President's Page

Out of Isolation

I know it’s high summer as you read this, but I want to start by mentioning this past winter. It’s easy to take for granted the various campus services—such as meals or maintenance—that are essential to Vassar’s operation. I’d like to take this opportunity to especially thank the staff who provide these services every day, particularly for how they met the challenges of some extremely trying days and circumstances during the recent, harsh winter.

One of the innovations Bob Walton, our new vice president for finance and administration, suggested was that he and I should commit to meeting with every employee in small groups—about 15 per group. With over 650 employees, this means about 45 meetings. I’ve really enjoyed these sessions, and my sense is that most of the participants have as well. One of the keys to their success, I think, is that they intentionally include a broad mix of staff and administrators, rather than all being from a particular department, office, or area of responsibility.

In our daily routines, most of us interact with a relatively small group of people, with little mixing of those who work in different roles, departments, or parts of campus. We get used to the relative comfort of familiar surroundings and shared perspectives, with little reason or opportunity to change or challenge them. In a modest way, these meetings break down isolation. And it’s easy to not even realize how isolated we can be—how few other voices we are really hearing and how limited the experiences we share.

This can be an issue in other aspects of campus life as well. It’s easy for students and even faculty to function with very limited interaction across disciplines, majors, identity groups, activities, issues, and concerns. And it’s easy to imagine or actually create barriers to greater interaction.
This issue has implications far beyond our campus. In a recent New York Times opinion column, Charles M. Blow argues that American culture increasingly “self-sorts”—we physically separate ourselves along certain characteristics. His focus is, in part, about self-sorting by race but also about self-sorting by income and education. America, he says, has become increasingly segregated along those lines, and as a result, we find it harder to relate to each other. As he says, “We need to see people other than ourselves in order to empathize. If we don’t live around others, we do ourselves and our society damage because our ability to relate becomes impaired.”

There is another kind of self-sorting taking place in our society, and that is self-sorting by ideology. Ironically, as more and more information has become available thanks to technology, it is increasingly possible for us to limit our sources of information to those that reinforce rather than challenge us politically, culturally, or intellectually. And many do limit themselves, with one result being an increasingly polarized and paralyzed political system.

Vassar, now more than ever, brings together a diverse community—highly selective but substantially diverse socioeconomically, racially, and geographically. This is a tremendous opportunity—one that calls for special efforts to maintain respectful conversations across those diversities and our individual interests, activities, and associations.

We do a pretty good job of promoting such interaction—especially for new students through, for example, structured orientation programs. Residential life (at least for freshmen and sophomores) promotes such interaction as well, as do courses (especially introductory courses). By the junior and senior year, there can be some impediments to interaction—increased focus on a major, living in small group apartments, and not eating at ACDC. Self-sorting can be an issue, perhaps especially for juniors and seniors. It’s an issue that one should think about.

As I have learned from our meetings with groups of employees, even a modest effort in the direction of increased interaction across diversity can be productive. We should not underestimate the potential value in other aspects of campus life—and indeed in our national life—of equally modest efforts to engage with others in trying to understand and discuss issues, particularly those with the potential to be difficult and divisive.