I write as a faculty member extremely troubled by the institutional failures brought to light by the Margolis Healy report, the on-going testimonials by students and faculty of color over racial profiling, and the unabated threat of sexual violence faced by our students. In 15 years of teaching at Vassar College, I’ve never felt so demoralized at this institution. My conversations with community members who’ve been here much longer suggest they too feel such demoralization.
Racial profiling, sexual violence, and the systemic racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism that underlie them are pervasive yet complex forms of oppression, sharing few common causes even as they affect us daily and deeply. Students, faculty, staff and alumnae I speak to recognize this; there are no easy ways to fix these problems. Furthermore, they extend well beyond our college walls. The problem of sexual assault, for instance, is as urgent at colleges and universities where fraternities have been identified as perpetrating organizations as it is here, a college with no Greek system.
However, at Vassar College, the thread that ties together these and other manifestations of group-based oppressions are failures of leadership and policy at Vassar College. Characteristically, the administration addresses campus issues and conflicts involving racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism in a reactive and ad hoc fashion. When it does take up such issues more systematically, it does so in dispassionate, bureaucratic ways that contrast to, say, undertakings in fundraising, new building construction, and admissions policy.
I don’t doubt that senior administrators are sincere in the dismay they’ve expressed regarding racial profiling and the lapses of management highlighted by the Margolis Healy report. I don’t doubt they feel anguished by the physical trauma and cultural victimization reported by students surviving sexual assault. But administrators’ personal feelings don’t match the magnitude of the problems at Vassar and elsewhere. For the majority of our community, racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism aren’t lessons to be discovered so much as conditions of daily existence that they must withstand and endure, whether they choose to or not. This inequality of free will — who is free to ignore or evade oppression based on their group membership — is the central contradiction of cultural citizenship at Vassar College, one that erodes the educational mission of this institution.
Part of the demoralization I feel at this moment comes from a profound sense of cognitive dissonance, brought to a head by the recent testimonial of a survivor of rape published in Boilerplate. In October, I sat through the Title IX training session on sexual assault and harassment required of all Vassar faculty. I paid close attention to the policies and issues being conveyed, all of which had the imprimatur of those same administrators identified by the Boilerplate author as belittling or dismissing her experience and appeals as the college heard her case. My point here is not to readjudicate this case as to emphasize that we fail our students when they take away any mixed signals — any inconsistency between stated policy and effective message — in the college’s stance on sexual assault. The same point applies to racial profiling.
I can only conclude that the experience of racial, gender, class and sexual oppression and the demand for dignity are of secondary priority for the administration, in contrast to their primacy among students, faculty, staff and alumnae of oppressed statuses. As a sociologist who studies organizations and stratification, I know this is a common feature of hierarchical institutions. As a faculty member who has moved through the college’s ranks to department chair, I’ve had to maintain a working denial of this reality. But as Vassar’s students, faculty, and staff come increasingly to resemble the diversity of our global society, the contradiction of cultural citizenship and its secondary concern among the administration are, it seems to me, the chief obstacles to this college’s continuing vitality as an educational and moral community
What’s to be done? This is the moment to follow the lead of our students, past and present, who offer a wealth of collective wisdom and accumulated experiences. The administration needs not just to “hear from” current and former Vassar students, but redesign policy and restructure college organization humbly informed by the ideas and perspectives that students can offer on the racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism they’ve experienced on campus.
This institution has shown great eagerness to announce its leadership on college policies regarding financial aid and admission of underrepresented groups. In similar ways, Vassar College now needs to get in front of the systemic problems of social and cultural oppression. Our campus is implicated in forms of oppression found at educational institutions everywhere. Alone or in coalition with other colleges and universities, Vassar College should announce its enthusiasm for grappling with racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism in serious, substantial and meaningful ways.
Professor of Sociology