Vassar reconsiders mission

On Sunday, April 16, the VSA voted not to endorse the Board of Trustees’ proposed mission statement revisions. They instead resolved to submit the statement printed above.

Vassar College, like most educational institutions, has a long history rooted in the exclusion of marginalized and disadvantaged groups. While some work has been done to make Vassar a more equitable and diverse place, many of the same institutional exclusions persist. Earlier this year, it was determined that the mission statement needed to acknowledge Vassar’s efforts to increase diversity. Vassar’s mission statement as it currently stands reads: “The mission of Vassar College is to make accessible ‘the means of a thorough, well-proportioned and liberal education’ that inspires each individual to lead a purposeful life. The college makes possible an education that promotes analytical, informed, and independent thinking and sound judgment; encourages articulate expression; and nurtures intellectual curiosity, creativity, respectful debate and engaged citizenship. Founded in 1861 to provide women an education equal to that once available only to men, the college is now open to all. Vassar supports a high standard of engagement in teaching and learning, scholarship and artistic endeavor; a broad and deep curriculum; a community diverse in background and experience; and a residential campus that fosters a learning community.”

Behind this decision was the Committee on Inclusion and Equity (CIE) and the Board of Trustees. For the past three years, revising language throughout the College’s governance with attention to issues of diversity, inclusion and equity has been a major priority of CIE. This spring, CIE formed a joint task force with the Trustees to focus on the revision of the mission statement. Professor of Physics and Astronomy David Bradley, who chairs the committee that has drafted these changes, explained the task force’s objectives: “[T]o more clearly articulate the College’s existing commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity and…to serve as a vision for said work on campus.”

Dean of the College and Professor of Education Christopher Roellke added in an email, “I believe the motivation [behind changing the wording of the mission statement] is to affirm how important diversity, inclusion and belonging to the community are to our core enterprise.”

Once they drafted a new version of the mission statement, the Board of Trustees reached out to the Vassar Student Association (VSA) asking for critiques or endorsement of the updated statement. The VSA initially demonstrated interest in working with the Task Force to revise the language, and expressed concerns about the way in which the statement addressed Vassar’s history. Bradley states in an email, “I took these concerns seriously and asked the VSA President to work with the VSA Executive Board to draft some proposed mission statement language that might address these concerns…and give [the task force] a place to start in addressing them.” A subcommittee of VSA members worked to devise a diversity statement for consideration as an addition to the mission statement. The committee proposed to the Senate two possible courses of action: the first was to offer different wording that acknowledges that Vassar has not always been a just institution; the second was to inform the Trustees that the mission statement seemed to primarily serve a superficial role, and that the VSA would not endorse a statement that is not self-critical.

After careful consideration and much discussion, the VSA chose the second option, reasoning that it would have the most substantial impact on the Board. Chair of Equity and Inclusion Cecilia Hoang ’18 elaborated, “It’s certainly not a ‘safe’ or ‘moderate’ move because they are almost certainly not going to adopt what we’ve offered, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have to grapple with the perspective that’s being offered, one which attempts to complicate Vassar’s alleged support for diversity and equity, and own up to its reality.”

Bradley maintains that, “The truth is that Vassar has always been on a spectrum in its pursuit of these ideals, and still has a long way to go.”

In the VSA Senate meeting on Sunday, April 16, many members expressed the concern that the Trustees have exceedingly different priorities and values than the general student body, and determined that a refusal to endorse the proposed revisions was the most effective way to communicate this to the Board. Chair of Academics JD Nichols ’17 stressed the importance of following what the VSA thought was best to do, rather than what they felt pressured to do, and stated that the second option was more consistent with their guiding principles.

As Chair of Academics, Nichols was involved with the task force to restructure the College’s mission statement. The task force–comprised of Nichols, faculty, administrators and trustees– was formed to more directly address diversity and inclusion in the mission statement. “I am still very invested in working with the TaskForce on this task,” Nichols said. “The problem with the wording as it stands now is that Vassar has not been historically accepting to all, but Vassar does not want to have an admission of past guilt in its Mission Statement and so text erases those who have been excluded in its line about history.”

However, in the most recent Senate meeting VSA members expressed concern that the Trustees would not be receptive to their proposed changes to the mission statement. “If we were to submit language to the Task-Force qualifying Vassar’s history and saying that it was originally founded for white, upper-class women, those qualifiers would be cut out without a thought and the VSA’s feedback would be discarded in seconds,” Nichols remarked. “By passing a statement declining to provide them with language, we are not saying that no student input will be given to the Task-Force, we are instead saying that the VSA cannot, in good faith, endorse language that falls within the parameters of what the Trustees will accept.”

