According to the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT), amid the tensions regarding racial profiling, sexual violence and gender and sexual discrimination that inspired open forums and protests, last semester a total of ten bias incidents or incidents potentially impacting campus climate and significantly more micro-aggressions occurred on campus. In a campus-wide email disseminated on Feb. 5, BIRT Coordinator and Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity Ed Pittman reported that the team had determined that four bias incidents occurred between November and the end of the fall semester.
While officials state that this figure has not notably increased as compared to previous years and have attempted to recognize the growing impact of micro-aggressions on the student body by including them in the report for the first time, some within student activist circles and observers have questioned BIRT’s efficacy on these issues.
Determining whether an incident can be classified specifically as a bias incident is of primary concern to BIRT, a group of administrators and the Vice President for Student Life Hannah Matsunaga ’16 as the student representative. According to BIRT, “A Bias Incident is characterized as a behavior or act—verbal, written or physical—which is personally directed against or targets an individual or group based on perceived or actual characteristics such as race, color, religious belief, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national or ethnic origin, disability, veteran status or age.”
BIRT also maintains that bias incidents can include graffiti, threatening correspondences via phone or mail, vandalism, destruction of property, all forms of physical violence, and harassment.
Based on these qualifications, within the last semester, the College released emails noting 10 incidents of bias or sources BIRT felt may have had a potential effect on campus climate, here listed in roughly chronological order, including: hostile statements about feminism and gender on social media; two instances of theft or burning of several flags, both flags of Latin American nations and of the United States; a sexually explicit drawing made on a residence hall mirror; the removal or vandalizing of posters in both the LGBTQ and Women’s Centers; the distribution of a three-page pamphlet allegedly containing inappropriate ethnic, racial and political content (an incident not considered a bias incident by BIRT); the use of the use of a racially offensive term on WVKR; the removal or damage of event posters on the Women’s Center’s bulletin board; the vandalism of a “Black Lives Matter” poster; and a transphobic and sexist posting on a student’s door.
Although past semesters have seen variances in the targets of these bias incidents, this figure is believed to be in line with those of previous semesters. Pittman noted “The [incidents] we reported were connected to broader campus climate issues around all that happened in the fall semester, what occurred in Ferguson, and a national climate. I just think we hit a point at which there was a critical mass at one time, but I don’t think it’s more significant than, say, the fall of 2013.” The BIRT Coordinator went on to recount the series of anonymous bias incidents reported around campus that promoted the dismissal of two students in the fall semester of 2013, as well as those relating to race and anti-Semitism from last year’s spring semester.
The number and range of bias incidents in period after mid-November elicited mixed responses from various members of the student body when asked to consider their level of surprise at having four reported incidents.
Matsunaga responded in an emailed statement, “Nothing we received in was surprising to me.” Meanwhile, several student sources responded that they had not expected such findings from this second report, some because they had heard of additional instances that they felt merited consideration as bias incidents yet went unmentioned in the report.
Alejandro McGhee ’16 commented in an emailed statement, “In light of the College’s long and arduous journey to officially acknowledging the occurrence of racial profiling on campus I question the moral compass or GPS that the College uses to decide what constitutes an ‘official’ incident of bias.”
He continued, “Whether or not incidences of bias are being reported officially on a regular basis they are still happening. Often times, the targeted students who [are often] of marginalized backgrounds, are left with a lot of intrusive and doubtful thoughts whether what they bring to BIRT will actually give them the closure they might need.”
Student Leader of Transmission Jay Leichtman ’18, speaking as an individual and not as a representative of the group, also noted that not all students feel aware of bias incidents occurring on campus even with the BIRT summary report. They said in an emailed statement, “Considering that I haven’t heard about incidents of bias beyond word of mouth, the Administration hasn’t been adequately addressing them. If they intend to address bias and microaggressions, they need to acknowledge them and point them out first.”
Fellow leader of TransMission Spencer Garcia ’18 wrote in an emailed statement, “Before reading the BIRT report, I hadn’t heard of [the incident including a transphobic and sexist statement]. I definitely think that the incident should of been more publicized when it occurred, rather than weeks later. Being trans already isn’t safe, so if trans people want the option to take further precautions to protect themselves, especially after an incident like this, they should be given that opportunity.”
