Despite the symbiotic relationship between students and administrators that admissions leaflets paint, last semester the college showed the degree to which the college falls short of this ideal, with tensions running high on campus and and these two groups being in conflict. In the last semester, several contentious issues relating to interactions between the administration and the student body gripped campus–issues that may continue in the coming semesters.
A powerful controversy brewed over the campus last semester in regards to the Israel/Palestine conflict and the reverberations and reactions of community members at Vassar. At times, the controversy spilled over the Vassar gates and became part of a larger national debate, encompassing alumnae/i and other political activists. Central to the debate were the actions of the Vassar chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Spring Break trip of one Vassar International Studies course to Israel.
Vassar’s SJP devotes its efforts to educating people on the actions of the state of Israel against Palestinians–actions they argue violate international human rights and Palestinians’ rightful ownership of the land–and promoting a boycott of Israeli goods and services. The group also supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions philosophy in regards to Israel. According to its website, this demands that society “end [Israel’s] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the Wall…Recognize the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality…and Respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties.”
The SJP fundamentally objected to the administration’s refusal to support an academic boycott of Israel, a boycott supported by the American Studies Association in December 2013. On January 2, President Catharine Bond Hill and Dean of the Faculty Jonathan Chenette released a statement addressing the prospect of the boycott that proved to be the catalyst for much of the semester’s later controversy. The statement stated an opposition to academic institutions and its strong opposition specifically to the Israeli academic institutions.
This decision spurred action by segments of both the student body and the faculty. Starting almost immediately, members of the community began writing opinions articles and letters to the editor to the Miscellany News arguing either for or against the boycott of the issue. Among the most prominent actions taken by members of SJP was the protesting of an International Studies 110 class on February 6. They particularly objected to this course because it featured an academic spring break trip to Israel promoting what it argued was an accurate depiction of the conflict; the SJP refuted this claim and stated its objection to a trip that supports pro-Israeli ideas. At first, nine members brought signs and informational pamphlets discussing such issues as water deprivation and greenwashing and set up outside the classroom; eventually this number grew.
As time passed, outside press attention grew and alumnae/i began entering the conversation more fervently. The Miscellany News received dozens of letters to the editor and opinions pieces from individual alumnae/i and groups arguing for a change in the discussions at Vassar. Rhetoric ranged from people claiming pro-Palestinian messages as anti-Semitic to cries for greater support for SJP.
Another step which added to the controversy was the Vassar Jewish Union’s (VJU) decision in subsequent weeks to support an Open Hillel at Vassar. While members of the VJU maintain that its members have a diverse set of opinions on the issue and that they receive no funding from Hillel International, the basic principles of the Hillel movement sparked further controversy. As the VJU wrote in an article on February 19 “The emerging Open Hillel movement, as well as ongoing conversations on the Israel-Palestine conflict on campus, has prompted the VJU to reflect on the values and guidelines of Hillel International. Open Hillel is a national movement to open the parameters of acceptable discourse on the subject of Israel/Palestine within Jewish groups under the umbrella of Hillel International.” (“VJU agrees to be Open Hillel organization,” The Miscellany News) The decision drew criticism from both those who believed that the group’s limited support of the Hillel movement was suspect, and by people who condemned it as another form of asserting pro-Israeli stances on campus.
By February 27, the controversy and perceived campus tension on the issue prompted President Hill to send an all-campus email. She wrote, “Specific issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian situation have spurred heightened attention and debate on and off campus, including through social media and in the press. Tensions resulting from different points of view can be difficult, but we should not be surprised that they exist. What makes a Vassar education work is the mutual respect we offer one another in the face of different, sometimes highly charged, opinions. We need this.”
This request for mutual respect and calm discourse did not end the controversy, however.
The next day 39 members of the faculty released an open letter to the administration through The Miscellany News dissenting to the administration’s failure to boycott Israel (“Open letter in defense of academic freedom in Palestine/Israel and in the United States”) The letter received dozens of comments again ranging from praise to condemnation. In the subsequent months, numerous speakers associated with the conflict came to speak on campus–author and journalist Sayed Kashua and Cornell University Law School professor Bill Jacobson. Student groups sought these and others to discuss the conflict in order to better contextualize the issues and unite the campus in discourse.