The mission statement plays a central role in decisions made by the Board, the administration and the faculty. The task force will continue its close scrutiny and revision of the statement. Professor Bradley asserts, “Revising this statement would be an extraordinary move forward in our pursuit of diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice. A change of this magnitude requires collaboration and compromise from all stakeholders.”

As the VSA Senate transitions into its second year, its members will work with the Board to continue to make Vassar a more equitable place, and hope to open lines of communication between the Senate and the trustees. By directly addressing issues of exclusion inherent in the College’s founding, the VSA intends to facilitate dialogue on diversity, inclusion and equity, and asks the Board to do the same.

3 Comments

  1. JD Nichols, student representative involved in the Mission Statement task force, says that “If we were to submit language to the Task-Force qualifying Vassar’s history and saying that it was originally founded for white, upper-class women, those qualifiers would be cut out without a thought and the VSA’s feedback would be discarded in seconds.” Well perhaps that suggested language would be discarded because it is untrue. Did this student representative or any one else pushing for this type of language bother to do any research? From its inception, Vassar has had a commitment to educate women regardless of their financial means, including by establishing a scholarship called the “Auxiliary Fund” to help promising students who were unable to pay for their educations. See https://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/early-vassar/a-college-for-women.html

    As also noted in this report from 1873, very few of Vassar’s students were from wealthy families, but in fact, they suffered “privation, labor and sacrifice” to attend. Vassar’s second president, John Raymond, implored those who were well off to contribute to the school so that increasing numbers of those less fortunate could attend and thereby enable the college to fulfill the “most beneficent purposes of a school of liberal culture” :

    “NEED OF SCHOLARSHIPS.

    The accommodations for the residence of students have hitherto been fully occupied, and the receipts have been adequate to the maintenance of the expensive system of instruction and the complete domestic establishment which the plan of the college requires. But the necessity of paying so large an annual fee for board and tuition excludes from the college many of the class who would be most benefited by its advantages, and who would render to the community the amplest returns. Comparatively few of its students indeed are from very wealthy families; and many enjoy its privileges only at the cost of privation, labor, and sacrifice on their own part and that of their parents, or through the generous kindness of personal friends. But multitudes who ought to be liberally educated are without such aids. Young women who have a vocation to intellectual pursuits, as teachers, authors, physicians, etc., and who therefore feel most deeply the need of thorough intellectual training, are usually unable to pay its pecuniary cost. Unless, therefore, men and women of wealth shall be found who, moved by the spirit of enlightened liberality which has lavished such vast treasures on universities and colleges for the other sex, will come forward to add to its endowments, though Vassar may continue to hold an honorable rank as an emporium of knowledge, it will not fulfill the most beneficent purposes of a school of liberal culture; the highest aim of its Founder will not be accomplished; and, unless other foundations are elsewhere laid, Christendom will still remain without a single establishment worthy to be called, in the best sense, a College for Women.”

    Yes, it is true that it took Vassar much longer to recognize the need for racial and religious diversity in its student body. In fact, I know several Jewish women of my parents’ generation who were denied admission because, as they were explicitly told, Vassar had fulfilled its “Jewish quota.” But this type of discriminatory attitude toward Jews, persons of color, and others has thankfully changed, and today’s student body is truly diverse in terms of racial, ethnic and religious identities. Rather than demanding that Vassar’s Mission Statement include self-flagellating language that is not even historically accurate, perhaps these students instead should focus on the ways that Vassar can continue to live up to the ideals of that Statement.

  2. Kudos to Laurie Josephs for her letter, educating the current student body about Vassar’s historic outreach to disadvantaged students, a practice that continues to this day in the form of need blind admissions. In 2015, Vassar received a one million dollar prize in recognition of its efforts to attract and graduate low income students. Last year, Malcolm Gladwell had a podcast entitled “Food Fight,” documenting Vassar’s commitment to increasing diversity.
    It seems that Vassar’s reward for these efforts is to attract a segment of the student body that appears disgracefully ignorant of Vassar’s history, incapable of communicating in plain English and utterly ungrateful for the opportunity to receive an education second to none.
    I am not writing as a cheerleader for Vassar. Since 2013, I have been deeply concerned over the rise in rampant anti Semitism, thinly disguised as anti Zionism, and the College’s failure adequately to deal with the reemergence of such hatred. But the VSA’s gross distortion of Vassar’s history does a disservice to the school and needs to be corrected.
    Megan Tallmer
    Class of 1973

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