Having good campus discourse remains one of the hurdles the Vassar community has yet to successfully throw itself over. I hope October break has given everyone here—students, faculty, and administrators alike—an opportunity to reflect on the moments of success and failure we’ve had on campus in the first few weeks of the school year. It’s imperative that we continue to look for ways to improve campus discourse in order to maximize our potential to improve our campus as a space for us all.
First I will applaud the efforts of several groups, notably the Campus Life Resources Group (CLRG), and the Vassar Student Association (VSA). The CLRG, part of the Campus Life and Diversity Office and under Associate Dean Ed Pittman, has recently undergone an internal restructuring to focus on supporting the ideas and efforts of students within the group. The group’s focus allows it to, at the grassroots level, listen to the concerns, ideas, and thoughts of students and be able to provide the resources necessary to help great ideas or initiatives take hold on campus. I couldn’t be more happy for this transition and the efforts of the students and administrators that make up the CLRG. The CLRG is meeting once again on October 30th at 3PM in the Faculty Commons and I urge students interested in supporting the efforts of the CLRG to come to the next meeting.
The VSA also deserves credit as of late for their efforts to try to create more good discourse within Vassar’s own student government. The VSA has been working on a number of projects to increase not just the transparency of its governing, but also increase the accessibility of elected individuals and standing committees to at-large members. The creation of an internal review committee is also commendable, as it demonstrates sincerity in the VSA’s efforts to try to improve upon its errors and try to offer a government that is, if necessary, restructured to improve its ability to govern our student population.
While there is a general discontent among students about what is wrong with the VSA, the proactivity to create an internal review committee, increase visibility of appointment meetings, and to increase general transparency are going to help immensely with the nature of discourse on this campus, as students will feel more comfortable utilizing the structural channels that exist.
As for an example in recent memory that demonstrates a poor instance of campus discourse, the one that seems most striking to me occurred on the anonymous message board SayAnything. I don’t like to talk about SayAnything as I feel it isn’t a space that should be acknowledged in discourse, but it’s this exact issue of acknowledgment that has unfortunately come up and complicated the relationship of this space with campus discourse.
Sometime in September, an anonymous individual posted a message that spoke ill of the veterans who had arrived on campus this year as part of the new Posse Program. In response to this negative speech, a representative of Vassar’s administration reached out to the moderator of SayAnything and requested the post be taken down.
This is startling for a number of reasons. For one, it’s ridiculous to expect an authority like Vassar’s Administration to acknowledge or respect the statements made in an anonymous space like SayAnything, and it reflects a lapse in judgment that only encourages further negative speech on SayAnything, since it’s the sort of conversations that will get Administration to pay attention to the space. Second, this is the first time Vassar’s Administration has intervened in a space like SayAnything, asking for the moderators to take a post down. This is problematic because this is not the first instance that individuals have posted negative commentary on the website.
In fact, there had been acts of full-blown hate speech committed on SayAnything in the past, but only now has Administration decided to step in and make a statement toward anonymous discussion boards on out college campus. While it’s debatable whether or not students should take advantage of anonymous spaces, it’s without a doubt that they are not the place for administrative officials to make a stand for good or bad discourse.
The problem here has to do with more than just SayAnything, or even with just trying to create more spaces capable of good discourse. The problem is that you cannot expect the efforts of any campus administration—Vassar or elsewhere—to legitimately affect campus discourse by simply forcing action upon the spaces (anonymous or not) that already exist.
I don’t think hate speech or unproductive criticism is a good form of discourse, but it is certainly bad for discourse when administrations selectively decide when hate speech is unacceptable in an anonymous space that has self-determined rules already in place. The ability to ensure good discourse and discussions on our campus begins with setting specific channels that will respect the discussions that take place, and only using those as an effective means to carry out the discussions students, faculty, and administrators are then interested in.
If Administration wants to make a stand against hateful speech on campus, it should do so through its own channels by trying to help fight the hateful speech, not simply have it removed on a case-by-case basis. Selective action comes across as selective caring, and it doesn’t positively affect the causes of hateful speech on campus either.
Vassar College remains a space that I feel is in need of better avenues for discourse. Sure, it isn’t terrible, but I think we know better, and we could certainly do better too. I will admit I don’t exactly know what these better avenues are, and I don’t have many suggestions yet. What I do feel is that better discourse will come as a product of collective efforts from not just student organizations but also administrative offices, and it will certainly help if discourse is approached with more motivations than mere censorship.
Regardless, I am hopeful for the future and look forward to the accomplishments our Vassar community will make in the months to come to bring better discourse to our campus.
—Joshua Sherman ’16 is an English major.