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Welcoming Remarks

May 29, 2016

by Catherine B. Hill, President

Hello everyone, and welcome to Commencement! This is Vassar’s 152nd Commencement, and many of those that came before today were also held on this same idyllic hillside in the glorious late May weather. During my time at Vassar we have never been chased inside for commencement, but last year, under leaden skies we narrowly missed getting drenched, with the heavens opening up just as the graduates were marching out at the end. So far, it seems that our exit today will be a bit more relaxed!

I want to extend a warm welcome to all gathered here: to our honored speaker, to the trustees and faculty members who share the stage behind me, to the families and loved ones of our soon-to-be-graduates, and of course to the great Vassar College Class of 2016!

In considering what to say to you today, I thought that instead of a sincere-but-inevitably-trite sermon on how you should make your way in the world as newly minted college graduates, I would begin by delving into some questions that I know must be on your minds about Vassar. And I know that, here you are on the threshold of leaving Vassar, and it might seem like an odd time to answer questions, but better late than never! And for those that are disappointed that I won’t be giving the sermon, just hang in there, we will have a little of that at the end.

More specifically what I have decided on as my main subject is this: Rumors. Well, not just rumors per se, but the relationship of rumors to the ways in which we get information nowadays, but I do want to start with just the rumors. Vassar rumors.

Now there are some traditional Vassar rumors that I will avoid intentionally, like the notion that the President’s House is haunted, or that the squirrels on campus are the ghosts of departed, under-employed alums that majored in a particular academic department which shall remain unnamed. Having lived in the president’s house for ten years now, I actually think that these two rumors might be related – that the ghost (or real) squirrels are the beings that haunt the President’s House. But really, today I want to focus on two rumors not involving ghosts (and thus perhaps more believable) and both of which I have heard about in the past semester.

The first of these is that Sunset Lake (for those of you visiting campus, I am talking about the small body of water directly behind this stage, on the other side of the trees) – that Sunset Lake is home to a 100-pound, prehistoric snapping turtle. Seniors… how many have heard that this is true? – raise your hands if you have heard it. OK so that idea is definitely out there.

The second rumor that I want to talk about is that the Bridge Building is sinking. Again, how many have heard that this is true? OK, obviously the fact that the college’s brand-new-multi-million-dollar building might be failing by sinking into the swamp is more interesting than a big turtle. Now both of these might be judged to be a little absurd, and a question we might ask is: how do such notions get passed along as information, and by what criteria do we judge their worthiness to pass them along ourselves and / or believe them?

The sinking Bridge Building has been talked about on Twitter and Yik-Yak on and off, and is mentioned elsewhere on social media, but an extended survey of students didn’t reveal the exact origin. There was even a documentary video made as part of an assignment in Tom Ellman’s “Exploratory Media Practices” course. Noah Mintz and Allie Frankland are the creators, and I have to say that I really loved it, even though I think I am referred to as a “vampire overlord” at one point. I’m not sure “overlord” was the right word choice, but maybe when you are using it in combination with “vampire” it doesn’t matter. The makers of the video didn’t know the origin of the rumor either.

You should check it out, by the way, on YouTube. If you enter “The Truth Noah and Allie” in the YouTube search box you will find it.

In the Vassar tradition of “going to the source” I went and spoke to Bob Nilsson, the project manager for the construction of the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences, and he categorically denied that there was any actual evidence that there was anything wrong with the bridge. He did speculate that people may have misinterpreted the phase of having big X’s of blue masking tape criss-crossing the windows and doors at either end of the building. (Incidentally, these were placed at the entrances because too many people were walking right into the glass walls in trying to approach the doors from an angle – a problem that has now been fixed by an attractive etched stripe on the glass at eye-level). Bob also pointed out that at one point there was plywood up on a couple of windows while replacement panes were on order, and that the cosmetic, top layer of concrete on the great corridor floor had developed cracks, as it was expected to, and that these conditions could easily have been misinterpreted as a problem with the bridge. Months ago, I actually asked about the cracks myself, and got a call from the architect, explaining that all was well.

