Inclusive History initiative unearths complicated legacies

Image courtesy of Janet Song ’23.

The Vassar Inclusive History initiative, announced by President Bradley on Feb. 7, is the College’s most recent commitment to reexamining its history as an institution. While some members of the Vassar community see the initiative as an opportunity for Vassar to reconcile with its complicated history, others question how much student and alumni involvement will contribute to the initiative in order to address the College’s complicated legacy.

The initiative follows similar projects conducted by other higher education institutions, including Harvard University’s report, “Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery.” Bradley cited this as one of the inspirations behind Vassar’s initiative. In an email with The Miscellany News, Bradley stated, “I was impressed with its quality and thoroughness, and felt like institutions miss an opportunity if they do not examine and re-examine their history. This year, as we have committed to Engaged Pluralism and as several scholars have mentioned their excitement to do this work at Vassar, the time seemed right.” 

According to Bradley’s announcement, the initiative contains a Commission of five members: Director of Engaged Pluralism and Professor of Religion Jonathon Kahn; Director of Africana Studies and Professor of Sociology Diane Harriford; Chair and Professor of History Mita Choudhury; Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana; and Head of Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History Ron Patkus, who also serves as College Historian. 

Content of the initiative is still being decided. “As of right now, we are really open to what we might find. Ideally, we imagine that there will be a webpage off of the College’s main page where anyone can go and learn about past, present, and potential future areas of inquiry,” Dean Alamo-Pastrana stated in an email correspondence. “You could imagine a website that includes nuanced biographies, the history of buildings and [a] repository of larger class projects. 

Kahn accredited multiple factors to his own involvement with the initiative, including his involvement with the Engaged Pluralism initiative and Race & Racism in the Historical Collections Project Group. “[The Historical Collections Project Group] began by wrestling with the sets of racist photos in our archives and, then, two of the librarians in that group, Deb Bucher and Melanie Maksin, and I co-taught an EPI Intensive in the fall of 2022, ‘Facing the Vassar Archive,’ where we delved deeply into this material,” Kahn explained in a written correspondence. “At the same time, there have been others on campus working on other questions about Vassar’s history and its relationship to our present…This new initiative only takes form as the result of so many people’s work.”

Similarly, Alamo-Pastrana accredited the inspiration behind the initiative to efforts within the Vassar community. “Vassar students and employees have long pushed the institution forward to do and to be better, and they have asked us on many occasions to reckon with the history of this place that is a sort of home to us,” Alamo-Pastrana wrote. “This project allows us to more directly confront this history in ways that are more engaging, inclusive and transparent.”

In her announcement, Bradley also noted the advocacy work of numerous groups in and outside Vassar. “Activism and energy put forth for decades [have] been vital to coming to this place for launching the Vassar Inclusive History initiative,” she wrote. These groups included the African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AAVC) and the Native American Advisory Committee, as well as student organizations such as the Black Students’ Union, the Latinx Student Union and the Vassar Asian American Studies Working Group (VASAM).

However, two primary concerns have emerged since the initiative’s announcement: whether the initiative will aptly represent student activism and address Vassar’s history of racism, as well as the extent of student and alumni involvement in the initiative.

For the Ad Hoc Committee of Black and African American Alumnae/i of Vassar College (AHC), the College’s announcement obscures the issues that those outside Vassar’s administration are trying to address. Most apparent to the AHC is the College’s failure to establish an Africana Studies Department, as Vassar currently only has an Africana Studies program. 

On Jan. 26, in a letter addressed to the Vassar College Board of Trustees, Vassar College President, AAVC Board Members, Dean of the Faculty, and Chair of the FPCC, the AHC expressed their frustration regarding exchanges with Vassar’s administration over the course of six months. Paula Williams Madison ’74, speaking on behalf of AHC, said she is working to make Vassar’s anti-Black history more known to help instill a better community of learning. 

The letter stated: “After 54 years of Vassar administrations claiming to support the demand for a Department, on May 21, 2022, President Bradley stated in an email to the emcee of the annual Kente Cloth Ceremony—Karen Clopton ’80 P’19 ’22—that there would be no Department. The President’s affront ignited a fire that will be quenched only with establishing an Africana Studies Department.”

