On May 26, 2016, Dean of the College Chris Roellke sent out an all-campus email announcing the appointment of Adriana di Bartolo as Vassar College’s new Dean of Students. The email cited Dean di Bartolo’s extensive experience with student affairs in higher education, including her tenure as the Founding Director of the Queer Resource Center of the Claremont Colleges and Acting Associate Dean of Students for Personal Success and Wellness.
With DB Brown’s recent retirement, the hiring of Dean di Bartolo poses a unique opportunity for Vassar’s administration to redress and reconsider its past treatment of programs like the Student Support Network (SSN) or community resources like the ALANA Center. Her career, rooted in service to students and grounded in queer theory, is a wonderful testament to the potential for reform in the Dean of Students office. We at The Miscellany News wish to express our utmost support for Dean di Bartolo as she transitions into this position, while acknowledging the office’s history as one that has often resulted in institutional mistreatment. We believe that Dean di Bartolo can accomplish meaningful things at Vassar and change the way administrators interact with students, especially across lines of race, gender, faith, sexual orientation and ability.
However, Dean di Bartolo may be in for a challenge. As many are aware, the relationship between the Dean of Students Office and the student body has historically been tenuous. Specifically, the lack of transparency surrounding the Dean of Students Office and its extensive influence over the College’s primary behavioral monitoring system, the SSN, especially its treatment of involuntary leave, raised concern for our staff and the larger Vassar community. As was written last semester, “We at The Miscellany News support the purpose of the SSN, but feel that the execution and understanding of the student body is lacking. Among other things, we believe that transparency is crucial to the functionality of the SSN. Understanding how and why students are sent away is critical for the health and happiness of the campus at large” (The Miscellany News, “SSN needs reevaluation, provide more info to campus,” 03.02.2016). We asserted, and still do assert, that involuntary leave, from a structural standpoint, can often do more harm than good, especially for low-income students or students who come from toxic home environments.
Additionally, underfunding and lack of support for crucial resources for students have raised concerns about administrative treatment of student affairs and where Vassar’s priorities should lie as an institution. Most recently, Vassar outrageously reduced the reach of The Listening Center and CARES as peer-listening services due to perceived liability issues, effectively eliminating one of Vassar’s most pertinent and accessible resources for survivors of trauma. While these organizations are restructuring to continue the absolutely vital work that they do, these decisions reflect the greater deficiencies of administrative priority. Moreover, underfunding and understaffing of resources for students of color, such as the ALANA Center, must be addressed in some capacity.
While many of these issues fall out of the direct jurisdiction of the Dean of Students, it is no secret that deans and upper level administrators hold large amounts of institutional power. Dean di Bartolo’s support for these key resources could recenter students and imbue our community of students with a greater sense of agency.
Many students may pass by Dean di Bartolo’s office or drop in to meet with her without realizing the full extent of the institutional power vested in her position. The Dean of Students is responsible for the offices of Counseling, Health Services, Health Education and Residential Life, as well as overseeing the student conduct process and co-chairing the New Student Orientation Committee. The Dean is also one of the four administrators that make up the Students of Concern group, which meets weekly to coordinate resources for students in crisis. In short, Dean di Bartolo will have been shaping students’ experiences from the moment they set foot on campus.
At the University of Chicago, Dean of Students John Ellison recently struck a nerve with incoming students even before move-in day, with his letter describing the University’s staunch policy on academic freedom. Ellison decried trigger warnings and “intellectual safe spaces,” and declared that the University does not cancel invited speakers on the basis of having a controversial topic (The Chicago Tribune, “U. of C. tells incoming freshmen it does not support ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces,’” 08.25.2016). Here at Vassar, it will fall on Dean di Bartolo to respect student agency, instead of silencing community needs or claiming to know what is best for us, as Chicago has done.
Unfortunately, Vassar has already failed this year to support certain voices, albeit not as publicly. This year’s New Student Orientation, although replete with presentations on sexual health and drug and alcohol safety, was distinctly lacking in programming geared towards students of color. In fact, apart from an optional ALANA Center open house, the only event that dealt with issues of racial identity was I Am Vassar, a Chapel event with speeches on individuality by students and administrators.
Even if the will to improve programming for people of color is there, the infrastructure often is not: underfunding and the College’s historical priorities mean that Dean di Bartolo will be working to build from the ground up. For Dean di Bartolo to address issues of ableism on campus, the framework is quite literally not there: some residential houses and academic buildings lack the proper ramps and elevators to be accessible to students with physical disabilities.
CARES and TLC are sticky issues as well, with the College citing liability issues involved with having students on call for such a service. Vassar has since hired two new staff members for its Counseling Service: a step in the right direction upon which we at The Miscellany News believe Dean di Bartolo can build in expanding support for students’ mental health. Even so, mental health, accessibility and support for students of color are only some of the issues di Bartolo will face in the coming months.
Our hopes for Dean di Bartolo and her career at Vassar are high, and we are optimistic that she can set a precedent for what kind of leadership and administration-student relationships we hope for in Cappy’s successor. So far, Vassar has made an effort to involve students in the presidential search process, selecting two student representatives to serve as liaisons and creating opportunities for students to submit their opinions—which we never have a shortage of. This is a transitional year for the College, and if Dean di Bartolo leads the way in valuing student voices, we can make Vassar a better place together.
— The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least two-thirds of The Miscellany News Editorial Board