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2016 Convocation Address

— Catharine (Cappy) Hill, President Emerita

Athena, Economics and Feathers

Thank you Jon, for that kind introduction… I must say that being on the other end of an introduction at a Vassar Convocation is a little weird for me, but in a good way.

This is my 11th Vassar fall convocation, my 19th Vassar convocation including the spring, and actually my second convocation in the last month. This is because I was invited to be the keynote speaker at West Point’s convocation which opened their school year a few weeks ago. This was a relatively new event for them, including cadets and faculty and involving a celebration of the value of a liberal education. Many of you know that Vassar has been involved with West Point through the Vassar – West Point Initiative (which they refer to as the West Point-Vassar initiative) as well as with recent U.S. military veterans over the last few years through the Vassar Posse Veterans program and the Warrior Scholars program. It was these initiatives and interactions, completely unexpected when I first arrived at Vassar, which I suspect led to the invitation.

I want to start today by talking a little more about Vassar and West Point, also known as the United Stated Military Academy. While the two schools are so different in so many ways – with almost no overlap in student applications - they yet have some identical core attributes that illuminate the crucially important role of higher education in America’s society, democracy, and future. 

In my speech at West Point, I made a little digression to talk about some features of the West Point coat of arms.  The coat of arms features an eagle spreading its wings over a sword and the helmet of Athena, the Greek goddess of war. Although I didn’t mention this at West Point, the Vassar seal also features the figure of Athena.  Presumably this is because Athena personifies strong female leadership and is also the Greek goddess of wisdom.  Indeed, her tendency as the war goddess is to use strategy and diplomacy in military conflict, and although in myth she never shied away from battle, she is said to have only fought for just causes. And it doesn’t end there with Athena, she is also the patron of mathematics, civics, and arts and crafts, including weaving and other handicrafts. Apparently she had a pre-major advisor to whom she listened, and experimented broadly across the curriculum!   

Some of the differences between Vassar and West Point are highly visible but in turn, really trivial. Instead of referring to students as freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, cadets are called plebes in their first year, followed by yearlings, cows and firsties. (Actually the official names are “first class cadets” – seniors, and hence “firsties”, second class (cows) third class (yearlings) and fourth class (plebes). Fourth class is the lowest, and plebians were the lowest class of Roman citizen, so that sorta makes sense. I’ll leave yearlings and cows for you to look into. Also markedly different between the two campuses are allowable styles of hair and clothing (to say nothing of tattoos and body piercings); there are major differences in attendance policies (There was about 100% attendance at my West Point convocation!), PE requirements, and whether or not you are allowed to walk on the campus grass. (Obviously yes Vassar, no West Point.) At the Convocation, I was in my academic robe, while West Point’s equivalent of a college president, the Superintendent, was in a uniform covered with medals and little pins. All of which signified something important to the institution. We have a chorus and an a capella group, while the large Army band played at West Point’s convocation.

One has to look a little harder for the similarities, but they are there and they are far from trivial. In fact, they are core. A commitment to liberal education is one.  I was asked to be the speaker in large part because of this. While West Point has essentially a core curriculum, with very little choice for students, and Vassar has almost no requirements, both institutions put great emphasis on the value of students studying the arts and humanities, languages, social sciences and sciences. West Point requires this, while Vassar works through advising to encourage you to explore the curriculum broadly. You know, like Athena did.  (Remember Athena)

Another similarity is that both a West Point education and a Vassar education are supported by the public sector, because educating young people at both institutions is considered in the public’s – our country’s – best interest. In economics jargon,  both a Vassar and a West Point education are considered public goods and not just private goods. Some people assume that economists only think about the private sector, firms and corporations,  and profits and making money. But in fact, much of economics is focused on the role of the public sector – including federal, state, and local government  - in contributing to the well-being of the country and the individuals that make it up. Education is a classic example of something that economists and  policy makers believe would not be invested in adequately if left to the private sector and to individual families, without significant support and oversight from the public sector. This support helps students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to go to college and also recognizes that an educated population benefits both our democracy and our economy. Economists have been very concerned about the rapid growth of private for-profit colleges and universities over the last few decades, worrying that they would exploit students and their families, and this presidential campaign has validated these concerns. 

