Letter to the Editor 11/14/13

To the Editors:

I would like to respond to last week’s article about the Student-Labor Dialogue pamphlet distributed recently on campus. I respect that the students who produced the pamphlet did so from a sense of social responsibility and social justice, important values for the Vassar community.  Some of the information from which conclusions are drawn is incorrect, however, and needs to be clarified, as does some information presented in the Misc. article.

The history and current status of the staff forum was addressed in both publications, but I wouldn’t characterize what happened in quite the same way. During the 2008 forum, when we were in the midst of a financial crisis that required difficult decisions in all sectors of the economy, including at Vassar, emotions ran high and civil discourse changed to some staff members shouting me down.  It became impossible for me, any other administrator, or any other staff member to be heard.  So I ended the forum, with great disappointment. This was a lost opportunity for staff and administrators to have direct dialogue at such a crucial time.

This September I spoke to several staff members who expressed a desire for the staff forum to resume and contribute to greater communication between the staff and the administration. I agreed with them and began plans for the upcoming forum. It was scheduled for December because I felt it was important to allow for the arrival of our new Vice President for Finance and Administration, Bob Walton, who began his job in early October.

I let members of the Student-Labor Dialogue know about these plans when they recently visited my office, well before they issued their pamphlet. My goal for the upcoming forum is to share updates about important initiatives, such as the Integrated Science Center project, results of the recently completed fundraising campaign, and the financial outlook for the college, as well as to hear from staff members about what issues are on their minds.

In several ways the Student-Labor Dialogue pamphlet suggests not only that Vassar doesn’t negotiate in good faith with the unions that represent college employees, but that it violates union contracts. The administration completely respects the staff’s decisions to be represented by unions in negotiations with the college on employment and compensation issues, as is their right. We have always bargained in good faith, and our actions are guided by our union contracts.

Especially in challenging economic times, there may be disagreements about how we balance our financial resources to accomplish our educational mission to educate qualified students from all walks of life. Tensions were especially heightened during the international financial crisis that began in 2008, as we had to make a wide range of unprecedented financial and personnel decisions that affected people across the college’s entire workforce. The college made the decision to protect financial aid during the recession, having just returned to need blind admissions, in part to increase the socioeconomic diversity of the student body. At the same time, financial aid needs suddenly and intensively grew for Vassar students already on campus because of the recession.

I know that every employee’s contributions at every level make and keep Vassar a great college. I am committed to Vassar remaining a healthy and supportive workplace that provides everyone fair wages and benefits.

I am also open to differing ideas, and I believe in the power of thoughtful, accurate, and respectful dialogue as the key to this process. In fact, even sooner than the staff forum in December, we will be holding a forum for students next Monday evening (Villard Room, 7:00pm) for a discussion of a variety of issues on students’ minds. I look forward to these opportunities for us to demonstrate together the kind of civil discourse our nation’s leaders seem unable to practice. We may not always agree, but I know we can live up to being a mutually respectful and supportive community.

Catharine Hill



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