In response to the recent criticism by students of the Administration’s failure to address and take responsibility for charges of institutional racism and misogyny, an email was sent from the Office of President Catherine Bond Hill to the campus community on the subject of how the College intended to move forward in the new semester and the coming years.
In the all-campus email sent on Jan. 29, Hill wrote, “As we move into the new semester, I believe we will make further progress in building a community that supports everyone. I appreciate the hard work of many on campus toward this goal, and I am very much looking forward to continuing to engage with you in this effort.”
Hill’s words have often been taken skeptically by students, many of whom have denounced her and other upper level administrators for hiding behind words and emailed statements rather than actually confronting the issues disillusioned students face. In spite of such past accusations, however, the email announced the creation of a new website aimed at working towards fulfilling Vassar’s commitment to its goals of diversity and inclusion for eveyonce.
In her electronic letter posted on Dec. 10, Hill wrote, “We know that many of our students don’t feel this sense of belonging, don’t see the college as a home, or Vassar as a community. Instead, they feel frustration and pain. I am so saddened by this. These issues are important to me, to you, and to Vassar.”
The creation of the website, named Strengthening Vassar, will keep students updated on the progress of promises made to students by the College and will notify students of dialogue and diversity events throughout the spring.
Among some of the goals listed on Strengthening Vassar are the provision of bystander intervention and sexual assault prevention training for all students as well as a victim-centric approach to sexual assault response. The move would require the Administration to work closely with the Vassar Sexual Assault Response Team and to fill the open position of Assistant Director of Counseling Services.
Also mentioned was the intention of the Administration to ensure a greater presence and involvement by the Board of Trustees, which the Administration reports has been closely following the events of the past semester, on campus and with student issues.
The website announced that Chair of the Board of Trustees Bill Plapinger and other Trustees will visit campus early this semester to meet with students and other community members to hear and discuss their concerns.
Some of Strengthening Vassar’s listed goals have already been accomplished. One of the completed tasks was the appointment of Director of Africana Studies, Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Committee on Inclusion and Excellence Zachariah Mampilly and Associate Professor of Film Mia Mask to advisory positions, both to Hill and other senior-level administrators, on issues of race and inclusion.
The primary focus of Mask’s and Mampilly’s positions is the heading of research toward the creation of a senior-level officer position for institutional diversity and inclusion, which would be tasked with coordinating anti-discrimination and anti-harassment efforts to ensure a more welcoming campus.
“If the College hired a chief diversity officer,” Mask commented, “or took some steps toward having a coordinating and centralized office that would address issues of diversity, that would be a major shift. It would mean that there would be parties and individuals assigned to make diversity a priority. It wouldn’t be a piecemeal project any longer.”
Another listed action taken was the establishment of a Mental Health and Wellness Support Fund in reaction to claims by many students that the College’s provision of such services is severely lacking.
As the website claimed, “[The] Mental Health and Wellness Support Fund [will work] to eliminate financial barriers to accessing [mental health services] both on and off campus, including resources to cover transportation and co-pay expenses.”
Also completed was the increase of several academic-year-only positions in the Office of Campus Life and Diversity to full-year status. The positions include the Directors of the ALANA Center, LGBTQ Center, Women’s Center, the Office of Health Education, the coordinator of the Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention program and the Rose & Irving Rachlin Director for Jewish Student Life.
Many students, however, hold strong reservations in trusting the Administration’s reported progress and determination to be more proactive in their approach to handling students’ concerns. Hill’s email was sent only slightly over a week after the Vassar Student Organizers, who have won the support of over 250 community members, disseminated an all-campus email condemning the College’s current leadership and calling for the immediate replacement of Hill and Dean of the College Chris Roellke.
“While many of these changes we see as positive, they are not new,” the email read. “Incompetence, lack of imagination, and a profound absence of care on the behalf of the senior administration have brought us to where we are today. President Hill and Dean Roellke have both admitted that they have failed at their jobs of making Vassar a healthy and safe environment for all students.”
The email continued, “This affording of third, fourth, and fifth chances when those most harmed are the most vulnerable in our society is a bedrock of racism and misogyny. We are calling for new senior leadership. Enough is enough. For the same reasons that President Hill and Dean Roellke have failed at their jobs in the past, we have no reason but to believe that they will continue failing in the future.”
Other community members, however, have seen the website and Hill’s email as a commendable break from the Administration’s pattern of inaction last semester and a valuable advancement in diversity and inclusion efforts on campus. Rob Carpenter ’18 commented, “[Upper-level administrators] have a really tough job and they’re definitely not the worst at what they do. There’s a lot of things to consider, and this effort shows that they’re at least trying to work towards making amends and creating positive change.”
He continued, “This was an encouraging move. There’s no doubt about that. I think it’s undeniable that there’s still a long ways to go and that administrators can definitely try harder, but this is a good start.”
Mampilly wrote, in an emailed statement, “As has been clear from student activism, we have a long way to go. It will take years. But I’d rather we as an institution go through this often wrenching process than pretend that we can avoid the glaring issues of race and class that have become even more prominent nation-wide over the past decade.”