Stronger town-gown relations require shift in paradigm

From time to time, there are calls for Vassar students to break out of our bubble, get off campus into Poughkeepsie and engage with the local community. There are many ways we are encouraged to do this, including volunteer work and Community Engaged Learning credits. Most recently, there is Vassar’s new partnership with the Dutchess County bus system, which allows students and staff to ride for free, as Vassar will be reimbursing the county for each ride (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Vassar announces students can ride Dutchess buses at no cost,” 01.26.18).

While we at The Miscellany News are strong advocates of improving town-gown relations, we feel that the prevailing discourse on this topic tends to disproportionately focus on the idea of students going into Poughkeepsie, rather than welcoming community members onto our campus.

Some of Vassar’s isolation is unavoidable; the fact that our campus is located miles from downtown Poughkeepsie is not going to change. Nor will the relative lack of student vehicles on campus, since we come from all over the country and many cannot bring a car to school. However, there are still many ways for Vassar to integrate itself more fully into the Poughkeepsie community by making the space we occupy more open to Poughkeepsie residents.

Though the Vassar campus is not technically closed to the outside world, it often feels like it is. The stone perimeter wall and wrought-iron gates, for instance, are not particularly welcoming. It’s far more common to see tour groups here than it is to see Poughkeepsie residents, and while non-dorm buildings are usually accessible without a Vassar ID, locals using those spaces can be, and often are, treated with distrust and suspicion.

In fact, in April 2014, Vassar Safety and Security called the police on several local teenage boys in the library who were perceived to be disrupting students’ studying (The Miscellany News, “Police respond to call from security,” 04.30.2014). While it is, of course, important for a college library to be a quiet environment, many who were present saw this as a blatant act of racial profiling, as the boys in question were Black. One student commented to The Miscellany News at the time, “Within the last [four] weeks, I have been distracted in the library by white children running and screaming through the library; not only was this incident not addressed by the police, but it was never addressed nor silenced” (The Miscellany News).

Additionally, even when students do leave campus, it does not always have a particularly positive impact on Poughkeepsie or on its relationship with the Vassar community. The recent bus partnership is a telling example. While Vassar students now get a free ride—or at least a ride paid for by the school—there has been quite a bit of controversy over the lack of adequate public transportation for all members of Dutchess County (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Getting around Dutchess without a car,” 02.07.2016). Our partnership with the county may also have unintended ramifications on relations with the community. When The Poughkeepsie Journal reported on the agreement, the headline it chose (“Vassar announces students can ride Dutchess buses at no cost”) did not give any indication that the College would be reimbursing the county and thus resulted in some backlash against Vassar on Facebook. As one commenter on The Poughkeepsie Journal’s Facebook post put it, “If they can afford to go [to Vassar], they should pay.” Another wrote, “Wow where[’s] my free ride[?]”

It can also be problematic to so often encourage students to leave campus to volunteer or conduct field work, as it creates an impression that Vassar students have a duty to try to “save” Poughkeepsie, all while our own community remains uninviting to the outside. This is increasingly reminiscent of a savior complex not uncommon among other elite institutions.

That being said, there have been several events on campus that were advertised fairly well outside Vassar’s gates and that Poughkeepsie residents were encouraged to attend. For a large number of musical performances at Skinner Hall, audience members travel from as far off as the neighboring towns of Beacon and Fishkill to attend, indicating efforts by the Music Department to advertise in and engage with not just the Poughkeepsie area, but also the larger Hudson Valley. Similarly, and more recently, the series of events held over the past two weeks under the banner of Modfest 2018 have seen high attendance from community members, such as the opening reception held on Feb. 1 for the “First Comes Love: Portraits of Enduring LGBTQ+ Relationships” exhibition in the Palmer Gallery.

As various administrative offices and departments are taking active steps to engage with our surroundings, it seems that the issue of drawing in audiences from the community in a collaborative, inviting and unpatronizing way perhaps lies more with student organizations. The wealth of student-run performances and productions that are present around campus are delightful to attend, yet only a restricted audience benefits from their presence. A chaste disclaimer that these events are “free and open to the public” does not necessarily encourage attendance, considering the lack of advertising.

While this, of course, may be due to limited funding available to student orgs, an increased effort to spread the word outside of Vassar about events taking place here may be an avenue to consider, especially to boost their own attendance. The VSA’s event on Dec. 2, 2017, “Millennial Pink Masquerade,” at the Chance Theater, exemplified encouraging steps taken by students to host events in the community which don’t necessarily take over the space, but invite students in the Poughkeepsie area to join. An additional “bubble” that may contribute to the lack of community engagement is Vassar’s nature as a small private school, in which it is easy to become isolated from the real world. With our pace of life as students, many of us tend to see college as the be-all and end-all of our existence. Combine this with the fact that most of us live on campus, exclusively amongst people at the same stage of life as us, and there can be found a cluster of people who do not necessarily see themselves as a real part of the town they reside in. In this way, many of us forego the need to engage with the world as most adults do—as active members of the community around them.

Instead, we’ve created a sub-community within the boundaries of the College, one that acts as an elite space crowded with a large number of people who look down on the larger area of Poughkeepsie. We thus seem to reduce our own interest in exploring what the town has to offer, even minimizing our interaction with our local peer institutions. The lack of contact that Vassar has with Marist and Dutchess Community College is very unusual relative to the communication and synergy fostered between universities in other college towns across the United States, such as the Tri-College Consortium outside Philadelphia, which weds Haverford College, Swarthmore College and Bryn Mawr College.

Our current level of inadequate support for and collaboration with our surrounding community is something that we should all actively make an effort to change. We must not only venture into the spaces outside of this college in an engaged manner, but also invite people in as members of a shared community.

—The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.

3 Comments

  1. Vassar is an integral part of the Poughkeepsie community. The Leob is open to anyone who wants to visit. For free. Last summer we attended free Shakespear performances at Vassar Farm. WVKR, is half community DJ’s and half student DJ’s. There are many more examples. Tons of folks walk dogs, run, play golf, tennis. Concerts from Vassar’s music department, plays at Power House, CSA at Vassar Farm. The Arlington Farmers Market on the lawn of the Vassar Alumi Center Thurdays starting in June. Just look around. Vassar student’s perform at Dark Side Records. Just look up, you won’t believe what’s going on! Thanks Vassar! What a cool place!!

  2. Excellent article. I think that The Editors are correct. Even though the Leob is open to the public for free, including open late on Thursdays with free refreshments. More can be done. Including Powerhouse Theater, free Shakespear in the summer, the Arlington Farmers Market, Vassar Farm CSA and outreach, Vassar Life Time Learning, WVKR with half student DJs and half community DJs, Poughkeepise should recognize that a better relationship with Vassar will help both communities. As a community broadcaster at WVKR radio, I’ll use this article as a starting point to make a stronger Vassar/Community connection. I invite the Editorial Staff to join me. Just walk down the hall and ring the bell next Tuesday from 4-6pm, I’ll put you on the air.

Leave a Reply to James Spica Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *