Vassar College, like most educational institutions, has a long history rooted in the exclusion of marginalized and disadvantaged groups. While some work has been done to make Vassar a more equitable and diverse place, many of the same institutional exclusions persist. Earlier this year, it was determined that the mission statement needed to acknowledge Vassar’s efforts to increase diversity. Vassar’s mission statement as it currently stands reads: “The mission of Vassar College is to make accessible ‘the means of a thorough, well-proportioned and liberal education’ that inspires each individual to lead a purposeful life. The college makes possible an education that promotes analytical, informed, and independent thinking and sound judgment; encourages articulate expression; and nurtures intellectual curiosity, creativity, respectful debate and engaged citizenship. Founded in 1861 to provide women an education equal to that once available only to men, the college is now open to all. Vassar supports a high standard of engagement in teaching and learning, scholarship and artistic endeavor; a broad and deep curriculum; a community diverse in background and experience; and a residential campus that fosters a learning community.”
Behind this decision was the Committee on Inclusion and Equity (CIE) and the Board of Trustees. For the past three years, revising language throughout the College’s governance with attention to issues of diversity, inclusion and equity has been a major priority of CIE. This spring, CIE formed a joint task force with the Trustees to focus on the revision of the mission statement. Professor of Physics and Astronomy David Bradley, who chairs the committee that has drafted these changes, explained the task force’s objectives: “[T]o more clearly articulate the College’s existing commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity and…to serve as a vision for said work on campus.”
Dean of the College and Professor of Education Christopher Roellke added in an email, “I believe the motivation [behind changing the wording of the mission statement] is to affirm how important diversity, inclusion and belonging to the community are to our core enterprise.”
Once they drafted a new version of the mission statement, the Board of Trustees reached out to the Vassar Student Association (VSA) asking for critiques or endorsement of the updated statement. The VSA initially demonstrated interest in working with the Task Force to revise the language, and expressed concerns about the way in which the statement addressed Vassar’s history. Bradley states in an email, “I took these concerns seriously and asked the VSA President to work with the VSA Executive Board to draft some proposed mission statement language that might address these concerns…and give [the task force] a place to start in addressing them.” A subcommittee of VSA members worked to devise a diversity statement for consideration as an addition to the mission statement. The committee proposed to the Senate two possible courses of action: the first was to offer different wording that acknowledges that Vassar has not always been a just institution; the second was to inform the Trustees that the mission statement seemed to primarily serve a superficial role, and that the VSA would not endorse a statement that is not self-critical.
After careful consideration and much discussion, the VSA chose the second option, reasoning that it would have the most substantial impact on the Board. Chair of Equity and Inclusion Cecilia Hoang ’18 elaborated, “It’s certainly not a ‘safe’ or ‘moderate’ move because they are almost certainly not going to adopt what we’ve offered, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have to grapple with the perspective that’s being offered, one which attempts to complicate Vassar’s alleged support for diversity and equity, and own up to its reality.”
Bradley maintains that, “The truth is that Vassar has always been on a spectrum in its pursuit of these ideals, and still has a long way to go.”
In the VSA Senate meeting on Sunday, April 16, many members expressed the concern that the Trustees have exceedingly different priorities and values than the general student body, and determined that a refusal to endorse the proposed revisions was the most effective way to communicate this to the Board. Chair of Academics JD Nichols ’17 stressed the importance of following what the VSA thought was best to do, rather than what they felt pressured to do, and stated that the second option was more consistent with their guiding principles.
As Chair of Academics, Nichols was involved with the task force to restructure the College’s mission statement. The task force–comprised of Nichols, faculty, administrators and trustees– was formed to more directly address diversity and inclusion in the mission statement. “I am still very invested in working with the TaskForce on this task,” Nichols said. “The problem with the wording as it stands now is that Vassar has not been historically accepting to all, but Vassar does not want to have an admission of past guilt in its Mission Statement and so text erases those who have been excluded in its line about history.”
However, in the most recent Senate meeting VSA members expressed concern that the Trustees would not be receptive to their proposed changes to the mission statement. “If we were to submit language to the Task-Force qualifying Vassar’s history and saying that it was originally founded for white, upper-class women, those qualifiers would be cut out without a thought and the VSA’s feedback would be discarded in seconds,” Nichols remarked. “By passing a statement declining to provide them with language, we are not saying that no student input will be given to the Task-Force, we are instead saying that the VSA cannot, in good faith, endorse language that falls within the parameters of what the Trustees will accept.”
The mission statement plays a central role in decisions made by the Board, the administration and the faculty. The task force will continue its close scrutiny and revision of the statement. Professor Bradley asserts, “Revising this statement would be an extraordinary move forward in our pursuit of diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice. A change of this magnitude requires collaboration and compromise from all stakeholders.”
As the VSA Senate transitions into its second year, its members will work with the Board to continue to make Vassar a more equitable place, and hope to open lines of communication between the Senate and the trustees. By directly addressing issues of exclusion inherent in the College’s founding, the VSA intends to facilitate dialogue on diversity, inclusion and equity, and asks the Board to do the same.