The Splintered Legacy of the Class of '91


May 29, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

POUGHKEEPSIE, NEW YORK — Poughkeepsie, New York. - There have been men at Vassar College now for 22 years, but the lovely campus here still reflects a certain feminine gentility. So does the commencement, which begins with women sophomores carrying a 150-foot daisy chain, the flowers woven with laurel leaves in tribute to the graduates.

That was charming, and for us, so was the fact that one of ours, my stepson, was one of those graduates. That's four down and one to go. But the charm of the big day, last Sunday, faded quickly as it became apparent that there was more going on around here than most parents knew.

One speaker after another, beginning with the president of the college, Frances Daly Fergusson, talked in a bewildering combination of code and gobbledygook -- as if they had something to hide or were talking only to or at each other, or both. The president emphasized how ''challenging'' the class of 1991 was -- and she acted as if she expected the 637 seniors to rise up to charge her at any moment.

What was going on? The only thing parents, many of whom had paid $80,000 in tuition and board over four years for the privilege of sitting here, seemed sure of was that the class gift was $4,348 -- that's about $6.75 each -- to automate a door in the Student Center to make entry easier for those she called ''the differently abled.''

''What are the differently abled?'' I heard a woman behind me say. ''Handicapped,'' answered a male voice. ''You mean the gift is like a hinge?'' said someone else.

Things became a little clearer, but only a little, when the president of the class, Lisa Collins, speaking in the code of the campus, gave a speech that sounded like a masterpiece of polite rage. ''Multi-culturalism is not buying peace at any price,'' she said. ''Communication and respect must go both ways.''

It turned out that what she was talking about, or hinting at, was the determined separatism of black students, who make up 7 percent of the college's student body. They had, for all practical purposes, their own scheduled commencement ceremonies, more or less separate from the whites and everybody else.

It all seemed like a foolish piece of business to me. I have trouble thinking of bright and capable young men and women with Vassar degrees as among the downtrodden, whatever their race or handicaps or anything else.

Ms. Collins talked of diversity -- ''race, religion, sexual preference'' -- but she obviously meant divisions. She seemed angry about the college administration's acceptance of a Black Commencement Committee. It was born -- and immediately recognized by the college -- after a walkout by the three black members of the senior class's official 20-member commencement committee. The class president declared the end of melting-pot America and ambivalently proclaimed ''a stir-fry model'' -- everyone would maintain his or her ethnicity, sexual preference, etc.

The black students said a diverse committee could not represent their wishes. The incident that triggered the walkout seemed to be the committee's rejection of black members' suggestion that the class trip this year be to the Great Adventure amusement park in New Jersey. So the blacks scheduled their own trip to Jersey and a few other events. And President Fergusson invited Jesse Jackson to speak, for a fee paid by the school, at a black-run baccalaureate service Saturday. Mr. Jackson blamed the White House for divisions on the campus.

Most parents seemed ignorant of those events. The black students did attend commencement ceremonies after their own program, many of them wearing colorful tribal sashes from Ghana and Togo over their gowns.

The graduation ceremony went on, but it seemed like an admission of failure by a great institution. Lisa Collins put the best face on that, saying it was true that the graduates were not a group, but had blossomed individually. ''Feelings of disunity . . . fear, anger, hope, confusion'' -- she listed those things as ''the legacy of the Class of '91.''

The confusion part fit the parents. Was this the dreaded PC the neoconservatives have been yelling about -- ''politically correct'' liberal attitudes transmitted by professors who grew up in the 1960s? I didn't think so. My guess was that what we were seeing was not ideology or politics writ large, but rather politics writ small. This was just campus politics -- the last day of it before the graduates went forth to get hit by a couple of low blows, including economic recession -- and it was fostered by administrators and instructors unwilling to teach that in the life beyond this isolated pastoral environment, the answer to petty demands is usually ''no.''

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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