Town Hall incites disagreement

Senior administrators met with students to discuss issues such as a social consciousness, bias incidents and limitations of double majoring. Photo by: Cassady Bergevin
Senior administrators met with students to discuss issues such as a social consciousness, bias incidents and limitations of double majoring. Photo by: Cassady Bergevin
Senior administrators met with students to discuss issues such as a social consciousness, bias incidents and limitations of double majoring. Photo by: Cassady Bergevin

Senior members of the Administration called a town hall meeting that took place on Monday Nov. 18. The event, moderated by Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Julian Williams and Nicole Wong ’15 functioned as grounds for dialogue between Vassar students, faculty and administrators. Administrators President Catherine Hill, Dean of the College Chris Roellke, Acting Dean of the Faculty Stephen Rock and Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann served on the panel. The meeting sparked heated debates on issues of academic requirement and bias incidents, while also featuring criticisms of the administration’s actions for inclusion and equity.

The event began with short opening remarks by Vassar Student Association president Deb Steinberg ‘14, who stressed the importance of shared governance and noted that the town hall meeting epitomized this idea. Following opening remarks the event was opened up to the audience to allow direct questioning. The first string of questions focused on potential curricular changes, and were directed mostly at Rock. He had mentioned in his opening statements that he and the Committee on Curricular Policies (CCP) had been considering placing a limit on the number of major and correlate sequences a student was allowed to pursue. He cited a collective concern in CCP that students who picked a few areas to study intensively were not receiving a full and broad liberal arts education.

A number of students vocalized their dissent at such an proposal. Erin Murray ’15 proposed that it should be the right of the student to decide to focus narrowly, and argued that double majoring could guarantee a wide range of studies. Aidan Wilcox ’16 said of Murray’s remark, “I feel like it’s a question that needed to be asked of the administration and has been on the minds of many students recently.”

Rock argued that certain kinds of double majors were more concerning than others due to distribution requirements. He spoke to the necessity of finding “the right mix of breadth and depth.” When another student told the panel that the freedom of choice was one of the reasons he came to Vassar, President Hill stepped in to offer her thoughts on the matter.

“I think isn’t there also a little concern that in accumulating correlates or majors that students are taking more than four courses and, perhaps, spreading themselves a little thin,” Hill said. “So in that last year if they want to get that one more correlate or major they have to pile on and take five or six classes, and we are worried that you then are not committing to each of your classes as fully as you would be otherwise.” Additionally, she said that in the process of trying to meet correlate or major requirements, students could bar others from entering a class that they themselves may not be interested in.

The discussion then shifted to last year’s controversial proposal of a social consciousness requirement. Proponents of the requirement argued that a class that dealt with issues of race, class or gender could provide basic entry into a topic for someone who was socially ignorant. Along with this came sentiments that the administration’s current methods of dealing with ignorance were not systematic or sustainable, and that Vassar’s community is not a community for everybody. Rock maintained throughout the debate that there were many classes on campus that would probably satisfy the requirement, and that he suspected many students were already taking these classes. For him, the problem wasn’t simply a lack of education; it was “willful bias and willful hate.” Rock said, “You can’t take a person who doesn’t want to get along with others…and have them come out [of a class] a socially conscious person.”

Associate Professor of English and member of CCP Kiese Laymon took a different stance on the reasons for not having a social consciousness requirement. He said, “I think it’s really fair to say that as a committee we didn’t think that the social consciousness requirement was enough and pragmatically we thought, and i.e. knew, it would not pass the faculty floor.”

Assistant Professor of Sociology Carlos Alamo noted the failure as a sign of larger institutional issues. He stated, “I get the issues of governance and faculty. I also think that institutional will matters a lot…I think that we should think of social consciousness also as institutional will; this is something that we are saying ‘this is what we value and this is what we want to be known for,’ then let’s commit to it, regardless of if people are worried about ‘I might have to learn how to teach diversity.’”

The topic shifted from the causes of the requirement’s failure to other perceived administrative issues. One student spoke about her frustration at witnessing the same students and administrators respond and program around issues of racism, sexism, homophobia and classism with little administrative support. At this, Hill objected to the image being painted of the administration. She said, “I kind of object and I think it’s a little unfair. There’s a lot of talk about this is somehow the administration’s problem; this is our entire community’s problem. It’s students, it’s faculty, it’s staff, it’s administrators. And I actually think that this administration has worked really, really hard to be supportive and make this a safe place. Have we got all the solutions? Absolutely not. But, certainly, over the time I’ve been here and other people sitting up here, we have spent time and effort working with faculty and students trying to move the institution in the right direction.”

The recent rash of bias incidents also served as a topic of discussion, with one student asking how the isolation such acts cause could be countered. Hill responded by saying that town hall-like events had the potential to unite the campus, a view that was reflected in an emailed evaluation of the night.

“I thought the conversation was useful and reflected issues that I know have been on students’ minds…my only regret is that it was not better attended. The issues that were discussed are important and the more students who are engaged with them the better we will be able to address them,” she said.

Although the town hall displayed different opinions of campus life, both Hill and Rock thought that the perceived disagreements were not as drastic as they may have seemed. Hill said in an emailed statement, “I think there is actually broad agreement about the role and importance of social consciousness at Vassar, even if there are different ideas about how best to promote social consciousness.” Rock echoed these views, noting in an emailed statement, “I don’t think that there is any disagreement over the importance of social consciousness or social responsibility. The question is how to go about fostering it. This is something about which I believe reasonable people can disagree, but it’s also something about which I believe reasonable people might be able to come to agreement through continuing conversation.”

Roellke thought that, despite its successes, there remains room for improvement. He said, “I think the town hall served the purpose of making the administration accessible to hearing student voices. Regretfully, these venues sometimes don’t yield a lot of divergent perspectives and I think we still have more work to do on how to engage more voices and to engage them productively.”

Wilcox reflected, “I think the conversation was very intense, but I think it needed to be.”

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