Three Ways You Could Change Vassar In Your Freshman Year

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Bethan Johnson ’15 is the Editor-in-Chief of The Miscellany News for the Fall 2013 semester. Previously she served as the Editor of the News section. She has written for the newspaper since the second week of freshman year. Bethan is a History and English double major.

While this semester marks the beginning of a new chapter in your life, Vassar never completely starts fresh. For better or worse, many of the same debates, discussions and policies will reignite as students return to campus. So, in the hopes of helping you join these conversations, below are a few of last year’s “hot topics.”

The longest debate from the past year has been the social consciousness requirement that some students and professors want added to the college’s graduation requirements. The discussion began last September, when three incidents of hate-based vandalism took place inside a residence hall; as far as the authorities disclosed, the acts, which included racial and sexist slurs, were isolated incidents. Dorm-wide discussions in the immediate aftermath of the final incident led to the growing feeling that a social consciousness requirement warranted campus-wide consideration.

Advocates for the requirement have pointed to both the college’s other graduation prerequisites and its potential benefits. Currently students are required to take a freshman writing seminar to teach students collegiate level writing, a quantitative analysis course to ensure students maintain a level of numerical understanding, and a year of foreign language work to create more well-rounded and global citizens. Proponents spent the semester arguing that a social consciousness requirement would work in a similar manner.

In an emailed statement Alejandro McGhee ’16 explained, “As a student who has been involved in working on the social consciousness requirement I believe that embarking on this process has been one to save the soul of the campus. I don’t mean to say that in an overly flourished evangelical way but in all honesty as we all work to negotiate and reconcile our differences as developing young adults Vassar holds so much potential to socialize students to be more socially conscious.”

He continued, “I believe that Vassar has the spirit to in many ways interrupt and complicate the negative discourses that inform hate. A more socially conscious curriculum is just one of the many ways that is being done.”

Others remained, and remain, skeptical about the practicality of the requirement. Among the most commonly voiced concerns was a given course’s ability to instill or advance social consciousness, as well as the capacity of teachers to add new courses to their schedules. Some professors vocalized concerns that they, or their departments, would be unduly taxed with the task of teaching social consciousness courses. Despite the proposition that all departments could, and should, teach some social conscious-related coursework, certain majors would need to add new classes, possibly at the expense of others.

Just before the end of the semester, the campus saw the passage of a proposal in favor of a social consciousness requirement. The Executive Board of the Vassar Student Association (VSA) for the upcoming year unanimously passed Resolution 28-1, otherwise known as “A Resolution in Support of Social Consciousness.” The resolution stated, “The 28th Council of the Vassar Student Association commits to supporting programs and allocating funds in a way that is aware of and values difference on Vassar’s campus.” The execution and larger ramifications of this proposal have yet to be seen, especially in terms of the administration, and the debate on the merits will surely continue into the fall 2013 semester.

Another major event on Vassar’s campus last year was the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) protest in the spring. While the protest actually took place on February 28, the student body first heard about the group’s decision weeks before. According to their Web site, the WBC organized a protest at Vassar because it “[follows] the satanic Zeitgeist by professing the soul-damning lie that it is ‘OK to be gay.’”

Soon after the students’ discovery, hundreds gathered in UpC Cafe to discuss potential campus responses. From these gatherings, and dozens of other, smaller meetings, came numerous actions: a website to inform and support students, religious services preaching acceptance and love and keynote speaker Pastor Joseph Tolton. Additionally the Vassar community, including alumnae/i, family members and students raised over $100,000 for the Trevor Project, a group that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention programs for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth. In the end, over 500 students and members of the Hudson Valley community turned out to show their support of acceptance and drowned out the messages of the 4 WBC protesters.

Although the protest is over, students will still see the after-effects of this major movement on campus. Aside from the mainstream actions taken to prepare for the day, the Campus Climate group organized and wrote a proposal called “Rise Up: Six Demands You May Have Missed While You Were Busy Rallying.” The demands include increasing the staffing of Metcalf (Vassar’s mental health facility), the implementation of the social consciousness requirement and reorganizing the campus life offices to be more inclusive. These demands have received varying levels of support from both the VSA and the administration, and, based on statements at the end of last year, the group intends to continue advocating for these six demands.

Finally, the college saw a spike in discussions about where the college invests its money this spring with the advent of the divestment debate. Although the Vassar Greens, a student organization that discusses numerous environmental issues, had started discussing the college portfolio’s investment in fossil fuel companies, the debate heated up as the weather got colder. By the middle of the spring semester, a splinter group, The Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, had hosted a number of events. Among the most notable was a teach-in that featured professors arguing that divesting from fossil fuel companies was ethical and fiscally viable for the college. Inevitably their goal was to convince the student body, the VSA, and by extension the Board of Trustees, to divest from fossil fuel corporations over the course of a few years.

Meanwhile some students and members of the administration disagreed with the Divestment Campaign’s theory that divesting was the best course of action for the college. Those in disagreement argued that the economy and Vassar’s slow recovery from the recession left Vassar in too delicate a position to consider altering the college’s investments; meanwhile, others believed that divesting from these companies would not change their behaviors or effect global change, instead hurting the college. The most notable action taken in response to the divestment movement was the lecture by the president of the Center for Industrial Progress, entitled “Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet.” The event was sponsored by Vassar’s Moderate, Independent, Conservative Alliance (MICA) and the featured speaker discussed the role fossil fuels play in improving human life.

The event was interrupted by members of the Divestment Campaign, some wearing masks of famous Republican politicians and some not, who read a short monologue criticizing the lecture before leaving the room. This action in and of itself sparked a flurry of dialogue across the campus, and in some national news organizations.

Currently, the future of the divestment debate remains in the hands of the Board of Trustees. Despite the Vassar Campus Investor Responsibility Committee rejecting the proposed fossil fuel divestment plan, student activists believe this was only the first year for this debate. According to an article written by Gabe Dunsmith ’15 for Fossil Free, “Divestment is on their radar–and this movement is far from over. In fact, Divest VC will only gain steam as we move ahead and rally our community around divestment from the dirtiest coal, oil, and natural gas companies around.”

Students wishing to influence the state of the debate will work to bring the issue back on to the Board’s agenda and to gain a campus-wide consensus that will inspire the Board to make a decision.

While Vassar faced dozens of issues last year, and will have many new ones in the coming months, these are three of the most talked about issues on campus. If you are interested in these issues, or any others not mentioned, you should check out the News section of The Miscellany News! Welcome to the debate!

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