College must maintain constructive dialogue after incidents

Following the Town Hall meeting on Nov. 18, President Bond Hill and Dean of the College Chris Roellke notified students that the Vassar College Administration apprehended two students who were behind some of the recent bias incidents. These students subsequently withdrew from the College. Although those behind the bias incidents have left the College, their actions left many members of the Vassar community both hurt and confused. Some members of the Vassar community have found the support they needed through the efforts of Residential Life, as well as through the recent Privilege Campaign, which was sponsored by the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) and the Campus Life Response Group (CLRG). However, these efforts have not reached all students affected by these incidents. We at The Miscellany News strongly encourage the Administration to extend further support and resources to students. The conversation cannot end here.

For many students, the timing of the events—from the discovery of the culprits to the Town Hall meeting and the notification of the student body—was disorienting. Thanksgiving Break began the week after, pausing any official discussion of the bias incidents. But we cannot let the conversation wane in the aftermath of the break. Important conversations about privilege and identity need to continue into the next semester. Addressing these problems is an ongoing process.

This is not the first time that hate speech caused discomfort at Vassar. Last semester, when the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) published a flier announcing a protest at the College, the administration responded with unwavering support for any students harmed by their presence. The Administration donated a large sum to the Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department money for their efforts in monitoring the WBC’s presence at the College, and consistently reminded students they had access to counseling through CARES.

It is illuminating to compare the Administration’s response in these two situations. While the Administration offered all of these options when hate speech was directed at the College, their response lacked this vigor and immediacy when the hate speech occurred within the campus.

The campus community has come together after other instances of hate speech caused discomfort. The CLRG’s annual All-College Day event began as a direct response to a student comedy group’s racist sketch, which sparked a number of discussions about race relations on campus. The event still continues to this day, sustaining necessary conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation and class. The CLRG, a primarily student-run committee, runs the Day annually.

All-College Day provides a useful model for the Administration to consider. It is effective because students have the power to organize the event and are directly offered a board to share their thoughts.

In regard to the most recent biased incidents, the College should model its response off of its prior responses to the aforementioned events. First, like with the WBC’s protest, the College should remind students of the many resources it has to support those who feel disempowered or hurt. Second, the College should also encourage the creation of student events focused on healing. These events should be made by students and for students, similar to the CLRG’s All-College Day.

At the Town Hall meeting, some students expressed concerns about feeling unsafe in the current campus climate. Although there are many reasons for this, the Administration could address the discomfort caused by the biased incidents by providing students with greater access to counseling and support groups. Additionally, at the Dec. 1 VSA Council Meeting, Dean Roellke offered to support students by scheduling one-on-one lunches with him to discuss recent events. However, these offers of support did not go far enough. For some students, distrust of the Administration’s intents rendered his offer ineffective and lukewarm. We must acknowledge that it is early yet to deem the administration’s response completely adequate or not. However, we encourage the Administration to further their offers of discussion and student support.

Finally, these events have called attention to the roles of the BIRT and the Vice President for Student Life roles. How BIRT will continue is unclear to students; one of the students behind the bias incidents was on the team, and students already expressed some dissatisfaction with how it handled the events. We strongly suggest that BIRT open up a dialogue with the student body at large to determine where the organization should go from here. The VP for Student Life position, meanwhile, has been in a surprising amount of flux. Four students have taken the position within two years. Although many who held the position stepped down for personal reasons, the high rate of turnover suggests a larger structural problem associated with the role. We ask that the VSA investigate the duties of VP for Student Life and, if needed, consider changing it.

We do not condone what happened. But in its wake, students are engaging in conversations that require further support from the Administration. We encourage students and the Administration alike to remember how we, as an institution, have worked through past incendiary events. The goal now is to heal, and to discuss and learn from what happened. Assigning blame or re-treading the news is not productive. We call on the Administration to extend new resources to anyone at the College—and to remind students of any current resources. We also encourage students to engage in these conversations with each other, however informally. BIRT must also engage in a dialogue with students to address the future of the organization, while the VSA must assess a possible, more basic, structural issue in regard to the role of the VP for Student Life. Most importantly, the college must look to more positive responses from the past, including its offers of counseling in the wake of the WBC protest and a student-run resource such as All-College Day.

 

—Staff Editorial represents the opinions of at least 2/3 of the Editorial Board.

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