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Acting President's Welcome, "Putting Yourself in Another's Place." Spring Convocation, May 1, 2013

—Jonathan Chenette, acting president

Welcome to Spring Convocation – a Vassar tradition marking and celebrating the imminent end of the academic year.  A centerpiece of Convocation is an address by a distinguished member of the faculty, and we’re honored to have Anne Pike-Tay, Professor of Anthropology, provide that today. Spring Convocation is also a look into the future – to next year, by passing the gavel from the current to the newly elected VSA president – and to the years beyond, with reflections on the path ahead for the stupendous, extraordinary Class of 2013 and your admission to the alumnae and alumni of Vassar College represented through the ceremonial presentation of your reunion class banner.

My role today is to welcome you, which I will do by reflecting briefly on a theme.  This theme is prompted by my service this term as Acting President, reinforced by knowing I would march today in company with Acting Dean of the Faculty Steve Rock, who fills my usual role so superbly.  The theme is, simply, “putting yourself in another’s place.” 

I want to thank this year’s Vassarion staff member, Keila Whatley, for stimulating my reflections on this theme.  Some weeks ago she asked me to write a letter to the senior class for the 2013 Vassarion. Her guidance for the letter was: 

“A few paragraphs just stating your best wishes for the class and/or reflecting on the notable experiences that the class of 2013 has been a part of in the past four years... If you already have a speech ready for Spring Convocation, then that or even just a portion of it would be perfect…” and she added parenthetically “…(yearbooks are not scheduled for delivery until senior week so there wouldn't be any spoilers).”

First of all, I was delighted that Keila thought I might have actually prepared today’s remarks six weeks in advance.  I found myself wondering if students assume that clearing the hurdles to a PhD requires shedding the universal human tendency to procrastinate.  Oh, if only that were true!

But Keila’s assignment functioned much like the requirement that students submit outlines for senior theses well in advance.  It started me thinking.  And for that I was grateful.

Also, I appreciated Keila’s reassurance that if, in fact, my letter were an excerpt from my Convocation remarks, then its first presentation would still be at Convocation.  Now since I am actually about to read you my Vassarion letter, I’ve turned Keila’s invitation on its head – using Vassarion material at Convocation rather than Convocation material for the Vassarion. I hope this spoiler does not diminish sales for that worthy publication.

My letter begins…

“It has been both a delight and a privilege to fill in for President Hill this term as Acting President. I want to thank you, Class of 2013, for being so wonderfully supportive. One of the joys of my role has been to meet more of you and witness the energy and creativity you bring to every facet of your lives on this campus.”

I’ll break in here just to comment on how enlightening it has been to meet students during my office hours and at pizza dinners at my house this semester. We’ve gathered to discuss what it’s like to be an athlete at Vassar, to return from JYA, to experience the transitions program, or to strive for a more inclusive campus community. During office hours, students have brought ideas for improving taxi service, working toward elimination of bottled water, uniting against sexual assault, and countering society’s dependence on fossil fuels, among many other topics. I’ve even had students stop by just to say thanks for the extraordinary educations they’ve experienced here. These are energizing interactions. Our campaign fund-raising theme of “World changing” takes on concrete meaning in these efforts of Vassar students to improve our campus home and care for our shared community.

The Vassarion letter continues…

“My fresh perspective from the president’s office has given me further appreciation for what we do at Vassar and our commitment to excellence, both individually and institutionally. One manifestation of that commitment is providing opportunities for a broad range of interests and means of expression, such as through our flexible and dynamic curriculum, an impressive array of student organizations, and a busy schedule of extra-curricular events. By design, some of these opportunities are focused narrowly. Others are widely shared and build an encompassing sense of community, such as signature courses or well-attended lectures by visiting speakers we’ve hosted over your four years -- Ira Glass, Eric Holder, Cornel West, Sau Lan Wu, Tim Wise, Vandana Shiva, Junot Diaz, and Gloria Steinem, to name just a few. And who can forget that you are the first Vassar class to experience four years of spirited Students vs. Old School basketball games?


There is a final paragraph, but let me pause again and expand on the perspective from my temporary place in President Hill’s office.

Overwhelmingly, that perspective provides an amazing viewpoint for appreciating Vassar’s remarkable resources.  To some extent, I mean our financial and physical resources, which allow us to accomplish much; but I also mean our resources of strong values, high standards, and lofty aspirations that stretch our financial and physical resources to their limits.  More than anything, though, I mean our resources of highly capable and dedicated people, like those who care for our campus, provide services and support, share their time and money to strengthen the College for the future, and teach engaging, mind-altering courses.  It has been immensely rewarding for me to perceive the richness and variety of these resources and to steward them in President Hill’s place. With such resources to draw on, we have been able to work together to respond to the issues fate has brought our way this semester, and we will continue to strive for that ideal community we see and feel in our best moments.