Students who attend West Point go for free – in that they don’t pay any tuition or room and board. But, by accepting this education, they commit to serving the country in the Army for a number of years after graduation. The purpose of a West Point education is to equip these young people, through the means of a liberal education, to serve effectively and make a difference in the leadership of our national defense forces.  This is in all of our interests. Defense is a classic example of a public good – something the government can do and private individuals would do very poorly on their own. One can critique decisions that our country makes about where in the world to get involved, but those decisions are more often made by our politicians and not by our military. A West Point education  - including the social sciences, humanities and languages, as well as the sciences - equips its graduates to deal with the complex situations and issues they undoubtedly will encounter upon graduation.   

Students who attend Vassar are also supported by the public sector, even those of who pay the full tuition and room and board, because the college spends more per student than the full sticker price covers. All students are being subsidized, by different amounts depending on their family incomes. This is possible because of the non-profit status of schools like Vassar and through federal grants, such as Pell grants, and Federal loan programs available to our students. We don’t pay any income tax on the earnings on our endowment and we benefit from other preferential tax and expenditure treatment by federal, state and local governments.  The public sector supports higher education at private non-profits and publics alike, because an educated population is considered in the country’s interests, and not just a benefit to the individuals receiving that education. Of course it benefits the individuals through increased lifetime earnings, greater job/career choice and flexibility, and greater control over and satisfaction with one’s life.

But, it also benefits our society more broadly.  At Vassar and West Point alike, it provides us with better decision makers and leaders,  people who are intellectually nimble, who can respond to our country’s (and the world’s) challenges by solving problems, and who can contribute to the well-being of others. Students admitted to Vassar have been chosen, not because you somehow can benefit the most or are owed it because of your high school grades and test scores and extra-curricular activities, but because we believe you will make the best use of that education, including to improve the world for others in a variety of different ways.

Another important similarity between West Point and Vassar is our two institutions’ commitment to diversity of all kinds. Both Vassar and West Point are committed to educating a group of students from all different backgrounds, because it is in the public interest to do so. We both need all members of our society to have access to a higher education and the benefits that it confers, because of our core values of equity and equal opportunity. We also believe that a diverse student body both improves the learning that takes place in the classroom and outside the classroom, as students confront difference, but also prepares our respective graduates to be effective after graduation, because in most instances, they  - you - will be engaging in a world characterized by diversity of all kinds.  Just think about some of the problems countries around the world are facing with military forces or private and public elites that come from just one segment of the country’s various demographic groups. The results have been truly devastating in several countries as we enter the 21st century. 

The role of a Vassar education then is to educate people who are going to contribute to solving some of our society’s problems. Seniors, I know that some of you may be preoccupied at the moment with getting a job after graduating, but I know that many of you will fulfill our high expectations over time.  This is because so many of you already have through your work at Vassar, working both to make Vassar a better place and on community, national and international issues of importance. Supporting racial and gender equity, increasing environmental sustainability, and improving the lives of those less fortunate in our local community and around the world, are just a few of the ways you make a difference, working often very closely with our faculty, staff, alums, and community members.   I know you will continue this work after graduation.  I also know our expectations for you will be fulfilled because of watching our alums who have come before you do the same over the years. It is in our Vassar DNA.  Matthew Vassar changed the world when he founded Vassar College. While I suspect he wouldn’t quite recognize his college today, he started the process of opening up a superb liberal education to segments of the population to whom it was not available at the time.  This included his endowing our first financial aid program, called the “auxiliary fund” which Vassar President John Raymond described as “for aiding students who are of superior promise, but unable to defray the full expense of their education”.  We are still striving to complete what he started, and as a country too, we have much work still to do with family income and race playing a large role in who goes on to higher education. But Vassar has made significant progress in the last decade. I know that Vassar and Vassar graduates will continue to contribute to addressing the pressing problems that we face over the coming years. I don’t think there are many colleges or universities in the United States with a student body more likely than Vassar’s to go where these problems and challenges are after graduation, for which I admire you enormously. I want to turn to one of these problems in particular and that is the issue of income inequality. Among the primary concerns of the next president of the United States must be post secondary educational attainment and income inequality, if we are to sustain our nation’s commitment to democracy and also equal opportunity and equity. Fairness is an important principle, which leads to friction when ignored. Fairness and justice are inextricably linked.

