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Convocation Spring 2015 President’s Remarks

—Catharine Bond Hill, President

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome!  …  and thank you for being here.  I know that when the spring weather is so nice, the allure of being outside, and in somewhat less restrictive clothing, is great.  However, I am sure that you will enjoy this afternoon’s program – I know that I am greatly looking forward to hearing from our speakers.  And of course to singing in Latin!  Or, at least pretending to sing in Latin, for those of us challenged by both singing and Latin. 

I want especially to welcome the seniors, the class of 2015, as this will be your last convocation as students, and the last formal gathering of all of you before commencement in just 25 days.  It hardly seems possible that it has been nearly four years since your first convocation, in September 2011, when we listened to Professor Rebecca Edwards’ wonderful address, “The Character of American Sunlight”.

As you began college in September 2011, we were on the cusp of a presidential election year, and now as you prepare to graduate, we are in a similar place.  A difference in this next presidential election is the fact that there is not an incumbent candidate, so the primary races for both parties will be more varied and interesting to follow.  Anticipating an important election always puts me in the mind-set of looking forward, envisioning what changes might be brought about by new policies, and what changes I would like to see.  Despite the risk of being disappointed, I enjoy the freedom of thinking more idealistically about our country and our ability to participate in the democratic process.

In the early going, it seems that the economy, and specifically whether or not the economic recovery from the Great Recession has been fast enough and full enough, is bound to be one of the major themes in the 2016 presidential election.  Of particular concern will be how best to improve stagnating wage conditions and how to ensure inclusive prosperity.  

President Obama spent his weekly address just last Saturday on the topic of education and its role in helping Americans to find prosperity through good jobs.  Higher education, specifically the attainment of a degree or certificate after high school, is a key plank in his education platform, as is evidenced by Michelle Obama’s participation in College Signing Day (also last weekend), an event that celebrates students’ commitment to go on to college, and by the President’s recently announced plan to make two years of community college education free. 

Even if there is not an easy path to putting this plan into effect, there is plenty of evidence that a commitment to greater access to higher education is a good place for us to focus our attention.  Over the past several decades there have been major shifts in the growth of those job sectors that require more than a high school diploma.  It has been estimated that by the end of the decade, nearly 2/3s of available jobs will require some amount of higher education.  Thus, if the way to strengthen the middle class, and help lessen the gap between the richest and poorest Americans is to compete for these jobs, then the higher education degree will become for the 21st century what the high school diploma was to the 20th century.

However, the United States has been falling behind other countries in the proportion of its population that it educates to this level.  As recently as 1990, the US held the #1 rank worldwide for the number of people 25-34 years old that had a higher education degree.  According to the Department of Education, we are now #12, with 44% of that age group holding a degree.  South Korea is #1, by quite a large margin, with 66%.  The White House estimates that in order to regain the number 1 rank will require an increase of 20 million college graduates over and above current graduation rate projections.  Progress toward this goal is made more difficult by the fact that the fastest growing groups of young people in America are those that are historically least likely to finish a post-secondary degree.  Recent research studies show that the likelihood that you will go on to college and stay in college long enough to finish a degree depends importantly on family income level and race, and not just on ability and preparation. 

We like to think of America as a land of opportunity, and especially a land of equal opportunity, where hard work, cleverness and self-improvement lead to upward mobility. But the fact is that there has been a huge increase in income inequality in the past several decades that has made this dream unattainable for low income families.  I recently served on a discussion panel with Paul Krugman the NYT columnist and Nobel laureate in economics.  He described the situation in America as one where it is becoming more and more common that social class is inherited rather earned through hard work and self-improvement.  We pride ourselves in believing that that description sounds more like some other countries, and not like America.  But, the facts are telling us otherwise.

I continue to believe that all colleges and universities can do more to attract and retain students from all socio-economic backgrounds.  This will result in greater diversity first at our institutions, and later, especially if degree attainment can be kept high, greater diversity among the population that gets to compete for, and benefit from, better and more satisfying and interesting jobs.   Additionally, greater numbers of more highly educated workers should also result in an increase in our country’s prosperity. 

These outcomes are obviously important for individuals and their families, but the benefits extend far beyond just better jobs and increased earnings.  As Professor Molly Nesbitt from the Art Department and I recently wrote in a Huffington Post piece, education contributes many other tangibles and intangibles to human progress and well-being.  Research shows that college-educated workers tend to be happier in their jobs, in part because they can compete for jobs that are better matched to their interests.

