions—automating clinic registration processes, creating data feeds from the clinics to the Ministry of Health, and designing dashboard reports to monitor health system performance. Our project was to understand the impact of this partnership, which everyone knew would inform future funding decisions.

The work in the field was good. Our team lived there for six months building relationships with clinic staff and community health workers and gathering information from multiple sources to get a sense of the impact of the Gates’ interventions. The picture was mixed as might be expected, and we had a sense of what was working and not working.

The difficulty came when it was time to interview the Deputy Minister of Health and his team, who oversaw the project.

Inside the labyrinthine Ministry of Health building, handlers moved us from one desk to the next, as we completed form after form, walked up stairs and back down stairs, and ultimately, wended our way to the Deputy’s outer office. At the front desk sat a young man who watched us carefully and eventually nodded to direct us to the inner office. There, behind an olive drab, metal desk—like the ones in the New York City health department—sat an older man behind a placard: Deputy Minister, M.D. On both the right and left sides of the desk were lopsided piles of color-coded folders, stacked high, leaving a narrow aperture in the middle through which we could just barely see the physician, now also policy maker.

After introductions, we started to ask our questions. To each question, the Deputy Minister responded by pulling another folder off the top of a pile. Each folder represented a different patient issue, and he explained that his job was to read these. I was doing my best to listen and respond, but we were talking past each other; he wanted to go through the folders and we wanted to figure out what pieces of the Gates model were working or not.

Just as I thought we were going to have to leave without much information about improvements in the health system, the deputy minister asserted, “By the way, we have dramatically reduced hazardous waste in our clinics.” I asked if the Gates dashboard had helped with that. I asked half-heartedly, already feeling myself less inclined to search for the truth as I did not want to embarrass the man, and I felt already fairly hopeless that more questions would get us closer to the truth. In response, the Deputy Minister said, “No,” and pulled the next folder off the top of the pile.

Eventually, our time was up. As I stood to leave, I caught site of a massive pile of hazardous waste a stone’s throw from the Ministry of Health building—replete with used gauze, dirty linens, and uncapped syringes glimmering in the sunlight. I wondered, is this how they reduced hazardous waste, by dumping it behind the Ministry of Health building? Couldn’t be. Maybe the waste site was about to be moved, and we were seeing it on an unfortunate day? Maybe it used to be double as large, so this was an improvement?

Well, we left, bewildered. We wrote the report, but I was terribly conflicted—trying to discern the truth about what was going on in Patna.

As you who are First Years begin your life as scholars and as you who are Seniors continue and refine your work in whatever disciplines you have selected, you may discover that the truth is often elusive, as we found in Patna.

Where and how do you find the truth? We have all been in situations where the same event is experienced completely differently by different people and where views about the facts vary wildly. How do our roles, our histories, our relative positions, our desire not to offend, or our hopelessness influence how we understand what is going on?

I wonder whether the truth is not just in the facts—although the facts are critical—but rather in the process of dialogue, the unfolding, discovery, and sharing of diverse perspectives. In the case of our experience in Patna, we failed to find the truth. The relationships, the premise, the entire set up was not conducive to uncovering the truth.

We ended up suggesting that Gates should keep funding the project but should redesign their interventions to be less technical and more relational, efforts that would establish a health care community that developed practices and habits of learning, rather than off-the-shelf fixes from across the globe.

Is truth something that we can never know for sure but rather must always be in search of? I think so…being always in search of truth is perhaps what a “learning” community does. And in learning communities, like our own at Vassar, we need truth seekers, like Professor Kumar, writers who reveal our lives in stories, and who recount our stories, with enough distance from ourselves that we can engage in new ways—both drawn in and unencumbered by the particulars of our own lives—so that we can make sense of the world.