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Message from President Hill

September 25, 2015

Dear members of the Vassar community,

This wonderful weather might tempt us into thinking otherwise, but fall is here, officially now, and with it so much activity in and outside of our classrooms and offices. If you feel as I do, this point in the semester came very quickly; it seems such a short time ago that students were moving back into residence halls and apartments.

Among those students we welcomed a very diverse group of 668 freshmen from throughout the country and the world. In addition to the new class's strong academic background -- including 30 high school valedictorians, 15 salutatorians, and 19 National Honor Society presidents -- the class is also diverse in numerous ways. More than 35 percent of the freshmen are students of color, including U.S. citizens and non-citizens; 43 percent are men; 97 are first-generation college students; and 89 are international students with either foreign or dual citizenship. One hundred fifty-one students are fully bilingual or speak English as a second language. Sixty-two percent are receiving need-based financial aid from the college, demonstrating Vassar’s strong commitment to recruiting talented students from across the socioeconomic spectrum. I am pleased that for the second year Vassar has been recognized by the New York Times' College Access Index as one of the top colleges doing the most for low-income students. The top private college in the index, Vassar ranked 8th overall.

Karlene Williams
Keith Kohlmann

Karlene Williams and Keith Kohlmann are among the veterans at Vassar and were featured recently on public radio's Marketplace. Photo: Amy Scott/Marketplace

Ten members of the first year class are veterans of the United States armed services, the third group of veterans to enroll as freshmen as part of the college’s partnership with the Posse Foundation that began in 2013. Public radio’s Marketplace recently featured the Vassar Veterans’ Program in a series of three stories:

Angelo Mori ’19, a Transitions student Photo: Amy Scott/Marketplace

As some of you know, part of Vassar’s orientation for new students includes an important introduction to the college and college life through our Transitions Program for low-income, first-generation, and veteran students. Transitions also was featured recently on Marketplace. Reporter Amy Scott interviewed several of us, including students Gabriel Ramos ’17, Catherine Hernandez ’19, and D’Angelo Mori ‘19; Director of Residential Life Luis Inoa; and Dean of Studies Ben Lotto.

As we were preparing to welcome the newest members of the community to campus, approximately 200 of our students and faculty, as well as many visitors to campus, were wrapping up productive summers of research and other educational opportunities on campus. One of those programs, Vassar’s Exploring Transfer, or ET, program celebrated its 30th year this summer. ET helps community college students envision themselves continuing their educations at selective four-year colleges. Since 1985 more than a thousand community college students have immersed themselves in the residential liberal arts college experience through the five-week ET program, and most of those students have gone on to transfer to four-year colleges, including Vassar. Among them is Yolanda Martin '05, who came to Vassar from LaGuardia Community College in New York City. Now a sociology professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, Martin began teaching for the ET program in 2014. In this short video, Yolanda talks about her ET experiences, as a student and now a faculty member.

More than 130 Vassar students and faculty members in the sciences and the humanities were involved in research projects over the summer through the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) and Ford Scholars programs. In addition, 36 students and faculty were involved in projects through the Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD) program, a three-year initiative at Vassar funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. A team of students also was enrolled this summer in the college’s Community Fellows program, which matches our students’ skills and interests with the needs of local not-for-profit agencies. You can watch a video about the Community Fellows program here.

The mobile Collaboratory, a performance/exhibition space used for the Creative Arts Across Disciplines projects

URSI research included topics ranging from Tau proteins implicated in Alzheimer’s disease to nano-scale thermodynamics, and Ford scholars explored topics as diverse as the cultural impacts of the Ashokan Reservoir to promoting educational opportunities in La Paz Centro, Nicaragua. Among the CAAD projects, students participated in “Healing Narratives: De-Stigmatizing Trauma and Illness through the Senses.” The students interviewed people in hospice care about their lives, and influenced by these conversations they wrote, choreographed, and performed a series of vignettes titled “In the Light.”

Among other projects, you can learn more about groundbreaking URSI research to protect the ash trees on Vassar’s Ecological Preserve, and on lead and mercury pollution over the Catskill Mountain region on Vassar’s YouTube channel. This year’s URSI Symposium will be held Sept. 30, with keynote speaker Felice Frankel, research scientist in the Center for Materials Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and noted scientific photographer.

An important cultural offering in the Hudson Valley during the summer, the Powerhouse Theater season brought 300 artists and several thousand audience members to campus over six weeks, and I hope some of you were able to see some of the productions. A collaboration between Vassar and New York Stage and Film, Powerhouse focuses on the development of new plays andmusicals and on the training of aspiring young theater artists. This summer’s offerings included a new play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar (Disgraced) and by the composer Duncan Sheik, who received a Tony for Spring Awakening. Many of the works developed here go on to productions on Broadway and off-Broadway and at other theaters around the country. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton had an early public reading at Powerhouse two summers ago, for example (and no, unfortunately, we can’t get you tickets!). You can learn more about the Powerhouse experience here.

