Petition blame-game promotes anger at administrators above reconciliation

“End Cappytalism!” read one of the posters that students carried with them at a protest in December 2014 as they occupied Main Building and stormed administrative offices in anger and frustration over racism, sexism and oppression at Vassar. Many of my friends took part in that protest, and although I believe that we ought to share responsibility for the marginalization of members of our community, rather than place the blame with the College’s most visible administrators, I agreed with many of their critiques of the College’s administration. Vassar, like every other university and college in America, handles sexual assault and violence pretty poorly. It’s inexcusable that Vassar lacked a Sexual Assault Violence Prevention Coordinator for an entire semester and that Vassar continues to conduct procedurally flawed sexual assault hearings. Historically and presently, Vassar has also been a less than ideal place for students of color. Racial profiling has no place at Vassar or anywhere, and college administrators should have listened sooner to those who complained of its presence on our campus. When it came to the main focus of the protest — critiquing the way that Vassar as an institution has handled sexual assault and racism — I was pretty on board. However, I was confused then, and I’m confused now, by that poster, which now hangs on the wall of the office in which I’m writing this article.

I’ll admit that I think the idea behind the poster is cute—”End Cappy” plus “End Capitalism” equals “End Cappytalism”—but I’m not sure what’s particularly wrong with “Cappytalism.” If ending Cappytalism entails ending need-blind admissions and increased access to higher education for students from low-income families, then I most certainly do not want to end Cappytalism. I don’t think that the group calling itself the “Vassar Organizers,” which recently wrote an open letter/petition to the Board of Trustees calling upon them to fire both President Catharine Bond “Cappy” Hill and Dean of the College Christopher Roellke, would want to end “Cappytalism” either. After all, they ask that the trustees replace President Hill with an administrator who has “a history of commitment to marginalized communities and their economic access to higher education.” To find a college president more committed to access to higher education than President Hill would be next to impossible. Vassar isn’t arbitrarily the college with the greatest economic diversity in the United States—President Hill is one of the foremost experts on the economics of access to higher education.

I would hope, then, that the end game of the “Vassar Organizers” is not to fire both the president of this college and the dean of the College to one of the top liberal arts colleges in the United States. If they believe that the Board of Trustees would ever consider taking such an action—which would be both a publicity nightmare and detrimental to the stability of the College—then they are seriously deluded. As a vote of no confidence, however, this petition is effective. The problem is that a vote of no confidence means nothing if it is not accompanied by a set of clear demands that are actionable upon by college administrators.

As both President Hill and Dean Roellke have expressed publicly, students have not engaged with the administration to fix problems at Vassar. On the other hand, Dean Roellke, President Hill, and other administrators have reached out to the entirety of the sophomore class, student and administrative leaders in the ALANA and LGBTQ Centers, and alumnae/i. In response, the “Vassar Organizers” have merely blamed Cappy and Roellke for the presence of rape culture, misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, trans-phobia, etc. at Vassar. To be fair, it seems that neither Cappy nor Dean Roellke are well-versed in identity politics (as illustrated by Cappy claiming that being a woman allows her to understand what it’s like to be Black), but that doesn’t make them bad people. Both have expressed a willingness to listen and learn, and both have recognized that they have failed in significant ways. Indeed, how many college presidents and deans would be willing to get in front of a crowd of angry students and admit that they’ve messed up?

The sort of blame-game evident in the “Vassar Organizers” petition pushes campus discourses surrounding racial and gender-based violence toward anger and resentment, rather than reconciliation. It is counterproductive to critique without advocating for either a method for systemic change or tangible reforms, to advocate for reactionary solutions to nuanced situations. Blaming President Hill and Dean Roellke for structural problems is like blaming the contractor who has been asked to install ferns in the Raymond bathroom for foundational problems that are causing the building to collapse.

That’s not to say that the building is collapsing. Vassar has strong roots in social justice, and though members of our community have been hurt by racial profiling, sexual assault and various other forms of violence, our community continues to strongly condemn those who threaten the safety of its members and support victims of violence. In an emailed statement to me, Dean Roellke expressed his hope for a better future for all at Vassar: “I [know], and I know my colleagues will agree, that the only way to move forward productively is to do so collaboratively, sensitively and with the best interests of our students, our community and our college at the forefront of all of our deliberations.” To fail to work together on this continuing effort is to condemn our community to fragmentation, to anger and to hate.

 

—Zack Struver ’15 is a history major.

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