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President's Welcome, Fall Convocation, September 10, 2014

— Catharine Hill, president

Welcome everyone to fall convocation, a formal occasion to celebrate the start of the academic year. We particularly welcome seniors, who are starting their final year at Vassar, and freshman who are just commencing their four year journey.

At Vassar we are committed to offering a superb liberal arts education to all our students, something that we’ve been doing for about a hundred and fifty years now. Intentionally, we have an increasingly diverse community. We have students from all over the country and the world. We have students from many different racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. We have students from high income families and low income families. Students who are fifth generation Vassar, and students who are the first in their families to go to college. And, we have young men and women who have served in our military. It is quite likely that our Vassar community is significantly more diverse than your home community where you’ve grown up and lived. While it is likely that your new environment here will feel different and perhaps strange at first, I hope it is clear that every student who is here belongs here.

We value diversity, not only because it supports our commitment to equal opportunity and fairness, but because it supports our educational mission. Differences in life experiences and backgrounds contribute significantly to the learning that takes place at Vassar, in and out of the classroom.

Our college’s governance principles protect free and open speech and expression. These are core principles to which Vassar and other academic institutions are committed. Free speech is essential to challenging accepted norms, making progress and advancing new ideas. Our commitment to diversity and the range of opinions and ideas that it brings to campus makes our commitment to free and open speech even more vital. We need to protect the rights of all to freely participate in discussions on campus, pushing the boundaries of what we know and understand.

Recently, free speech at academic institutions has been challenged. Speakers have been prevented from delivering remarks at commencements and other events on campuses around the country. Those involved in keeping invited guests from speaking might justify their actions on the grounds of their own free speech, but in fact, if the free speech of others is denied, then the commitment to such freedom is in jeopardy. Free speech cannot just apply to some. On some campuses (including Vassar) rather than keeping speakers from speaking, groups have boycotted those with differing points of view. As with preventing free speech, this, while making a statement, seems to me to be a lost educational opportunity, although such actions at least don’t prevent others from listening.

And at the same time that we have this deep commitment to free speech, we are committed to respectful debate. In fact, Vassar has a civility code called the Statement of Civility and Responsibility in an Academic Community. I was not here when it was passed by the faculty, but I can guess that it arose from concerns that some of the benefits of freedom of expression might be lost if separate parties with conflicting points of view didn’t feel comfortable sharing those viewpoints with each other. Unfortunately, one response to difficult discussions is choosing not to participate. This, too, is truly a lost educational opportunity.

However, the notion of civility is problematic and can also stifle free speech rather than encourage it. Garrison Keillor illustrates an absurd extreme of this in the new language, “Wobegonics”, that is taught in schools in his fictitious village of Lake Wobegon. Wobegonics is defined as “ordinary English, except that there are no confrontational verbs or statements of strong personal preference, you know.”

So what happens when there is conflict between the values of free speech and civility? Each of us as individuals has to decide for ourselves how to behave. Together, we can create expectations for the community that can, but may not, influence individuals’ decisions. The right to free speech is central, but a commitment to listening to others is also important if we are to benefit from the free exchange of ideas. If we each speak out only to those who hold the same views, not much learning will take place, and if we speak out without listening to other views, including those in direct opposition to our own, we limit how much we can grow intellectually.

Related to the complicated relationship of free speech and civility is the notion of feeling safe. Everyone needs to feel safe on campus, and this includes not being subject to harassment or discrimination. Academic freedom and free speech do not protect harassing or discriminatory behavior. This was an issue that arose on campus last spring, and is clearly an issue that is on our nation’s mind. We have worked over the summer on a variety of changes to help ensure that the college’s policies regarding harassment and discrimination are as strong as possible. I wish I could somehow make sure that harassment and discrimination never happen on the Vassar campus, but it isn’t within anyone’s powers to do so. What we can have are strong policies and education, to make sure that members of our community understand that bias, harassment and discrimination aren’t accepted and that violating our standards will have serious implications for those who do. We are always working to improve our policies and procedures and they are how we guarantee that people are held accountable, with due process, for their actions.

But, the term safe gets used in another way. In some instances, people have said that they don’t feel comfortable or safe around others who hold views and opinions in conflict with theirs. That is where free speech and academic freedom come in, and in fact we can’t and don’t want to guarantee that we won’t be challenged by different and uncomfortable ideas. In fact, that is much of what a great education is about.

One possible response to this is to just bring students and faculty and staff to campus who hold similar points of view. This is the case in many institutions and may, on some level, be easier for everyone. I would argue that this has been the case to some extent historically at Vassar, but it is not the way to improve the education we offer, nor is it the way to educate our students who will be going out into a society and a world with incredibly different views on all issues, from religion to politics. To sum this up another way, let me borrow words from Yale president Peter Salovey who told incoming freshmen a few weeks ago: “The pursuit of new knowledge, the development of critical thinking skills, the nurturing of extraordinary insight and creativity, indeed our growth as humans requires that we confront what we would prefer to avoid, that we engage when it would be far more comfortable to disengage.”

One can do this most effectively by listening to and discussing issues with people who have different views and opinions than you do, which may not always feel comfortable. And, that is ok. We know that really engaging in difficult conversations takes courage. We can all help make this happen by thinking carefully about how we engage with others. Challenge ideas with your own rigorous thinking. Don’t conclude that someone with unpopular opinions, or opinions different from your own, somehow lacks integrity or worth.

Vassar has the opportunity to step up, to show others how to deal with a diverse community in productive ways. This doesn’t mean you can’t hold strong views or lobby for change or protest things you feel strongly about. It just means that we will listen to each other as we struggle with the difficult issues facing our community, our country and the world, so that we can learn as much as possible from each other. Civility, or maybe a better way of saying it is respectful debate, is great if it contributes to this, and not great if it just leads to disengagement or silence. Sharing ideas, questioning those ideas, and learning and growing are some of the benefits that we hope to achieve from bringing together today’s Vassar community. We all have a responsibility to help realize these benefits, by listening, speaking our minds and allowing others to do the same. This is really the courageous approach and the world needs our courage.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, September 10, 2014