The Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) is a committee composed of various administrators and student leaders that is meant to act as a means of ensuring that students have the resources to respond to incidents that threaten the campus climate at Vassar. Such resources currently include referral to counseling services, facilitation of dialogues and recommendations for campus alerts, among other means.
At a VSA Council meeting on Nov. 9, the VP for Student Life informed the Council that BIRT was drafting a letter to ask the senior Administration to allow them to set up a bias incident database. This database would contain detailed information on all bias incidents reported to and investigated by BIRT and would be accessible to all students, faculty and administration. Students would receive notifications each time the database was updated via an email informing them of the update, but without any specific information so as to avoid triggering content.
VP for Student Life Hannah Matsunaga explained that although BIRT had been pushing senior administrators to create the database, they had appeared to stall its progress by refusing to create the website, as well as to refrain from providing a timeline of when the database might be completed.
On Nov. 14 all students received an email from the Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity and BIRT Coordinator informing them of all of the bias incidents reported to BIRT. This email had originally been drafted before Halloween by members of BIRT, who subsequently asked permission to send it through the Office of the President or the Office of the Dean of the College, both of which declined to do so.
While this email is a good initiative, we at The Miscellany News echo the sentiments of Matsunaga, who noted that it is not sufficient in making knowledge about BIRT’s activity accessible to students. There is no guarantee that future email updates will be sent out. Unlike a database that is continually updated, this email serves as a short-term attempt at accessibility by way of briefly listing reported bias incidents.
We at The Miscellany News support the establishment of the previously described incident database and would like to see all administrators working to foster its eventual creation. We feel that such a database would be a beneficial asset to the student body.
However, we also understand that the database itself is not a remedy to all issues of campus climate, as some bias incidents are not reported to BIRT. Furthermore bias incidents alone do not measure the discrimination that some students may experience on campus.
Nonetheless, this database is a step in the right direction and would create greater transparency on campus about what students experience at Vassar. We advise students to put pressure on the Administration to push this idea forward so that it does become a useful tool for the student body. The plan currently in place for the creation of the bias incident database, shows promise in allowing for more transparency concerning bias incidents on campus.
However, it is evident that BIRT lacks any real power to put this plan into effect. The administration has made it so that BIRT is unable to enact any fundamental change that would progress transparency. This is evidenced by the fact that the email received by the student body was not sent out by BIRT, which was created for purposes such as this, instead it was sent out by one person, who may not share the same concerns that BIRT does. BIRT only has the power to make recommendations to the administration, which they can choose to override.
If the administration regularly blocks BIRT from taking action after bias incidents on campus, then what was the purpose of creating BIRT? The committee may be able to create progress in the way of responding to bias incidents on campus, or at least making the student body on campus more aware of such occurrences, but the administration is preventing this from happening. We are concerned that this committee dealing with bias incidents does not have the proper authority to deal with such incidents accordingly, or even to make knowledge of them regularly available to the student body, at no fault of their own.
Because the BIRT must wait for approval from the administration that it currently rarely receives, it cannot respond to the incidents that it investigates, which puts much-needed progress in in jeopardy of being made.
Since the Committee relies solely on senior administration to act, BIRT is made subject to the desires of the administrations, and not to those of the students. This makes BIRT less powerful and less useful than it was originally intended to be. If BIRT is to make any lasting progress on campus in terms of bias incidents, then the administration needs to take their recommendations for action seriously and enact them efficiently.
On Nov. 16, the VSA sent and endorsed a letter to the administration addressed their concerns on the matter. This was a positive step to ensure that the administration understands that the student body does not believe that progress is being made, and that the current system in which the BIRT has no real authority will not suffice to create this progress.
However, there needs to be a stronger push to make sure larger issues are addressed. Bias incidents exist on campus, and any attempts by the administration to obscure this reality does not change the fact that they do occur.
The email sent to the student body brought forth the issues that are presently affecting how bias incidents are treated, but in order to create more understanding and accepting environment for all of our fellow students, we should continue to make our concerns heard, until lasting change is made.
—The Staff Editorial represents the opinions of at least 2/3 of our Editorial Board.