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Reunion 2019 President’s Hour Remarks

June 8, 2019

Welcome home everyone! So nice to see you in the Chapel this morning, and I look forward to the Reunion Parade after our time together.

I want to take time to review briefly my last two years at Vassar, and where we are now, and I will leave time for questions and comments.

In my first year at Vassar, my focus was on building relationships with everybody and learning more about the Vassar culture. During my first year, many of the Senior Team were at retirement age or were at the end of terms, and we therefore had many positions to fill. Today I am delighted to say we have a tremendously diverse Senior Team, which is close to half women and half men as well as diverse in race and ethnicity, age, and backgrounds. At the same time, we have worked hard in my first year to make a commitment to ensure our faculty, particularly faculty of color, are supported and want to stay and engage deeply with Vassar.

In my second year, I was eager to work with the community to develop a longer-term plan, given we are an ambitious and aspirational community here at Vassar, all of us. We used the Priorities and Planning (P&P) Committee, which is an inclusive committee with elected faculty, students, administrators, and staff. Dean Begemann, Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources, guided the process over about ten months of convening different groups: student groups, faculty groups, alumnae, alumni, AAVC of course, the Board and community partners who work with us. All these groups met and worked out a vision, a set of objectives, and then a list of investments and actions to help us achieve the objectives.

Through this process, 212 different ideas for investments and projects emerged. Then, the P&P Committee underwent a prioritization process, which the Senior Team also weighed in on, and then the five- to seven-year plan went to the Board, who largely supported the plan. The most inspiring thing to me that happened during the board presentation of the plan was that the Board wanted to know what faculty and students thought of it. So they turned to the faculty and student observer on the Board, and both indicated that they thought it reflected what the community needed. The point is that the constituents, and the members of our community, saw themselves in the plan because of the careful, inclusive process that we had used.

So now, let me turn to the plan. Let’s start with the landscape that liberal arts higher education institutions are facing. I do not think I have to tell this group that it is a wildly divisive and polarized time. We also face enormous, complex global problems. They are not problems that just can be solved by one simple discipline but rather require multidisciplinary approaches. Because we are so interconnected now, the problems cross huge boundaries. They cross the globe. Things like food insecurity, migration, and people moving-related issues, global health, poverty. The odd relationship between technological change and still enormous disparity. The problems are interconnected and complex. In addition, among young adults we face a real health and mental health crisis. This generation is the first generation that is predicted to not live as long as the generation above it. And, 20 percent of students in colleges across the country have a mental health diagnosis. About 15 percent of those come in from high school with that, and another five percent during college, so we are facing real challenges there. Then, on top of all of that, we face skepticism in our world over higher education to begin with, and most certainly over liberal arts.

Despite these challenges, I believe Vassar is perfectly poised to demonstrate what is truly needed in higher education to fit the current complex environment.

First, after a decade of ensuring very generous financial aid, we have a very diverse student population and are thus able to work sincerely on inclusion and what we call the Engaged Pluralism Initiative. We can work on providing experiences that allow students to develop skills and practice working in a diverse environment. We have the opportunity to teach people, “Let’s listen to each other. Let’s think how we sit in someone else’s shoes for a minute.”

Second, in terms of the complexity of the problems, Vassar was one of the very first liberal arts colleges, if not the first liberal arts college, to innovate in multidisciplinary thinking. We have 17 multidisciplinary majors, involving 130 faculty and 25 percent of students. So from the beginning, and still now, Vassar is very strong in that area.

Third, in terms of the health crisis we are facing, we have made tremendous investments in the last two years in our mental health services. And in fact, through this, I have learned that Vassar was a pioneer in having mental health services on campus for students. I believe it was in the 1920s that the first mental health professional was hired on this campus and it is so important because people cannot thrive if they are not feeling well. And we are eager to innovate and expand our approaches to fit contemporary needs.

Last, in terms of addressing the skeptics of liberal arts, our outcomes are strong. Ninety-five percent of our students are either employed, in a competitive fellowship, or on their way to graduate school within six months of graduating from Vassar. Ninety-five percent—that is a very high rate.

And as we look to the future, I believe we can be positioned to set the bar for what liberal arts education can be. I think it is important that we not try to chase a ranking, or we try to chase another college that may be richer or may be ranked higher. Rather, we might think of ourselves as setting the bar for what is right in liberal arts higher education.

We do have an inspiring history of innovation and bold thought. We should be known for that. We should be known as a place that is the best environment to live, work, play, and study, and we should be known as a place that is a valuable investment for our country and for the globe; that this is something the public thinks is important. And we should seek to secure our future.

