Fairstein resignation sparks debate on College culture, previous inaction

Photo courtesy of cyvanceforda via Flickr.

In a new Netflix miniseries titled “When They See Us,” actress Felicity Huffman plays Linda Fairstein, former chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit. The series dramatizes the story of the Central Park Five, a group of young Black and Latino teenagers wrongly convicted for an assault and rape in Central Park. Director Ava Duvernay’s account claims that on the night of the crime in 1989, police initially prepared to charge the teens only with unlawful assembly. But Huffman’s Fairstein quickly concluded otherwise, and the teens became primary suspects. “Every young Black male who was in the park last night is a suspect in the rape of that woman who is fighting for her life,” Huffman’s Fairstein tells NYPD officers, sending them up to Harlem to “stop every little thug you see.”

The five boys—arrested, convicted and eventually exonerated 13 years later through DNA evidence—all claim that Fairstein helped orchestrate the coercion of their confessions. Fairstein denies this accusation, and still opposes the overturning of the verdict.

As of early Tuesday morning, June 4, Fairstein sat on Vassar’s Board of Trustees. In a letter published that afternoon, President of the College Elizabeth Bradley announced that Fairstein had resigned from the Board, effective immediately.

Fairstein joined the Board in 2008 as an alumna from the Class of 1969. According to Vassar’s website, she is a legal expert on crimes against women and children, and has penned around 20 crime novels, many of which have gone on to become bestsellers. Her advocacy and work has earned her dozens of awards, including the Federal Bar Council’s Emory Buckner Award for Public Service, Columbia University’s School of Medicine Award for Excellence, Anti-Violence Project’s “Courage” Award, Glamour Magazine’s Woman of the Year Award, and New York Women’s Agenda Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Ms. Fairstein felt that, given the recent widespread debate over her role in the Central Park case, she believed that her continuing as a Board member would be harmful to Vassar,” wrote Bradley in her letter. “The events of the last few days have underscored how the history of racial and ethnic tensions in this country continue to deeply influence us today, and in ways that change over time.”

Fairstein’s position with Vassar first came into question when Mari Robles ’21—galvanized by “When They See Us”—started an online petition to remove Fairstein from the Board. At the time of Fairstein’s resignation, the petition had over 13,000 signatures. At the time of this publication, it has over 22,000.

“I was so nervous, I was shaking when I hit the publish button on the petition,” said Robles, who was wary of potential backlash given her status as a first-generation, low-income student. “We saw the numbers going up and up and up, and I was really surprised initially about how people were sharing it so quickly and how much attention it is getting now.” The outcry against Fairstein has been subject to national media coverage, drawing the attention of CNN, NBC, CBS, Newsweek, Vanity Fair and Variety, among others. Another petition to boycott her books has garnered over 110,000 signatures.

Robles, who spoke to The Miscellany News prior to Fairstein’s removal, has been interviewed by a number of news outlets about her creation of the petition. She explained: “There will never be a full remedy for what Fairstein has done, given that she was on the Board for so many years. Even all the press she is getting now doesn’t compare to what these five boys had to go through.”

Following this resurgent interest in Fairstein’s past, and the appearance of Robles’ petition on Sunday morning, Bradley posted a message on Vassar’s website on the evening of June 2. The letter read in part, “A petition has circulated over the weekend regarding a member of the Board of Trustees, and calls for the Board member to be removed. We take such concerns from students and alumnae/i very seriously, and understand the significant issues involved here.”

Regardless of newfound concerns, the exonerations of the Central Park Five have been well-known to both the public (Ken Burns directed a 2012 documentary on the case) and to Vassar administration for over a decade. For instance, the College turned some attention to Fairstein’s role after the publication of a Miscellany News article in October 2017, which compiled short biographies of Vassar’s Trustees. News Editor Laurel Hennen Vigil ’20 and reporters Dylan Smith ’20 and Clark Xu ’18 wrote: “While working for the Manhattan DA, Fairstein oversaw the infamous 1990 ‘Central Park Jogger’ case, which resulted in the false conviction and imprisonment of five young men, dubbed the ‘Central Park Five.’ Fairstein has been accused of rushing the prosecution. During the investigation, Fairstein reportedly barred one of the defendants from seeing or speaking with friends and family members. The defendant’s convictions were vacated in 2002. Fairstein left the District Attorney’s office the same year.”

Following the article’s publication, some of the bios—which the College described to The Miscellany News as overly negative in tone—required some factual corrections. Although Fairstein’s remained unchanged, it was included amongst bios that were in question by Trustees and administrators, demonstrating an awareness of her history in the case.

According to Robles, who has received many messages from students and alumnae/i after posting the petition, perceptions of previous inaction on the part of the Board and administration have been a point of contention for the broader campus community. “Other students have expressed online a lot of anger that the Board probably knew about her background [in the Central Park Five case], and even in her [official Trustee] bio, intentionally omitted it,” Robles said. “This isn’t really a just a problem with Vassar, it is with every Predominantly White Institution in America, that has people on their Board of Trustees, or faculty, or administration, that have these backgrounds of racial discrimination and injustice.”

Prior to Fairstein’s resignation, VSA Vice President Jenny Luo ’20 had been planning a meeting for students on and near campus to organize a protest at Fairstein’s forthcoming 50th reunion. Luo said, “Sure, it’s surprising that Linda Fairstein was a part of the trial, and that she is a person that stands between the Black and brown community. But that is also what our institution is built upon. Is it that much of a surprise, that someone who graduated decades ago is like this?”

While Fairstein has remained relatively quiet in response to the backlash since deleting her Twitter following several heated exchanges and the trending of #CancelLindaFairstein., She did, however, speak with The Daily Beast, taking direct issue with the Netflix miniseries, calling it a “basket of lies,” and adding that director Duvernay was “putting words in my mouth that I never said in Oliver Stone fashion.” Fairstein contests that the Netflix account does not show an accurate depiction of police proceedings: “The police do the investigations and they don’t let us [the prosecutors] in until they finish what they’re doing.”

In an interview with the New York Post, Fairstein explained why she stepped down from several roles on Boards, including that of Safe Horizon, a non-profit organization from victims of abuse and violent crime. She said, “I do not want to become a lightning rod to inflict damage on this organization, because of those now attacking my record of fighting for social justice for more than 45 years.”

Fairstein’s timely resignation absolved the Board from either heeding or dismissing the voices of students and alumnae/i, brought forth by the petition and, subsequently, the President’s Office. When asked about the administration’s change in response following the October 2017 article versus the renewed outcry following Robles’ petition, Vice President of Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll wrote in an emailed statement, “President Bradley asked the Chair of the Board to review the concerns raised in the petition by our students and Alumnae/i, in order to be responsive to them. Neither the Board nor President Bradley asked Ms. Fairstein to resign, it was Ms. Fairstein’s decision.”

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