In America, over the last 40 years, income inequality has increased significantly, with families in the top 10%, 5%, and 1% of the income distribution claiming increasing shares of the country’s total income. And, it isn’t the case that every family has benefitted and just those at the top by more. Many in the bottom of the income distribution are in fact worse off then they were several decades ago. It is also the case in America that one of the best predictors of where in the income distribution young people are going to end up is their family’s income – hardly consistent with our rhetoric about being a nation of equal opportunity, social mobility, and where anyone can succeed if they work hard. I have said before, as have others, that it is better to be rich and not that smart, than it is to be smart and poor.  That is a very disturbing fact of life in America in 2016.  One thing that significantly changes this is getting a college education. Getting a BA significantly levels the playing field, and significantly increases what economists call intergenerational income mobility. That strong link between a young person’s future income and that of their parents’ is broken by a college education.

I recently had a conversation with several other college presidents about whether this presidential election year was a moment when we should try to explicitly play a role in influencing the national dialogue, particularly around educational attainment and income inequality, but also around other important issues.

It used to be that university presidents were much more involved in national politics in a variety of ways, taking positions on important national issues. As an example, President MacCracken (5th president of Vassar) was very involved in the women’s suffrage movement, as well as the national debate around the U.S.’s role in WWII. But this has changed over the last decades, for a variety of reasons and college and university presidents more often stay out of politics and national public policy debates. It is also the case that public perceptions of higher education have deteriorated significantly over the past few decades. While previously trusted and respected, now much anger is directed at the higher education sector, by both families and public policy makers. I think this has come about from the combination of a higher education degree being more important now than at any other time in recent history, at the same time that the cost of going on to higher education has increased significantly and is felt to be out of reach by many families for their children.  I have argued elsewhere that these trends are in fact the result of the rising income inequality in America that the government and public policy makers have tolerated and in fact could address, and that higher education institutions  cannot address these issues on their own. So, college presidents and academic leaders could express their views on the significance of the choices we are making as a nation at the moment, and many of us are in fact commenting on the candidates’ proposed policies regarding higher education. But, this approach on its own might not be very helpful in changing minds, given perceptions of the liberal bent of academics and given the anti-intellectual tenor of some of the current political landscape - as well as the current anger more generally directed at higher education.

Instead, we decided that we might have a larger collective impact if we encouraged members of our communities to vote, especially our students. The fact is that there are over 20 million students in college in this country, nearly all of whom are eligible to vote in the upcoming presidential election. The outcome of this election will affect all of our futures in important ways.  Understand the choices, register if you haven’t already, encourage your friends to do the same, and vote, even if you think your vote might not count. If you don’t vote, it clearly won’t count. 

While policy makers at all levels of government need to address issues of income inequality through a variety of policies, institutions of higher education in the meantime can contribute in important ways by educating well, students from all different backgrounds who will make a difference. 

Now for the feathers part of my talk. I was publicly presented with a gift for being the speaker at West Point. I like the idea of giving the convocation speaker gifts! I want to share my gift with you.  (Pull up hat.)  It can be displayed or worn, both of which present some challenges. (The Superintendent actually apologized when he gave it to me, but I have to confess I think it is pretty cool. It reminds me a little bit of Dr. Seuss, who I’ve always admired.) For those of you in the back, these are the feathers of some poor bird, presumably meant to invoke the eagle from the West Point coat of arms.   

One final contrast between Vassar and West Point is the prominence of the Army-Navy football game. Thus the two word slogan “beat Navy” is common to hear and see around campus.  In fact it appears on the roof of one of the athletic field houses, in 20-foot-high letters. So when I ended my West Point talk with a call to “beat Navy” it was an instant (if somewhat gratuitous) hit with the cadets. 

Thankfully, we don’t have a football team, so I’m going to end my Vassar talk with a call to ask you all to continue to change the world, like Vassar alums before you, by listening and learning from each other while you are here, and by listening and engaging with our dedicated and talented faculty who are committed to your learning and encouragement. Lean on them, as well as the many other people who work so hard at the college to support you and Vassar’s educational mission.  Please lead your lives both here and when you leave in ways that benefit you and your families, but also our communities, our countries, and the world.  I have great confidence that you will.

And, don’t forget to vote.

Thank you.