Panel examines racial profiling

Students filled the Villard Room to participate in a dialogue with various administrators regarding bias incidents on campus. Panelists included President Catharine Hill and Acting Dean of the College Eve Dunbar. Photo By: Carlos Hernandez Tellez
Students filled the Villard Room to participate in a dialogue with various administrators regarding bias incidents on campus. Panelists included President Catharine Hill and Acting Dean of the College Eve Dunbar. Photo By: Carlos Hernandez Tellez
Students filled the Villard Room to participate in a dialogue with various administrators regarding bias incidents on campus. Panelists included President Catharine Hill and Acting Dean of the College Eve Dunbar. Photo By: Carlos Hernandez Tellez

On May 20, a panel entitled, “Does Racial Profiling Happen Here: Cappy Answers to Recent Bias Incidents” was held in the Villard Room to the attendance of over 200 members of the Vassar community. Sitting on the panel was Director of Safety and Security Don Marsala, Acting Dean of the College Eve Dunbar, President Catharine Hill, Dean of Students David D.B. Brown and Co-director for the Committee of Inclusion and Excellence (CIE) Kiese Laymon.

Students Emma Redden ‘15, Shivani Davé ‘15, Dallas Robinson ‘14, and Alejandro McGhee ‘16 helped to coordinate the event and facilitate the discussion.

Davé explained the motivation to hold the event. “Our goals were to hold the administration, the faculty and staff, the student body, and the entire Vassar community accountable for the way that this institution treats brown and black bodies,” she said. “We wanted to hear the panelists take responsibility for their actions.”

Davé opened by referencing a Miscellany News article from 1997, the headline of which reads, “Vassar must become more sensitive to minority students,” (11.21.97) stating that issues of racial profiling and belongingness have been rampant and recurring throughout Vassar’s history. In her remarks, Dave briefly recounted recent bias incidents and how administrations has addressed them, including when Poughkeepsie police were called on April 27 to remove two black preteen boys from campus, the recent destruction of a student’s mural, anti-semitic imagery posted online from the social media platforms of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) organization, and the erection of a pro-Zionist mural.

Some of these campus happenings prompted emails from the desk of Hill; however, Redden noted in her first question to the panel, not all bias incidents have received the same attention. While the Office of the President condemned SJP’s anti-semitic images, an email regarding the racial profiling of Poughkeepsie community members was sent by Dunbar. Hill maintained that the though her name was not signed to the message, it was only because Dunbar had spearheaded the initiative to begin making changes to Safety and Security procedures.

“[Dunbar] came to me with a set of proposals to change the language concerning racial profiling in our policies against harassment and discrimination. Because it was coming from her, it didn’t occur to me to send it out from my name,” said Hill.

Nonetheless, students and panelists alike felt that the discrepancy suggested a larger problem. Redden clarified, “We are not saying that the [anti-semitic image] did not warrant response—we are saying that other things warrant a response as well.”

Laymon echoed Redden’s concerns, stating, “A number of us have thanked Cappy for sending out the correspondence. In that email you [Hill] condemned a group of students for their racism. We have never publicly condemned racial profiling.”

However, one student from the audience asked the panel members to do exactly that: “Can you, the administration, go on the record to say that racial profiling happens on campus?” she asked.

“It just like, ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” added McGhee.

Laymon, D.B. Brown, and Don Marsala answered immediately, stating that yes, racial profiling happens at Vassar. However, Hill stated, “I can never just say one word…It has absolutely happened on campus, but I don’t want to say it has in any specific case because it’s not fair to those involved.” Dunbar, too, maintained that though it is a problem on campus, she believes it may be unfair for the institution to say an employee has profiled until an investigation is complete.

Nonetheless, both panelists and students agreed that the protocol and procedures currently in place have proved insufficient to deal with the issue of racial profiling.

“What we have figured out doesn’t seem to be working,” admitted Hill. This prompted Redden to ask simply, “What are each of you going to do to challenge a culture that attacks black and brown bodies and what is the time line?”

Though there was a proposal that CIE drafted and sent to administrators last spring during Hill’s sabbatical, the plan has not yet been realized, according to Laymon.

As far as immediate action, Hill noted that earlier that morning a form went live on the Safety and Security and Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA) websites, where members of the Vassar community can report incidents or issue complaints.

Hill added, “I feel strongly that we need a high-level task force to discuss issues of campus climate and racial profiling…It would include administrators, faculty, students and alums.” This weekend senior officers will also be meeting with the Board of Trustees this weekend, Hill noted.

However, disagreement ensued surrounding who should be responsible for instituting these changes.

Dunbar called students to “challenge the institution,” though Robinson pointed out that it is difficult to have faith in a system that has continually failed.“When people don’t feel safe it takes a toll and they won’t feel safe coming forward to that system. We’ve sifted through levels and every level seems to be [messing] up,” said Robinson.

Laymon agreed, stating, “If you ask the same people to make change and they can’t, it might be a personnel issue. I would encourage the right personnel changes to be made so that the racial terror on this campus can end.”

A Vassar security officer in the audience said that though she felt she was being “thrown under the bus” for the incidents of racial profiling, it is crucial that the changes the community was calling for originate from Safety and Security. She noted that security officers must appeal to the office’s executive directors before calling the Poughkeepsie police.

“It is hurtful when you’re trying to make changes and you’re an officer of color and you see your people being abused. I was asked on many occasions to say that there was no racial profiling. I’ve refused to do so,” she said, adding, “The root of the problem is from our department and we have to change that.”

The security officer received a standing ovation from the audience before Davé ended the panel with concluding remarks.

“You are accountable to more than your Board of Trustees, to more than your donors, and to more than your faculty members,” said Davé. She ended, “And we need to hold each other accountable and think about the next time we call security because we feel unsafe—we need to do better.”

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