Campus Climate demands see progress one year later

Disclosure: I am a member of the VSA Council; however, these opinions presented here represent mine alone, and not the opinion of the entire Council.

At the last VSA meeting of the fall semester, we went around as a Council and listed some of the goals we wanted to accomplish this semester. For me, an important goal was to have more conversations about a social consciousness requirement. During winter break, I did some research about how conversations surrounding a social consciousness requirement first began, and I took a second look at the Campus Climate demands from last spring.

For those that don’t know, Campus Climate is a group that consisted of students from various identity-based ALANA and LBGTQ-affiliated organizations as well as from activist groups, originally assembled in reaction to instances of racist and sexist hate speech that occurred last fall. Campus Climate is the group that proposed what to do next after our act of campus solidarity in reaction to the Westboro Baptist Church’s protest at Vassar (The Miscellany News, “’Campus Climate’ presents six demands to empower marginalized communities,” 4/3/13). At the rally on the day of the protest, Campus Climate listed six demands to Vassar Administration about what to do next.

Nearly a year later, it’s important to measure what progress has been made. I believe this will be an important method for determining VSA action this semester. Attempts have been made to address many of the demands, but progress continues to feel slow. I was not involved in the process, so my knowledge comes from what news has been made public so far.

The first demand was a restructuring of the Campus Life and Diversity Office. This included the creation of a Class Issues Center and a Disability Cultural Center. Additionally, Campus Climate called for all Campus Life Centers to be managed by full directors in the Campus Life Office. Obviously, we don’t yet have either of the new centers proposed; however, it is my understanding that the Student’s Class Issues Alliance has been working on attaining one of these Centers. Earlier in the year, in the Student Life Committee, we also discussed the creation of this Center. There were talks of putting this new Center within the ALANA Center. However, there were concerns over splitting the ALANA Center’s already tight budget with another Campus Life Center. Still, half of this demand has come to fruition. As of this semester, all Campus Life administrators are full directors, and not simply assistant directors. This can be seen on the Campus Life and Diversity webpage and is a very welcome change.

The second demand was for a social consciousness course requirement, as well as greater social consciousness programming during First Year Orientation and in the First Year Program. The social consciousness course requirement has been repeatedly shut down by administrators, but students are not giving up. Orientation included social consciousness events, including “Who is Vassar?” as well as an event by the previous Vice President for Student Life, Genesis Hernandez, that included poetry performed by students about their experiences as members of marginalized communities. Additionally, Spring Orientation occurred for the first time this year, with a focus on privilege, identity, and belongingness.

I would say that half of this demand has had a lot of work put into it. There is still plenty of work to do on social consciousness programming during Orientation and the First Year Program, but at least there has been a significant start. As for the half regarding a social consciousness course requirement, there is still a lot of work to do.

The third demand was related to the VSA Council. It called for Executive Board positions to have a stipend for students on financial aid as the position is incredibly time-consuming, as well as a review of VSA structure to determine its effectiveness in representing students from marginalized groups. A proposal for Executive Board positions to receive work study stipends passed the VSA Council, but was killed by the Student Employment Office over the summer. The status of this project seems to be in limbo, as the Student Life Committee has not really discussed it this year even though it was a Student Life project when it began.

As for structure, the VSA is working on reviewing itself. The VSA Review Committee was chartered last spring, and did some preliminary work this past fall toward understanding what aspects of VSA representation could use improvement. It has become a joint effort between the VSA Operations and Student Life Committees and will be expanding this semester. The Committee will possibly have an external auditor come to give us a very important outside perspective as well.

The fourth demand was to have more open conversations with Admissions, such as with town hall meetings, as well as a closer look at race and gender in advertising materials. To my knowledge, there has not been a town hall. However, the Committee on Admissions and Financial Aid has discussed this. My class representative informed me that these discussions noted it is actually Vassar’s Communications office that handles advertising materials.

The fifth demand was for an expansion of the Counseling Service on campus by hiring one more counselor or psychiatrist. At the VSA Council meeting on November 24, Director of Counseling Wendy Freedman stated that they are trying to add a post-doctoral position by next school year, and that budgetary constraints are preventing them from hiring an additional counselor.

The sixth and final demand was that all buildings on campus should have gender-neutral bathrooms. This has been a project that the Student Life Committee worked on this year. As a member of this committee I have seen a surprising number of obstacles in this project. We first determined the number of gender neutral bathrooms in academic buildings. Many buildings actually have them already, but they are in hard-to-find locations, among other issues. But there is progress: Buildings and Grounds has agreed to purchase new signs for the bathrooms that will be more appropriate and faculty have also agreed to change some single-gender bathrooms as long as they still have access to other single-gender bathrooms in the same building.

This is a mixed bag. At this point, it seems that work has been done on most of the demands, but progress has been slow. The sixth demand seems to be the one that has had the most progress, as it appears gender-neutral bathrooms will be implemented this semester. All of the others are in progress, partially completed, or have been stalled along the way.

While we do have many projects that we began last semester that we need to continue, it’s important that we work on these projects in whatever ways we can. That being said, any students interested in these should approach their representatives to get involved. Most work takes place within VSA Committees, which all students are welcome to attend.

I don’t think we’re in terrible shape, considering the challenges faced and limited resources of the VSA. Progress has been slow and steady, but when you’re dealing with the feelings and ideas of students, staff, faculty, and administrators, patience is necessary.

 

—Ramy Abbady ’16 is a physics major. He is President of Raymond House.

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