Having a job that you love is really important to well-being.  College-educated workers will also be more capable of switching jobs, because many of the skills that they learn in college (such as critical thinking, communication, scientific literacy, etc.) are portable from job to job.  This is important because research also shows that now more than ever, people are likely to have multiple jobs over the course of their career.

The communities that college educated individuals reside in also benefit.  It is known that having a degree is correlated to the likelihood that you will vote and be civically engaged in the community.  College grads are also more likely to work as volunteers in community organizations.  Thus these individuals tend to have a better sense of fulfilment themselves, but they also help to enrich the lives of those around them.

On campuses, increased diversity of all types is a benefit to the entire college community.  By listening to each other, we hear and learn from a wider variety of views than would ever be possible if we were all alike.  Homogeneity - sameness within the population - is a good deal easier, but is a poorer preparation for entry into a messy, globalized world after college.  

In his recent book on college admissions, NYT columnist Frank Bruni comments on the value of a diverse college community by saying that “[w]ith exclusivity often comes sameness, and there’s an argument that college shouldn’t take you out of the real world, but thrust you into it, exposing you to places unlike the ones you’ve already inhabited and people different from the ones who’ve surrounded you thus far.”   

The recent death of Freddie Gray, the indictment of six police officers, and the racial unrest in Baltimore are all just the last in a series of ongoing examples showing that as a country we have much work to do.  We clearly and importantly need to address policing practices across the country, and poverty in many of our communities.  In a speech two days ago in New York City, the President cited the lack of economic opportunity for young people of color as one of the things fueling the protests in Baltimore and other cities.  Improving access to higher education for students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families can be of real help in providing that opportunity, and this is a place where we can make and are making a difference.

 I hope that American colleges and universities, both public and private, can make enough progress on access to contribute to real change.

Currently, it does not appear that the political pundits believe it will be as important an issue as the economy, but I do hope that there is room for some discussion of climate change among the candidates for the next election.  This is a crucial challenge for the world and for our nation in particular, and unless we change policies soon, we risk leaving future generations with a hotter, less hospitable world and a much bigger problem to solve.  Use of polluting fossil fuels should be much more expensive than it is, which would reduce our consumption and would in turn encourage the production of alternative, cleaner energy.  I would welcome a debate among candidates that leads to government policies that encourage us all to develop more sustainable habits of energy use.  I hope that all of us who care about climate change will pay attention to the positions that local, state and national candidates take on these issues, and take them into account when deciding whom to support.  Engaging in electoral politics can make a difference.

Closer to home I am looking forward to moving ahead on additions and changes we have made this past year here at the college.  Later this week or early next week, we'll be sending out an e-mail updating the campus on what we've gotten done this year and what still needs to be accomplished.  Next fall the Science project will be completed.  I am definitely looking forward to no longer living next to a major construction zone, as I’m sure many of you with offices nearby must be as well.  Next year, we’ll be using some of the money that the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation recently awarded Vassar – portions of that prize will be used for the Transitions program (we’re awaiting recommendations from the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence on this); also to fund students that can’t afford to take unpaid summer internships, but who would benefit from the experiential learning opportunities afforded by them; and also to help with financial aid packages for DREAMers – candidates who are undocumented and can’t receive federal support money such as Pell Grants.

But, I want to end by returning to the issue of income inequality and the importance of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections.  Increasing inequality puts pressure on the social cohesion of our nation.  Commitment to our country's institutions and egalitarian values depends on individuals feeling that these institutions and values are fair, and serve their interests and welfare, as well as others’.  There's no more crucial example than our education system, which history has shown to be America's most effective engine for equal opportunity and greater social mobility.  Sadly, it has become increasingly clear that our society is not fair and that in many instances equal opportunity is a myth.  I remain, however, cautiously optimistic that it is not too late to salvage the institutions and values on which our nation's future depends.  

Progress will take critical thinking, research and analysis, an ability to work with people of like and different minds, to express one’s positions effectively, and to listen to those of others.  In other words, it takes the education you, our soon to be graduates, now have.  My confidence in a more equal society comes in large part from having gotten to know and work with so many of you.  Like Vassar grads before you for generations, you are, I know, ready to help.

Thank you.

Posted by Office of Communications Monday, May 11, 2015