Seeking to affirm the College’s commitment to building and maintaining a diverse community, the VSA passed a recommendation for a new diversity statement at the council meeting on April 13. The faculty will vote on the same motion at their next meeting on May 11. The hope is that, by next academic year, the statement will be approved by the Board of Trustees. After approval from all parties, it will be put in place as Vassar’s public declaration of its commitment to fostering and supporting a diverse community.
A subcommittee of the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (CIE), led by subcommittee Chair and Associate Professor of Physics David Bradley, has been drafting a diversity statement for the past two years. The statement is to accompany the College’s mission statement in online and print locations. The process began by examining diversity statements from peer institutions. The subcommittee then presented an early draft to the VSA executive board, and later to the entire school in March. They welcomed feedback via a phone hotline and an online forum. The most recent draft has incorporated as many of those comments as possible.
If the current trajectory continues, the Board of Trustees will review the statement at their meeting in May, one of their three yearly meetings. They will likely make edits, return the statement to the subcommittee and receive the second draft for a vote early next academic term. “The Board is the governing body for the institution, so they have to think about the statement from their perspective,” Bradley noted.
He clarified that the statement will have to be in accordance with their legal limitations and not interfere with the Board’s capacity to govern the college in order for it to pass. He recognized the challenge that the Board will face in maintaining its integrity as a governing body while satisfying the call of the community for a strong statement. “Let’s say I had a written a statement that said, ‘Vassar College must always have need-blind admissions.’ They would never accept that because they can’t guarantee that,” Bradley explained.
The faculty may also make changes to the document, despite having had the opportunity to participate in revisions in March. Chair of Academics elect JD Nichols ’17 explained, “[P] art of it is because they’re more comfortable exercising power over the things that they do have power over, and less inclined to just be handed a document and be told, ‘Endorse this without any changes.’”
After all of the rounds of revisions to the statement, its creators are satisfied with the current version and believe the constituencies should be too. “Personally, I feel like we worked really hard on this statement and it does what we want it to do and it balances those perspectives,” Bradley maintained. “I know that the committee is happy with where the statement is, so I don’t think that we would want the statement to move very far from where it is.”
While the hope is that the statement will be approved quickly and without major changes, it is difficult to foresee the fate of the statement as it passes through each group for approval. Each constituency has its own goals for such a statement and its own conception of what a diverse campus ought to look like. VP for Student Life and subcommittee member Christopher Brown ’16 remarked, “I genuinely believe all the groups that we’re trying to pass this through want a diverse community, but just given the nature of positions and places on campus, the students are going to want something different from this than the faculty will want and both the faculty and the students will want something [different] from this than the Trustees want.”
The diversity statement will remain separate from the mission statement, according to Bradley, in part because the inclusion of such a complicated statement would further elongate an already lengthy original mission statement. The previous version of the statement was too long to be practical and there were too many specifics about diversity to be included.
The general consensus is that the separation but complementary pairing of the statements is ideal for communicating what is necessary for each. Brown affirmed, “[T]here’s a lot of power in creating a separate statement that explicitly states our stance on diversity, because I think it’s extremely important given that we’re an institution where so many people of so many identities are part of this community, and it’s important that we acknowledge that within that there are inequalities, within that there is unfairness and we need to have something to combat that, in a philosophical sense.”
The nature of a statement on diversity is that the language is very difficult to choose; it must be precise and carefully phrased in order to incorporate as many perspectives and issues as possible without offending any group. Bradley acknowledged this difficulty, saying, “The process of writing this language is really difficult because you’re essentially writing a paragraph and that paragraph needs to say a lot of things, and it needs to do a good job of encapsulating a lot of different perspectives while at the same time not letting one perspective dominate.” The subcommittee has listened to feedback about the language and taken into account the objections, writing several drafts of the document to ensure it sends the message they want it to. “[A] lot of what we’ve been doing is really trying to choose precise, strong language that encompasses as much as we can from all the different constituencies,” affirmed Brown.
However, for the sake of brevity, the diversity statement will not include language about specific identity groups, which concerns some students. Nichols remarked, “Even though it’s impossible to get the level of comprehension that would be necessary, I think it’s essential for institutions to at least start being specific with what they’re talking about, being specific about the roles they themselves have played in the oppression and marginalization of these groups.” For this reason, the CIE is crafting a separate document to include information that will be omitted from the diversity statement. Bradley described in his address to the VSA Council, “To help bring the new diversity statement to life, CIE is also drafting a Working Document of High-Impact Diversity and Inclusion Practices, which would detail mechanisms for all members of the College to commit to and implement this guiding principle. The high-impact practices document will also include an explicit list of protected classes and other social groups (e.g. race, sex, gender identity and expression) that contribute to a diverse community.”
The current draft of the statement will not be permanent, since the language will need to change with the times. “[W]hen we were talking about the groups that we wanted to include…we included things like gender identity, and five years ago that wouldn’t have been part of the vernacular. Five years from now we don’t know what the dynamic will be,” noted Bradley.
One of the most imperative aspects of the statement that both students and the committee agree on is that it must be a statement with a message, not merely a statement that will be easily approved. Bradley asserted, “I really think it’s about crafting a statement that isn’t [just] passable by the Board of Trustees, but that really is something that everyone can get behind but that it’s still a strong statement. Because you could say, the sky is blue, and everyone’s going to agree with you on that, but does it really matter? So that’s the really tough part, is saying something that matters.”