Go to navigation (press enter key)

Letter from President Hill

Update for the Vassar community at the start of the school year, 2014/15

August 27, 2014

Dear members of the Vassar community,

Even as we near the beginning of a new academic year, I continue to think about last spring’s Commencement, especially our speaker, noted scientist Sau Lan Wu of the class of 1963, one of the physicists responsible for the discovery of the Higgs boson, or “God particle.” There is so much about her life story that has stayed with me, and probably with everyone else who heard her talk. In it she recounted how she ventured from the slums of Hong Kong to Vassar: a 17-day voyage, including several typhoons; a cross country train trip; the kindness of strangers, notably alumnae of the college who helped with food for the journey; and the abiding belief her mother had in young Sau Lan. The journey began after she received a full scholarship from Vassar, the only college or university to provide such assistance among the many in the United States to which she applied.

Sau Lan Wu’s story offers us a look into a life very different from most of ours, yet the qualities she and her life have embodied are the qualities we see, in many different forms, in the lives and achievements of our alumnae/i across the decades and all over the world: an unshakable independence, a determination to succeed even when other people said she couldn’t, a willingness to take risks and make compromises, the commitment to work as hard as she had to to achieve her goals. This is a fitting reminder of the power of a Vassar education, particularly timely as we welcome a new class and our returning students for another year.

Ten veterans recruited through Vassar’s partnership with the Posse Foundation are among the students in the class of 2018.

Vassar’s Class of 2018, summer accomplishments

The newest members of our community arrive this week, more than 660 young people, comprising the most diverse class in Vassar’s history. As we would expect, by every academic measure they are accomplished and talented. They come from 46 states and 31 foreign countries. Fifty-seven percent are women; 43 percent men. Students of color who are US citizens or permanent residents comprise more than 36 percent of the class. The class is socioeconomically diverse, with 60 percent receiving need-based financial aid from the college. Eleven percent of the class are the first in their families to attend college, and nearly 25 percent are eligible for federal Pell grant aid for low-income students. The class also includes our second group of veterans recruited through our partnership with the Posse Foundation. We are pleased that this year Wesleyan University will become the second school to partner with the Posse veterans program.

Even though most of our students are just beginning to arrive, a number collaborated with faculty on research on campus and elsewhere throughout the summer. Approximately 80 students participated with their faculty mentors in the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) and the Ford Scholars program, a research program in the humanities and the social sciences. Collaborations ranged from a National Science Foundation-funded project to build a fleet of robots using a 3-D printer to the development of a course on the corporatization of American education. With support from the Tananbaum Family Leadership Program for Work and Development, 21 rising seniors were able to participate in internships this summer. Tananbaum Fellows interned with cardiology researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, worked with the Senate Banking Committee to consider foreign policy factors influencing U.S. economic stability, and interned at Warner Brothers in television production, for example. Another has been working for the iF Foundation, a non-governmental organization that works with farmers in rural Haiti. Eleven of our students also were interns with local human service agencies through the Community Fellows program, providing much-needed assistance to Poughkeepsie-area organizations doing important work. Several Vassar students were among those who participated in the Powerhouse Theater training program, the educational component of the summer collaboration between Vassar and New York Stage and Film. The season included 20 professional productions of new plays and musicals on campus, with over 270 artists and several thousand audience members from the Hudson Valley.

New College Store at the Juliet, improved campus facilities

We are very pleased that the new Vassar College Store at the Juliet opened last week, creating a college and community anchor in the Arlington neighborhood. In a portion of the former Juliet movie theater, the new store occupies a transformed space that is open, modern, colorful and flexible in design. Many of you who remember going to movies there will be pleased to learn that the original Juliet neon sign has been restored. Intended to serve the general public as well as our students, faculty, and staff, the store carries many gift items and Hudson Valley products as well as Vassar-branded merchandise. The work of local artists, available for purchase, will be featured regularly. Occupying the adjacent space in the Juliet building will be BurgerFi, a national chain restaurant that features specialty burgers and craft beers. BurgerFi will open later in the month and, with the College Store, will have a grand opening and ribbon-cutting on Saturday, September 20, at 11 a.m. in conjunction with our Freshman Families Weekend and the annual Arlington Street Fair. This project has been a long time coming and owes its accomplishment to many people at Vassar and in the local community.

The historic Juliet theatre houses the new Vassar College Store.

The exquisite transformations of New England and Sanders Physics are now complete, and our students and faculty can begin enjoying a portion of our sweeping Integrated Science Center project. New England is the new home of the Psychology and Cognitive Science departments, and Sanders Physics now houses Computer Science in addition to Physics and Astronomy.

The beautifully restored staircase in New England building.

Improvements to these early 20th-century buildings (New England opened in 1901, Sanders in 1926) have made them ready for 21st-century science, with many of their historic references still apparent. The renovations included the creation of new classrooms, laboratories, and office spaces, new infrastructure and mechanical systems, roofing replacement and repairs, structural improvements, window restoration, new stairs, and a new elevator. Importantly, both buildings are now fully accessible to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both were also renovated following guidelines created by the U.S. Green Building Council and will be Vassar’s first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings.

