Vincent Ferraro

Citation for 2006 Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

The class always begins the same way: “Are there any questions?” In this case the class is American Foreign Policy, the location is Cleveland L-2, and there are 137 students munching late-lunch salads and sandwiches, fully a third of them from Japan, China, India, Korea, Bulgaria, Pakistan or Africa. The first question is from an American student: “How does the recent statement by the Saudis, offering to provide financial support for the Hamas government in Palestine, undermine the American position?”

The second question is about Iran: “To what extent is the United States prepared to take military action to prevent Iran from developing a viable nuclear weapon? Do we possess the military capability to disable the Iran nuclear program?”

The third question is about Darfur: “The Bush administration has acknowledged that Sudan is practicing genocide on Sudan, and the ongoing war has recently spread to Chad. If the United Nations refuses to act, is there any prospect for action by NATO? Does the American presence in Iraq make the United States incapable of leading a NATO initiative in Darfur?”

The man standing at the center of the well responds with a conspicuous aura of detachment and a discernibly detailed knowledge of the particulars. The Saudi initiative with Hamas must be understood as an attempt to appease the radical Islamic faction within their own country. American military action to “take out” Iran’s nuclear program would have serious strategic consequences for the region. Darfur is a version of Rwanda in slow motion, but NATO is unlikely to step up to the plate, and the United States is already over-stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the genocide is likely to continue.

The man is Vincent Ferraro. Generations of students know him simply as “Vinnie,” who came to Mount Holyoke in 1976 after an undergraduate career at Dartmouth and his graduate degrees from MIT. He is a legend.

In any given year he teaches over 200 students and advises between 80 and 100 majors in International Relations. (Yes, these numbers are accurate.) He is the founding father of that program, the first among American colleges to establish the field as an undergraduate major compatible with the values of the liberal arts. During his tenure as chair, International Relations has consistently ranked as one of the top three majors in the College, despite enjoying only two dedicated faculty positions. The gap between resources and demand has mostly been filled by one man, who has taught and advised students, supervised independent projects, agreed to speak at alumnae clubs, more prolifically than any faculty member in the history of Mount Holyoke College.

There is quality along with quantity. In the midst of a highly controversial and contemporary field, Vinnie has refused to preach, regardless of his own convictions. Moralistic categories of right and wrong are routinely melted away in the crucible of irony. He does not teach International Relations as a set of geometric formulae or erector-set conclusions—but rather as an ongoing conversation between realistic and idealistic agendas. Each student must decide her own position in the conversation.

He is a hugely over-worked, supremely wise teacher who has produced several generations of graduates destined to make a difference in the shape of American foreign policy. He is sui generis, irreplaceable, the best there is at what he does.