Vassar maintains a special spot on the ever-growing list of American colleges and universities with reputations for being hotbeds of liberal idealism, a description that many on campus wear proudly. Outside of campus, however, not everyone feels similarly.
On Tuesday, Nov. 3, right-wing nonprofit organization Project Veritas, headed by conservative journalist James O’Keefe, released a video to the internet attacking liberal arts college administrators for their stance on political correctness on college campuses. The video, posted originally on the fringe investigator group’s YouTube channel, featured footage taken in September of Interim Title IX Coordinator and Assistant Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Kelly Grab, Faculty Director of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Colleen Cohen and other liberal arts college administrators speaking with a troubled student. The mysterious student claimed that she was triggered by the United States Constitution, copies of which members of the CATO Institute had been passing out the week before.
The anonymous student, however, was not really a member of the Vassar community. She was one of O’Keefe’s reporters for Project Veritas, sent out to Vassar and Oberlin College to surreptitiously capture administrators’ responses to the invented situation. Having made her way into Grab’s office for a private meeting, the undercover reporter explained her situation. “Last week something kinda happened on campus that kind of really upset me and I ended up having a panic attack,” she confided in Grab. “It’s just I’ve been kind of hiding out in my room ever since kind of scared, so, finally somebody told me I should maybe come talk to you about it and see if there’s anything that can happen or anything… They were handing the Constitution out on campus.”
Grab acknowledged the proposed concern, asking if there was anything the student impersonator felt could be done to help alleviate the troubling circumstances. “I’m sure there are also some people who, who maybe don’t understand the impact that this might have on folks, right?” she asked. “I think what you’re sharing with me is that your interaction in receiving this was harming, right? And that’s what we certainly want to avoid. We don’t want to limit people in exchanging ideas or having opposing viewpoints, but when it’s disruptive or causing harm…” The reporter then told Grab that she had the copy of the U.S. Constitution she was given with her, and asked if Grab would be willing to destroy it as a means of catharsis. Grab agreed, and shredded the copy.
Having caught Grab in the act, O’Keefe, dressed in a Constitution mascot costume, argues throughout the video that the surreptitious footage is evidence of a culture of political correctness that has taken precedence over respect for one of the nation’s founding documents. “When this idea came up in our newsroom about campus administrators shredding the Constitution because it’s a trigger against students, we didn’t think people would actually fall for it. But we underestimated just how stupid and politically correct these people are,” he says. “We were amazed and disappointed. Political correctness and cultural sensitivity run amok.”
The video, which received thousands of views almost immediately after it was picked up from YouTube by websites Campus Reform and The Federalist, was met with outrage from internet conservatives with similar views. One YouTube commenter wrote, “It’s funny how these college officials find the Constitution so offensive, but seem to have no problem with the part of it that gives them the right to shred it because they don’t like what it says.” A person commenting on The Federalist’s coverage of the story remarked, “You want to help a student who is ‘traumatized’ by the site of the constitution? Give them a semester abroad in country with no constitution.”
On campus, however, the video has been received differently. Most have agreed that Project Veritas’ actions were unethical, and many more have called the video a clear instance of entrapment rather than investigative journalism. On the night of the video’s public release, President Catharine Bond Hill wrote in an emailed statement, “It is clear that the impersonator was attempting to entrap members of our staff whose responsibilities include providing an unbiased, empathetic response to students who express being in distress and a referral to other appropriate resources on campus…It is unacceptable that someone would take advantage of our administrators’ openness in such a dishonest and fraudulent way.”
Similarly, Acting Dean of the College Benjamin Lotto addressed the video as malicious. He wrote in an emailed statement, “Project Veritas’ ‘reporting’ is widely known to be and has been repeatedly demonstrated as fraudulent, unethical, and illegitimate. Like many students, I feel outraged over their violation of a confidential space for the Vassar community.”
This was not the only issue community members took with the video, however. VSA VP for Student Life Christopher Brown ’16 asserted that even more troubling than O’Keefe and Project Veritas’ attempts to purposely smear the names of Vassar and other liberal arts colleges was their willingness to do so at the expense of the time and effort of student-support administrators like Grab and Cohen. “I find that the fact that Project Veritas used false pretenses in order to bait these women absolutely disgusting. Surprising, no, but disgusting, yes,” Brown commented. “These women are important resources on this campus, and the only thing that makes me angry about this whole process is that their time was wasted by someone who was posing as a distraught student.”