They continued, “I think at this point in time the administration is not adequately addressing issues of bias on campus. The BIRT report isn’t comprehensive or often enough, nor does it include incidents that haven’t been reported (which most likely constitute a high percentage of what happens on campus).”
The issue of underreporting also marks a critical point when analyzing these reports. According to statements made by BIRT, after the team determines a report to be a bias incident, the Department of Safety and Security conducts an investigation and seeks to uncover those responsible for the incident. The engagement with Safety and Security, particularly in light of recent critiques students have made about the level of discomfort some students feel with Safety and Security, some speculate has led to under-reporting. Sara Cooley ’15 explained, “[T]here are certain people who feel comfortable reporting these things knowing that Security is going to take them seriously and there are other people who do not feel comfortable with Security and do not have any faith that Security is going to want to help them.”
These reports also highlight an additional struggle the College faces and that may contribute to student reticence to report. Currently, most of the bias incident investigations have not resulted in consequences for students. “Over the last two years, the majority have been anonymous, and that’s what makes them effective from a perpetrator’s standpoint. They hide behind not being seen, and so they write something. Those are the most challenging ones to respond to, and I think in most cases, the really overt bias incidents have been those that are anonymous and then there are those where an individual is found to have committed whatever act it is, and there’s a process of adjudication. Those are fewer than the anonymous incidents,” Pittman explained. He went on to note that quickly reporting anonymous bias incidents may even increase the chances that the College can uncover the culprit.
Despite criticisms of administrative actions by certain groups and sources that believe that this should be a large issue for the entire student body, students report a variety of levels of comfort or interest discussing issues related to bias incidents. Many students contacted to discuss how BIRT operates and the relationship between bias incidents and campus climate responded that they felt that they could not adequately speak to these experiences of bias.
BIRT members recounted little to no criticism from the student body regarding their discontent over BIRT actions, with the exception of Matsunaga who noted that a small number of students wanted bias incidents to be classed as hate crimes. Those invested to some degree in activism around these issues hope to see a shift in the campus’ reaction to these instances.
Andrew Joung ’16 wrote in an emailed statement, “Fundamentally, more than half the school is under threat and one has to be in very narrow social circles to not have friends that are people of color or female or LGBTQ.”
Despite all of these concerns, BIRT has, for the first time, included other forms of discrimination. In this latest email, the committee also decided to recognize a shift in reports of bias by reporting specifically on micro-aggressions as well as bias incidents. The February email marks the first time that any such BIRT summary report included explicit mention of micro-aggressions. According to Dean Pittman, “A number of the reports that we received were related to conversations that students have with each via social media or it may be discourse, a strongly-worded opinion or an expression that doesn’t cross the line of being bias incident but has tended to impact the way students particularly feel about their experience on campus and also impact the campus climate. So, the difference in the definition of a micro-aggression and a bias incident is a more subtle expression that isn’t always directed, but still has an impact.”
Director for the Campus Life LGBTQ Center and Women’s Center Judy Jarvis also noted in an emailed statement, “Many students I work with have experienced micro-aggressions from their peers and sometimes Vassar employees as well. The details range widely, but the unfortunate pattern is that students with marginalized identities on campus, particularly students of color and trans and genderqueer students, are asked to explain and justify themselves more than their white, cisgender peers.”
The first step BIRT has taken in their process towards recognizing and addressing micro-aggressions’ effects on students has been through acknowledging them in this latest summary report. The team is looking to continue its exploration of addressing micro-aggression through a policy of education, as also stipulated in the BIRT report, through a recently formed special working group. Pittman explained, “We’ve started a working group around micro-aggressions. It’s exploratory, but we want to pay attention to these actions because we hear them often. If someone reports something and it doesn’t classify as a bias incident, we don’t want to ignore it. We want to pay attention and put it in its proper context on campus. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Meanwhile, student suggestions for reducing these problems vary. Matsunaga suggested that students consider their own treatment of others. Cooley also stated, “I would really, really love to see a school-wide forum that is as mandatory as orientation is for freshmen, which means not really mandatory but very strongly suggested that everybody go to this forum or workshop or panel or whatever it would be.”
Leichtman described, “There are always going to be at least a few individuals expressing those terrible opinions. That said, mandatory (or at least very well publicized) programs about bias for all students, staff and faculty to attend would be a huge step forward. It would make people have to think about the issues involved.”