[Trigger warning: racist and anti-Semitic hate speech.]
On Tuesday, Feb. 21, Director of Safety and Security Arlene Sabo sent out an all-campus email informing the Vassar community that violent anti-Black graffiti was found written on the wall of a men’s bathroom in the Library lobby late Monday evening. In the early morning on Feb. 24, there was another report about a second anti-Black, anti-Semitic, hateful and offensive message written on a wall down a staircase off the front entrance of the Library. The Town of Poughkeepsie Police were called in to assist with the investigation.
According to the website of Vassar’s Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT), “[The initial reports of these incidents were] reviewed by the BIRT core team, led by the Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity and followed by meetings with the Dean of the College, the Director of Safety and Security and the College Information Officer. The President was also notified and updated periodically of discussions and assessments.”
Following the notification emails, the President’s Office also released statements in response to each incident, denouncing such hateful speech and calling for community solidarity. “While we at Vassar believe in open discourse amongst all groups, let me be very clear about this disgraceful threat–it and any message of hate are incompatible with our values at Vassar and will not be tolerated … Now more than ever we need to be clear that if you are a purveyor of hate speech, you will find no home at Vassar,” Interim President John Chenette wrote in the email.
In his statement following the second incident he noted, “At times such as these it is all too easy to feel powerless–as though there is nothing we can do to combat such despicable acts. But I say no…I am hopeful, as I wrote in my last message, that we will stand together as a community and stand up to those who would divide us. We are a community that is not just diverse, but that understands that our diversity is one of the things that defines us, that makes us the vibrant, challenging, fascinating, and inspiring place we are. And no small-minded provocateur can take that away from us.”
Chenette, Dean of Students Adriana di Bartolo, Associate Dean of the College Ed Pittman, Director of the ALANA Center Wendy Maragh Taylor and the Dean of Studies Office opened extended office hours on Friday, hoping to provide a space for community members to discuss and reflect upon the incidents. Dean of the College Chris Roellke, Acting Dean of the Faculty Steve Rock and a number of other administrators and faculty members also held open office hours in the Library.
Numerous student organizations also sent out statements speaking out against the incidents and standing in solidarity with the Black community. According to the statement from the Asian Students Alliance, “Often times, most of us, as Asian people, especially those of us who are East Asian and/or light-skinned, can blissfully ignore these problems, as we choose to associate more closely with whiteness, silence, and inaction. These days, it is not the time to choose to be complicit in our own ignorance. We must never forget that we are victims of oppression too BUT many of the rights afforded to us today are only so because of the efforts of black/brown/trans activists.”
On Friday, Feb. 24, The ALANA Center hosted a sit-in at the library from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. for the community to stand in solidarity and solid symbolic mass. Various identity-based organizations on campus as well as the VSA encouraged their members to show up to the protest. At noon, a large crowd of students, faculty members, administrators and staff members gathered together in front of the library. During the sit-in, attendees were notified by Sabo that the fire inspector was on campus for a routine inspection of the campus and had raised concerns that occupying the steps in front of the library would pose a fire hazard by blocking the main exit. Sabo and Roellke then informed protesters that they had two options: move the sit-in to another location, or close the library for the duration of the protest. After the crowd responded with chants of “close the lib,” Sabo announced that the library would close. Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann sent out an all-campus email shortly after, stating that the library is closed by order of the Fire Marshal. Later in the evening, she informed the campus that the library would remain closed for the rest of the day and reopen on Saturday. “In talking with the students on the front steps they were clear that the violent racist messaging necessitated that our community stand together and send a strong message … In discussing the closure of the library I would be remiss if I did not share the fact that the AAAVC alumnae, AAVC alumnae and the Board of Trustees members that were in town for a meeting were very impressed by our student body,” Sabo said in an emailed statement.
Others have also observed that the Admissions Office had directed tour groups on campus away from the library, without explaining what was going on. Sumiko Neary ’20, an ALANA Center intern, expressed her opinions on the matter. “For safety purposes I understand the decision to steer groups away from the library. I speak only for myself when I share that I feel it is important for all to understand and acknowledge the hard work that is being done by students organizing and participating in protesting or rally events. It should be recognized that students are dedicating their time and energy into creating change; it should not brushed over by tour guides/the Admissions office. While prospective students and parents might be deterred from hearing of such horrific events on campus, transparency and accountability should be at the forefront of Vassar’s actions,” she said in an interview via email.
Moreover, students have also voiced concerns over why the initial notice of the first bias-based threat was issued from Safety and Security. Responding to these questions, Pittman noted, “The intent of that was to raise it to a level of threat so that people know it’s more than just a bias incident … We may have missed a more clear way of communicating that, so I think I learned that students do appreciate hearing from BIRT directly.”
Looking forward, Pittman emphasized the need to constantly improve administrative programs and procedures in relation to students’ needs and concerns. “Measure our responses, make sure that they are consistent with and supporting our values that are the foundation of this community. Sometimes values and actions don’t match, values and words don’t match … When that inconsistency exists we have to find out why.”
According to him, the Administration is seeking to stay more attuned to students’ voices, especially since the election and inauguration. “A lot of the events in the various Campus Life offices have been centered around supporting students and also looking to students to be a guide on what we have to talk about. We’ve been very connected to H2A [Healing to Action], and many of those students are also first year students, our first year program is trying to create a bridge to that work.”
This semester, VSA has sought to increase its support for student activists as well, by providing supplies, food and drinks for protesters on Friday as well as after the election, and with the Social Consciousness Fund for financial support. But VSA President Calvin Lamothe ’17 acknowledges that much more is needed. “The VSA can always do more … Like the VSA, the administration can always be doing more to support students and address their concerns, especially for Black students at a predominantly and historically white institution. As a college, we need to move beyond the desire to bring a ‘diverse’ student body to campus and talk about ways to better support the students for whom this institution was not originally built.”
Echoing these sentiments of persistent inquiry and action, Neary spoke of her concrete suggestions. “I question why there is no diversity requirement in our school curriculum … There should be a baseline of education regarding diversity in our world; it is frightening that some students can undergo a Vassar college career without ever learning about real and oppressive issues in our societies.“ She continued, “The ALANA Center prioritizes serving POC students’ concerns. As an individual separate from the center, I feel it is important for non-POC-specific orgs to host events and facilitate conversations and hold people accountable. It is not only the job of POC-orgs to make this happen.”