On April 11, President Hill released another all-campus email, this time also delivered to parents, in regards to the issue. She spoke about the heightened degree of concern from all members of the Vassar community, past and present, about the rising tension. Despite the continued commitment to activism on both sides, and growing attention on campus from bloggers and larger media sources, the letter concluded on a hopeful note. She said, “I am cautiously optimistic and encouraged by these and other events. As a community we are taking very seriously our responsibility to prepare Vassar’s next generation to speak confidently, listen respectfully, and act responsibly and effectively.”
Just before leaving campus, the Palestine-Israel controversy became extremely inflamed once again upon the discovery of the use of World War II Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda on the SJP Tumblr page. After removing the post, the SJP General Body released a statement, titled “An Apology from the SJP General Body,” that said “Up until this point, the social media platforms (Tumblr and Twitter) associated with SJP Vassar’s name have been managed by one person and the SJP general body was not involved in decisions made about what was being posted. We condemn any and all hate speech including any form of anti-Semitism and we are deeply sorry several offensive posts were made in SJP Vassar’s name.” It continued, “We are now reevaluating how social media associated with SJP Vassar will be managed as we sincerely want these outlets to reflect our mission of social justice, opposition to all forms of racism, and solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
The following day, President Hill informed the campus in an email, “I am requesting VSA review of the SJP’s pre-organization status. The college is also investigating the SJP’s online posting as a bias incident under college regulations. I also request that the SJP Vassar membership take responsibility for its actions and cease representing itself as an official Vassar group, pending these investigations. Vassar College is committed to free speech and academic freedom, but we condemn racist, hateful speech.” As no formal announcement about the group’s status has been released and the results of the investigation into the bias incidents remain unpublished, the controversy and its impact on the coming semester remain unknown.
Bias also proves to be the center of the other controversy that embroiled campus last semester. One of the most controversial moments in the past semester came with calls of racial profiling stemming from one particular incident that took place on April 27. In the afternoon of that day, the Poughkeepsie police were called to campus after a group of Poughkeepsie youth were asked to leave the library. Many students found this to be an overreaction by Vassar security, especially since the children were trying to leave on their own bicycles but were stopped due to suspicions that they were stolen. This event prompted many students of color to speak out about their own experiences with racial profiling on campus and begin a larger discussion about race and space at Vassar.
As one anonymous student said, “This recent event is obviously racially charged. This one case is not an anomaly, as VC security has a previously called the cops on Black people (students and faculty even) and has a long-standing history of racial discrimination, and there are numerous personal testimonies of similar run-in with VC security from our student body.”
In response, on May 14 President Hill distributed an all-campus email, acknowledging the need for new safety and security policies and outlining the steps the administration planned to take to address them. As Hill wrote, “Over the summer we will be making a number of changes in our practices to strengthen our approach to safety and security for all Vassar community members and our guests, regardless of their race or ethnicity. We are committed to honoring Vassar’s nondiscrimination and nonharassment policy and to providing a campus environment free of racial profiling.”
Some of the new policies included a new Safety and Security Advisory Council chaired by the Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, Julian Williams, and measures to help with training security officers about issues of race and ethnicity.
Discussions related to racial profiling on campus did not end there, however. On May 24, students, administrators, and VC community at large came together for a panel discussion related to racial profiling. At the meeting, several administrators, including Co-director for the Committee of Inclusion and Excellence (CIE) Kiese Laymon, Director of Safety and Security Don Marsala, and Dean of Students David D.B. Brown all went on record to say that racial profiling happens. President Hill, however, did not give the same response.
According to Hill, “I can never just say one word…[racial profiling] 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.” Acting Dean of the College last semester, Eve Dunbar, echoed this sentiment.
Preceding this issue, President Hill has sent two all-campus emails detailing efforts the administration has been making to address some of the biggest concerns community members have. On July 17, Hill distributed a call for proposals from community members for the 2014-2105 school year for projects focusing on some of the college’s most controversial issues and bridging the gap between differences. As Hill wrote, “I wanted to announce it now in the hope that many of you will give this some thought and be ready to consider planning projects with others on campus soon after the semester begins.”
On August 7, Hill sent out another email to all members of the Vassar community, reiterating her and the entire administration’s commitment to addressing calls of racial profiling. Hill also outlined further steps the administration has taken, including hiring an outside service specializing in higher education safety and security named Margolis Healy, that specializes in higher education safety and security, to further assist in reviewing the college’s policies.
Although both controversies have catalysts years in the making and came to the forefront in recent months, it remains to be seen how last semester’s controversies will impact the coming year. New structures and new voices will most likely alter the campus, but only time will tell just how much, if at all, these issues change.