Good afternoon! I’m Bill Plapinger, a member of the Vassar Class of 1974 and the proud parent of a member of the Class of 2010, and for more than a decade, it has been my honor to serve as Chair of the Vassar Board of Trustees, although, unfortunately for me, I am now in my final year in that role.
It is my distinct privilege today to welcome students, faculty and faculty emeriti, alumnae and alumni, delegates from colleges, universities and learned and professional societies, members of the Hudson Valley community, staff, Trustees and former Trustees, President Emerita Hill, and our speakers and other honored guests, to this historic occasion, the inauguration of Elizabeth Howe Bradley as the President of Vassar College, only the 11th President in the College’s 156-year history!
Oddly, the first recorded inauguration of a Vassar President took place during the College’s 50th year—in October 1915, a moment of crisis when the world was embroiled in a Great War that would eventually draw in the United States, destroy millions of lives, and give birth to the modern world.
That President—Vassar’s 5th—was a then little-known 35-year-old named Henry Noble MacCracken, who would go on to serve as the College’s longest-serving President and lead Vassar into the 20th century.
One of my first acts as Board Chair in 2006 was to preside over Vassar’s last Presidential Inauguration.
The world—and our College—has changed dramatically since then. To give one small example, at the last Vassar inauguration, no one was sneaking a peek at an iPhone, which wasn’t launched until 8 months later!
Most people did not anticipate in 2006 that we were on the eve of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Vassar has come through that, and has continued to strive to live up to our founder’s ideal to expand access to a first-rate liberal arts education to students who previously were denied that opportunity.
While there is still much work to be done, today’s Vassar is more representative of the diversity of our nation than it ever has been, and I would like to acknowledge the presence today of the 10th President of Vassar, Catharine Hill, who was such a wonderful partner with the Board in achieving this, and much more.
I also want to acknowledge Dean of Faculty Jon Chenette, who so capably guided Vassar as Interim President over the past year.
While there have been many changes at Vassar, we always come back to the fundamentals that have been in place since Vassar’s founding in 1861—the core values of independence of thought, of innovation, of excellence, and of inspiring our students to live purposeful lives.
Vassar was born in a time of deep division in America. The ground for Main Building was broken on the day Fort Sumter was fired upon, but the Civil War did not stop Matthew Vassar from moving forward with what he called his “Magnificent Enterprise”.
As at Vassar’s beginning, we are convening this ceremony at a troubled time in the history of our country—threats of global nuclear war, multiple natural disasters from extreme weather, devastating acts of terror, and a growing divide across our country that seems to make it impossible for Americans to communicate and to work together for the common good.
Nonetheless, there remains no better preparation for this uncertain world than a Vassar education, or, indeed, a liberal arts education at any one of the many distinguished institutions of higher education represented here today.
It is often said that the paramount responsibility of a board of trustees of a college or university is to appoint the president.
The President of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges recently wrote that “presidential leadership today requires a special calibration that recognizes the fundamental and traditional responsibilities of presidential leadership (never easy), while augmenting them with the unique demands of the 21st century…Serving as a college president is among the most central roles in our society; it is a position of deserved honor, appreciation, and support… at the forefront of advancing educational missions that contribute to the future of our democracy and our values.”
Darren Walker, the President of the Ford Foundation, wrote in his annual letter this summer that during these troubled times, what we need is “compassionate, competent, and courageous leadership…leaders who build bridges…leaders who…bring us together…”
The poet and author Maya Angelou said in a different context, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
When the Presidential Search Committee, so ably led by my fellow Trustees, Geraldine Laybourne of the Class of 1969, and Tony Friscia of the Class of 1978 and my successor next year as Board Chair, first met Elizabeth Bradley, she showed us who she was, and the Search Committee and the Board were unanimous in choosing her to lead Vassar in this next stage of its history.
Elizabeth Bradley brings a remarkable breadth of experience to Vassar, including a 20-year career as a noted scholar and teacher at Yale University, visionary global leadership in public health, and inspiring work with undergraduates, including as head of one of the largest residential colleges at Yale. Perhaps one of the best indications of her success in that latter role is the presence today of students from that Yale college, here to witness her assume her new leadership role at another institution.
In all areas, Elizabeth Bradley has shown extraordinary leadership, combining intellectual commitment and rigor with vision, energy, and administrative talent.
My fellow Vassar Trustees and I look forward to working with her on our shared goals for many years to come.
It is in this context that I am honored to welcome you, one and all, to this historic moment of ceremony and celebration.