In a letter early this February, Professor of Chemistry Miriam Rossi invited President of the College Elizabeth Bradley to read the lyrics of “Big Yellow Taxi,” by folk singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell: “Don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone/ They paved paradise/and put up a parking lot.” Rossi was responding to Bradley’s announcement on Dec. 21, 2018, alerting professors that the Williams faculty housing complex was to be torn down in order to construct a parking lot. This parking lot would complement the Inn and Institute—a building that will combine an inn with a space dedicated to conferences and other events that will, according to Bradley, “put Vassar on the map.” Originally, faculty members were instructed to vacate Williams by December 2019. However, in response to criticism on the part of Williams residents and other empathetic residential faculty, the College moved the evacuation date to June of 2020, when Williams is scheduled to be demolished.
The decision comes after a lengthy string of negotiations. According to Professor and Chair of Computer Science Luke Hunsberger, the proposal to tear down Williams—where he is a resident— was originally taken off the table by Bradley during a faculty meeting in Spring 2018 and replaced by a proposal to place the Inn and Institute at the corner of Fulton and Raymond Avenues. “I also objected to the second site pretty strongly because it was on top of the green space that is used for the weekly farmers’ market,” said Hunsberger in a phone interview. “It would totally change the character, basically putting up a wall to the adjacent Poughkeepsie community.” This proposal, however, had to be withdrawn due to parking codes and traffic regulations of the Town of Poughkeepsie and NY State Department of Transportation, as the Inn and Institute would infringe on the busy roundabout. At this point, Hunsberger explained, a variety of other options for placement—including in front of the Vassar Farm and behind the Josselyn House tennis courts along Collegeview Avenue—were floated and eventually rejected.
In her December email, Bradley explained that the reasons for the decision were twofold: “1) other designs on this site were not feasible with existing constraints, and other sites on campus are not feasible or have other major disadvantages, and 2) the deferred maintenance of Williams makes its long-term viability very challenging.” Summarizing concerns raised by receipt of Bradley’s announcement, Associate Professor of Chemistry Stuart Belli, one of the three members of the Committee on Faculty Housing, said, “[T]he faculty all felt that, to get an email saying that you’re going to lose your apartment this summer was tough.” Belli explained that, once logistics were in place, the impulse was to move quickly: “So then it just felt like, well, the ball starts rolling, and it starts rolling over people.”
Bradley agreed that, in retrospect, she could have delivered the news differently. She corroborated that her choice to announce the demolition in December was informed by a change in funding and uncertainty as to whether the Board of Trustees would approve the project. While the Trustees proposed the construction of an Inn under President Catharine Bond Hill’s tenure, acquiring the funding necessary to complete the project continued under Bradley, who refashioned the Inn to include an Institute dedicated to communal, pluralistic intellectual projects. Notably, the majority of funds necessary for the Inn’s construction were supplied by an anonymous donor, meaning the resources could not be delegated elsewhere. On Dec. 8 last year, the College received donations toward the Inn and Institute that would cover the remaining projected costs. Bradley then met with the Trustees, but the Board did not reach a conclusive decision. Given that the Trustees would not convene again until Feb. 2019, Bradley felt she should alert residents immediately.
Following the December announcement, Hunsberger asked the Committee on Faculty Housing to call a meeting, during which 30 to 40 professors and staff strongly objected to the plan. Faculty raised the concern of ongoing infrastructure neglect, which, Hunsberger noted, has led to four or five faculty buildings along College Avenue standing empty and uninhabitable, thus restricting housing options for incoming faculty. Hunsberger noted, “Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, the trustees have held back the reins on the endowment”—a statement confirmed by Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann, who explained that the College has instead prioritized financial aid to the greatest extent possible. On Feb. 22, the College held what Bradley characterized as “a large intervention,” resulting in the Trustees committing to prioritize investment in faculty housing, including constructing a new house to replace Williams.
Still, for current Williams residents, concerns about deteriorating infrastructure pale in comparison to the reality of finding interim housing. Rossi, who has lived in Williams for 35 years, discussed during a phone interview the challenge of securing a suitable apartment on short notice, adding, “I haven’t been able to sleep…it’s just very disconcerting.” Although administrators have granted Williams residents two turnovers to relocate, faculty members with lower incomes question the accessibility of available housing in Poughkeepsie. According to Assistant Professor of Film Erica Stein, also a Williams resident, Poughkeepsie’s disproportionately high rental rates necessitate that younger faculty members, temporary faculty members and administrative staff—populations frequently residing in Williams—seek affordable on-campus housing. Stein noted, “Faculty housing has been a bulwark against Vassar faculty and staff having to bear the brunt of an unfair housing market.”
