Letter to the Editor: Faculty Housing

Courtesy of Talya Phelps

RE: Misc Article “Faculty housing to be demolished,” April 4, 2019

Thank you to Talya Phelps and Jessica Moss for their article, “Faculty housing to be demolished” (The Miscellany News, 04.04.2019), which reported on the Administration’s recently announced decision to demolish the Williams faculty housing complex, which is currently home to 21 families and individuals, both faculty and staff, to make room for a parking lot for a new 50-room Inn/Institute (President Bradley, in her initial presentation to the faculty, clearly stated that the Trustees were only interested in building an Inn. The idea of attaching an Institute came later, as a way of making the concept of building a Vassar hotel—a potential financial boondoggle—more palatable to the faculty).

The first major problem with the Administration’s plan to demolish Williams is the process by which the decision was made. For over a year, President Bradley solicited “input” from innumerable sources (e.g., faculty, students and neighbors). However, any input that deviated from the Trustees’ desire to build a hotel down the hill from Alumnae House was swiftly and deftly swept aside.

The only exception was temporary. In early 2018, the President declared that the plan to demolish Williams was “off the table,” presumably in response to concerns about erasing the important history of Williams, and the terrible impact its demolition would have on the faculty and staff living there. However, once Poughkeepsie officials rejected the administration’s backup site, at the corner of Raymond and Forbus, the President suddenly announced—without any prior consultation of the faculty or the Inn/Institute committee—that Williams would be demolished after all. It was only then that post-facto rationalizations (e.g., Williams is too expensive to maintain) were put forth.

Proposals for alternative sites that would not require demolishing faculty housing (or gobbling up the open green space along Raymond Ave) were repeatedly dismissed with casual one-liners: The site behind Josselyn was “too close to student housing;” and the site in front of Vassar Farms was “too far from the Arlington restaurants.” No further discussion; no attempt to think creatively. President Bradley likes to say that “there is no perfect solution,” but a little creative thinking can generate far better solutions. For example, the enormous and currently underutilized area along Collegeview Ave (“too close to student housing”) can be made feasible by extending a long row of tennis courts between the Inn and Josselyn. Placing the Inn there would also help to revitalize the failing commercial corridor along Collegeview Ave, while improving the safety of what is currently one of the most dangerous areas on campus. This kind of input was intentionally ignored because it did not align with the main desire of the Trustees. The article says that “nevertheless, [the] administration hopes that faculty members impacted by the demolition will feel that the College did everything it could given the larger project of constructing the Inn and Institute.” Certainly not.

The second major problem with the administration’s plan is the plan itself, which commits $30 million to demolish Williams and build an Inn/Institute. Unlike the impression left by the quotes in the April 4 article, the Trustees are not committing any money to build new faculty housing to replace Williams! Instead, their “commitment” is only a vague promise that the Administration will find a local developer to build new housing on Vassar land—that the developer would pay for. Important details about who would own the buildings, who would determine how much rent to charge and who would be responsible for maintenance will, we are assured, be worked out later.

In a faculty meeting, I asked President Bradley if she could confirm that the Trustees would be equally committed to faculty housing (albeit without putting up any money) if, for some reason, the Inn/Institute were not to be built. She could not. In short, the “commitment” to faculty housing was only a bargaining chip that the Administration used to increase support for their plan. And, given the way that faculty housing has been allowed to deteriorate over the past ten or more years, it was a cruel bargaining chip to use.

The article quotes President Bradley as saying, “I’d like to put Vassar on a path where we see the investment of faculty housing as an investment in the faculty who are key to making a really strong liberal arts college.” The best way to do that would be for Vassar to save and renovate Williams and build more quality, affordable housing for faculty and staff.

For years, the ability of Vassar to attract top faculty has been seriously undermined by the shortage of quality, affordable faculty housing. Demolishing Williams now, even if Vassar eventually builds additional units later on, means that this problem will persist for years to come.

It is not too late for the administration to change course. There are far better solutions for the Inn/Institute that do not require demolishing faculty housing. I urge all faculty and students to express their concerns about this extremely important matter to the President.

Luke Hunsberger, Professor and Chair
Computer Science Department
Vassar College

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