[TW: This article mentions rape.]
On Friday, Aug. 31, Director of Safety and Security Arlene Sabo emailed the campus community reporting the distribution of a document titled the “Vassar College Disorientation Guide 2018–2019” to around 400 students, some of whom were first-years.
The Disorientation Guide, signed by “VC brewers hellbent on nothing but destruction,” aims to provide an alternative to the information presented by the College during First-Year Orientation, the end of which coincided with the distribution of the document. The authors state in the introduction, “We are a group of radical students who created this publication to combat this romanticized administrative introduction. This guide aims to peel back the carefully curated image of college and provide an understanding of institutional power at Vassar.”
The guide goes on to give a broad timeline of Vassar’s history in its local context, an account of past activist events on campus and various essays—personal and analytical—that criticize “the white supremacist, cisheteropatriachal, capitalist values that govern the college.” Topics range from satirical biographies of members of the Board of Trustees to perceived biases and improper conduct on the part of Safety and Security to a reflection on the 2015–16 Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Reactions to certain provocative statements in the document dominated campus conversation. The guide’s calls to action, such as “Don’t say something, watch it burn <3”—in reference to campus security vehicles—“Host a molotov cocktail making workshop” and “Slap a zionist <3” led to condemnations of violent action and anti-Semitism by Sabo in her email and by President of the College Elizabeth Bradley in a message sent on Sept. 2. Bradley asserted that although conversations concerning Vassar’s institutional history are crucial to the community, “Authentic and critical discussion of these topics is stifled when violence is incited.”
Both Bradley and VSA President Tamar Ballard expressed their willingness to engage with students who had questions or concerns about the guide and its implications. The day follow- ing the distribution of the guide, approximately 60 students attended the gathering hosted by the VSA in the Old Bookstore to reflect and debrief.
Though this publication is the first in Vassar’s history, students and alumnae/i of various elite colleges and universities, including the University of Pennsylvania and Amherst College, have published similar Disorientation Guides in recent years that critique their respective institutions. In an email interview with The Miscellany News under the condition of anonymity, the writers of the Disorientation Guide explained the motivation behind the publication.
“In discussing the idea with students from class of 2014 to class of 2022 we figured that it was crucial to [start] a conversation about things that happen at Vassar that will not be discussed during orientation week. It’s frustrating as students because Vassar in many ways is great, we don’t deny that, but it’s not the amazing refuge that orientation can make it out to be,” wrote the authors.
As they divulged, they compiled the guide to include collaborative sections and submissions from current students and alumnae/i, all in an effort to reflect varying conversations from activist groups on campus. The authors stated that their sources included personal experiences, meetings with administrators, online research and articles from The Miscellany News, Boilerplate Magazine and other publications.
Regarding their decision to remain anonymous in the guide, the writers cited various reasons, including precedent from other Disorientation Guides and a desire for the conversation to focus on broader campus needs rather than individual opinions. Certain articles in the guide also necessitated anonymity, according to the authors, such as one discussing rape allegations against an unnamed professor. As the authors wrote, “How do you address some of these issues non-anonymously with our current legal system and other school rules and what not [sic]?”
Following the dissemination of the guide, the College quickly launched an investigation to discover the students behind it. In a written statement on Sept. 3, the College stated, “We have taken swift action, immediately condemning the behaviors this document advocates, and launching an investigation into who was behind it. By Saturday morning [Sept. 1] we had identified the students believed to be responsible for its distribution and began the student conduct process. We have also worked to stop its distribution on our campus through electronic and print means.”
Vice President of Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll declined to comment on the on- going student conduct process, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). She also referenced President Bradley’s Sept. 7 email announcement of a commitment to providing anti-bias training for students and student-facing administrators in connection with the Engaged Pluralism Initiative (EPI).
Incidents related to the publication of the guide have additionally been addressed by the VSA in the past week. The VSA Organizations Committee will be conducting an audit on the student organization Crafts Not Bombs, which focuses on activism through art, in response to the organization’s attempt to use VSA funds to print the Disorientation Guide. According to Chair of Organizations Dea Oviedo ’20, this audit was approved prematurely by the VSA Executive Board before Orgs Committee could plan a timeline and approve it due to the time-sensitive nature of the situation. As explained at the Sept. 9 Senate meeting, Crafts Not Bombs will also be temporarily prohibited from registering events through the SARC office or accessing its budget until the audit is complete.
The authors of the guide expressed their surprise at students’ and administrators’ reactions: “[W]e take responsibility for including silly things like ‘throw a molotov cocktail party’ that we figured were just funny and whatever, we did not expect to be called arsonists, nor to spark accusations of anti-Semitism.”
As they further detailed, “In regards to including ‘slap a zionist’ as a proposed action, we understand that it did not necessarily foster the conversation we hoped the guide would spark. We do not, however, find the action to be in any way anti-Semitic … Still, we will happily apologize for the harm it’s caused. And we want to apologize for the ways the school chose to turn it into an anti-Semitic statement because in no way do we want to hurt Jewish students.”
They additionally expressed regret for the guide’s tone switches, which made it difficult to differentiate sarcasm from intended points of discussion and calls to action. They indicated an intention to continue the Disorientation Guide initiative in future years as well.
The authors’ statement to The Miscellany News also reiterated their support for the BDS movement, citing various incidents involving clashes between pro-Palestine and pro-Israel groups at Loyola University Chicago and the work of Palestinian activist Ahed Tamimi. These statements aligned with the reaffirmations stated in the guide: “We are open to the possibility of running another BDS Campaign, or any other international solidarity effort.”
To conclude, the authors of the Disorientation Guide expanded on one of their goals for the project: connecting interested students with alumnae/i involved in the activism they promoted in writing. “Those of us who are alumni want folks to know that the guide was put together by students across 8 or so class years … With that, we found that it showcased the beginnings of what is a pretty big network of support for more radical students,” the authors wrote.
In its statement, the College reiterated its commitment to addressing the publication of the guide, pursuing the investigation of its conception and dissemination while upholding core beliefs. The statement affirmed, “We will continue to be vigilant to address these issues decisively and in a way that reinforced our deeply held values of community, respect, and engaged pluralism.”