On Monday, May 17, a coalition of Vassar students called #VCStrike announced a tuition strike for the Fall 2021 semester. The move comes on the heels of a year full of student activism within the Vassar community, with movements such as the Nobody Fails Vassar College campaign and the more recent Vassar Leftist Union’s $15 minimum wage petition.
Inspired by past efforts of the Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) and students at the University of Chicago, the Vassar tuition strike is intended to protest the College Administration and Board of Trustees’ inaction on popular student demands. The core organizing group, #VCStrike, is an unofficial student organization composed of 10 members from a range of different student organizations, class years and personal backgrounds.
Plans for the tuition strike were sparked by the administration’s inaction in the face of a series of student demands and petitions that took place over the past 14 months as a response to the exacerbation of inequities caused by the coronavirus pandemic. #VCStrike cited these initiatives in a tuition strike pledge circulated amongst Vassar community members.
“At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, students immediately denounced the injustice of the 4% tuition hike, a change which was announced on the heels of the move to online learning and at the onset of an economic depression,” the pledge read. They continued, “This was followed in short order by widespread student support for a Universal Pass or Double-A grading system in the face of that semester’s unprecedented (and unequal) shifts in learning conditions.”
In an interview with the Miscellany News, Vassar Student Union (VSU) member and #VCStrike organizer Joe Mangan ’23 justified the radical nature of the tuition strike. He stated, “Given the administration’s history of ignoring petitions, [it] didn’t seem like things…could even come about through a simple petition.”
Mangan also noted that the strike is intended to address other chronic issues between students and administration that existed prior to the pandemic, most notably the decade-long student campaign for the College’s divestment in the fossil fuel industry. Even after a 400-student sit-in in front of the President’s Office and a 91 percent approval rating amongst the student body in 2016, the Board’s Trustee Investor Responsibility Committee (TIRC) voted unanimously against divesting. Mangan proclaimed, “This is a shocking example of just a blatant disregard of virtually every form of nonviolent protest you can possibly make.”
To address these issues, #VCStrike set forth a list of 17 demands for the College, some of which include a three-year freeze on tuition and room and board fees; College divestment from fossil fuels; divestment from the prison industrial complex and military industrial complex; and the inclusion of a No-Fail grading policy.
When asked how realistic meeting all 17 demands would be, Mangan understood that all of them may not be met but still expressed optimism: “I think the expectation is that we’re going to try and get as many of those demands fulfilled as possible. And the more people that pledged onto the strike, the better.” He added, “I’m optimistic that [meeting] any of our demands would tangibly improve the lives of students at Vassar.”
Another #VCStrike representative Melissa Hoffmann ’21 voiced her hope that the Vassar administration would meet their demands for structural changes, such as the establishment of a joint student, faculty and administration Senate. Hoffmann said, “Meeting our demands for changing the power structure on campus and actually building democracy on campus where students have decision making power—I think that is really central.” She added, “It would help meet a lot of the other demands we have as well as change, going forward in the future, what students are able to actually win.”
When asked for a comment on the tuition strike, Vice President of Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll expressed the College’s support of the students’ right to voice their concerns: “We [Vassar administration] strongly support the right of our students to express their views, and we are happy to engage in dialogue.” However, Duga-Carroll noted, “Students who would like to attend Vassar will need to pay whatever tuition has been established for their individual financial circumstance.”
While administration communicated an openness to dialogue with students, some students have cited past issues. #VCStrike organizer Mohtad Allawala ’23 explained that during College Committee meetings, the presence of student representatives is often more performative than substantive. He detailed, “You’ll have two or three students at most assigned to any committee of any importance. And in that committee as well admin [doesn’t] make it clear that the students have any sort of power.” He elaborated, “Even though the student technically has power in terms of how the college is supposed to be run, when it’s in the context of the admin running these committees and assuming totalitarian control, what ends up happening is just a listening session.”
In response to this, Duga-Carroll wrote, “All of the major College committees have student representatives and many have multiple students. A recent example of students having a major impact on the College was that the students on the Climate Action and Sustainability Committee really helped drive the discussion that ended with the College adopting our new Green Building Guidelines.”
Mangan also cited instances of administration and Safety and Security removing #VCStrike posters around campus for being unstamped. He stated, “I think it’s kind of shocking that the administration goes to the lengths of using safety and security, to shut down speech on campus and also serve their own interests.” He added, “I think that’s just another example of administration not just not listening to us, but actively silencing activists on campus.”
Duga-Carroll responded to this allegation and stated, “The College has a policy that posters must be stamped as approved by Campus Activities, and they can only be posted in approved locations. Most posters are approved. The use of hate speech is not approved. These posters were not submitted for approval, and they were posted in non-approved areas, including on a residence, and therefore were taken down.”
As of the publication of this article, the administration has not directly reached out to #VCStrike organizers about their demands.
According to Mangan, 113 Vassar community members have signed the tuition strike pledge as of May 20.
As the plan stands now, the tuition strike will proceed after Aug. 10—Vassar’s Fall 2021 tuition payment deadline—if #VCStrike’s demands are not sufficiently met.