Vassar must face harmful contradictions

Though Vassar may have a reputation of being isolated from city life, the fact is that the College is situated within a diverse community of residents and businesses. The website CollegeProwler describes Vassar’s “town-gown,” or relationship with the neighboring community as “strained.”

We at The Miscellany News feel that the time is long overdue for a re-examination of the different ways we as an institution make community residents feel both welcome and unwelcome on our campus. Two sets of events from last weekend exemplify the contradictory messages Vassar sends to its visitors.

On Saturday, April 26, Hip-Hop 101 threw Throwback Jam, then, the next day, members of the South Asian Student Alliance (SASA) organized the annual SASA Fest. Both events drew large numbers of local residents who might not otherwise have had a reason to visit Vassar. We are happy that the two events saw such a strong showing of local attendance, and we commend their organizers for creating a shared space of enjoyment and celebration.

Though much has been made of recent integration of Vassar and the community in which we find ourselves, we at The Miscellany News believe that the dialogue between these two entities is fraught with conflicting messages from the College.

Not all visits made by community members to campus end as positively as those of Throwback and SASA Fest.

This past Sunday, April 27, security asked a group of young Poughkeepsie residents to leave the library after a student had filed a noise complain against them. When they exited the library, they attempted to retrieve their bikes, and Vassar security called the Town of Poughkeepsie Police, who evicted the group. The surprising severity of security’s response is a reflection of the College valuing its status as private property, which gives it absolute control over who does and does not deserve hospitality on our campus.

This is not an isolated incident. We find that the majority of our interactions with the Poughkeepsie community remain unwelcoming. While we understand the College’s concerns of safety for its students, we believe these conflicting messages about who is welcome and when they are welcome on campus is one that the College and its members should openly confront rather than tacitly acknowledging.

While Vassar does invite community members to our celebrations, these invitations are exceptions to a general rule. Vassar’s campus is private property. Much of the campus is walled off, and what gates there are remind visitors that only members of the College community are welcome after 7 p.m. Our library is open to those not affiliated with the College only during normal working hours.

These enduring restrictions along with  these recent events work together to epitomize the inconsistent nature of the way the College interacts with the neighboring community. We speak about how we want to integrate ourselves into the community—opening up campus events to community residents is one way of doing just this. Yet, existing alongside this sentiment is a certain wariness, if not outright prejudicial suspicion, expressed towards outside visitors.

While it is not the case that merely setting foot in Poughkeepsie is a life-threatening act, we do not live in a perfect world. The host of armed robberies, like the one that befell Saigon Cafe earlier this year, and the muggings, such as those reported some blocks away on Raymond Avenue, remind us of the importance of safety precautions.

We at The Miscellany News acknowledge that the safety of students takes precedent. We also recognize that Vassar property is private, and the decision of who may come onto that property ultimately rests in the hands of the College administration. Security Staff work hard to keep us and our campus safe and secure. We are not rebuking the work they do, but rather, we challenge them to go a step further and examine the implications of their actions.

As we think more about how we relate to Poughkeepsie, we at The Miscellany News would like to remind readers of a number of different points. First, we cannot divorce this conversation about the community from the privileged position Vassar occupies, not only as an elite institution of higher learning, but also as the executor of a multi-million dollar endowment and a space with a predominantly white student body. A Vassar identification card grants us entrance not only to residential houses and the library, but also marks us with the privileged and exclusive status of Vassar students.

We believe that learning is not found solely in the classrooms. Vassar students can learn a lot through becoming active participants in the community, whether it be by engaging in field work, volunteering or attending non-Vassar affiliated events and festivals. However, along with this work must come strides to make Poughkeepsie community members feel as comfortable stepping onto Vassar’s campus as we feel occupying the city.

The division between the two entities is much less a concrete reality than a product of a particular way of thinking. As much as Vassar constitutes a discrete private space, its health and safety is inevitably linked to the wider urban environment of which it is a part. Many College employees are both residents of Poughkeepsie as well as members of Vassar College, and every year, a sizable chunk of the first year class is composed of students from local high schools.

The boundaries between private Vassar space and public Poughkeepsie space are blurrier than we see them. We need to realize how issues of status and privilege intervene in the cultivation of a relationship between the College and its neighbors.


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

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