It is impossible to miss the continuing progress on the "bridge building," with the project on schedule to be completed by the beginning of the spring semester. It will be wonderful to have this centerpiece of the Integrated Science Center available for students and faculty, adding this spectacular 80,000-square-foot facility to the already renovated Sanders Physics, New England, and Olmsted Hall. Having been through the bridge building recently, I am certain that many of us on campus, whether in the sciences or not, will take advantage of the building’s interior and outside gathering spaces. Vassar’s project manager Robert Nilsson provides a video walk-through below.

Work is beginning on the renovation of a 5,600-square-foot wing of the historic Vassar Barn to function as a new hub for environmental science research, outreach and education partnerships on the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve. This project has been made possible by a generous grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. The funds have provided for the establishment of the Vassar Conservation and Environmental Engagement Cooperative (VCEE-COOP), which will centralize environmental outreach and education activities and encourage use of Vassar’s environmental resources by the college, community residents, and other visitors. Renovations will preserve the open feel of the original barn building, while creating a light-filled space where sliding dividers allow flexible use for offices, meetings, exhibits, and other activities.

Liz Titus Putnam '55, second from left, with l to r, Keri VanCamp, manager of the Vassar Ecological Preserve, faculty research associate in biology Elise Hefferman '12, and regional SCA program director Kathy Baugh

A very special part of the VCEE-COOP project is the relocation of the Hudson Valley Corps of the Student Conservation Association (SCA) to the renovated barn. The Student Conservation Association was the brainchild of Elizabeth Titus Putnam ‘55 when she was a student at Vassar. Liz posed the idea in her senior thesis, an idea that was adopted enthusiastically around the country. Her call for a volunteer corps of young people to become stewards of our national parks and other public land led to the creation of the SCA, an organization that has attracted more than 70,000 young people since it was launched in 1957. The relocation of the SCA Hudson Valley Corps was announced this June when Liz was on campus for her 60th reunion.

Through the efforts of many on campus, we continue to work on increasing our energy conservation. Thanks to the work of Bryan Swarthout, Vassar’s Director of Budget and Planning, and Alistair Hall ’11, Sustainability Coordinator, the college has committed to two renewable energy projects that will go into effect over the course of the 2015/2016 year, and allow us to generate a significant portion of our electricity from renewable sources.

The first is a 2MW solar project with BQ Energy, a Poughkeepsie-based renewable energy developer. Under the Remote Net Metering Agreement we have signed with BQ, they will construct a solar array on a decommissioned landfill and Vassar will be credited all the electricity that the site produces. Vassar will save more than $50,000 per year, while sourcing 13 percent of our electricity renewably.

The second project is a 1.95MW small­-scale, run­-of­-river hydro project with Gravity Renewables. This is an existing facility that already generates electricity, and Vassar has already begun seeing the benefits of this project, through which the college will save more than $30,000 per year, while sourcing 9 percent of our electricity renewably.

The College Committee on Sustainability partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) Climate Corps program for the second time this summer. One Climate Corps fellow led the analysis of potential structures for an internal carbon tax implemented at the college. Such a program would incentivize behavior by departments and other offices to save energy and resources, reduce college greenhouse gas emissions, and serve as a model for other colleges and universities on how to take action on the climate crisis. The College Committee on Sustainability continues to work on this idea and on changes to consider for moving to carbon neutrality. The second fellow studied campus energy and electricity usage and determined ways in which that data could be better stored and managed. Accessible data should allow us to have a greater understanding of energy usage across campus, and from that, an understanding of the need for energy efficiency projects over the short and long term.

Andrew Ashton
Rabbi Kerry Chaplin
Bethel Nathan
Arlene Sabo
Michelle Walsh

Several important searches were completed in the late spring and early summer, bringing a number of new talented people to the college. I know you will enjoy meeting each of them when you have the opportunity. Here are just brief highlights:

Andrew Ashton is the new Director of Libraries at Vassar. Most recently Andy was Associate University Librarian for Digital Technologies and co-head of the Center for Digital Scholarship at Brown University. Prior to that he served as systems librarian at Skidmore College and music librarian for Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C. He oversees all library operations: Thompson Memorial Library, Lockwood and Ingram libraries, Archives and Special Collections, Van Ingen Art Library, George Sherman Dickinson Music Library, and the Digital Library.

