Admin has responsibility to effectively counter hate speech

In light of the campus climate surrounding the BDS resolution and the Israel-Pales­tine conflict, a string of antisemitic and Is­lamophobic hate speech has been circulating the anonymous online forum of Yik Yak. In the past two weeks, President Hill and Dean Roellke responded to these incidents via cam­pus-wide emails that addressed this toxic and antagonistic social media behavior, as well as Vassar’s campus climate in general.

Dean Roellke’s email, sent on Feb. 16, ex­pressed his concern for the way that a small number of people within the Vassar commu­nity had been acting and urged these voices to stop treating their classmates and peers at Vassar with “contempt and intolerance.” The email continued by quoting a passage from the Vassar College Student Handbook regarding students’ obligation to be respect­ful and accepting of their community at large.

While the emails sent out by President Hill and Dean Roellke do acknowledge the hate speech occurring throughout campus, we at The Miscellany News believe this initial response by the Administration was insufficient. The emails’ accusatory tone effectively condemned the behavior of the student body but did not offer any tangible, meaningful solutions moving forward.

Dean Roellke’s email in particular read as condescending, a chastisement that offered no concrete help or plan. We at The Miscel­lany News believe that these campus climate problems cannot be solved on their own and require the whole-hearted support of the Administration

Toxic exchanges featuring antisemitism and Islamophobia have also taken hold in spaces outside of campus. The discourse of BDS can not be boxed in by the confines of Raymond Avenue.

A host of articles, including a recent piece from The Observer written by a Vassar alumni, and a piece written a few days ago by the Daily News entitled “Hatred on the Hudson” have discussed the BDS resolution climate and labeled Vassar as an antisemitic institution whose administration is in sup­port of said ideals.

The College is experiencing a barrage of outside scrutiny from alumnae/i in the form of letters, emails and social media. The Ad­ministration calls for us to all “get along” on campus, yet we wonder what this means for those voices that continue to pour in from off campus. Where do the alumnae/i voices and opinions lie in this dialogue and who is regulating them to make sure discourse re­mains accessible and safe?

We acknowledge that this outside pres­sure from alumnae/i and external publica­tions puts the Administration in a difficult position both from a moral and a financial standpoint. It is likely that they may not know how to act and navigate through this complex and loaded dialogue that affects multiple moving parts within the campus and network psyche.

Still, their initial confusion should not result in general inaction. Despite pressure from the alumnae/i, the Administration’s goals should be to protect the student body that populates the school right now, protect­ing those students who have been hurt and victimized by the spiteful discourse of BDS itself.

Although it is impossible to eliminate on­line forums such as Yik Yak, students and administrators must make attempts to re­spond to the damage that this anonymous discourse can cause.

Much of the recent controversy has sur­rounded visiting speakers who deliver po­larizing lectures on campus. Students can be unaware of these extreme opinions and feel shocked and insulted in the lecturer’s aftermath, leading to extreme reactions and a climate of anger on campus.

To help placate this, we at The Miscellany News propose an administrative system in which orgs that feel strongly about a visiting lecturer would be able to put forth a short statement or opinion that would appear on the campus calendar next to the event list­ing.

With research, it is not difficult to un­derstand a speaker’s fundamental beliefs; however, this information needs to be more easily accessible to students so that they know who has been invited to speak before the lecture begins. Orgs that feel passionate­ly in favor of or against a lecturer can then use their research to serve as mediators be­tween the speaker and the general student body, thus creating a stronger dialogue sur­rounding the event and opening up spaces for students to respond safely.

In addition to this written input about controversial lectures, it would be valuable for the orgs sponsoring these events to host pre- or post-lecture discussions. We believe that post-lecture discussions, as Students for Justice in Palestine recently offered, give students the opportunity to debrief and dis­cuss what they have just heard in a construc­tive way.

Though conversation is not comparable to anonymous hate speech, providing these outlets for discussion promotes an atmo­sphere of constructive exchange that does not encourage the same hostility anonymous social media does.

We believe that the responsibility of the Administration lies in taking immediate action to respond to incidents that have al­ready occurred. Punishment is not an option for the anonymous perpetrators. What mat­ters most now is focussing on the victims of charged attacks instead of sending emails that accomplish little beyond chastising the entire student body. We need an administra­tion that isn’t afraid to take meaningful mea­sures to protect its students.

On Monday morning, the Bias Incident Response Team sent out an email that an­nounced the creation of upcoming spaces for student sharing and healing. We at The Miscellany News believe that this type of restorative space is a step in the right direc­tion.

These spaces focus on the victims and on recovery, dealing with the hate speech inci­dents in a way that is constructive. Beyond this, it is important to remind students that are not necessarily comfortable with sharing in a public space of the resources that are available to them, such as CARES and The Listening Center.

The anonymous hate of recent weeks has contributed to a toxic campus environment that all members of the Vassar community have a responsibility to respond to. As we work towards respectful discourse, we must analyze the problems that exist and do what is in our power to work towards a safer cam­pus.

