We are writing as current and past members of Vassar’s cooperative house, Ferry. We are greatly concerned by Vassar’s pending announcement that all Vassar students, including Ferry House members, will be required to join an all-campus meal plan come fall 2017. This action will prevent Ferry House from operating as a cohesive cooperative due to the inability of its members to double-fund two meal options: cooperatively-purchased groceries and a costly all-campus meal plan (likely between $2,000 and $3,000 per semester). Ferry has been operating as a cooperative living space at Vassar since 1951, but Ferry is not Vassar’s first cooperative space; in fact, cooperative spaces at Vassar have a long history rooted in assisting students who could not afford more expensive food. What happens to Vassar’s cooperative space is for all of us to decide as a community in consensus, not in a top-down financially-motivated decision. If the 21 students currently living in Ferry opted out of the meal plan, it would not have a significant impact on Vassar’s operating budget; however, if Vassar eliminated Ferry’s cooperative meal, it would diminish much of what makes this experiment in cooperative living unique and successful. If Ferry students were forced to pay for an expensive meal plan, most would not be able to afford to also purchase collective groceries for the house. We have only been offered a limited and short-term Residential Life budget that is significantly less than the cost of food for a semester and at least a tenth of the amount we would pay to the meal plan.
Ferry House’s most unifying event is its weekday meal, which occurs five days a week, from Sunday to Thursday. Due to these meals, students learn cooperative planning, budgeting, shopping, baking, cooking and cleaning skills. These meals are the glue that holds the house together, offering the opportunity to break bread over hearty conversations that teach diversity, critical thought and civic participation—values Vassar holds dear. When in close contact with differing opinions over a home-cooked squash stew sourced from the Vassar Farm CSA, open-mindedness only grows. “It is one thing to study environmental concerns, cooperative living and consensus making and politics in class. [But] Ferry is putting the theory into practice,” said Lee Perkins ’64.
The effect of so many generations of Ferry members entering the world cannot be underestimated. We have become sustainable farmers, climate change activists, food editors, racial and social justice workers, teachers, non-profit Executive Directors and so much more. For many of us, Vassar’s central institutional life did not work, and ACDC was a lonely place. Many Ferries considered transferring to other schools, but found a home when we walked down that stone path and through that door into a glass oasis. Life changed irrevocably and wonderfully when we entered Ferry. Additionally, Ferry’s low costs, at about 10 percent of the cost of the dining hall, made Vassar more affordable for low-income students. Ferry has therefore served a retention function of keeping students at Vassar. Offering a diversity of housing options actually retains students. This is not the first time Ferry’s future has been threatened. We have heard rumblings of the possibility that Residential Life may want to use Ferry as a dorm to assist in its housing gaps and we would like to establish a written agreement with Vassar that Ferry will remain a cooperative in perpetuity. Ferry faced similar issues when Residential Life informed us that they wanted to close Ferry in 2002 while it was being renovated. We resisted and succeeded, and here we are advocating once more to keep Ferry a co-op.
Marcel Breuer, Ferry’s architect, would not be pleased. He built Ferry House, with its bi-nuclear structure, specifically as a cooperative intended to foster a social community. At Ferry’s dedication ceremony on Oct. 5, 1951, Breuer said, “When you experience a building, its space, its walls, roof, windows, the brick, the stone, the glass, you probably never realize that it is the expression of many individual efforts, coordinated. And I mean this not in a technical sense … That this ‘cooperative house’ of Vassar stands now as it is, is actually a result of those human colors and social actions which you probably would never take into consideration when you think of architecture” (Vassar Quarterly, “Our House Is Bauhaus,” Winter 2006). With the social, psychological and intellectual welfare of its students in mind, Vassar might look toward institutions like Oberlin, which hosts an approximately 100-person dining cooperative, and consider opening more cooperative spaces, not closing its one existing space.
Like the ALANA Center, the Bayit, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and the Women’s Center, Ferry provides an atmosphere of community and works to extend its warmth and fellowship to the community at large via social gatherings and professor dinners. Ferries wish they could admit more students, and would be thrilled to have a sister cooperative or several on campus to extend cooperative living to more students.
We have expressed our concerns in letters, emails and phone calls to the college. We have yet to receive a satisfactory response beyond the statement that this is a mandatory all-student meal plan due to a new food service provider. It is essential that we as a college community honor Ferry’s history and present, as well as Breuer’s intentions for Ferry. Some of us are exploring the possibility of having our alumnae/i donations be tied to supporting Ferry House as a full cooperative, and have asked our AAVC representatives to work with us to make this happen. Perhaps more permanent, large dining cooperatives, such as the very popular cooperatives at Oberlin, can be established eventually, positively influencing retention, diversity, rankings and reputation. Vassar might explore the possibility of a Vassar Cooperative Student Association similar to the student-owned non-profit corporation at Oberlin. Margaret Seligman Lewisohn, chair of the trustee committee on undergraduate life just before Ferry opened, affirmed, “I believe firmly that a cooperative house is a necessary addition to any American campus … It can be an important and living demonstration of democracy in action.” At a time when democracy is being threatened in our country, learning to foster consensus and participation, and go beyond “Bowling Alone,” is invaluable. Cooking, eating and living cooperatively together is an essential part of that experience, and a vital part of Vassar’s history as an innovative institution. Cooperative living is not just a Ferry tradition, but a Vassar tradition.
Ferry Residents and Alumnae/i
A. Dakota Kim 2002, Piper Dorrance 2002, Nikki Crook 2003, Noah Bogdonoff 2014, John Freese 1995, Melynda Barnhart 1994, Sarah Jane Muder 2018, Ilan Korman 2019, Anna Wiley 2019, Nada Beth Ellend Glick 1961, Joanna Horton McPherson 2004, Jennifer Cable 2007, Katherine Willard 2019, Curtis Eckley 2019, Mei Sun Li (“Dorothy” Li) 1960, Laura Gilmore 2007, Delyn Hall 1998, Joshua Baum 2006, Irene Tait 2016, David Jaeger 1998, Malian Lahey 2000, Diana Little 1998, Erin Edmison 1998, Amie Fishman 1998, Claire Brassil 2000, Scott Murray 2001, Tom Furtwangler 1992, Aram Rubenstein-Gillis 1997, Matthew Cartsonis 1984, Philip Korman and Nora Israeloff (parents), Wanda J. Walker 1984, Dara J. Lurie 1984, and Tamara Chanmugam 1983