Explaining the importance of an Africana Studies Department, the letter added, “We expect that the establishment of an Africana Studies Department steeped in academia, scholarship, and cultural competence with African American and Black departmental tenured faculty at the forefront will be essential to ensuring that a critical vestige of Vassar’s institutional anti-Black racism is removed.”

In an email correspondence, ALANA Programming Intern Pandora Lewis ’23 expressed concern over the route of the initiative, as Bradley’s statement did not detail any specific timeline. “How will the students keep the administration accountable without knowing when goals are supposed to be met?” they wrote. 

While Bradley’s announcement mentioned that the initiative would include the ​​Chair of the Council of ALANA Seniors, along with other students, faculty and administration, Lewis also noted the extra work that would be put on students working in the initiative’s committee. They stated, “I worry that this will result in yet another student of color taking on more of the College’s work alongside their own classwork and other roles of leadership. Will students of color be asked to do more than they need to with the implementation of this initiative?”

Vassar Asian Students’ Alliance President Jillian Lin ’25 questioned the College’s ability to emphasize the student activist work within Vassar’s history. “I’m glad and happy that [the College] is trying to own this history, but how are they thinking about their position in all of it?” she said. “What does it mean for them to be trying to display student work [and] student labor, without including the current students that are still working on these projects [and who] are legacies of the spaces that they’re trying to display as Vassar’s Inclusive History, when the more nuanced and perhaps more accurate way of describing it is that of Vassar students’ history?”

Head of Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History noted the role of the College Archives to document both student life and Vassar history more generally. “Over the years many students, alums, and student organizations have transferred material to us, and we now have a wonderful collection for the community and researchers to use,” wrote Patkus in an email. 

Patkus added that student organizations will still be able to attain records online and in-person after they are transferred to the College. He further noted, “Our work is ongoing, and we hope our partnerships will continue going forward. Through collaboration, the College Archives can grow and ensure that the stories of today will be known tomorrow. 

Student Ann John ’23 countered against the notion of an institutionalized archive. In an email correspondence, she wrote, “I wonder what is lost when history gets institutionalized. Even if student history is faithful and accurately told, its radical nature will be co-opted by the institution.” She emphasized how easily the history of student activism can be forgotten. “Since students cycle in and out, having knowledge of previous student activism that was or wasn’t successful is hard to pass down,” she noted. “I have concerns about how Vassar-centric the initiative will be and how Vassar will use its power to only preserve stories that reflect well for them.”

Among each interviewee, one question encompassed the initiative and the concerns that have emerged: who gets to own these narratives? Lewis highlighted the diverse perspectives that students provide in relation to institutional history, especially with primary sources by students and student organizations.“I personally believe that the administration should have the role of supporter and help to share the archives/narratives that students hold. By doing this, facts are less likely to be muddled or lost,” they stated. “The Vassar community has been made and continues to be made by students and for students. So, by allowing students to have ownership of archives/narratives, we are upholding this type of community.”

In response to the question of ownership, Alamo-Pastrana wrote, “I might start by changing the frame from one based on ‘ownership’ to one that centers on partnership and collective knowledge. Ultimately, we are an academic institution tasked with engaging with many of the problems we see in our world and advancing knowledge production towards the creation of a just community.”

He added, “Accessing all the information possible will be instrumental towards documenting a more holistic picture of our campus community and the ways that different groups sought to be archived, remembered, and to transform this institution for the better.”

History major Pia Tate ’23 hopes that there will be more student involvement in the initiative towards the future, stating, “I hope that there would be transparency surrounding all these issues.” Recalling when Native remains were found in Blodgett Hall during her first year, she added, “I would hope that if something [like that] were to arise again, and that there were uncomfortable and disturbing things in the archives, that there would be community spaces for students to process that.”

Echoing Tate’s sentiments, Lewis emphasized the importance of student involvement and collaboration in the initiative. They wrote, “When it comes to the question of who gets to own certain narratives and archives, I believe it is up to the students to keep track of these things and up to the administration to listen to students about these things.”

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