The really impressive thing is how quickly everyone suddenly knew that the sinking bridge rumor was out there… I even had a respected faculty member, who is on one of our important governance committees ask me if the Bridge was sinking. It may not have helped the rumor mill when I put on my best poker face and responded … “yes”.

Let’s return for a moment to the 100 pound, 100-year-old turtles. This rumor is of a slightly different type, in that it SOUNDS unbelievable, but unlike the rumors about the bridge, is based on real observations. Some people have actually seen extremely large snapping turtles floating in the lake. I myself walk around the lake every morning with my dog, Nellie, and I have seen them. Turtles so big that you couldn’t put your arms around them (not that you’d want to…). On one day I counted four of them, each of which could easily dwarf the largest turkey platter in the President’s House china collection.

But how big can a common snapping turtle really get? And how old? Again I went to the source. One of the benefits of having a library with over 1 million volumes is that there is a book on just about everything. Indeed, we have a book entitled “The Snapping Turtles”. I ordered it from the annex. It turns out to be a 19th century, one-act play about marriage problems. Oh well.

There are, luckily, many other books on reptiles in general and turtles in particular, and there is plenty to read about the common snapping turtle. Here are the facts: common snapping turtles can live to over 50 years old, some speculate up to 75 years is not impossible. The record weight for a snapper kept in captivity is 86 pounds, and specimens found in the wild have topped 70 pounds…

So who knows? Perhaps we have a turtle that could get us back into the Guinness Book of World Records, having been kicked out over some nefarious doings involving our beautiful London plane tree on the library lawn…Wait… is that another rumor?

But even a 50 pound snapper would not be that exceptional, and that is still a lot of turtle. Especially when all reptile experts who write about snapping turtles mention how ill-natured they are, and what a nasty bite they have. And how old could the Vassar snappers be? Again, older than you might think, older than some of your parents, for instance, but not old enough to have bitten Matthew Vassar himself.

And speaking of turtles and the College’s founder, I am reminded of another rumor that I heard this spring… that it is a Founder’s day tradition to swim across sunset lake. There is considerable debate on whether or not a common snapper could sever a finger if it had a mind to, but there is enough evidence to convince me that swimming with the Sunset Lake turtles isn’t a great idea!

Now, I have taken a look at two rather frivolous rumors, and as I mentioned with the sinking bridge building rumor, the speed with which this news spreads, aided by the universe of electronic information that we all now have literally at out fingertips, is truly remarkable.

People use this same electronic universe as a way of informing themselves about all kinds of things, and it has a different outcome than when information came more slowly, as the result of talking to others, listening to others and debating with others. Now we can filter our information such that we easily and quickly form groups of like-minded people in a virtual community. This has an obvious good side to it, but experiments in social psychology teach us that this can also have the unintended consequence of making us (or our group) feel separated from, or even in competition with other groups that may be, in most ways, quite similar.

This same experimental work shows that even small differences between groups can lead to real conflicts between them. Fortunately, it also shows that when groups work together to solve a common problem, a so-called superordinate goal, a spirit of co-operation trumps animosity, and groups unite, realizing their greater potential when what they share in common is emphasized.

I would like to say that that is where we are today – on this day when your undergraduate college experience is formally over. As different as we are, and as important as those differences are, we have in common our college education, a liberal education. This usage of the word “liberal” has nothing to do with its usage on the political spectrum. According to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, a liberal education is “an approach to learning that empowers individuals, and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change.”

You will use that liberal education to examine, work on, and solve problems in the world beyond Taylor Gate. This is what Vassar Grads are good at. Sometimes it will mean forging alliances with each other, and sometimes those alliances will cross the boundaries that may have once divided us, that separated our groups. The urgency to make progress on problems that we share an interest in will make working together the most sensible and most important thing we can do.

I know that success of this type is something that you will share with Vassar classes that have come before you – and I expect that your first five year reunion will be filled with stories of the good work that you will be involved in.

At this same five-year reunion, I invite you to go beneath the bridge building and look for a tiny mark on one of the piers, made in permanent marker, and with the words “Class of 2016” written next to it. I put the mark there, exactly five feet above ground level. Bring a tape measure. If the Bridge is really sinking, you will have to go to the source and determine it for yourself!