Rabbi Kerry Chaplin is the Rose and Irving Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life, responsible for religious, spiritual, and cultural leadership of Jewish student life at the college. Kerry received her Master of Arts in Rabbinic Studies and her Rabbinic Ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. For the past two years she had been Rabbinic Intern for the Hillel Foundation at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Kerry has created an innovative curriculum for Talmud study, and written about relationship-building between descendants of Holocaust victims and perpetrators. She has also been a fellow at NewGround, a Muslim-Jewish dialogue group.

Bethel “B” Nathan is the new director of the Campus Life ALANA Center, responsible for directing the African American, Latino/a, Asian and Native American Cultural Center and working with Campus Life and Diversity and other offices on various diversity initiatives across the college. From 2007 Bethel worked at Colorado State University, most recently as assistant director for campus programming, where she led numerous diversity and student leadership projects for students of color. She also served as a co-chair for a faculty and staff networking committee and is a facilitator for the nationally recognized LeaderShape Institute.

Arlene Sabo has joined Vassar as the new Director of Safety and Security. Arlene brings a breadth of experience to the position. Since 2001, she served as chief of university police at SUNY Plattsburgh. She previously served as director of the equity commission at SUNY Plattsburgh and advised Clinton County, New York, on the Violence Intervention Project (VIP). She also has had extensive experience in Title IX, CLERY disclosure, and emergency management. At SUNY Plattsburgh, Arlene chaired the task force on fair and impartial policing and the president's commission on personal safety.

Michelle Walsh is our new Director of Athletics and Physical Education. Michelle comes to Vassar from the State University of New York at Geneseo, where she was Associate Director of Athletics. She supervised 11 of the 20 NCAA Division III intercollegiate sports at SUNY Geneseo, as well as the athletic training and communications staffs. Notably this past year, SUNY Geneseo earned the State University of New York Athletic Conference's prestigious Dr. Patrick R. Damore Commissioner's Cup, given to the member school that exhibits the strongest overall athletic program for the academic year.

We will continue this fall to explore the best model for senior diversity leadership at the college. As I have reported previously, colleges and universities have found chief diversity officers and diversity councils to be two effective ways to coordinate and strengthen this work. Vassar is considering each of these approaches. The chief diversity officers at Bates and Dickinson colleges were on campus earlier this month to meet with senior officers and others.

Last weekend's Families Weekend reception on the library lawn

I want to remind you that funds continue to be available this year from the President’s Office for Dialogue and Engagement Across Differences programs. The funds are to support programs that examine controversial issues facing Vassar and society at large. Topics need to engage a cross-section of the Vassar campus and explore social issues from multidimensional perspectives. The inclusion of multiple voices and opinions is central to program funding consideration. For more information, please see the Office of the President site.

One recent program supported through the fund was a panel discussion, “Bridging the Racial Divide in the College Classroom and Beyond: A Conversation.” This event provided an opportunity for discussion among members of the campus community and invited panelists of issues related to race, equality, access, and privilege. Panelists included Ivory Toldson, the deputy director of the White House initiative to increase the number of young black men in higher education; Marcia Chatelain, a Georgetown University scholar of African American History; Indiana Garcia ‘11, a trainer in the Posse program in Los Angeles; Shaka King ‘01, a filmmaker and recipient of this year’s Vassar W. K. Rose Fellowship; and Zachariah Mampilly, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Africana Studies program. Professor of Film Mia Mask served as the moderator.

The neighborhood street fair last weekend

We are fortunate to have an array of speakers on campus this year, including Angela Davis, whose talk last week to an overflow Chapel audience was sponsored by Women's Studies in honor of the program’s 30th anniversary; Larry Siems, this year’s Starr Lecturer, who is the editor of Guantánamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, last evening; Michelle Monje-Deisseroth ’98, Sept. 28, internationally noted scientist and physician who has done ground-breaking research on brain cancer in children; and Larry Kramer, award-winning playwright, public health and gay rights activist, Oct. 28. In addition we will sponsor New York Times op-ed columnist Frank Bruni on February 15 for a talk titled “Demanding More from College.” On April 12 we will be bringing Krista Tippitt, journalist, author, and host of the public radio program On Being, to campus for a talk titled “Creating Civility.”

I encourage you to keep up with all of the events and news related to campus through the Vassar Events email that is published Mondays and Thursdays during the academic year and through the college Facebook page and Twitter account.

I feel very optimistic about the year ahead. As a community we have worked hard to respond to the financial crisis of several years ago, and now we are turning to the future. An important component of that is our campus master planning process, which we will complete later this year. We will be having a series of meetings with members of our community during the fall semester to share some of the priorities and the choices that have resulted from that process.

The college is the remarkable place that it is because of our talented faculty, staff, and students, and our alumnae/i and families who support the college in myriad ways. I want to thank each of you for all that you do.

Catharine Hill