Criticism of the video and its creators came strongly from the Vassar community. Stronger, however, has been the community’s overwhelming support of Grab and Cohen in light of the video, as students and administrators alike asserted that the two acted entirely appropriately in the situation they were presented with. Brown went on to posit, “I think that the video portrayed both Kelly and Colleen as well as the other women from Oberlin in very positive ways, frankly. Kelly and Colleen, in their capacity as resources for students, were attempting to help someone who came into their offices seeming extremely distraught. They handled themselves with professionalism and I would expect nothing less from two well-respected faculty members from this campus.”
Lotto agreed, “What I see in the video is Kelly responding to a ‘student’ who came to her confidentially and was in crisis. Her reaction was unbiased, empathetic, validating, and supportive. In other words, she was doing exactly what she should have been doing, and doing it superbly. The same is true for Colleen Cohen. I’m proud that we have such excellent, committed, caring professionals working on campus to support our students.”
In a show of community-wide solidarity, dozens of students have written to Grab and stopped by Metcalf House to succor Vassar’s Title IX Office after the slanderous video went viral. Days after the story, a Google document spread across social media outlets, where students could put their name and class year to show their support. Several hundred students wrote their names down in just a few days, as did some alumnae/i.
In spite of the outpouring of community support, many have remained worried that O’Keefe’s manipulation of the College’s open campus policy may necessitate a reconsideration of that openness. Lotto mused, “Having an open campus provides tremendous value in connecting Vassar to the greater Poughkeepsie and mid-Hudson Valley communities. However, an open campus policy comes with some challenges as well. The Vassar community needs to have a broad conversation about what it means to have an open campus, and specifically [the] who, when, and how of access to different parts of the campus. It’s not clear whether a more restrictive access policy to campus would prevent a college-aged individual posing as a student from walking into an office whose fundamental purpose is to be welcoming and supportive.”
Others have wondered what the campus community’s response should be, whether to pursue legal action against O’Keefe and Project Veritas or to simply let the matter fade into oblivion on its own. Lotto asserted that Project Veritas’ actions, however objectionable, are best left ignored. “In my opinion, any response implicitly recognizes this video as worthy of consideration — which it is not,” he wrote.
Director of Media Relations and Public Affairs Jeff Kosmacher proposed that the best solution to public outcry from these conservatives is simply for the community to remain steadfast in their belief in what Grab and Cohen do for Vassar, and be vocal about it. “Maybe one of the most important things students can do as a result is to share with others their pride in the Vassar people so dedicated to their wellbeing and education,” he wrote in an emailed statement.
Brown expressed similar sentiments, suggesting that support for Grab and Cohen is already building within the community. “I honestly think the best thing to do is what already has happened. The buzz behind the video itself seems to have gone away and been forgotten, and there was a lot of love thrown out into the world by students and faculty alike, especially about Colleen and Kelly,” he explained. “I think the community just needs to focus on how these women handled themselves during this moment, and enjoy the fact that we live in a community with such inspiring mentors and professors.”
Neither O’Keefe nor Project Veritas have remained silent since the video’s posting, however. A second video was released two days after the first, on Nov. 5, featuring the same methods used to entrap Grab applied to administrators in similar positions at Yale University, Syracuse University and Cornell University. In all three instances, given the same pretenses, the administrators chose to destroy the pocket-sized copy of the Constitution, once again raising a furor among right-wing viewers.
Just as was the case for Vassar, however, those communities responded with continued support of their Title IX officers, refusing to accept that their reactions were inappropriate or disrespectful. In a press release, Vice President for University Relations at Cornell University Joel Malina expressed similar criticism of the methods used in the production of the video and the slanderous intentions of those responsible for it. “The Project Veritas video released today would have you believe an employee was helping a student make a political statement by denigrating the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the video shows a ‘reporter’ misrepresent herself as a student with a mental health crisis,” Malina wrote. “Whatever personal views she may have shared in order to connect with a ‘student’ who appeared to be in crisis, as an employee of Cornell University she was appropriately focused on addressing the apparently urgent need of the person before her and not on any larger political context” (Cornell University Media Relations Office, “Vice President Joel Malina on today’s Project Veritas video,” 11.05.15).
Whether Project Veritas will continue its attack on Vassar’s peer institutions appears unclear. For now, however, the community remains hopeful that it will survive the attempted character assassination, and that Vassar’s reputation will not be tarnished by the incident. “The sad facts are well known,” Kosmacher remarked. “Project Veritas manufactured a result that serves its purposes. Hopefully their deceitful practices will be seen for what they are, by anyone who might otherwise gain a misimpression of Vassar through this charade.”