—The Staff Editorial represents the opin­ions of at least 2/3 of our Editorial Board.

8 Comments

  1. The connection of alumni to Vassar is as strong, or stronger, than that of current students. We worked for our degrees and paid for them too. We have worn our affiliation to the College proudly, until now. As long as Vassar continues to ask for alumni donations, participation in on campus/off campus programming and help in interviewing prospective students and promoting the Vassar brand, we have a seat at the table. Get used to it, soon you will be one of us.

  2. The people acting outraged about Vassar don’t understand what the school has been like for decades – it has always been a place where viewpoints from merely radical to extravagantly ridiculous have been welcomed. Sometimes this plays out to such an extreme that Vassar becomes an unwitting parody of itself, but it also can be one of the great aspects of the university. You have to appreciate it for what it is and maintain a bit of a sense of humor about it.

    So while I wholeheartedly disagree with the BDS crowd, I’m neither surprised nor particularly disappointed. I do hope there are those on campus who are able to effectively articulate, not unabashedly pro-Israel notions, but at least ones that acknowledge the nuances of the reality there. In any case, let people develop ideas and fight for them – and let those ideas live or die on their merits (or lack thereof if descriptions of this Professor Puar’s lecture are accurate). That’s what discourse is about.

    Now, what does worry me is this growing emphasis on ‘safe’ discourse. For example, I was extremely disappointed to see Vassar is falling victim to the trigger warning brigade. Or, to borrow from this article (speaking of becoming a parody of yourself):

    “On Monday morning, the Bias Incident Response Team sent out an email that announced the creation of upcoming spaces for student sharing and healing.”

    This type of thing is what takes a student body known for its proud advocacy of ideas and turns it into a bunch of timorous adolescents. Vassar at its best is a place where people aren’t afraid to speak, be challenged, and challenge. Being sheltered from ideas, books, or viewpoints you deem hurtful is not ‘safe’ in my book, it’s ‘sanitized’.

  3. This excellent editorial poses an important question:

    “Where do the alumnae/i voices and opinions lie in this dialogue and who is regulating them to make sure discourse re­mains accessible and safe?”

    Americans are more more and committed to fair speech as a replacement for so-called “free speech”, which is nothing more than a few dusty words in a 100 year old document written by privileged dead white men. “Free speech” is like most constitutional rights, a negative right – the right to be left alone and free from government interference. As President Obama has rightly noted, the constitutional framers did not go far enough with respect to rights. What we need are positive rights, the right to a good job, a house, healthcare, and perhaps most importantly, the right to a safe space, free from harmful thoughts and speech.

    Fair speech requires regulation. Is is horrifying that alumnae/i speech is allowed unregulated on campus, just like the disastrous Citizens United case. Vassar should follow the lead of progressive companies like Twitter and institute a “Trust and Safety Council”. This body would centralize the regulation of all outside speech, providing a single resource for students to voice their complaints. It could write fair rules for all speech originating off campus, ensuring that the entire campus is a safe space.

    All across Europe, “free speech” is being reigned in to provide safe spaces for the marginalized and the disenfranchised, When has Europe ever been wrong? Who is more in need of protection than the typical Vassar student?

    It is distressing that Vassar President Hill hides behind the euphemism of “free-speech” in a misguided attempt to defend the patriarchal privilege of the past.

    • Probably not possible to have anyone speak on campus then! If one person objects or feels their beliefs or feelings are subject to attack by a proposed speaker then they need to feel safe too! Can we ever discuss,dare I say debate the Palestinian/Israeli situation??
      Nazis have no place at Vassar but dont you think we could verbally
      decimate a Nazi/KKKer in public discussion and expose them for the horrible people they are??!

  4. Hundreds of alumni are appalled by the lack of tolerance on Vassar’s campus. We believe in respectful debate, critical analysis and freedom of speech. We do not believe that a small group of faculty, students and speakers should use “freedom of speech” as an excuse for hate speech. We believe that every single Vassar student has the right to feel comfortable at Vassar and not be discriminated against or ostracized based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. We are working with students, faculty, AAVC and the Administration to support change and create an environment of tolerance at Vassar.

  5. While you will be students at Vassar’s for only four years, it will take a lifetime to fully learn and appreciate all the benefits it has given you. Your plan is a start but does not go far enough. In my day a speaker that came in and preached toward a student group like LGBTs or Blacks would not be tolerated! I am for free speech not hate speech. Controversial topics or lectures needed to be vetted not just posted for public discourse. I am not promoting you ban lecturers. The opposite we need more discourse. But there needs to be equal and effective dialogue on both sides of any controversial issues for students to really process the facts and make decisions about important complex issues like Arab-Israeli relations. Ask yourselves why that has not happened in the past few years. Why have faculty and student organizations failed to invite pro-Israeli, Zionist speakers to campus at the same rate.

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