As part of URSI, Joshua Bruce ’16 and Sanne Järvinen-Cossé ’16 worked with Professor of Biology Margaret Ronsheim to help restore the Edith Roberts Ecological Laboratory.

After the spring semester, biology faculty and staff and their equipment were moved temporarily out of Olmsted Hall to various campus locations, notably the former bookstore space on the lower level of College Center, so major mechanical and structural improvements could begin on Olmsted. These will be completed in January and the building will be ready for use in the spring semester. The new 80,000 square foot bridge building, the exciting progress of which we can see now from many vantage points on campus, will be completed during the fall of 2015.

We currently are also working with several architectural firms to explore options to house our multidisciplinary programs, which had been largely located in New England building. This architectural competition will produce location and design alternatives for housing the programs, considering both their existing location in the Old Laundry Building and new building sites on campus.

The college continues its sustainability efforts with leadership from the sustainability committee and Alistair Hall ’11, sustainability coordinator in the Office of the Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources. Through the STARS self-reporting framework for colleges to measure their sustainability performance, Vassar has earned a silver rating for our ongoing efforts. Over the summer, Vassar had the benefit of two interns from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), part of its EDF Climate Corps, to conduct energy efficiency assessments at the college. Through their efforts we’ve received detailed recommendations for improved sub-metering of energy use on campus and the buildout of energy dashboards for assessing usage, plans for much more energy efficient exterior lighting on campus, and recommendations on reducing the use of home heating oil for college-owned properties. We also received excellent advice on ways to improve the campus Resource Conservation Fund, which provides college funds for innovation grants and energy loans for campus sustainability projects.

Voluntary early retirement incentive program, college finances

At the end of May, the college offered more than 200 eligible administrators and staff members who met a threshold of age plus years of service the opportunity for a generous early retirement package. Seventy-one of those employees throughout the college accepted the offer. The early retirement plan is part of broader efforts that the college has undertaken since 2008 to return to financial equilibrium following the recession. Many of you are aware of these efforts from discussions over the past several years. We have made significant progress in controlling our spending, and thus the percentage of funds we take from the endowment for our operating budget; however, we must continue to slow the growth of our spending during the next two years to achieve the acceptable 5% spending rate from the endowment by 2017-18, as agreed to with the Board of Trustees. We are confident that with the results of the incentive offer we can achieve that percentage. This is very good news.

The early retirement plan had two important goals: financial savings for the college without layoffs of any of our employees and appropriate recognition of long-term employees with remuneration that can help them transition from the college. Now that we know which employees will be leaving the college, we can consider and build new structures and collaborations that have not been possible with our status quo staffing. In instances where staffing will be reduced or rehiring delayed, we will need clear communication with the campus about the effects of those decisions on the services we can provide.

Campus challenges

Although there is much at Vassar of which to be proud, we also face ongoing challenges. During last academic year serious concerns arose about racial profiling on campus. There is no place in our society for racial profiling or any other form of bias. Discrimination and harassment are not acceptable at Vassar College. Earlier this summer I wrote to the campus community to emphasize my commitment to ensure that Vassar is a safe and welcoming place for everyone on our campus and to explain our ongoing efforts to address these issues. That full message is available here.

Another serious challenge for our community is being able to listen to each other respectfully when we have different viewpoints on complex and highly charged issues such as the conflict in Israel and Palestine. A diverse community, where we all feel included and supported, does not just happen. It takes a great deal of work. People from many different backgrounds will have deeply held views that can conflict or even clash with the views of others. When those clashes deny the rights of others, they damage relationships and what we stand for. Our commitment to free speech or expression does not protect harassment, discrimination or hate-speech. These behaviors violate our policies, which include clear procedures for adjudicating such cases.

Over the summer I have been working with a number of colleagues on ways we might increase our community’s understanding and practice of respectful discourse and engage others in these efforts as well. In addition to the Dean of the Faculty, the Dean of the College, and the Chair of FPCC (Faculty Policy and Conference Committee), this initial group included key staff from Residential Life and other student services, Campus Activities, Alumnae/i Affairs and Development, and Communications. We have agreed that “working across difference” will be a theme of many important campus events – orientation, the student leadership conference, and convocation, as examples – providing opportunities to examine constructive ways of responding to differing viewpoints.

We are planning a series of speakers and panels, both on specific issues related to the Middle East and on developing skills to engage effectively on difficult topics, and are seeking faculty input from several departments to help shape these events. We will have more information on those soon. We also have created a program of grants from the President’s Office over the next two years to support projects and events developed by faculty, students, and staff that address complex issues from multiple perspectives and encourage a rich and respectful discourse. I was encouraged by the commitment, creative thinking, and problem solving my colleagues brought to our discussions this summer; we look forward to extending our planning to the broader community.

Over its history Vassar has often stepped forward as a leader to take on challenging issues very directly. In that spirit I believe we can learn and model how to engage a diverse group of people with wide-ranging and deeply held views. In doing so we can actually contribute to the resolution of complex issues, particularly through our graduates as they enter a world that sorely needs compassionate and creative leadership.


Catharine Hill, President