Beyond logistical factors, faculty members expressed their disappointment at potentially relocating farther away from campus. In her letter—which she sent to Bradley and Begemann along with the faculty committee charged with meeting with the Board of Trustees—Rossi shared that she frequently works with students on research projects that require attention outside of normal work hours and also appreciates the opportunity to attend musical, theater and sporting events on campus. This paradigm is echoed by the website of the Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources, which states, “Vassar College…encourages members of the faculty to reside near the campus as a way to foster interactions with students beyond the formal classroom setting and to facilitate participation in campus activities” (Vassar DoSPAR, “Faculty Housing”). Stein also reflected on the College’s use of on-campus housing as a recruitment incentive, adding, “I probably wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t sort of have a way of securing reasonably priced accommodation on campus so I could be…really committed and involved during the semester.”
The historical significance of Williams is another complicating factor: Rossi explained that the complex was built in the 1920s to house women faculty who had previously lived in Main. Having long lacked privacy in their quarters, Williams tenants viewed Harriet Williams—the alum who donated the funds to construct her eponymous building—as their fairy godmother. “It goes to show you just how important this whole complex was for the emancipation of women,” Rossi commented. “For a women’s college, you would think that they would be really interested in keeping that history alive.” Professor of Art Brian Lukacher elaborated that Williams’ Tudor revival and late Arts and Crafts style architecture complements the Alumnae House and expressed concern that its demolition may reflect disrespect toward the architectural integrity of the College: “One can only hope that the demolition of Williams…does not signal a new institutional disregard for safeguarding our architectural environment and the historical fabric of the campus.” While Belli noted that he will be sad to see Williams go, he acknowledged that adequately preserving it might not be feasible, commenting, “[I]t was designed and built in a time when things like accessibility weren’t important, and so to try to upgrade and keep Williams would be a really difficult thing to do.”
Some faculty members shared their dissatisfaction with a perceived lack of involvement during the planning process. Stein shared, “[P]eople really felt that they weren’t being valued or respected.” Surveying the situation from his position on the Committee, Belli reflected, “Certainly the faculty would’ve liked to be involved in more of the decision-making, but on the other hand…the more people you involve in the decision, the harder it is to come to a decision.” Others viewed the dialogue between faculty and administrators as a promising sign for the future. Professor of Sociology and incoming Dean of the Faculty William Hoynes commented, “There was a robust discussion among the faculty about Williams and the Institute earlier this semester, and I think that discussion was very productive.” Praising recent additions to the administration, Belli opined, “President Bradley is new, we have a new chairman of the Trustees ….[This might be] a new era we’re moving into where if we can speak with a voice, they’ll listen.”
In addition to holding meetings with professors, administration has attempted to placate discomforts by allocating resources to preserving faculty housing. Begemann stated: “The number of apartments that will become available this year and next due to… natural turnover is sufficient to accommodate the continuing faculty who reside in Williams[.]” Further, Begemann relayed the College’s intention to replace the units lost when Williams is removed and increase the quality of housing it provides. While there are 20 usable units in Williams, Bradley indicated that the College plans to construct approximately 30 to 32 affordably priced units, ranging from studios to bedrooms.
Constructing a new complex may also reduce the College’s carbon footprint. Bradley stated, “The opportunity that removing Williams gives us is to reinvest in faculty housing so that the new housing…is in fact accessible, sustainable, green building, made contemporary.” Belli also identified the new complex as a way to contribute to the environmental efforts of the Sustainability Committee: “If…nothing needed to be renovated, then you’d have a hard time putting money into carbon neutrality, but because it already needs something…we could have that money that we put into it sort of do two things.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged that construction plans often change, which could mean abandoning ideals of sustainability.
Bradley also plans on including faculty housing as a line item in asset preservation, indicating a long-term maintenance strategy. She described her plans to repair other historical architecture, including Blodgett and the Old Laundry Building, before irreparable issues arise. Moreover, the College will begin routine maintenance on two residential houses each summer. Bradley summarized, “Anything I can turn around, I want to.”
Despite efforts on the part of administration, some faculty members will doubtless come out of the situation feeling disillusioned and disenfranchised. Reflecting on the College’s stated goals of communication and making every voice heard, Rossi shared, “I just find it very ironic that something like this should happen at Vassar.” Nevertheless, administration hopes that faculty members impacted by the demolition will feel that the College did everything it could given the larger project of constructing the Inn and Institute, and that the Vassar community will recognize the need for intellectual engagement with the outside world that it fulfills. Bradley expressed, “I’d like to put Vassar on a path where we see the investment of faculty housing as an investment in the faculty who are key to making a really strong liberal arts college.”