In our five– to seven–year plan, we have three pillars: Academic Excellence, Campus Community and Culture, and Vassar in the World.

Within the domain of Academic Excellence, our plans begin with meaningful investment in faculty. I want you to all think for a minute. How many of you have a faculty person that comes to mind quite quickly who really changed the way you have lived your lives? That could be 80 percent of you. The point is that higher education is born from the relationship between faculty members who are innovative and at the top of their field, and the students.

Therefore, we have to invest in our faculty. We have wonderful faculty already, but they need the proper living situations, they need the proper salary, they need research funds, and they need the space to be able to create what is higher education.

In addition, we aim to attract the best-fitting, brightest, and most creative students. And to be able to do that, we have to have very generous financial aid. Pursuing equity allows us to pursue excellence, by ensuring people who are really the best can afford to attend.

And then, we must continue to invest in the curriculum. We have many innovations in the curriculum, but a strong investment in our multi-disciplinary approaches at this time is critical.

The next pillar is the Campus Community and Culture. And fundamental to this is our Engaged Pluralism Initiative, an effort that is really building resilience and innovation at Vassar. And why do I say resilience? Just a quick story about this. You probably have heard about the time when a professor at a university sent out an email to ask Chinese students to no longer speak Chinese in the environment, that they needed to speak English.

Well, you can imagine how this went over at Vassar. Immediately, international students and non-international students were outraged that someone would shut down the voices of people in their native language. And our community was boiling over about this. But the Engaged Pluralism Initiative made a huge difference at that moment because enough of the students were involved in these working groups that are interdisciplinary and involved faculty and students and staff and alumnae/i and administrators. The issue was discussed in the working groups, and they talked about it and vented about how irritated they were about this. And people said, “Well, what should we do?” And they came up with a brilliant idea, which is that they wanted to study and have a big event in the Villard Room on multilingualism.

This panel ended up attracting many people from all over Vassar. It was very productive; it was very positive.

Creative, positive, and resilient responses came out of outrage about something that didn’t seem right. That is a small example of so many things that are happening in our outside world that the Engaged Pluralism Initiative allows us to metabolize—turning discord into learning.

Within this Campus Community and Culture, the Engaged Pluralism Initiative is very important. We are investing a lot in residential life, building greater community around the houses.

Then, in this domain is the integrated health-and-wellness agenda. This involves a replacement of the Walker Field House, which unfortunately is leaking and undersized, and equally important, it involves moving the health center and the mental health center to that integrated health-and-wellness area. This is part of a strategy to destigmatize the use of mental health services. It is a method to open the services that we may have to our faculty and administrators, not just students, and offer more recreational activities, mindfulness, yoga, and other approaches to health and wellness.

The third part of this five– to seven–year plan is called Vassar in the World. Of course, Vassar has always been in the world, but we think we have greater ability to be more connected locally and globally. So, naturally, this does encompass the Institute for the Liberal Arts, which I know you’ve heard a lot about. It also encompasses our Office of Community Engaged Learning, and we have a new grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to extend community-engaged learning in the arts and humanities. This will enable a new set of classes with partners in Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County that involve faculty in the humanities and in the arts. Also, within the domain of Vassar in the World are our international programs. We have programs in both China and Rwanda this summer. We want to work over the next five to seven years to integrate what we do. We do a lot internationally already. Many of our faculty are involved. Ten percent of our students are international, but we do not always integrate the work to maximum benefit. And, of course, career planning—alumnae/i affairs—is important to activate the 40,000 alumnae/i to make the most of our Vassar community and ensure that graduates continue to feel connected to the Vassar community.

The last part of Vassar in the World is the effort to reach carbon neutrality in 2030. This is such an important part of being in the world. We are not responsible if we do not address our carbon footprint. I am very happy to say, since 2005, Vassar has reduced its carbon footprint by 42 percent, which is great, but we nonetheless can do better. We have just hired a consulting firm that is creating a plan, because we are not going to get there without a plan. We should have a better sense of options by the fall. Our October board meeting will discuss our different options and how and when we get there. We are starting with the Inn and Institute, which going to be a very green building.

I want to end with a very short idea. You know, when Matthew Vassar put his ideas together, he said something that I thought was really important, which was he wanted to change the era for women. And he did just that.

At Vassar, we are part of something much larger than ourselves. We have an important role to play in advancing higher education in the United States and perhaps globally. We embody an educational approach that embodies the freedom, the openness, and the social equity that truly emerges from a commitment to higher education in the liberal arts. We are on a path not just to make Vassar stronger and more secure, but also to educate young adults in order to keep our society and hopefully our globe free, open, and equitable.

Thank you so very much.