An uphill trek to Health Services. A new admissions building on the north side. A completely carbon neutral campus.
These and various other proposed changes compose the latest iteration of the College’s five to seven year plan, which President Elizabeth Bradley and Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana unveiled at the VSA’s weekly senate meeting on Sunday, Nov. 3. Over a year of groundwork from a 20-person Planning and Priorities Committee, supplied with input from four World Cafés, has culminated in a plan to push Vassar into the next decade.
The plan hopes to prioritize academic excellence, campus community and culture, and Vassar’s role in the world, and lists 32 goals in areas ranging from financial aid to mental health to career development. “It is not uncommon for the College to establish long-time goals such as these,” revealed Dean of Strategic Planning and Academic Resources Marianne Begemann in an email interview. “Especially,” she added, “when there is a new president involved.” If the time has come for President Bradley to create her legacy, it will not be anything less than concrete—perhaps literally, as the plan delineates a number of building projects that will make for a very different campus by the time it’s implemented.
The Admissions House is set for a relocation within five to seven years. Citing concerns about Kautz Admissions House’s size and out-of-the-way positioning, President Bradley said, “The plan is to move—maybe not the building, though we’ve talked about moving it—or putting the office on North Campus,” (Twitter, @miscellanynews, 11.03.19) the latter of which would entail construction of a new building. The prospect of a new admissions building received some of the least enthusiasm from the 100-plus students and faculty who attended last year’s World Cafés, where they could provide feedback for the different aspects of the plan. Attendees ranked revamping admissions close to the bottom of the proposed renovations, according to the Committee’s online data. Nonetheless, this development is set to move forward, and newly appointed Dean of Admissions Sonya Smith welcomes the change. “The limitations of space are impacting our ability to serve our guests well,” she shared over email. Alamo-Pastrana also noted, “It’ll reduce traffic in the middle of campus. It’s not walkable right now since there’s all this admissions traffic in the center,” (Twitter, @miscellanynews, 11.03.19).
Per the plan, Baldwin Hall, home to Vassar’s clinic since 1940, will be converted into the Center for Multidisciplinary Programs. A new health and wellness facility will likely be built in the Athletics and Fitness Center as a replacement. Director of Health Services at Baldwin Irena Balawajder spoke on her willingness to leave Baldwin behind: “We are very excited at the prospect of moving into a health and wellness building that meets the needs of a modern medical facility.” She continued, “Since the multidisciplinary programs have not had a permanent home for a long time, it is not unreasonable for them to move into Baldwin after a renovation.” This element of the plan has not existed for very long; during the World Cafés, the revitalization of the multidisciplinary programs’ space was presented as a renovation for the Old Laundry Building, where they are currently housed. Such a renovation received a great deal of support from Café attendees, as shown through data compiled and presented on the Committee’s website, but by May, when President Bradley presented the plan to the Board of Trustees, it was scrapped in favor of converting Baldwin. Balawajder noted that Health Services gave the Priorities and Planning Committee feedback during the process, potentially influencing such a change. Baldwin’s conversion is three to four years out, and, like all facets of the plan, the priorities of Vassar’s donors determine its completion.
Although the Inn and Institute building— the construction of which depends upon the destruction of Williams faculty housing—was not heavily covered at the VSA presentation, it is part of the overall plan, as shown at last May’s Board of Trustees meeting. President Bradley devoted more time to covering a possible solution to the faculty housing deficit: a new apartment complex to be constructed near the field space by Crafted Kup. Poughkeepsie community leaders consulted by the Planning and Priorities Committee last spring showed considerable eagerness for building off-campus faculty housing with a local developer, ranking it second only to developing infrastructure within the City of Poughkeepsie. This development is set to be completed in year one, although VSA President and member of the Planning Priorities Committee Carlos Eduardo Espina ’20 remarked, “The five to seven year plan was last year’s project, and now we’re implementing it, so this is kind of Year One.” Espina also mentioned that new lighting on campus would be one of the earliest-implemented parts of the plan, and that students should expect to see these changes as early as December.
The longest-term construction project in the works is what Espina calls “a complete redo” of Walker Field House. Improving what Alamo-Pastrana called “the worst-maintained building on campus” (Twitter, @miscellanynews, 11.03.19) received more enthusiasm than any other project presented in the World Cafés. “We’ve radically re-thought what goes into Walker,” Alamo-Pastrana said. “How can we integrate athletics with wellness of mind?” Walker’s renovations are pushed up against the seventh year mark of the five to seven year plan, with a presentation by President Bradley showing that it may extend into an eight or nine year project.
So much infrastructure growth in so short a timeframe concerned members of Vassar SEED, a campus activism group dedicated to sustainability and environmental justice. Member Melissa Hoffmann ’21, who attended the recent VSA meeting, criticized elements that received little student approval, like the Inn and Institute and new admissions building: “It just feels like sort of a very elitist project to me.” President Bradley said that the College would have the chance to make the new admissions building “completely green,” (Twitter, @miscellanynews, 11.03.19) but Hoffmann is quick to remember the past. “[Clean energy] is supposed to be a priority, considering our green building guidelines, but some of the buildings we’ve improved have higher electricity usage than they should be having, like Davison in 2008.” Not everything conceived in a building’s planning stage ends up coming to fruition, and this is precisely what worries Hoffmann. “The Bridge was supposed to be super-high in terms of energy-efficiency standards, but it isn’t,” she said. Although Hoffmann was pleased that students were represented on the Priorities and Planning Committee in the form of the VSA president and vice president, she considered that these leaders were asked represent everyone on campus, and that student representatives from more specific groups like SEED might better at represent specific issues like carbon neutrality.
Carbon neutrality is indeed part of the five to seven year plan—President Bradley and the Committee hope to achieve it by 2030. “A lot of [the plan] came from campus climate surveys,” said Espina. The Inn and Institute and new Admissions building are set to run on geothermal energy. Although prominent campus voices like SEED’s might suggest otherwise, carbon neutrality was actually one of the least popular aspects of the plan among students and faculty. A fossil fuel-free central heating plan for buildings new and old was ranked 49th per the World Café results, by far the lowest-ranked element to make it into the final plan. In general, the make-up of the five to seven year plan does not seem to have been solely based on majority opinion of either students and faculty or Committee members. One of the most popular suggestions among students and faculty was a revamping of the College Center, but this received limited approval among Committee members, and does not appear in the plan as it stands. Another suggestion popular among students and faculty was making Main House more accessible to people with disabilities, which received approval from less than half of the Committee, but did end up making its way into the final plan. “[The five to seven year plan] is an inclusive process that represented voices from across campus constituencies,” said Begemann, who also sits on the Committee.
Despite being in the “final touches” stage before rollout, as Espina put it, the five to seven year plan is currently just that—a plan. “We sail close to the wind on our finances,” admitted President Bradley. The success of the proposed construction ventures depends upon donor support; nothing is set in stone. “There will still be plenty of opportunities for students to weigh in on and provide feedback on how some of these things take shape,” said Alamo-Pastrana. As such, current students, whether they support or oppose aspects of the plan, will be encouraged to construct a 2020s Vassar that fits their values.