But back to my Vassarion letter, resuming my account of our shared experiences over the past four years…

“For me, however, no occasion has been more of an expression of Vassar's communal aspirations than the events organized around the February 28 picketing by an outside group. Rejecting the group’s message of hate was the easy part, enhanced by an unprecedented show of support from the local community. The hard part was the challenge we set for ourselves that day as we celebrated a dedication to greater inclusion in our final symbolic act, the encirclement of Main Building by students, faculty, administrators, staff, alums, and community members, hand in hand. Carry the spirit of that moment with you, and challenge others to be similarly committed to a more compassionate, inclusive, and affirming world, wherever your paths should lead.”

Many of you were involved in the planning for that moment and know well the issues that arose and the options we considered.  Preparing was perhaps more important than the event itself, led by students but with many others offerings ideas and advice.  A special email address set up for the purpose gathered 300 messages from alums and parents, fascinating in their tone and creativity – as you might expect from the extended Vassar community – and I thought I’d share with you some highlights.

The largest category of messages conveyed pride, support, and encouragement. Alums from every decade back to the 40’s were represented – including one who wrote “As an 82 year old Vassar Alum I proudly salute your commitment to inclusiveness…” adding wryly, “… and I hope you’ll get national coverage for it.”

A few parents, not surprisingly, were concerned for safety, and along those lines, some warned us about staging a response that might provoke a lawsuit. One parent of a recent alum offered free legal services to anyone arrested, remarking “Mind you, I am not suggesting that anyone at Vassar takes the bait … and engages in unlawful conduct, … but, as they say, ‘stuff happens’.”

There were other broad categories of responses. 

There was a “Stay Positive” group – typical of which was “Send a Thank You … for providing such a focused opportunity

  1. to reaffirm Vassar's commitment to inclusivity,
  2. to garner huge community support, and
  3. to isolate even further the views of the irrational few from the vast majority in this country … who support LGBTQ rights.” 

Or another, sounding almost like haiku:

“Sing. Music. Dance.
Meet absurd hate speech with
joy and laughter.”

Another popular category was “Ignore Them.”  Example: “What if there was absolutely no one on campus when they came. Just a big sign on the entrance saying, ‘Enjoy our beautiful campus. We are all out collecting funds [supporting] LGBTQ rights’.”

Others suggested that we “Engage Them.”  Many of these avowed religious affiliations, concerned about the picketers’ claims of Biblical justification, and countered with a suggestion to use faith to reach them.  “I believe that you can only fight hate with love,” one said,  “… invite them to a lunch dialogue … try to like them, even if they are confused.”

In between ignoring and engaging were suggestions to “Block Them.”  For example, “have students and faculty and staff create a ‘peace-perimeter’ holding hands along the Raymond Avenue entrance to campus.”  Or more actively, “drown them out with Vuvuzelas” (whose buzzing you may recall from the South African World Cup broadcasts).  Or “Loud playing of Barry Manilow, Beyoncé, or anything awful.”

More extreme suggestions involved “Ridicule,” possibly involving zombies, glitter bombs, or the Harlem Shake.  One of the more creative and unquotable included detailed instructions on surrounding the picketers with what the writer called “the fortress of condom solitude.” I leave the rest to your imagination.

Part of the success of our community’s response on February 28 was providing a multiplicity of alternatives, recognizing that a one-size-fits-all response could never serve a complex community like ours.  We

  • set aside space for those who wished to ignore the picketers or engage in quiet reflection,
  • opened the campus to all who wanted to show their support,
  • staged a positive celebration of Vassar values full of joy, truth, and music,
  • invited an openly gay alum and clergyman – the Rev. Joseph Tolton -- to give a spine-tingling keynote address,
  • expressed solidarity, notably by parading hand in hand, and
  • confronted the picketers peaceably by marching festively to the picketing site, observing from the police perimeter, and marching back to encircle Main Building.  The on-site representative from the Department of Justice said afterwards that she had never seen such a large group so respectful of boundaries, expressing their unified opposition in such a peaceful and positive way.

Returning to my over-arching theme, I would say that much of the success of that day resulted from people placing themselves in others’ positions – trying to understand and support diverse points of view and reacting to a particular message of hate as a manifestation of hate in all its forms – including the racist, homophobic, and misogynistic acts and graffiti that all-too-often appear on our campus and that we renounce in the firm conviction that “Love Conquers All.”

Rev. Tolton challenged us to look beyond any one message of hate to recognize and respond to our own prejudices and limitations.  He focused on one such limitation that most of us share: failure to recognize the privileges we enjoy that others may lack, including the privilege of being at Vassar.  To overcome that limitation requires us to lead, as Socrates urged, examined lives… to see ourselves from other people’s places and to imagine ourselves in theirs.  Liberal education, stepping outside our comfort zones, expanding our capacities to see and critique and engage the world from fresh perspectives prepares us for roles as acting presidents, acting deans, acting activists equipped to be the agents of change that our world so greatly needs.

Learning to “put yourself in another’s place” is a lifelong process, not an event, and certainly not one we perfected on February 28th.  But our collective response that day provided signs pointing us in the right direction.

So, as Acting President, standing in President Hill’s place, I end these remarks by repeating the final charge from my Vassarion letter responding to the inspiring human circle around Main Building:

“Carry the spirit of that moment with you, and challenge others to be similarly committed to a more compassionate, inclusive, and affirming world, wherever your paths should lead.”

Thank you.

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, May 1, 2013