VC to initiate ‘Engaged Pluralism’

After receiving a Mellon Foundation grant, Vassar will implement an initiative called “Engaged Pluralism: Belonging and Thriving at Vassar College.” / Courtesy of Vassar College via Flickr

On Monday, March 27, Vassar announced “Engaged Pluralism: Belonging and Thriving at Vassar College,” a $1.6 million initiative meant to promote inclusivity and affirmation among the college community. Beginning in the fall, the program will be in place for nine semesters. Associate Professor and Chair of the Anthropology Department, Candice Lowe Swift, will direct the initiative.

Partial funding for the Engaged Pluralism project comes from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has awarded Vassar College a grant of $800,000. According to their website, “The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation endeavors to strengthen, promote, and, where necessary, defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies.” The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded Vassar 33 other grants since 1970, totaling over $16.6 million (The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation).

Recent recipients of grants from the Mellon Foundation include Franklin & Marshall College, Wesleyan University and the University of Rochester, among others.

Vassar Interim President John Chenette co-authored the project and will be involved in guiding its implementation.

Chenette released a statement on March 27 regarding “Engaged Pluralism.” He began by citing the efforts of members of the Vassar community to make Vassar a place where diversity and inclusivity are able to flourish. “Recently,” he wrote, “we have sought to galvanize these efforts by articulating an ambitious vision for the College that would be worthy of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s support and might serve as an example for other institutions with similar aspirations” (Vassar College, “Announcement: Belonging and Thriving at Vassar,” 3.27.2017).

“Through this initiative,” Chenette wrote in the announcement of the project, “We aim to understand more fully what it means to belong to and thrive in a diverse community, which aspects of our living and learning environment most contribute to student success, and how we can develop and coordinate programs and support systems that enable all of our students to experience a sense of belonging and that provide them with the opportunity to thrive” (Vassar College, “Vassar announces $1.6 million initiative to advance the college’s mission as an inclusive and affirming learning community,” 3.27.2017).

Chenette, who was originally involved in the project in his previous position as Dean of the Faculty, commented that this announcement is the culmination of a nearly two-year-long endeavor. The process began when he helped to plan a retreat for faculty focused on helping students thrive at Vassar. The momentum from that retreat motivated Chenette and his colleagues to begin a conversation, among both the faculty and students, about diversity and inclusivity.

“Vassar has transformed dramatically over the past decade in terms of racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, international, veteran status, and other markers of identity,” Chenette wrote via email. “With this project, we are turning our focus to the challenge of cultivating an environment that accords to every student, regardless of background, the sense that they belong here and can succeed in the educational opportunities offered at Vassar.”

Since that workshop, President Chenette and Professor Lowe Swift have been engaging the community, with the hope that they could devise a plan to promote diversity and inclusivity at Vassar.

“From that point forward, [Chenette] and I were in regular communication about expanding the vision of inclusion for our campus,” Lowe Swift commented via email.

“With input from faculty, a focal point became ‘inclusive pedagogies’–ways to teach that are inclusive and empowering,” Chenette said.

Lowe Swift, who also serves as the Liaison to the President and the Senior Administration for Race and Inclusion, organized dinners with students, giving them the opportunity to make suggestions regarding their shared goal. Among the students’ suggestions was the installment of post-baccalaureates at Vassar to help the College realize visions of inclusion grounded in its students’ needs and expectations, as well as anti-bias training and the development of more inclusive pedagogies across the school’s curriculum, with a special emphasis on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) disciplines.

“Students are the lifeblood of this institution,” Lowe Swift said. “Without their perspectives, Vassar, as a learning community, will lose vitality and relevance.”

In response to these conversations, Chenette, with former college President Catherine Hill, approached the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with the idea of an “inclusive pedagogy project,” a pilot project that would focus on developing more inclusive teaching policies. The Mellon Foundation wanted more, however. Chenette explained, “Mellon asked us to develop with a bigger vision, viewing us as leaders among liberal arts colleges in facing the challenges of building a strong, diverse, and empowering community.”

Chenette, Lowe Swift, and their colleagues thought more seriously about the issues of diversity and inclusivity within the Vassar community. After another year of work, they submitted the proposal in its current form to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. They heard back from Mellon just before spring break with exciting news: their request for funding was approved.

Chenette is particularly excited about the opportunities for change provided by this grant.

“This project represents an exciting opportunity,” Chenette said in his March 27 statement, “setting forth a vision supported by resources to ignite lasting change on our campus … Today, I am honored to report that the listening and talking have helped us sketch out a bold plan to enact authentic, positive change.”

Chenette explained, “’Engaged Pluralism’ means engaging and affirming diversity as a source of strength and vitality…striving to understand and engage each other across all manner of differences as we seek to build a stronger and more supportive campus community where all members feel they belong and can thrive.”

The Engaged Pluralism initiative will be executed in three key facets: investigation, encouragement and building. The administration will investigate Vassar students’ learning styles with the intention to assess and enhance programs that respond to students’ needs, encourage curricular innovations and build the capacity of students, faculty and administrators to contribute more actively to inclusive experiences on campus.

As principal investigator, Lowe Swift will focus on the investigation and assessment of student needs. “My task is to keep students involved at every level of decision-making and implementation of the initiative,” she said.

In the Office of Communications announcement, Lowe Swift spoke about the goals of “Engaged Pluralism.” “Our ultimate aim,” she said, “is to foster a living and learning community that is equitable, and that reflects and expresses the economic, racial/ethnic, sociocultural, religious and intellectual diversity and capacity of the wider world. We want to provide an opportunity for all members of the community to work together, across and through differences. Such a community better prepares students to achieve their goals in an increasingly diverse, interconnected and globalized world.” (Vassar College, “Vassar announces $1.6 million initiative to advance the college’s mission as an inclusive and affirming learning community,” 3.27.2017).

The Engaged Pluralism Project builds on the efforts of Vassar, as an institution, to promote inclusivity and diversity on campus over the last decade or so. Under the direction of former-President Catherine Hill, Vassar has expanded its financial aid policy, becoming tied with Amherst College as the number one liberal arts college with the greatest percentage of Pell Grant recipients among its student body, according to US News & World Report. The report based its rankings on US Department of Education data from the 2014-2015 school year. Per the report, 25 percent of Vassar undergraduates received Pell Grants that year (US News and World Report, “Economic Diversity Among the Top 25 Ranked Schools,” 2017).

Chenette referenced these efforts in the announcement: “Diversity at Vassar has certainly enriched the educational experience of all of our students, and we have developed a variety of new programs to support student success. As a result, graduation rates across different demographics are approximately the same.”

Conversations regarding diversity are commonplace at Vassar, even in the face of hatred and hardship. As President Chenette wrote on March 27, “These conversations have not always been easy, but they have been informative. And they are by no means over. Discussions like these will be an important part of how we design the roadmap for the next four years of this ambitious project.”

“I think that opening up more channels of communication will lead to increased understanding, and ultimately, if we listen to each other closely, and work together, we may be able to transform the educational experience at Vassar for the better,” Lowe Swift concluded.

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